Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Passionate Pragmatist

I loved this post about how weak and feckless moderates in Congress have been.
On economic policy at least, I have what I think are pretty moderate views so I always want to look back fondly on the contributions of self-proclaimed moderate politicians. But while centrist legislators almost invariably end up playing a pivotal role in America's major policy debates, looking back at Olympia Snowe's self-indulgent farewell op-ed in the Washington Post one can't help but be struck by the lack of really meaningful impact that Snowe has had on the course of policy. She complains about the relative disempowerment of moderates in the political system, but the nature of Congress' institutional rules is that generally nothing happens without the agreement of moderates. It's true, as Snowe writes, that the quantity of moderate members has declined but that means that the influence of the remaining ones—i.e., Olympia Snowe—is greater than ever.
How many Senator's can you name? For me, there are many, but I know about Olympia Snowe because she wielded significant power during Obama's first term. She was instrumental in shaping the size and scope of the stimulus and the health care bill, two of Obama's most significant achievements. She also shaped Bush's tax cuts.

Here's the curx of Yglesias's argument:
Taking advantage of the low interest rate environment of the aughts to pass regressive tax cuts was either a good idea or it wasn't. Opinions on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are sharply divided, but approximately zero people believe the Snowe/Collins/Specter/Nelson compromise version of ARRA was the right thing to do. That's not because of "polarization"; it's because their position didn't make any sense on the merits and just reflected a mindless less is better than more mentality.
This is why, maybe, people tend to revile moderates - they seem so weak, feckless and wishy washy. Instead of taking a strong stand on nuanced positions, they always revert to soft-peddling on controversial issues, it becomes mindless.

Rather, to me, the definition of a true pragmatic, moderate is someone who studies each issue independently. Rather than falling back on tired ideology time after time, considering each issue on its merits, making strong decisions, and backing them. These are the people with power and are willing to take ownership of their decisions. These are the swing voters who can be counted on to support people and not party.

Snowe did wield a lot of power, but she chose not to take advantage of it, rather she shrunk from the moment. Weaken a bill rather than support or oppose it. In this way, it seems, she was trying to find a way out from a responsibility the Constitution created exactly for people like her. She couldn't face the pressure and now she's not running for another term - trying to shift blame off herself and onto others.

This last point is crucial, so I want to make it with added emphasis. The Constitution was written to force compromise. Those in the middle, the pragmatists, wield the most power in such a system. Our founders purposely wrote the document to weaken the influence of demagoguery. The extremes of the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street, they have a voice, but they usually can only come down on the side of gridlock.

If you want to get a bill to actually pass, you need to find the moderates of both parties and win their support. They have all the true power. It's time we find some moderates out there willing to step up and take it.

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