The Seeds of a Moderate Movement Must Be Nurtured
Ten years ago, The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein wrote a book, “The Second Civil War,” describing and lamenting the polarization and paralysis afflicting American politics. Since then, America has become an even more divided country, its political partisans split into tribes that literally hate each other.
The trend has been well-documented, and is constantly exacerbated by tribal chieftains who purify their ranks by the purging of moderates who stray from the party line. If this is a new civil war in the making, the old roles have been reversed. The GOP is now the white Confederacy party and Democrats are the minority-friendly Radicals. Republican Roy Moore’s election in Alabama would confirm it.
So far, Fort Sumter hasn’t been fired upon and we haven’t yet arrived in a W.B. Yeats-like’ dystopia where “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” and “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
But things are headed in the wrong direction. When one party gains power, it immediately acts unilaterally to undo the policies of the other. America’s serious problems never get solved and the nation becomes weaker in the face of adversaries. Donald Trump may yet provoke a constitutional crisis. If Democrats took over Congress, he’d probably be impeached. Yet seven in 10 Americans say they want the parties to work together, not stick to their positions and get nothing done.
If America is to save itself from political chaos, “the best” had better get busy — not by sounding off and then leaving the scene, as Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake and others are doing, but by helping out groups that are trying to bolster the “centre.” As I’ve written before, a bevy of groups are working to hold the center -- organizing nationally, raising money and setting forth moderate policy ideas. Several have made significant progress, but they still need help.
They need consistent vocal support from respected ex-military, corporate, and government heavyweights who recognize current divisions as dangerous not just to the country’s governance, but to national security and social stability -- but so far are standing on the sidelines. They need money to compete with passionately intense ideological and special interest groups. And they need to become national political players.
In short, America needs a powerful, passionate Moderate Movement comprised of “the best” -- those willing to solve problems, work with adversaries and encourage civility -- to compete with the already-passionate and powerful “worst.”
Currently active centrists fit into three categories: Groups such as No Labels, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and The New Center are trying to bring Republicans and Democrats together to address national problems including economic growth, income inequality, immigration, health care, infrastructure and national security.
Another set, including the Centrist Project, Level the Playing Field, the Centrist Party, the Serve America Movement have given up on the two-party “duopoly” and want to develop third alternatives. The third are political reform groups like Issue One, Fair Vote, the Campaign Legal Center, and Represent.us, which want to limit the influence of big money in politics, enhance disclosure, combat gerrymandering, make voting easier and change election laws to give centrists a fighting chance in elections.
In the first category, the oldest, most accomplished, best-financed and heavyweight-heavy is the Bipartisan Policy Center, founded 10 years ago by former Senate leaders George Mitchell, Bob Dole, Tom Daschle, and Howard Baker, plus energy expert Jason Grumet, still the group’s president. It has a 90-member staff of researchers and lobbyists, a $24 million annual budget, a board including former CEOs of Lockheed-Martin, MetLife, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, plus former Sen. Olympia Snowe, former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros and former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating.
Its various task forces and commissions include nine former senators, six former House members, 10 ex-governors, 12 former Cabinet secretaries and six former federal agency chiefs. Grumet rejects the label “centrist,” claiming BPC’s mission is to bring “passionate partisans” together to hammer out policy proposals with a chance of passing Congress, then lobbying intensively for them. Its ideological range runs from former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania conservative, to former Rep. George Miller, a liberal Californian.
It has had some successes, including, in 2016, elements of the 20th Century Cures Act that expanded medical research funding and the Toxic Substance Control Act; the 2015 highway bill; reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program; and the compromise omnibus appropriations bill that kept the government funded. In 2011, it provided data that helped GOP leaders persuade their right-wing colleagues to pass a debt ceiling bill and prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its debts.
This year, it’s working on an utterly sensible trade-off between legal status for DACA immigrants and border security, adequate funding for energy research in Congress’s impending budget battle, data once again to raise the debt ceiling, a public-private infrastructure plan and a bill combining an early childhood tax credit and paid family leave.
One problem, though, is that R’s and D’s keep moving farther apart each year, making successful diplomacy more difficult. So, the 2015 reauthorization of health care for poor children is now in danger of expiring.
BPC operates with information and persuasion. It isn’t well-known outside Washington, avoiding credit so legislators get it. It has no national membership to bring pressure on Congress and no money to buy ads or help elect or defeat legislators to bolster its power. Although its policy orientation is definitely centrist, it’s not going to be the command center of a Moderate Movement.
