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April 1, 2005 -- Mark Satin, Editor
the rigidly polarized
by John Avlon
“The center cannot hold, “ the poet William Butler Yeats once famously wrote. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
But a surprising collection of voices feels increasingly compelled to speak out against that.
At a dinner in Manhattan
For example, at a dinner hosted by Hunter College in Manhattan last week, I heard former Democratic presidential candidate Richard Gephardt and former Republican EPA director Christine Todd Whitman extol the virtues of centrism.
Mr. Gephardt argued that the Democratic Party ought to reassert the strong foreign policy and pro-military tradition associated with Harry Truman. Ms. Whitman built upon her recent book It's My Party Too by defending the vision of a big-tent Republican Party she sees as under assault by social conservatives.
Hearing these two divergent voices agree about the need for centrism was refreshing. I was even more surprised when Richard Gilder, Chairman of the Club for Growth, stood up at the dinner and personally expressed a desire to see the Republican Party move closer to the center on issues such as the environment. (The Club for Growth has been attacking Republicans it sees as weak on the issues of taxes and spending, and challenging them in the primaries.)
I called Mr. Gilder later to get him to expand upon these unexpected remarks.
He made no bones about the core purpose of the Club for Growth but offered a more expansive vision. "The Club will always stay on the right as far as the issues we care about -- tax cutting and smaller government," he said. “But my own personal feeling is that growth means being open to ideas about immigration and the environment, issues on which many Republicans are divided."
On the environment, for example, "We are working with Environmental Defense on the issue of crop subsidy, which is Big Government, and is unfair. It is an example of where we can find common cause with the environmental folks."
On immigration, Mr. Gilder offered a similarly depolarizing message: "We know that immigrants are good for our long-term economy. The issue is how you strike a balance against illegal immigration, which is wrong."
Grounds for hope within the GOP
Mr. Gilder's comments suggest that room exists within the GOP for political growth. "The exciting guys in the party are on the coasts,” he says, “Arnold and Rudy. . . . These are Centrist Republicans. They have been good on taxes. And while we do not take a position on social agenda, we are perfectly happy with their approach. Issues like school choice and cutting taxes, stronger defense, smaller government, that is the future."
These remarks even suggest an opportunity for common ground between the frequently warring wings of the Republican Party.
For example, the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership usually sees itself at odds with Mr. Gilder’s Club for Growth. At least six primary races in the last election cycle pitted a Club for Growth-backed Republican primary challenger against a moderate Republican incumbent.
When I reported Mr. Gilder’s comments to Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, the Main Street Partnership's executive director, she replied, "I'm pleased that Dick Gilder recognizes the need for the Republican Party to take centrist positions on issues like the environment and immigration. . . .
“While we have had our differences in the past, recognition that centrist candidates often have strong records on fiscal issues -- and an end to divisive primaries -- might achieve more fiscal restraint in Congress."
Of course, these comments stop far short of an intra-party cease-fire. But they do offer some evidence of a counter-cyclical trend away from the ideological extremism.
Grounds for hope among Democrats
Among Democrats, party faithful have yet to come up with a coherent analysis of their most recent electoral defeat.
Liberal activists have been quick to blame centrist organizations such as the Democratic Leadership Council for diluting the difference between the parties. But many Democrats appear to feel differently, and a surprising number of new centrist party think-tanks have been formed in the wake of the Clinton administration. Among the most prominent are Center for American Progress, New Democrat Network, and The Third Way.
A co-founder of The Third Way, Jim Kessler, rejects the left-wing attack on party centrists. He says, “It is faulty analysis at best and self-deception at worst.”
At the same time, Mr. Kessler rejects the notion that the goal of centrists is to dilute the difference between the parties. He sees centrism as fresh and creative.
“The challenge of being centrist,” he says, “is not to be a split-the-difference ideology but to be a dynamic movement that develops new reform solutions."
Against the prevailing hyper-partisan winds, centrist voices and organizations persist and are growing stronger.
It is increasingly likely that, by 2008, the center of American politics will reassert itself as the center of gravity for both parties. Both the Republican and Democratic parties will discover that they strengthen themselves when they show room for intellectual and ideological growth.
For the moderate majority of Americans, the centrist trend offers some hope -- against much evidence -- that the poet Yeats was wrong. The center can hold.
It might even prevail.
John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then was Mayor Giuliani's chief speechwriter from 1997-2001. He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).
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