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Why we need a third party of (radical) centrists

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By Matt Miller
Thursday, November 11, 2010

You've seen it a thousand times - and in Washington's deepening gridlock, you'll see it a thousand more.

A Democrat and a Republican are on "Meet the Press" or "This Week," or any of the other mainstream shows. They're talking the issue of the day - let's say it's the Bush tax cuts. The Republican says, "The problem isn't that the American people are overtaxed - the problem is that government spends too much." The Democrat says, "Look, we need to keep taxes low for working families - the 98 percent of Americans who earn less than $250,000 a year - but if we're going to get the deficit under control, we have to ask those at the very top to pay a little more."

The host knows both officials are peddling charades, but the norms of "objective" journalism mean it's not his or her place to say so too directly. Yes, she'll ask a follow-up question or two, but the pols are pros. They know how to blow through a few queries without moving off their talking points, and they know time is short on TV, so the host will move on to something else. They also know the host won't truly antagonize them because the network wants top officials to come back on the show.

And so the host is a little exasperated. Last Sunday, for example, you could see Christiane Amanpour chafing, with reason, at the fiscal nonsense emanating from Rand Paul and Mike Pence. This isn't meant as a partisan remark - on another week the host would justly bristle at Democratic bunk.

From the mainstream media's standpoint, though, they've done their job. You've heard the different points of view. You've seen that these guys aren't answering some questions. Now, you decide. At home, even if you lean toward one party or the other, you don't really trust either, and you know you're not getting the full story.

How are the parties able to get away with this?

Because there's a missing chair.

Rerun that Sunday show tape, but now suppose there's a third "official" voice. "Mark Johnson from The Third Party," the host says, "what do you make of it?"

"Actually, Republicans and Democrats aren't giving you an honest picture," Johnson says. "The truth is that once the economy's back on track, taxes are going to rise in the years ahead no matter which party is in power, because we're retiring the baby boomers. That means we'll double the number of people on Social Security and Medicare. We've already got trillions in unfunded promises in these programs. Even if we trim their growth, and cut other spending, which we need to do, the math doesn't work at current levels of taxation. And we can't borrow the whole boomers' retirement from China. So the idea that we can keep overall taxes where they are now, let alone cut them, is a Republican hoax.

"But Democrats are kidding you when they make it sound like we can solve the problem by taxing a few people at the top. The truth is that to pay for the boomers' retirement, taxes will have to go up some on everyone. But there's also good news - if we're smart about it, and change the way we tax ourselves, we can pay for the boomers and still keep the economy humming. That's the conversation we need to have. Here's the kind of tax reform it would take. . . ."

If you find this missing voice appealing - and can imagine it weighing in across the hundred issues where both parties are in cahoots today to deny reality - then you understand why we need a third political party.

I'm a Clinton White House alum who had hoped President Obama could usher in the debate we need. It's hardly all his fault that we're not there, but I'm convinced the parties' interest groups and "thought police" make real progress impossible without a new force that shakes things up. Democrats and Republicans care first and foremost about winning elections, a task that bears no necessary relationship to actually solving our major problems. Having our two-party duopoly control the terms of debate may have sufficed when America was the world's dominant economy, with little competition. But those days are gone. The challenges we face are serious. People know our current arrangements aren't up to them.

Anecdotal evidence: Speaking to 400 professionals of all stripes in California the other day, I asked who would be seriously interested in a third major political party. Fiscally conservative, socially liberal. Nearly every hand shot up.

Something's afoot and it's not just about the Tea Party. The radical center is ready to rise.

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio's "Left, Right & Center," writes a weekly column for The Post. He can be reached at mattino2@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mattmillernow.


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