Congress has officially been back in session for a week and a half now, but after the tragedy in Tucson, leaders in the 112th Congress appropriately cleared the legislative agenda for the week. There have also been calls for a different tone in Washington and a greater willingness to listen and work together. This is just what independents and centrists have been waiting for.
So, as lawmakers resume their work in a changed (at least temporarily) political environment, let's remember the lessons from last year's charged debates.
1) No Labels launch
No Labels is the biggest development in the center of the electorate since Ross Perot and the Reform Party leading up to the 1992 elections. With high profile moderates from both sides, as well as hard core centrists like John Avlon, we may not know if the organization will succeed in its goals to fight back against political extremism, but centrists and moderates finally have a place we can join without being second class citizens. 2011 will show us whether this idea will pan out.
2) Common sense prevails on START, DADT & 9/11 Responders Healthcare Package
It is sad that it took all the way until the end of the session to get these things passed, but that the lame ducks were able to come together and get some work done on these very common sensical bills was obviously a good thing. Why these three bills were held up really can only be explained by deep-seated partisan rancor. With the government very evenly split now, we will see if the Democrats and Republicans will actually work together, or let their members—who are now even more ideologically pure, with the loss of scores of moderates—consume the next two years with new levels of partisan warfare.
3) Alan Grayson, Christine O’Donnell & Sharon Angle all defeated
These three politicians were perhaps the most extreme up for election last year, and they all lost. They are prototypical examples of wingnuts, both extreme politically and seemingly unhinged personally, and we dodged a bullet keeping them out of office. While the macro level movement has been away from the center, the losses of these three is a silver lining that we can celebrate.
4) Tea Party Prominence
They represent a much smaller segment of the population than the center does, yet they are exponentially more powerful than the center is. No conspiracy theories here—they’re beating us because they’re working harder. In a democracy it is up to us to represent ourselves, so we have only ourselves to blame for this situation. The Tea Party’s role in the Republican tent is already being tested, the left wing is beginning to sound an awful lot like the groundswell during the later Bush years that led to the Tea Party, and the center is beginning to stir. The next two years will be very interesting at the grassroots level.
5) Blue Dog Disaster
Obviously related to number four, the red tide washed away a good half of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats in the House. This is what happens when we let factions like the Tea Party run roughshod over us and don’t organize en masse to fight back. With luck, we will see more moderates in both parties running as independents in coming years, following the lead of the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Lincoln Chafee. A major coup for the independent groundswell would be if Susan Collins, moderate Republican Senator from Maine, would ditch her party.
6) Voinovich, Gregg, Bennett & Bayh ceding their Senate seats
Not only are moderates losing their seats, but some are just quitting in the face of the insane partisan rage from both inside and outside of their parties. This will only continue if we do not give these people the cover they need not to be pushed out by the extremists in their own party. As much as I’d love to say otherwise, I see no indication whatsoever that either party will do anything other than move towards increasing levels of ideological purity. Expect more of this in the coming cycle.
A Bit of Both
7) California’s Prop 14: Open Primaries great — "Top Two" terrible
It is fantastic that California passed a law, with the support of New York City’s very own IndependentVoting.org, that now allows everyone to vote for whoever they want in primaries, no matter what party they register with (or lack there of). But while independent groups have been railing on the two major parties for using their power to make it harder for independents to get equal access in our elections, the “Top Two” part of the bill does that very same thing to minor parties that independents have found common cause with over the years on pushing for open primaries.
IndependendentVoting.org does some great work in other areas, but their hypocrisy on this issue has been disturbing to many of us who watch developments in election law across the country. They should pull the wool from their eyes and see how much truely open primaries have helped their close ally (who they literally share an office with), the Independence Party of New York. If they do not, they will be seen as just another partisan group that will use their power to game the system to their advantage, rather than work to make it more open.
8) The Tax & Unemployment Deal
It was great that the two major parties sat down and got something done, but neither budged or paid for the core of what they wanted. The Democrats got their unemployment extension without paying for any of it, and the Republicans got their tax extension without making any cuts. Both should have had to pay for at least some of their proposals by finding cuts elsewhere and/or perhaps by using unspent stimulus money. If we are lucky, the split government will force more cooperation over the next year, but cooperation is not compromise. As well all know, the two major parties are just as likely, if not more so, to cooperate on recklessly charging their priorities to the national credit card, selfishly passing the buck to our kids, rather than beginning to spend within our means.
9) Eliot Cutler and Lincoln Chafee
Eliot Cutler, an independent running for Governor in Maine, would have been a excellent governor. His campaign was rallying in the last few weeks of the election, resulting in an extremely narrow loss. On the up side, Lincoln Chafee, independent running for Governor in Rhode Island, won his election. The former moderate Republican joins the ranks of Michael Bloomberg as former moderate members of the major parties who moderates and centrist independents can look to for national leadership in coming years. Much less reported was the fact that more independents ran for office in downticket races than any time in three generations—yet another indication of cracks forming in the two party system. Expect more of this in the next cycle.
Game Changer of the Year
10) The President’s Fiscal Commission
It is clearly good that our politicians are beginning to get a little more honest and open with the ignored fiscal issues that have been on the horizon for decades, and are now beginning to affect our yearly budgets. This will quickly become even worse as the baby boomers age out of the working population. I was sorely disappointed that the President sank any chance of passing the commission's recommendations by requiring a 77% ubermajority for them to be sent as-is for a vote. But it could still lead to real action.
The Fiscal Commission’s proposals were widely reported and commented on across the major media and blogosphere. This alone is important, as neither party has been willing to make it an issue. A recent poll at Gallup shows that the number of people who view the deficit as their number one issue has doubled since the report's release. This is assuredly not the sole cause, but with all the media attention it got, that had to have been a part of the equation. As the economic recovery continues, the public will take their eyes off of that more, and realize that the debt poses a very real threat to our economic future, our security and the lives of the next generations.
The country needs the center to organize itself and push for common sense ideas similar to the commission’s recommendations. It has to look at recommendations from think tanks from across the spectrum for ideas on how to trim budgets in ways that wont hinder our recovery too much; how to raise taxes in some areas to cover the giant gap between how much we spend and bring in; and push our representatives in Washington to be adults and spend within our means.
As Great Britain has taken their head out of the sand and turned their nation's fiscal ship back towards solvency, our representatives pass a bill that adds another trillion dollars to our debt. Neither party, and no major special interest group, has shown a willingness to take this on. If we don't take this on, we're going to be seeing the terribly painful effects of austerity measures that Ireland and Greece are dealing with now visited upon our shores much sooner than either side is willing to admit.
Solomon Kleinsmith is a nonprofit worker, serial social entrepreneur and strident centrist independent blogger from Omaha, Nebraska. His website, Rise of the Center, is the fastest growing blog targeting centrist independents and moderates. He is currently collaborating with other centrist independent and moderate bloggers on a news aggregation and social networking site, and is always looking for ways to help the independent groundswell as more and more people become disaffected with the two major parties