A Call to Revive America's Political Center
By Morton Kondracke
June 22, 2017
Before our savagely polarized country rips itself apart with violent language and violent deeds, it’s time for the nation’s adult leaders to rally and fortify the political center.
I’m not talking about national Republican and Democratic leaders. They’re hopeless. They’re momentarily talking up bipartisan unity after the near-massacre of the congressional GOP baseball team last week. But otherwise they’re doing everything on a divisive, partisan basis—as usual.
House and Senate GOP leaders are cutting Democrats out of any role in remaking health care, an industry that makes up one-sixth of the U.S. economy. Democratic Party leaders have declared themselves “The Resistance” to President Trump and all his works. And Trump has tweeted, stumbled, and insulted his way to become the most polarizing president in modern American history.
The center—it’s weak, but it does exist—has to be bolstered by our national heavyweights. Accomplished and respected people such former Secretaries of State James Baker, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and George Shultz; former Defense Secretaries Leon Panetta, and Robert Gates; business leaders like Kenneth Chenault of American Express, Ellen Kullman of DuPont, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Jeff Immelt of GE, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. Retired top military figures like Adms. Mike Mullen, James Stavridis and Bill McRaven and Gens. Stanley McChrystal, James Jones and David Petraeus. Plus, ought-to-have-been presidential candidates Mitch Daniels and Michael Bloomberg.
This is just an examples list and it’s incomplete. The point is that Americans of this caliber must come together—and I mean meet face-to-face—and resolve to act jointly in service to their country. They need to recruit others of talent and stature to join them. And resolve to speak out often—in op-eds and full-page ads, on television and social media–demanding action on the country’s most pressing issues, criticizing politicians’ bad behavior, praising positive policy proposals when they occur, then aggressively lobbying for them.
With money and influence, they need to support existing centrist groups that, with little notice, are already at work. Organizations such as No Labels, The Centrist Project, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Reformicon movement, Third Way, Level the Playing Field, Represent.Us, the Campaign Legal Center, and FairVote.
This list is incomplete, too, but all of these groups are working in various ways to advance policies to solve America’s great problems and make the electoral system more hospitable to centrist candidates and less dominated by the Democrats’ increasingly left-wing base and the Republicans’ increasingly right-wing base.
The heavyweights should be inspired by presidential exit polls consistently showing that a plurality of voters (40-plus percent) identify as moderate. These Americans are, almost by definition, unrepresented by the ruling two-party duopoly. Each election, they’re forced to choose between political extremes, but likely would support moderate Independents.
Heavyweight leaders and moderate voters both must be distraught to realize that despite the election of an outsider president who promised to “Make America Great Again,” the federal government remains hopelessly paralyzed, bitterly divided, and distrusted by the American people. They have to know that a divided America is a weak America. Vladimir Putin clearly knows it.
Among the moderate groups, No Labels may be the most accomplished so far, but it still needs help. Founded in 2010 and chaired by former Sen. Joe Lieberman and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the group inspired creation of the 42-member House Problem Solvers Caucus, designed to become a bipartisan bloc as cohesive in the center as the Freedom Caucus is on the right and the Progressive Caucus on the left.
It isn’t there yet, but the caucus has influenced the budget process and is now promoting the idea that tax reform should be twinned with a large-scale infrastructure program.
No Labels is developing a grassroots activist network now numbered in the hundreds of thousands and a social media effort it claims has more weekly Facebook, Twitter and Instagram “engagements” (“likes” and comments) than the National Rifle Association or MoveOn.com.
More significantly, its adherents have set up a super PAC — Country Forward — which raised $1 million to help win two House races in 2016 and intends to raise $50 million to defend moderates and defeat obstructionists in perhaps a dozen 2018 contests.
Perhaps even more significantly, it has enlisted former White House aides Bill Galston (Democrat) and Bill Kristol (Republican) to develop a centrist policy agenda on the most divisive and portentous issues in politics: immigration, trade, technology, jobs and economic mobility, to be unveiled at an international conference in September. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been invited to participate.
While No Labels is trying to incentivize congressional R’s and D’s to risk the wrath of their parties’ bases and work together, The Centrist Project (CP) and Level the Playing Field (LPF) have given up on the Republican-Democratic “duopoly” and are trying to create a third force.
CP aims to establish centrist Independent blocs in the Senate and state legislatures while LPF wants to make it possible for an Independent presidential candidate to participate in nationally televised debates. CP sees progress in the Maine and Alaska legislatures and wants to expand it with a multi-state conference next month in Washington, D.C.
LPF, led by D.C. investor Peter Ackerman, has just won a strong preliminary U.S. District Court ruling in in its years-long legal battle to get the duopoly-controlled Commission on Presidential Debates to change rules that bar anyone but a Democrat or Republican—or a billionaire like Ross Perot—from getting onto the stage. Ackerman asserts that the impossibility of getting into debates discourages any serious centrist politician from leaving his or her party to run as an Independent.
While No Labels, the Bipartisan Policy Center, Third Way and the Reformicons produce centrist, center-left and center-right policy proposals, Represent.Us, the Campaign Legal Center and FairVote are trying to counter gerrymandering, promote open primaries and rank-order voting systems and limit the influence of big money in politics.
Democrats and the GOP, even as they conduct nonstop, zero-sum tribal warfare, basically like how elections are run right now. Trump was right to say “the system is rigged,” freezing out moderates and Independents. All the reform groups need heavyweight help.
In a populist era, can “elite” heavyweights get anything done? They need to resolve that reviving the American Dream for hurting working- and middle-class families will be Job One. After that, they need to recruit, raise money and promote civility and respect for the law—and act together. They need to apply their demonstrated leadership skills to heal (maybe save) the country.
Who knows? Such a coming-together could produce an American version of France’s now-reigning En Marche movement—and perhaps even elect a U.S. edition of Emmanuel Macron.