I confess. I am a political moderate. There are lots of us, but you wouldn’t know it from most of the political commentary you encounter. We moderates don’t get much media attention. Of course, we usually don’t mind; we’re moderate.
I know that I am a moderate because I can’t stand to watch Fox News or MSNBC for more than a few minutes at a time. I can say “bipartisan” without gagging. I try not to let consistency get in the way of a good idea. I am willing to pay taxes to support necessary government activities; and I neither love, nor loathe, the president. Most of the time politicians and political parties ignore me. When election season rolls around, I get robocalls and funding requests from everyone.
I came by my moderation honestly. I grew up admiring presidents and politicians from both political parties. I joined neither. I enlisted in the military thinking I that I was serving my country, not a portion of it. In the voting booth, I often split my ballot and afterwards don’t worry if the executive branch belongs to one party and the legislature to the other.
When I briefly worked on Capitol Hill as part of a program to give college teachers real world congressional experience, I had temporary duties with a distinguished Democrat in the House of Representatives and a respected Republican senator.
Neither of my bosses was the least bit suspicious of my association with the other. They used my limited knowledge of American government and foreign affairs to help them make their own decisions and craft their own rhetoric. They never objected to hearing an odd or opposing point of view. They crossed aisles because getting something done was more important than having something to say. They were honest, hard working and admirable legislators who no longer serve in the Congress. One retired, the other was tea-partied.
As a university teacher and observer of American foreign policy I care deeply about our nation’s security and success overseas. I actually believe the old saying that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Unfortunately, Washington, D.C. was built on a swamp, and no one in that city seems to know where the edge of the water is located.
I have written a book about a moderate Democratic president and am finishing one about a moderate Republican. Both tackled hard public policy problems, made compromises and were subjected to intense criticism from members of their own party. Both faced serious primary challenges when seeking re-election and failed to win a second term.
Being a moderate is hard.
You have more potential enemies than other politicians. If you stand firm to your moderate positions, you don’t get much credit for your courage. Writing and delivering an inspirational speech about moderation is a huge challenge. No one puts bumper stickers about compromises on their cars.
So what is a committed moderate to do?
Clearly, I want more people to give moderation a chance, or half a chance, which is usually enough for moderates. We may lack memorable slogans, but we generally cause less trouble than other people in the political arena and we like to find ways to get things done. But before we can play a bigger role in the body politic, particularly in an age that has grown accustomed to hyper levels of partisanship, we will have to admit that our current lack of influence is partly our own fault. We need some reforms.
First, we have to have a more newsworthy name. Metaphors about the middle of the road, and all the jokes that accompany them, will no longer do. For many years, I called myself a “flaming moderate” in an effort to emphasize how extreme my moderation had become. More recently, I have come to call myself a “neo-moderate.” A neo-moderate has no strong ideological views, but desperately wants to be fashionable. Others should join the name game and find some catchy phrase for political sentiments that are neither conservative nor liberal, or a bit of both.
After we get a better name, we will need some institutional support. We should get together, rent space near DuPont Circle and open a moderate think tank. Suggestions about an institutional name are welcome. Here are some possibilities:
- The Center for Muddling Through
- The Foundation for Old and Reliable Ideas
- Heck, That’s About the Best We Can Do Center for Public Policy
- The Committee for Things That Work
I have a long list of people who say that they will support the new think tank and promise to make a contribution. To date, they have not given very much. They’re moderate.
This essay was originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on May 23, 2014.