A Vote For The Sensible Center

Call it dynamic gridlock. After years of worrying that the sensible center of American politics was in jeopardy, voters created their own middle ground in 1996. They deliberately divided the government between the two parties, creating checks and balances for those tone-deaf politicians who were addicted to extremist positions. Even though congressional and senatorial candidates made a late, mad dash toward the center, voters remained mistrustful of both parties and refused to give either one total power in Washington. The prospect of paleoliberal Democrats taking over key congressional committees to continue big-government policies was as terrifying to voters as tear-the-government-down conservative Republicans gaining control of the White House. Even President Bill Clinton's rebirth as a master of middle-class concerns wasn't enough to gain him the trust of a majority of the voting public.


We applaud the sense and sensibility of the American people in this election. We believe they voted for a policy of bipartisan pragmatism and legislative responsibility. Inevitably, there will be hearings over ethical issues concerning the Clinton Administration. That is proper--but only up to a point. Paralyzing Washington policymaking through partisan ethics wars is the last thing that most Americans want. The message that the 1996 election holds for America's political system is that the people do not want things to fall apart. They want the political center to hold.

But where is the center today? The past four years have created new boundaries, defined by the defeat of a big-government solution to health care on the left and the failure of a shut-it-down, no-government solution to the budget deficit on the right. The center now revolves around a smaller, more efficient federal government, with states handling more of the load. The new middle ground assumes fiscal restraint and a balanced federal budget. It demands incrementalism in policymaking without unfunded tax cuts or huge spending schemes. It calls for reforming, yet preserving, entitlements for the elderly by slowing the rate of growth in spending. It requires moderate probusiness regulatory and tort reform. It needs a new set of campaign finance rules. And it demands serious education reform from state and local governments, who are really responsible for public schools.


The challenge for the Democratic Party in the next Administration is to prove to the public that it really can represent the interests of the broad middle class, not just an agglomeration of noisy interest groups. That means the traditional liberal wing of the party must accept the ascendancy of moderate New Democrats. It means embracing stronger economic growth as the path to social mobility and equity, while rejecting hoary redistributionist bromides. And it means promoting serious competition in public education through autonomous charter schools and experimental vouchers.

In the last year of his first term, President Clinton made a good start on the shift to the center. The test of his second term is to reform entitlements and balance the budget. Clinton's first task should be to strike a bipartisan deal to cut the growth in Medicare spending by $150 billion by 2002. These savings would open the way for a truly balanced budget, lower interest rates, and higher economic growth. Clinton's next step should be to bolster Social Security by allowing individuals to invest a modest portion of their retirement contributions in equities. Finally, he should make his mark as a world leader by flying to Beijing to sign a series of new accords that would revitalize U.S.-China relations.

The challenge for the Republican Party is to move away from the ideological extremism of conservatives in the House toward the pragmatic middle ground of its governors who avoid the culture wars dividing the GOP. The antigovernment rhetoric that smacks of militia nuttiness (sample fund-raising phrase from the National Rifle Assn.: "jackbooted government thugs"), the attack on teachers' unions, the disdain for the judiciary, and the antipathy toward Medicare, Social Security, the environment, and safety regulation are way out of step with mainstream America. GOP governors understand that government is not the enemy of the people. Indeed, they are among the most activist politicians in the country, using state tax codes to boost investment and train local employees.

Paradoxically, one reason Clinton beat Dole in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa is that, thanks partly to their Republican governors, the unemployment rates in these states range from 3.5% to 4.5%, well below the national average. The GOP must realize that it was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's compromise agreements with Clinton over health care, welfare reform, and the minimum wage, not Newt Gingrich's rhetoric and bombastic behavior that swayed voters to give the GOP another chance in Congress. In the election, voters rewarded candidates of either party who ran as moderates and promised to help them deal with day-to-day problems. They were even willing to give a second chance to those fire-breathing freshmen Republicans of 1994. Those conservative politicians who moved to the center won reelection. Those who didn't make the journey lost their seats.

The American people spoke with a clear and decisive voice in 1996. Extremism is out; the middle is in. Confrontation is out; compromise is in. Ideology is out; problem-solving is in. Any politician who fails to heed this message won't be in office to see the dawn of the 21st century.