Is there any longer a center in American politics?
Even before the bitter budget dispute between a Republican Congress and a Democratic president shut down major portions of the federal government for the second time in weeks, that was not an idle question. The symptoms of political anarchy are so abundant now that it must be asked whether there are still some principles or beliefs or values that unite what used to be called “men and women of good will,” regardless of their party.
The question becomes even more pertinent when you consider that the leading contenders in the 1996 presidential contest, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, are centrist politicians. Clinton’s first term has seen him in a constant struggle with the centrifugal forces in our politics. Dole might well face the same frustration if he were in the White House.
The ‘90s so far look to be a time when the disruptive devices - the tools for stopping government - are far more effective than the mechanisms of conciliation and compromise. The number of filibusters in the Senate, for example, has jumped dramatically, and the number of presidential vetoes is increasing as well.
Campaigns are dominated by negative ads. Lobbyists have quick recourse to electronic intimidation schemes - faxes, phone calls and faked flurries of messages - to stop legislation that poses a threat to their clients.
And more and more issues seem to polarize politicians. In the last Congress, the president’s budget was passed over the unanimous opposition of the Republican Party. This year, that same president has repeatedly set up roadblocks to stop the Republicans from enacting their budget.
Nor is the fighting confined to domestic matters. In 1991, when President Bush deployed American troops in the Persian Gulf, the majority of the Democrats in Congress opposed him. This year, when President Clinton sent American troops to Bosnia, the majority of the Republicans in Congress voted what was in effect a motion of no confidence in him.
In this environment, it becomes harder and harder for leaders to function. It is less and less attractive for them even to remain in office and try. Lyndon Johnson, when he was Senate majority leader, liked to invoke Isaiah: “Come, let us reason together.” Today, senators such as George Mitchell, Alan Simpson, Bill Bradley, Nancy Kassebaum, Sam Nunn and Hank Brown, people who instinctively seek solutions, are leaving early, discomfited by the meanness in what once was called “The Senate Club.”
Some of the polarization is the side effect of healthy political developments. There is greater cohesion and clarity in both the major parties. Southern Democrats, now elected by multiracial coalitions, are more like the northern Democrats and less a tribe apart. Republicans are more consistently conservative in their views. When voters are presented with party labels, they know more reliably what the labels mean.
But the sharpening of party lines has been accompanied by an increasing harshness of rhetoric - aimed not only at the opposition but at the institution in which those politicians serve, the Congress of the United States. The habit of running against Congress while campaigning for Congress is so thoroughly ingrained now that it barely draws reproach.
And yet, for all that, the impulse to seek and claim the center still runs strongly through our politics. Both Clinton and Dole are instinctively centrists both in substance and style.
Clinton courted constituencies of the left all year to minimize the chances of a challenge for renomination. The tactic worked. Dole consciously sought to make himself acceptable to the right-wingers in the GOP and he too seems to have succeeded. But neither man is at all an ideologue, and neither one nurses great hates.
Still, the differences between the parties - and the greater reluctance to compromise - has created room in the center for others to play. Ross Perot has made a pre-emptive claim on that middleman role. Following his 1992 success as an independent candidate, he has launched a formal third-party effort.
Now a group of disaffected Democrats, Republicans and independents - including such past presidential hopefuls as John Anderson, Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas - is chatting about their own effort to find common ground. A conference in Minneapolis this week is exploring that very topic.
What this suggests is that even in a time of public frustration and exceptionally sharp polarization among the political activists, the instinct for middle-road politics, which has been clear through most of our history, remains strong.
The atmosphere has been poisoned, but the search for the sensible center still goes on.