Right On: Hollowing out the political center

Stock images, St. George News

OPINION — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were the two best politician-presidents of the last 50 years.

That lead sentence will spark a variety of reactions, I’m sure.

Some will say Clinton was a scumbag and was impeached for lying to Congress. Others objected to his use of air power against Al Qaeda in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan.

Reagan will be remembered by some as a heartless conservative while others will recall he presided over the Iran-Contra affair.

So why do I call them the best?

For starters, both were master communicators and both easily won re-election to second terms.

But more to my point, each faced a Congress controlled by the other party but still found ways to get things done.

Both Reagan and Clinton knew that effective politics is the art of compromise. Both knew that rigidly clinging to one’s ideal outcomes may appear noble but that getting things done was far more important.

Half a loaf is better than none. And if you can get more than half while the other guy thinks he’s getting the lion’s share, all the better.

Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill apparently got along on a personal level but no one doubted the depth of their commitments to their respective principles. Nonetheless, the two of them crafted two notable compromise pieces of legislation.

Working together in 1983, they passed a major, bipartisan Social Security reform bill. Following Reagan’s call for tax reform, he and O’Neill hammered out the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Both pieces of legislation continue as touchstones for today’s would-be reformers.

Squaring off with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and a Republican Congress, Bill Clinton signed a compromise bill mandating a major overhaul of the nation’s welfare system. Clinton said, “Today, we are ending welfare as we know it.”

Even George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy got in on the act with their 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. When signing the bill, Bush said of Kennedy, “He is a fabulous United States senator.”

No meaningful bipartisan compromise has taken place for 15 years. Today’s younger generation has never seen a functional government.

Obama entered the presidency as the most liberal member of the Senate. His liberalism and personality led him to cling rigidly to his policy preferences. While Obama and congressional Republicans accused each other of unwillingness to bend for the country’s benefit, even the liberal U.S. News complained that Obama “must learn to compromise.”

Finally yielding to pressure, Obama met with Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner behind closed doors to strike a “grand bargain” on entitlements and tax reform. The deal fell apart with recriminations and finger pointing from both sides. Boehner, facing heavy criticism from his party’s right wing, chose not to run for re-election.

Much has been said and written about today’s polarized politics. I blame both parties: The steady, leftward march of liberal politics with its ever-expanding social welfare agenda and the right’s balanced budget fixation and desire for significant cuts in social programs.

Supreme Court confirmations, same-sex marriage and transgender restrooms are “yes or no” issues that don’t lend themselves to compromise. Sadly, other issues where meaningful compromise is possible such as updating immigration laws, have become so politicized that no end of conflict is in sight.

Moderates in both parties are an endangered species. John Boehner was hounded out of Congress. Fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, personified by Utah’s own Jim Matheson, have been driven from the political stage.

The war cry from both extremes seems to be “take no prisoners.” Leaders of both parties have gone so far as to sponsor far left and far right candidates to run in primaries against their own party’s moderate incumbents, hollowing out the center. Insanity!

Our political parties’ views used to look like the famous bell-shaped curve: a large mass near the center with increasingly fewer toward the extremes. Today’s political spectrum looks more like a dumbbell (pun intended) as shown in this animated video – too many on the far left and far right extremes.

I believe political parties today do not reflect the public’s best interests. I believe that a majority of Americans still hold center-left or center-right positions. I believe that successful politics is the art of compromise. I believe that a majority of Americans of both parties will accept reasonable compromises entered into in good faith.

I believe the far left and far right get way too much media attention. Strident words and posturing get headlines and sell advertising; reasoned words supporting thoughtful policies do not.

I never listen to what politicians say. I have not listened to a State of the Union speech in over 30 years. Instead, I look at what politicians do. Tip O’Neill said awful things about Ronald Reagan and most likely meant them, but together they got things done.

I see Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, despite his recent pandering to left wing crazies, as folks who could fashion compromises that would pass muster with our “Art of the Deal” president. I hope they do. But Ted “Freedom Caucus” Cruz and Nancy “The Resistance” Pelosi and their friends on the dumbbell extremes seem ever-ready to call any compromise treasonous.

Boehner’s gone. Obama’s gone. And now we have Trump. Makes me nostalgic for Reagan and O’Neill. Heck, I’d even take Clinton and Gingrich.

Howard Sierer is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: hsierer@stgeorgeutah.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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2 Comments

  • Brian April 13, 2017 at 9:54 am

    Good article. That animation of partisanship is alarming. Unfortunately I don’t think there is a way to put that genie back in the bottle. We’re in deep trouble. The only hope I have is that the states will assert themselves somehow, but I have almost no hope of that…

  • commonsense April 14, 2017 at 8:27 am

    I blame the political polarization of America on the Democrats. In an effort to expand their political power they have taken in all comers. When you try to amalgamate groups as diverse as Black militants with tender gays and call them both Democrats it just doesn’t work. They have nothing in common except a lust for political clout.

    The Republicans are pretty much the moderate to conservative bunch who have been unchanged for my lifetime. Not so with the Dems. They have (out of greed) embraced every fringe group who wants to advance their political position. As a result they have become the party of resistence and can all agree on one thing only, hating Republican. They have no other commonality.

    With no legislative agenda or political ideology they really can’t negotiate or compromise out of fear of fragmenting their messy coalition. Having no designated leader doesn’t help. They have no Tip O’neal. They really have no bargaining chips and this leaves them desperate and powerless.
    Having lost over 1200 political office holders since 2008 in national, state and local elections has Dems clinging to life. When you can’t produce a better candidate than Hillary Clinton and you let Russia influence the election without even casting a vote, you know there is big trouble at the DNC.

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