The new center cannot hold

Centrists' new policy platform is refreshingly reasonable. So of course, it will never be realized.

The ranks of political pundits can be divided between those who swoon for expressions of centrist bipartisanship and those who respond to such kumbaya expressions with venomous contempt.

It's not hard to understand the latter group's reflexive distaste for perfunctory comity. When centrism takes the form of "Broderism" (named after the late middle-of-the-road Washington Post columnist David Broder), it can be insufferable — amounting to little more than an arbitrary, unprincipled Goldilocks mixture of policies derived equally from whatever the two parties are hocking at any given moment. If one of the parties drifts away from the center, the Broderist mixture will drift in the same direction along with it. If, on the other hand, both parties shift toward their respective extremes, finding a mixture at all can be become close to impossible, with the list of compromise policies amounting to the empty set.

That's exactly where we often find ourselves today, which is just one reason why it was so easy to scoff when center-left Brookings Institution scholar Bill Galston and center-right Weekly Standard founder and editor-at-large Bill Kristol announced shortly after the 2016 election that they were founding an organization called The New Center, the goal of which was to defend the ideological center against the extremism coursing through the country's political culture.

Nearly 10 months later, Galston and Kristol are back with a list of centrist policy ideas. And I have to admit, they are the real deal — not just a bland, incoherent synthesis of stock Democratic and Republican proposals but a smart, fresh effort to respond to the distinctive problems of the American present. It's an encouraging effort at thinking outside the ideological boxes in which both parties, in different ways, find themselves trapped.

Too bad there's almost no chance that these ideas will prevail.

But first, the good news. The New Center has substance. Galston and Kristol propose seven areas of domestic policy innovation. They take on the monopolistic tendencies of Big Tech. They propose ways to protect against theft of intellectual property (which produces losses in the range of $600 billion a year for American companies). They propose policies to raise declining rates of workforce participation. They suggest ways to encourage economic growth while addressing stagnating wages and income for average Americans. They advocate tax and regulatory reforms, along with an ambitious infrastructure plan, to make the country more competitive and keep the wealthy from pocketing more than their fair share of the windfall. They advocate the encouragement of entrepreneurial risk-taking to generate new businesses. And they suggest adjusting immigration policy so that the country admits and grants citizenship to more high-skilled workers (as many other wealthy countries do).

This list is impressive in its willingness to break from both parties' settled habits. There are no promises of upper-income tax cuts, and no broadsides against "big government." Neither do the authors endorse huge new social spending programs (whether it's single-payer health care or free college tuition). In this respect, this truly is a centrist agenda.

Most of the enumerated policies address problems that didn't exist, or that few recognized as problems, as recently as a decade ago. That in itself makes the program refreshing, especially given Kristol's involvement in the project. There is some overlap with aspects of the agenda the Democrats rolled out a couple of months ago. But the Republicans? The establishment faction of the party seems incapable of updating its proposals beyond what Ronald Reagan proposed during his presidential campaign of 1980, whereas the Trumpist insurgency seems mainly interested in moving backwards in time from there, not forward. (Employment in coal mining peaked in 1923.)

The New Center seems eager to bring new thinking to bear on the present challenges and future promise confronting America in the second decade of the 21st century. That's something lamentably rare in our politics today.

Which is, unfortunately, why there is so little chance that much of it will be championed by either of our dominant parties, at least as they are currently constituted.

The Democrats are pulling leftward, away from the center. So far, every person from a solidly blue state who's contemplating running for the presidency in 2020 has come out in favor of Bernie Sanders' proposal for single-payer health care. That is likely to serve as the focal point for policy discussion on the left over the coming months and years.

The Republicans, meanwhile, may very well be headed for a genuine crack-up. If the Trumpist insurgents succeed in truly taking over the party, its current establishment could be forced to bolt and form a third party. At that point, something like the Galston/Kristol agenda might get a chance at a hearing among refugees from the GOP — especially if the Democrats fail to generate widespread enthusiasm for a hard left agenda.

But not even this colorful series of events would ensure that The New Center could gain traction. In our winner-take-all electoral system, an election with three parties usually results in an outcome that thwarts the popular will rather than expresses it. Imagine a hypothetical match-up between a post-Trump right-wing populist Republican Party, a socialist Democratic Party of the left, and a start-up New Center party situated between them. Such a contest could easily produce a popular vote breakdown of 60 percent for the center and left (with New Center taking 25 percent and the Democrats 35 percent) while the Republican populists win the vote with 40 percent. (How this would shake out in the Electoral College is anyone's guess.)

The point is that however sensible The New Center's proposals might be, there's no guarantee at all that they will find a path to political power — and that in our increasingly dysfunctional system their very reasonableness could end up inadvertently empowering the least reasonable among us.


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