Symposium | Decision 2024: Our Parties, Our Politics

The Center Must Hold

By Christine Todd Whitman

Tagged conservatism

For the past year we have watched Republican presidential candidates fall over one another to prove who can best pander to the far-right base. Of course, this behavior is not unique to Republicans; increasingly in recent elections we’ve seen candidates from both parties move to the extremes to get their party’s nomination, then attempt to veer back toward the center in the general election. This pattern forces candidates to abandon popular, practical solutions in favor of unworkable positions backed by their more extreme bases.

The increasing number and scope of candidate pledges during the campaign season serve to further exacerbate this effect. When taken in abundance, pledges weaken the governing process by forcing elected officials into narrow ideological boundaries and preventing them from responding to circumstances as they change.

We saw this dangerous pattern play out on the national stage during the debt ceiling negotiations last summer. With so many Republicans having signed the Americans for Tax Reform’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, ATR founder Grover Norquist maintained a tight leash on Congress, removing a key Republican bargaining chip by taking all tax increases off the table. Most maddening is that while Republicans technically maintained their voting purity (even though the eventual deal actually raised taxes when some loopholes were closed), the debt ceiling was increased without the spending cuts or debt-reduction efforts that conservatives ultimately wanted.

Small but vocal interest groups now control both parties. Parties so narrow that they risk appealing to only very few are the result. I have long said that my party should be defined by a small number of well-defined principles: low taxes with balanced budgets, a strong national defense, engaged foreign policy, protection of the environment, and less government interference in individual lives. But unless there is drastic change, by 2024, there will be few, if any, individuals committed to this broad definition of the Republican Party left within it.

This is problematic not only because it leaves few voting alternatives for centrists, but also because, as we have seen in Washington in recent years, political polarization makes the compromise needed for strong governance nearly impossible. The process of negotiation and cooperation across the aisle is what has led to some of the best legislation in our nation’s history. Let’s not forget that a Republican president, Richard Nixon, and a Democratic Congress created much of our landmark environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Unfortunately, the divergence of the two parties has meant that bills are now often passed simply by one party’s fiat—health-care reform being just one recent example.

As a nation, we need to make headway on a number of key issues that are just not being addressed in Washington. We need to pass budgets on time, solve the debt issue, develop an energy policy, and sort out our immigration challenges. These topics are going to require consensus, a word that is now practically seen as shameful by our hyperpolarized parties.

There will be additional political fallout from this abandonment of the center. I predict some dramatic changes in the way we choose our presidents between now and then—changes that will in turn hopefully serve as a catalyst for addressing the pressing problems that we face.

I believe we will have at least three serious contenders on the presidential ballot in 2024. Americans Elect, a nonpartisan nonprofit group on whose board I serve, has established the tools to encourage additional presidential contenders to enter future campaigns. It is capable of holding online presidential primaries. Any registered voter can participate, and anyone can be nominated. Whoever the American people choose to nominate through Americans Elect will be on the ballot nationwide. Because the process is open to all Americans equally, candidates advance by appealing to mainstream voters, not extreme elements. While no candidate met the necessary support requirements to qualify this year, that need not put a damper on its future prospects. As polarization worsens in the next 12 years, Americans Elect will likely play a more prominent role in the nominating process. Cooperative policy-making is what I am most interested in re-establishing, and Americans Elect can be a part of that restoration.

Beyond this year’s presidential election, I expect that models like these, aside from leading to the emergence of nonaffiliated candidates, will have a profound impact on the way Republicans and Democrats choose their presidential
nominees. By 2024, traditional party conventions are likely to be a thing of the past. In addition, online voting will be the rule rather than the exception. Because these changes will combine to significantly expand participation in the primary process, candidates will be required to appeal to a much broader and more moderate audience. Candidates will shift their focus from the fringes of their party to the sensible center that defines much of America—an improvement for both the politics and governance of our nation.

The political process in America is near-broken, and fixing it requires that our politics once again embrace the spirit of compromise that produces wise and reasonable policy-making. Democracies work best when power is diffused so that interests are able to compete on equal footing. When bureaucracy, tradition, or entrenched leadership exclude people—whether candidates or voters—America loses. I am hopeful that by encouraging more Americans to be involved in the process by which we choose our leaders, our country can shift itself onto a better trajectory.

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Christine Todd Whitman is president of The Whitman Strategy Group, a consulting firm that specializes in helping leading companies find innovative solutions to environmental challenges. Governor Whitman served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from January 2001 until June 2003. She was the governor of New Jersey from 1994 until 2001.

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