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Jon Stewart's march is no laughing matter

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Members of Monday's studio audience for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" talk about their expectations for Saturday's rally hosted by comedians Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

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By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I don't know about you, but my heart sank when I read about Jon Stewart's Million Moderate March, planned for the Mall next weekend. My heart sank further when I learned that liberal groups, lacking any better ideas, have decided to take this endeavor seriously. It's bad enough that the only way to drum up enthusiasm for a "Rally to Restore Sanity" is to make it into a television comedian's joke. But it's far worse that the "moderates" in attendance will have been bused in by Arianna Huffington and organized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

This is how words, and then ideas, vanish from our political lexicon: Whatever connotations it once had, the word "moderate" has now come to mean "liberal" or even "left-wing" in American politics. It has been a long time since "moderate" Republicans were regarded as important, centrist assets by their party: Nowadays, they are far more likely to be regarded as closet lefties and potential traitors. "Moderate" Democrats, meanwhile, no longer exist: In their place, we have "conservative Democrats." Nobody pays attention to them either -- unless, suddenly, one of them threatens to vote against health-care reform. And then he is vilified.

There is no lack of interesting people in the political center. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- one of the few popular incumbents in the country -- has not only declared himself a centrist but has also launched a campaign of support for other centrists. He flies around the country endorsing both Democrats and Republicans who he thinks show the ability to compromise and have the courage to depart from party orthodoxy on issues such as gun control (he is in favor) or more stringent financial regulation (he is against). He nearly lost me when he inexplicably endorsed Harry Reid, but never mind.

Others are trying, usually behind the scenes, to find solutions to problems that divide liberals and conservatives bitterly. Recently, Steve Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute (conservative) got together with Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution (liberalish) and two scholars from the Breakthrough Institute (further left) to talk about America's stalled energy policy. Their starting point: For two decades, the right has called climate change a figment of the United Nations' imagination and pretended that "drill, baby, drill" is a policy. For the same two decades, the left has been talking about the end of the world and pretending that wind and solar can replace oil and gas without massive subsidy. The result: gridlock, a lot of wasted money and an ever-growing American dependence on imported oil.

Working together, they came up with a report called "Post-Partisan Power" (read the whole thing at http://www.aei.org or http://thebreakthrough.org), which calls for the removal of wasteful subsidies and advocates investments designed to make "new clean energy sources" commercially viable. Just as important, though, is the point this group made by working together. In their introduction, they note that bipartisanship has helped create economic growth. And not only the distant past: Welfare reform was passed thanks to both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich.

Bipartisanship is, of course, the source of plenty of disastrous ideas itself. Sometimes it produces worst-of-all-possible-worlds types of legislation, like those energy bills that subsidize gas, oil, wind, nuclear, coal, biofuels, hydrogen and anything else that might keep a swing state happy. Sometimes it produces agreements that are so centrist that one or the other party eventually rejects them. That's what happened to the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform, a bill I'm sure John McCain wishes he'd never laid eyes on.

Still, even if bipartisanship doesn't always work, even if "moderate" legislation is often weak, even if centrists sometimes fail completely, it doesn't matter: We are condemned to cross-party compromise. Without it, our system doesn't work: That's what "checks and balances" means. In American politics, if you don't want to cooperate with your political opponents -- if you prefer to scorn them, shun them or call them names -- that means that you don't, in fact, want to get anything done. Moderates often achieve less than they could. But extremists achieve nothing at all.

Which is why this Jon Stewart rally is such a gloomy development. I'm sure his Million Moderate March, if it happens, will be amusing, and I wouldn't want to spoil the fun by calling it "tragic." But if that's the best the center can do, then "blackly humorous" wouldn't be that far off.

applebaumletters@washpost.com


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