After serving as America’s political doormat for almost two decades, there are signs that the country’s moderate near-majority is bestirring itself to fight for national sanity.
The bipartisan group No Labels (which won’t even label itself “moderate”) is trying to reform the utterly dysfunctional Congress.
And, even more ambitiously, another bipartisan group, Americans Elect, could put a centrist presidential candidate on the ballot in 50 states this November to offer a choice other than President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger.
These groups join two think tanks, the Bipartisan Policy Center and Third Way, which develop “grand bargain” solutions to America’s problems that Republicans and Democrats, so far, refuse to adopt.
Exit polls for the 2008 presidential election showed that fully 44 percent of the electorate defined itself as moderate, while 34 percent were conservative and 22 percent liberal.
In off years, conservatives sometimes inch past moderates, but exits in every presidential election for 20 years have shown that a plurality of Americans are moderate.
Yet, lacking a unified voice (or a party), moderates get torn at election time between a Republican Party moving ever further right (lately, off the charts) and a Democratic Party dominated by big- government liberals.
Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats in Congress can’t agree on anything except occasionally to kick big-problem cans down the road to avoid an imminent fiscal or political catastrophe, usually adding to the national debt in the process.
And the hard core of each party systematically freezes out its moderates, who are the likeliest to be defeated in primaries or general elections — or to quit in frustration, as Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) just did.
As No Labels summarizes the situation on its website, “the government in Washington is no longer capable of solving the very real problems facing America.
“Before every election, our politicians make promises about how they will fix our tax system. Our immigration laws. Our schools. Our budget issues.
“But after every election, these promises are crushed under the weight of poisonous rhetoric and hyper-partisanship.”
No Labels declares: “The American people have had enough.”
That group — whose founders include former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), former Reps. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Mike Castle (R-Del.), former Clinton White House aides Bill Galston and Don Baer and former George W. Bush administration adviser Mark McKinnon — is pushing a list of 12 Congressional reforms.
They include getting Members of different parties to sit together at joint sessions, which happened for the latest State of the Union (but accomplished little), requiring real filibusters in the Senate and up-or-down votes on nominations and stopping Congressional pay if budgets are not passed on time.
(The No Labels reforms do not include my favorite, suggested by former Democratic National Committee Executive Director Mark Siegel: adoption by states of the New Hampshire primary model allowing independents to vote in either party’s primary, encouraging moderation.)
But, as absolutely necessary as Congressional reforms are, it’s the president who sets the tone and substance of government.
Or, as former Comptroller General David Walker puts it: “Congress is a committee, and you can’t get anything important done by committee. It takes a president to lead.”
Walker is a co-founder of No Labels but also is a member of the leadership of Americans Elect — and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s nominee to be the AE presidential candidate.
Walker is one of the nation’s leading debt hawks, who put together the “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour” involving such disparate groups as the conservative Heritage Foundation, centrist Concord Coalition and liberal Brookings Institution.
He claims he’s not a candidate — though he won’t rule it out — but says Americans Elect is a vehicle at least for offering voters an alternative to Obama and the GOP nominee.
AE is the brainchild of multimillionaire investor Peter Ackerman and has attracted support from former diplomat Stephen Bosworth, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, former FBI and CIA Director William Webster and Democratic pollster Doug Schoen.
The group has collected enough money — from sources it unfortunately will not reveal — to secure places for its candidate on 30 state ballots so far, with good prospects to get on all 50.
Any registered voter can become an online “delegate” — there are 400,000 so far — and eligible to participate in an online nominating process that begins in May and will have a candidate by June.
AE’s problem is credibility — will it attract political “heavyweights,” people one could imagine as president — or just people who could not win another party’s nomination, such as former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, so far the only declared AE candidate.
There’s also the possibility that the nominating process could be hijacked by followers of libertarian Republican Ron Paul, whose nomination would practically guarantee Obama’s re-election.
But, as Walker says, the prospect of being on 50 state ballots, getting into the presidential debates and receiving federal matching funds should attract plausible presidents — at least as plausible as Ross Perot, who won 19 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate in 1992 and forced both major parties to focus on the federal deficit.
And, Walker says, a credible centrist candidacy in 2012 — and the prospect of 50-state ballot access and federal matching funds in 2016 — might lead to establishment of a real new party.
“This year’s candidate could be John C. Frémont,” he said, referring to the first Republican presidential nominee in 1856, “who paved the way for Abraham Lincoln in 1860.”
We don’t face civil war right now, but we are experiencing a national governing breakdown. A third choice, representing the moderate near-majority, would be welcome, even if it’s not Abraham Lincoln.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.