What is a campaign platform that most Americans would support but will never get a chance to vote for?
Don’t call it “marriage,” but give gay couples the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual ones. Reduce the federal budget deficit with spending cuts, modest changes to Medicare and Social Security, and tax increases, particularly for the wealthy. Reform immigration laws so they don’t punish the children of illegal immigrants for their parents’ misdeeds, but also increase border security and make it harder for employers to hire illegal workers.
An agenda like this would never get anywhere because politically moderate ideas, though generally popular among voters, rarely get traction in Washington. This past week, President Obama dumped his down-the-middle deficit-reduction plan from this summer for one beloved by Democrats and reviled by Republicans. Centrist candidates, such as former Utah governor and current GOP presidential contender Jon Huntsman Jr., struggle to get above 1 percent in the polls. A Pew Research Center survey in the midst of the debt-ceiling debate found that a whopping 68 percent of Americans wanted lawmakers to compromise, yet the parties fought until the very end.
In our current system, partisans on the left and the right have great sway over the candidates on the ballots, as well as their positions. Moderates complain that they are usually forced to choose between a conservative ideologue and a liberal ideologue, both of whom won their primaries by making a bunch of promises that mean they can’t support bipartisan legislation.
Centrists tend to think that the path to bipartisan politics lies in civility, grass-roots organizing and candidates who magically emerge from the political center. But in today’s politics, that may not be enough.
Moderates may not like the tactics of the left and the right, but if they want to have an impact on our major political debates, they need to learn from the extremes and borrow their methods. Here’s how:
Grover Norquist, the head of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, has for two decades not just asked candidates to oppose new taxes, he has demanded that they sign an anti-tax pledge. In nearly every Republican congressional primary, one of the candidates signs the pledge, leading his opponents to the same. One bizarre result: The Democratic president of the United States pleading with Republicans to back the renewal of a payroll tax cut by acknowledging the power of the Norquist pledge.
“I know that some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live,” Obama said in a speech this month to a joint session of Congress. “Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle-class taxes, which is why you should pass this bill right away.”
But there is no Norquist of the staunchly moderate, in part because no one has figured out how to be “staunchly moderate.”
One group, called No Labels, is trying to build a grass-roots movement to force the parties to the middle. This organization has support from Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, who says he’s so frustrated with partisanship that he won’t donate to either party and is encouraging Americans to no longer support the two-party system. Another group, Americans Elect, wants to put together a nonpartisan ticket.
No Labels has touts the importance of compromise in Washington. But the group’s agenda includes statements such as “America should be free from discrimination and should embrace the principle of equal opportunity” — which sounds good, but is difficult to translate into action. Americans Elect wants to have citizens pick the most important issues for candidates to focus on in the 2012 election. But will this survey find anything new? It will probably show — like nearly every recent poll — that jobs and the economy are the biggest concerns for most voters.
“No Labels is organized to deal with the ‘politics of problem solving.’ In today’s world it’s the politics that get in the way of our solving our pressing issues. We need to create the space so that our leaders can work across the aisle with one another,” said Nancy Jacobson, a longtime Democratic fundraiser who is one of the founders of No Labels. In an e-mail message, she added: “We are not a centrist, liberal or conservative group. We have no ideology. We instead are an attitude and approach to politics.”
Centrists complain about partisanship and rancor; more than anything, they want politics to be conducted civilly. But moderation and civility, while perhaps virtues, are not organizing principles for politics.
There are plenty of bipartisan policy ideas out there: the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan, the creation of a national infrastructure bank, health-care proposals to fight obesity, redistricting to ensure that congressional districts are not heavily packed with members of one party or the other.
To be effective, centrists need to be as rigidly devoted to these middle-of-the-road ideas as Norquist is to his anti-tax pledge. In fact, they need their own candidate pledge.
“My pledge is to never vote for anyone stupid enough to sign a pledge — thereby abdicating their governing responsibilities in a period of incredibly rapid change and financial stress,” wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in a July column titled “Make Way for the Radical Center.”
But pledges require candidates to be specific and transparent about their views on key issues. That’s why, for example, some conservative Republicans demand to know if a candidate will oppose tax increases, and some Democrats want to know if a candidate will support abortion rights.
By choosing to sign a “pledge of moderation,” candidates for Congress and the White House would affirm their support for a centrist agenda, or at least parts of it. Much like with Norquist’s pledge, a candidate’s refusal to endorse bipartisan ideas could send a signal to voters.
