The Weekly Standard’s editor at large Bill Kristol candidly admits that until recently he didn’t understand the economic angst that many of President Trump’s and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) voters have been feeling. “They reason that they feel like they’re not doing better is because they aren’t doing better,” he said wryly. Bill Galston, a respected Democratic wonk who worked in the Clinton White House, isn’t shy about admitting his party’s problems. He acknowledges that Democrats don’t have a “forward-looking” program that a “governing majority does or could support.”
It says something about today’s politics that two friendly rivals seems to have more agreement with one another, at least on some core economic issues, that they do with the extremes in their own party. Galston first came across Kristol when Galston, sitting in the second floor of the West Wing, came across Kristol’s famous (infamous, to Democrats) memo laying out the battle plan against Hillarycare. “I said to myself, ‘Oh boy. We’ve got trouble,’ ” Galston humorously recounted. They’ve gone from yearly debate to collaboration on something that many thoughtful Democrats and Republicans have been waiting for.
They’ve now teamed up in a new 501(c)(3) with something called the New Center. The title is a bit misleading, for this is not an effort to find a mushy middle nor to solve every knotty problem out there. Rather, as Kristol said in a rollout of their program on Monday, we are in a “new moment” when large segments of both parties voted for someone who hadn’t even been a member of the party whose nomination they were seeking.
A glossy, very colorful 70-page document sets out their understanding of a number of major challenges, describes common ground on which a Democrat and Republican can agree, and then offers some iconoclastic proposals. In the introduction they write, “The ideas we advance represent a New Center for American politics, a politics that reflects both our enduring principles and the new circumstances we confront. In place of a politics stuck in the past, we offer an agenda re-centered in the future — not a tepid compromise between Left and Right, but a new way toward the stronger economy, more inclusive society and more effective politics that we all want for the country we love.”
Stressing opportunity, security, ingenuity and accountability as core values, they address corporate consolidation, protection of intellectual property, encouraging work, inclusive growth, tax and infrastructure, new and small business creation, and immigration. On taxes, for example, they recommend (as we have) using the 1986 tax-reform model (eliminating credits and deductions for a lower rate) without increasing the deficit, taxing capital gains and salary equally, and dedicating part of the revenue stream for infrastructure. In the immigration realm, they are looking to shift more visas toward economic criteria without reducing the number of immigrants, to improve border security, to stress assimilation and to allow “a path to earned legal status and eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants in the United States who meet strict conditions such as learning English, paying back taxes and passing rigorous background checks.”
They, at least for now, aren’t looking to create a new party or remake one of the existing ones. They are genuinely interested in presenting a workable agenda that either party or some combination of problem-solvers on the right and left can adopt. Implicit in their approach is that Americans are not as polarized as the politicians, who provide “cues,” Kristol said, that define the limits of acceptable ideas for each party. Getting them to loosen their stranglehold on party orthodoxy may allow for some genuine policy breakthroughs, but also a respite from the hyper-polarization.
While not its intent, the project does raise the question whether a GOP in the grip of Trump and a Democratic Party in the thrall of Sanders leave an opening for a party or movement with innovative policy ideas. Their effort surely supplies the content for a rearrangement of the current party system.
Even if one does not agree with the particulars or even the subject matter they’ve decided not to address, the very act of ignoring party doctrine and building policies based on data rather than rerunning the same arguments we’ve been having for 30 years is refreshing. Trump did expose the intellectual bankruptcy of the right; his victory and GOP victories at all levels have left the Democratic Party rudderless and without a big-picture agenda. Galston jokes that there’s nothing like losing an election you expected to win to focus attention on new solutions, as his former boss President Bill Clinton was able to do for the Democrats after his party’s third consecutive presidential defeat.
The unmitigated disaster of the Trump presidency makes way for either a primary challenge in the GOP or a new centrist party. That alternative to Trump (if he’s still around) will need an agenda. (One easily can imagine someone like Ohio Gov. John Kasich adopted the New Center policies and ethos.) Likewise, unless the Democratic Party wants to turn itself over to Sanders, its future leaders will need something to run as well. Both would be well advised to consider some of the ideas Galston and Kristol have laid out — or see the extremes of their part prevail, leaving the field wide open to a genuine third party. The two Bills deserve credit for reignited a substantive policy conversation. Whether it will “take” or not is anyone’s guess. If they succeed, it would surely be a sign that our politics is not hopelessly mired in hyperpartisanship and dull-witted rehashing of stock positions that have outlived their usefulness.