No Labels could be, but it’s not there yet. It has more than a million Facebook followers, has attracted more publicity than BPC and hopes to organize in every congressional district. It’s smaller than BPC, with a staff of 14. It won’t reveal its budget, but it is backed by a bipartisan group of billionaires who have set up a separate super PAC, Country Forward, which aims to raise $50 million to help elect moderates and defeat obstructionists in up to two dozen 2018 primaries.
In 2016, in a test run, it spent $1 million and provided voter targeting data and communications advice in two House races in Kansas and Florida, helping to win both. Chaired by former Sen. Joe Lieberman and former White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty, the group’s main activity has been to create and spin off the 40-plus member bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, which so far in this Congress has produced a health care insurance market reform proposal akin to the plan developed by Sens. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, and Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state – neither of whom who is affiliated with No Labels.
The group did recently establish a Senate beachhead with the signing on of Maine Republican Susan Collins and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. They hope to attract other moderate members to form ad hoc coalitions (often called “gangs”) to use their leverage to break partisan logjams and force reasonable action.
Collins was the sparkplug of a 2013 “gang of 14” — seven Democrats and seven Republicans, including a total of six women — who solved a government funding crisis and ended a 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government. Other “gangs” pushed an immigration reform bill through the Senate in 2013, though it died in the House; got a debt-limit increase through the Senate in 2011, saving the government’s credit standing; and in 2005 avoided a Democratic filibuster of federal judicial nominees.
Opportunities for gang action abound in the current closely divided, often deadlocked Senate. If Collins and Manchin could assemble 10 or 12 reasonable and results-minded colleagues, they might force passage the Alexander-Murray health bill, get immigrant “Dreamers” legalized and prevent another government shutdown and debt-default crisis.
The House Problem Solvers Caucus has task forces working on those issues. The hope is that it could evolve into a centrist bloc as unified as the Freedom Caucus and Progressive Caucus are on the right and left. But its effectiveness is limited by House rules and party leadership intimidation. Conceivably it could gain more sway if Collins and Manchin can get legislation through the Senate. So far, they haven’t.
As gratifying as it would be to have Republicans and Democrats work together for the public good, it happens only rarely. Mostly, the two parties just deliver vitriol and paralysis — and a status quo that benefits special interests and career politicians at the expense of the public interest.
Congress’s disgraceful sexual harassment reporting system, designed to protect predatory members while silencing victims, was established and maintained for years by both parties. Incumbent protection is also behind Republican and Democratic concurrence that lobbyists can “bundle” unlimited amounts of money to finance their campaigns, causing both parties to do the bidding of special interests.
The two parties, known to their critics as “the duopoly,” also collude in gerrymandering congressional districts, closing primaries in many states to all but party members, and adopting campaign finance and presidential debate rules that freeze out independents. Voters, for good reason, detest both parties. In September, CNN reported that approval of the Republican Party had reached an all-time low, 29 percent, with 62 percent disapproving. In November, another CNN poll showed that approval of the Democratic Party had hit a 25-year nadir with only 37 percent approving of Democrats and 54 percent disapproving.
The Centrist Project and Level the Playing Field are leading the way toward creating third options, which polls have shown the public favors, at least theoretically. In September, a Gallup survey showed that 61 percent of voters believe a third major party is needed in the U.S., an all-time high. Only 34 percent said Democrats and Republicans were doing an adequate job. Among millennials, third-party support is at 71 percent.
The Centrist Project was founded in 2013 by a Dartmouth College academic, Charles Wheelan, who proposed a “fulcrum strategy” whereby a small group of independent senators could hold the balance of power in a closely divided chamber and force both parties toward centrist policies. One of its Senate candidates, Kansas entrepreneur Greg Orman, won 42 percent of the vote in 2014, but the group has decided to switch its emphasis to the states for 2018.
Orman seems poised to run for governor of Kansas as an independent. CP will be backing independent Gov. Bill Walker in his re-election race in Alaska and Maine state Treasurer Terry Hayes and Nebraska state Sen. Bob Krist in their bids for governor. Its major play is to implement the fulcrum strategy in Colorado, where the state Senate is now split with 18 Republicans and 17 Democrats. A large chunk of CP’s staff is recruiting in the state. CP has super PAC money, sophisticated voter data and a new breed of independent campaign consultants available to help its candidates.
Meantime, Washington, D.C., financier Peter Ackerman is persisting in his years-long legal battle with the Federal Election Commission and the Commission on Presidential Debates to change rules all but guaranteeing that no one but a Republican and a Democrat can appear in presidential debates. The chief rule is that polls must show that an independent or third-party candidate has 15 percent national support seven weeks before the election to be eligible -- virtually impossible for anyone but a multi-billionaire willing to spend about $250 million to achieve name recognition. Billionaire Ross Perot did not meet the threshold in 1992; he participated in a debate because his opponents insisted on it.