For congressional candidates, there’s an obvious barrier to signing a centrist pledge: the primary election. Conservative Republicans would probably work to defeat any candidate who said he would back a tax increase. A candidate who wanted to increase teacher pay would likely get more backing from teachers unions than one passionate about expanding charter schools.
That’s why centrists need to borrow another lesson from the left and right and create strong, well-funded political groups to support their candidates.
Most members of Congress, particularly in the House, vote primarily along partisan lines. In part, this is because if you’re trying to fund a campaign or get volunteers for one, being hyper-partisan works. Groups that are very conservative or very liberal give heavily to politicians who support their causes.
“Some of these candidates can only lose in the primaries, so it puts them in a tough position” in dealing with bipartisan legislation, said Trey Grayson, who lost in a Senate primary to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and is now head of Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
Meanwhile, the more centrist part of the electorate often limits its political participation to voting every two years.
At a recent No Labels event, Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and a supporter of some centrist groups, urged moderate voters to call members of Congress who back centrist legislation and thank them. “They will hear you loud and clear if you say thank you,” she said.
Yes, that would help. But a powerful centrist movement needs to provide something more politically useful than a nice phone call. It needs money. To compete, centrists should create formal political organizations with enough money to hire organizers and strategists, run television commercials, and give real support to help centrist candidates get elected and stay in office.
Americans Elect has opted against getting involved in congressional races or the 2012 presidential primary process. It is instead focused on launching an independent candidate for president, hoping that such a bid could put key issues on the agenda. There are some challenges to this approach, even beyond the long odds of getting someone outside of the two parties elected. If your goal is to combat partisanship and promote moderate ideas, the White House may not be the ideal focus. The most partisan person in Washington is rarely the president. General elections — in which the candidates must court voters in the center — make sure of that.
“As the two major parties become more divided, it tends to make it more difficult for a third party, because people are very afraid to waste their vote,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who has studied the growing gap between the parties. “You feel like if you vote for a third party or independent, you are helping your least-preferred candidate win.”
Schultz’s idea not to donate directly to candidates may be even more counterproductive. Money isn’t going to disappear from politics, so having voters in the center stop contributing to their preferred politicians would realistically make it harder for moderate candidates to compete.
“In effect, he’s punishing the good guys and the bad guys,” Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said of Schultz. “What I would like to see is someone say, ‘I’m looking for real solutions, not cheap shots,’ and trying to find bipartisanship leaders and give them money, and actively discourage giving money to people who say outrageous things and demagogue.”
Political discourse is shaped increasingly by figures who don’t hold elected office. In this area, the centrist movement has made more progress: Americans Elect and No Labels do have major financial backing, even if they’re not using it to support specific candidates yet. Friedman and Schultz are powerful voices, and think tanks such as the New America Foundation and Third Way churn out ideas that centrists can adopt.
But conservatives have figures such as Rush Limbaugh calling them to arms to oppose Democratic ideas. Liberals have labor unions organizing Democrats in states such as Wisconsin to protest the actions of Republican governors. The centrist movement, on the other hand, is not organized enough to really affect legislative debates.
To compete with the political extremes, the center needs a group of leaders ready to fight for moderation. It also could benefit from some kind of permanent policy arm to evaluate legislation and determine if bills in Congress are centrist and deserve support.
The message from the centrist leaders probably couldn’t just be “Washington is broken,” as many moderates repeatedly cried during the debt-ceiling debate. If Obama is trying to compromise and Republican leaders aren’t, or vice versa, the centrists need to be candid about that.
Moderate groups, particularly Americans Elect, seem to think that the time for the center to emerge is during the campaign next year. But the current debate over jobs and spending seems to offer a more immediate opportunity.
They’ve already missed a recent chance. Over the summer, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) were negotiating a major deficit-reduction deal, the kind of bipartisan agreement that centrists were calling for. But the talks collapsed as both men faced intense criticism from their political bases; the episode showed the weakness of the political center. Obama is now offering a much more traditionally liberal deficit-reduction deal, full of tax increases that Republicans oppose. Moderates have criticized him, but he appears to have little choice after the failure of the broader deal with Boehner. And liberals, unlike moderate groups, have a real infrastructure they can use to help Obama in 2012.
On jobs, high-profile moderates could demand that both the White House and Congress consider middle-of-the-road ideas for getting people back to work. In the last major debate, they were mostly drowned out by people with very strong affiliations on the right or the left who wore their partisan labels — and the pledges they had signed — proudly.
“Centrist” could be a powerful label, too. But to change politics, the political center needs to define what that moniker truly means.
Perry Bacon Jr. covers politics for The Washington Post.