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How to Expand the Center? Look Down Under

The deterioration of the center in American politics is one of the most distressing signs of dysfunction in our political system. It has been obvious inside Congress, where lawmakers (especially those in the middle) who deign to work toward the middle and across party barriers are often ostracized or punished. But it is even more apparent outside Washington, especially in the electoral process.

We had Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) switch from Democrat to Independent after losing a primary challenge from the left for deviating too much from his party’s orthodoxy — followed by Arlen Specter (Pa.) switching from Republican to Democrat to avoid the certainty of defeat in a party primary because of a well-financed challenge from the right.

Now we have pretty conservative Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) facing the possible humiliation of not even making it onto the primary ballot because he is insufficiently conservative; conservative Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) being challenged from the right in a tough primary battle, pulling him even further to the right; and centrist conservative Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on the verge of leaving the GOP over his collapse in a Republican Senate primary from a challenge from his right. Meantime, centrist Democrats in North Carolina face the prospect of a leftward insurgency from a new party formed by Service Employees International Union leaders.

The primary challenges — and the mere threat of a primary challenge — are joined by other tactics, such as the independent expenditure campaign the Club for Growth ran against the health care reform bill that intimidated conservative Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) away from cooperation with the majority, and the frequent censure petitions brought up against conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham in various South Carolina county Republican enclaves. All are designed to purge the parties of non-purists or to bludgeon the potential apostates to toe the party line and not to sleep with the enemy.

The two parties are too tied to their activist wings to do anything to reduce the power of the electromagnets pulling candidates and elected officials to the edges and away from the middle, or to change the issue focus away from the things that excite or frighten their party base voters, or to change the extreme rhetoric and scare tactics used to frame the issues.

These dynamics are deeply rooted in our culture right now, reinforced by talk radio, the blogosphere and cable news, by the permanent campaign, party nominating processes and campaign turnout strategies. When something has cultural roots, the limits of structural reform are apparent. But this is one area where one simple, powerful reform could transform our politics, our dialogue and even our policy outcomes.

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