Ackerman’s group, Level the Playing Field, won a federal district court ruling in February that the FEC had acted “arbitrarily, capriciously and contrary to law” in defending CPD, but the rule-change challenge has yet to be decided on its merits.
Ackerman wants to create a national petition-signing competition among would-be third-party debaters six months ahead of the election, which would likely guarantee at least a three-way debate and a third choice for voters. It’s not clear how that rule would be imposed even if the current system is struck down.
An easier path for a third choice would be for a respected Republican or Democrat to leave his or her party in disgust, run as an independent and attract a national following so strong that being barred from the debate stage would be unthinkable. History suggests -- and political scientists contend -- there’s little hope for third parties or independent candidates. In July, a record high 45 percent of voters identified as independent (versus 25 percent for the GOP and 28 for Democrats), but some observers maintain that “true” independents make up only 10 percent of the electorate while the rest are partisans in hiding.
But disgust with the two major parties is at such a high level that trying to organize an independent movement is certainly worth the effort.
The newest and most heavyweight of the reform groups is Issue One, founded three years ago by Nick Penniman, former editor and publisher of the Washington Monthly. He has attracted a bipartisan board of wealthy business people plus former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.
Also signed on is an all-star advisory board chaired by former Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), plus a bipartisan 186-member Reformers Caucus consisting of 22 former governors, nine ex-Cabinet secretaries and more than 125 former members of Congress. It also has enlisted 19 current members willing to co-sponsor reform legislation.
Such a group could form the basis of a powerful Moderate Movement, but its purpose is limited to cleaning up elections. It is backing two bills, one sponsored by Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) to reform the Federal Election Commission, whose three Republicans and three Democrats habitually deadlock on election law regulations and violations. The new bill would add a chairman selected for a five-year term by a panel of federal judges.
The other measure, sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and by Kilmer and Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), is called the Honest Ads Act, which would require sponsors of online campaign ads to identify themselves and register with the FEC. The proposal is directed at least partly at Russian election interference.
In the future, says Penniman, his group would like to back legislation forbidding congressional candidates from accepting contributions “bundled” by lobbyists. That is already a key aim, largely at the state level, of Represent.us, which also aims to prevent politicians from raising money during working hours and require immediate disclosure of campaign contributions. In 2016, it helped pass an anti-corruption referendum in South Dakota, only to have it overturned by the state legislature. It’s trying to revive the measure.
Represent.us, Issue One and the Campaign Legal Center all have websites comprehensively tracking campaign finance, election reform and government ethics developments around the nation. Represent.us is especially effective in demonstrating that voters are right to believe, as a Pew survey found in 2015 (76 percent to 19 percent) that government is run for the benefit of large special interests rather than the public.
Meantime, Fair Vote is concentrating on spreading the idea in the states that the best way to elect officeholders is by rank-order voting, whereby voters number their preferences, with the votes of losing candidates going to second choices. The system is used in several U.S. cities. It generally works to give moderate candidates a better chance of winning than in closed primaries.
Clearly, none of these groups by itself is yet giving the country the powerful centrist movement it needs. On the other hand, all of them are working on projects that would make the political system vastly better than it is.
In every presidential election, exit polls show that a plurality of voters identify themselves as moderate. Seventy-three percent are worried that the current tone of political debate encourages violence. On many hot-button issues, majorities are moderate: 60 percent favor stricter gun controls. Sixty percent want to keep or strengthen Obamacare and 74 percent don’t approve of Republicans’ efforts to dismantle it. They are split on the merits of a single-payer health system now being advanced by most 2018 Democratic presidential prospects. Forty percent believe there is too much political correctness in the country; 55 percent say there is too much prejudice. Sixty-eight percent want to allow non-criminal undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship and 60 percent oppose building a wall at the Mexican border. Sixty percent also believe that human beings cause climate change and that more action needs to be taken to combat it.
On President Trump’s possible involvement with Russia, independents span the gamut: 26 percent think he acted illegally; 32 percent, he acted unethically; 34 percent say he did nothing wrong. It’s a sensible split given the absence of definitive evidence.
Independents (and moderates) represent a plurality of voters. They have potential power not just to swing elections, but decide policy. The current political system divides them and does not represent them -- freezes them out, in fact. We deserve better. We deserve a movement to give us voice.