My friend Chuck Ecker has a common-sense idea. He says we need a new political party, the "Common Sense Party." It is fitting that this idea comes from Chuck, because he is the embodiment of common sense. Chuck has been a teacher, coach and school administrator in Carroll and Prince George's counties. He was a deputy school superintendent in Howard County before serving two terms as the county executive. At age 75, he's back in Carroll County as school superintendent, invited home three years ago to clean up a messy situation there.
Chuck is practical, capable and honest, the kind of guy you'd want to be guardian of your kids or trustee of your money. Chuck would have made a great governor. He was a politician without being too political, a Republican without being too partisan. Maybe that's why he didn't win.
Just what would the Common Sense Party stand for? Chuck didn't exactly say, so here's my list:
* The Common Sense Party would reject the Democratic Party's addiction to spending money to satisfy every interest group under its umbrella. It would reject the Republican Party's fundamental dishonesty about the budget and raise taxes to support real unmet needs in transportation, education and health care.
* The Common Sense Party would abandon the Republican love affair with the National Rifle Association, which has resulted in assault weapons being legalized in this country for the first time in 10 years. It would abandon the Democratic love affair with Hollywood elites that have poisoned our culture with gratuitous violence and sex on film.
* The Common Sense Party would renounce the Democratic alliance with teachers unions, which have insisted on trapping poor children in failing schools without meaningful educational choices. It would reject Republican Party policies that boosted tuition at Maryland's public colleges by 30 percent in three years, closing the door of opportunity for many poor students.
* The Common Sense Party would do something the Democratic Party could never do: trumpet the words of Bill Cosby about the importance of personal responsibility in the black community. It would do something the Republican Party could never do: recognize that many poor, working families have strong values but still need the government's help to gain access to education and health care.
* Unlike the Democratic Party, the Common Sense Party would make room for leaders who don't subscribe to the Planned Parenthood agenda on abortion. At the same time, the Common Sense Party would abandon Republican reluctance to spend money on maternal health care, child care and abuse prevention, especially for children of single parents.
All of these ideas are anathema to interest groups in one party or the other. These groups organize like-minded people, raise money and organize political action committees. They endorse candidates. They volunteer in campaigns. Over time, the distinction between these groups and the party machineries has been blurred.
That's why the political leadership appears homogenized on both sides, with little tolerance for even slight departures from party orthodoxy. How many leading Democratic officials are against abortion or support school choice? How many leading Republican officials support reasonable gun control or necessary tax increases?
The interest groups have succeeded not just in pushing their agendas but in polarizing the process. Moderation is the first casualty. The ultimate victim is common sense, which lacks organized backing.
Lots of important things have no organized constituencies. Take fiscal responsibility, for example. When I served in the legislature we would get thousands of calls against budget cuts, all orchestrated by various groups. The phone never rang with someone begging us to cut the budget. No one organizes a group for that.
Common sense works pretty much the same way. As a concept, it lacks the polarizing attraction of, say, the abortion rights movement or the gun groups. It doesn't inspire the kind of passion, anger or fear that would drive a direct-mail campaign. Few would contribute to a Common Sense PAC.
So it turns out that common sense is not so common after all, at least in the political sphere. This is bad news for our fledgling political party. We'll just have to keep holding our noses while the political parties keep catering to their flanks.
But there's a vacuum in the center for political leaders who put the public interest ahead of the interest groups. Chuck Ecker probably wouldn't agree with everything on my list. But I think he would agree that there's a need to recapture the practical middle ground, where most Americans are.
It's just a matter of common sense.
The writer, a lawyer in Greenbelt, served for 16 years as a Democratic member of the Maryland legislature. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.