Making a Case

Book Explores the Middle of Politics

Posted March 8, 2004 at 2:55pm

Often in politics, those elected officials who reside in the middle or outside of the political divide are met with distrust from the parties and skepticism from the public. In his new book, “Independent Nation,” John Avlon seeks to change those connotations by offering historical precedents for independent political thought that he hopes will show there is nothing soft about the middle.

“You’ve got this moderate majority out there that is being divided up by both parties,” says Avlon, former deputy communications director to then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R). “I got frustrated with the view of centrists as status quo keepers. My hope is to show that being independent is not a weak position, that it’s not a relative position, but that it has a history.”

He adds, “The classic thing about centrists is liberals think they are too conservative and conservatives think they are too liberal.”

Avlon decries people like former Republican presidential nominee Pat Robinson and current Democratic hopeful Al Sharpton as representing the divisive elements of their parties, while he praises politicians such as Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) for courting the middle.

In the book, Avlon picks out 20th-century politicians he feels typified the idea of a progressive: namely, people who drew fire from their own parties and received rolled eyes and sarcastic grins from competitors only to cut their own paths and win the public’s heart.

He labels President Theodore Roosevelt as the father of the progressive movement for remaining a popular Republican president while carving out environmental and trust-busting policies that also marked him a liberal. “From the onset, Roosevelt made it clear that he was a reformer before he was a Republican,” he writes.

Detailing Roosevelt’s journey away from the Republican Party and toward the Progressive Party, Avlon laments the fact that in the modern political world it is almost impossible for a third-party candidate to get an electoral vote let alone win a general election.

“Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive tradition is still looking for a home,” Avlon says.

Avlon feels the current electoral process and decades of Congressional redistricting have made 90 percent of Congressional seats safe for incumbents and off limits to true Independents. Only two Independents currently hold seats in the House and Senate, Sen. Jim Jeffords and Rep. Bernie Sanders, both of Vermont.

According to Avlon, the election process is a Catch-22 for centrists because to win general elections candidates must court the political center, but to even reach that phase they have to get the support of their party’s base — segments that are often too extreme to endorse most centrists.

As the book chronologically winds its way through the 20th century, it highlights presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton and others for their moderate stances that Avlon says rescued their political parties from their extreme bases.

Clinton had a very personal and professional impact on Avlon’s political views. He was a college freshman when the Arkansas governor won office in 1992, an event he says “was hugely formative for me.” He later worked on Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign.

He applauds Clinton and the moderate Democratic Leadership Council for washing away the feelings many had of Democrats as being socialistic and anti-American, and he gives similar praise to Eisenhower for saving the Republican Party from the depths of obscurity after losing five elections in a row.

Just as he said the DLC saved the Democrats from themselves in the early 1990s, Avlon points to a new trend of urban Republicans, such as Giuliani, whom he feels will transform the right and clean out the extreme elements associated with the current party in power. “Rudy was emblematic of the new wave of mayors that saved urban America who are fiscally conservative but socially liberal because they need to deal with diversity to run a city,” he says.

As for the current resident of the White House, Avlon thinks President Bush has worked both the extreme of his party and the middle.

“I mean, compassionate conservatism is textbook,” said Avlon, who feels Bush has governed as a conservative but tried to track back to the center with his education and prescription drug programs, as well as his leniency toward illegal immigrants.

Still, Avlon thinks partisanship is only growing stronger in Washington thanks to a closely divided Congress and leadership teams that aren’t afraid to crack the whip should their members break party rank.

“There is a real premium being placed in getting in line and walking in lockstep. The fact that Tom DeLay [R-Texas] is [House] Majority Leader speaks volumes,” Avlon says.

Avlon also argues that party loyalty makes it much easier for rank-and-file politicians to win primaries than to win general elections. “That’s why Senators don’t often successfully run for president because they’ve got a 20-year voting record,” he said — a point Bush’s campaign is likely aware of now that Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) has all but wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination.