Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Party-ing in the Middle

Christen Yates


February 14, 2000

It's no secret that an unusual phenomenon is afoot in the presidential campaign. Apart from the usual personal attacks and campaign rally pomp, this campaign seems as serene as the landscape from Iowa to New Hampshire (bypassing New York City). Commentators and pollsters observe that leading candidates of both parties are finding success in an increasingly popular terrain—the "vital center." This phenomenon, of course, has as much to do with voters as it does with candidates. What is it then about the center that is so captivating this time around? Both sides of this campaign coin deserve examination.

Journalist Richard Berke explains that today's voters have no taste for "leaders who vow to upset the status quo" (New York Times, 1/23/00). They've had enough vicious partisanship and are content with our nation's present economic security—as long as the dividends keep flowing in. As Tod Lindberg, editor of Policy Review, explains, "I think it's perfectly fair to say that this election is...the first in which people's main concern is that [the politicians] don't screw it up and by 'it' I mean peace and prosperity like we've never seen before" (Chicago Tribune, 1/31/00). But even Edmund Burke, the father of enlightened prudence who warned against brash, revolutionary brigades, never went so far as to denounce all reform. And clearly, some of the American status quo needs to be upset if justice is to be done.

Viewed more positively, this middle-of-the-road mindset may reflect an emerging consensus: past extremes of left-right government are inadequate to deal with the complex reality of life. Today, for example, voters and policy makers of both parties agree that government should partner more deliberately with the private sector. Moreover, balancing the budget, welfare reform, and no new taxes are limitations on government many voters want sustained.

Yet, healthy consensus on a few issues is only a beginning. We need to look deeper for principles that can establish a lasting, broader consensus. Otherwise, agreement on issues for the sake of economic prosperity alone will be short-lived.

For example, growing agreement that faith-based organizations are crucial to restoring lives and communities may not be as solid as it seems. Many conservatives want the federal government out of the way, while many church-state separationists are only beginning to mount resistance to suspected First Amendment infringements. When more Americans begin to see that the principle of equal treatment of FBO's should be extended to faith-based schools, what then?

And what about the current accord on the limited role of the federal government? For those who demonize government, the reductions have a long way to go. But for those who see government as the answer to America's ills, further reductions will likely be resisted strongly. If and when we experience a serious economic downturn, how much consensus will remain?

Because economic prosperity and easy agreement on a few issues may create a temporary and shallow centrism, we must open our eyes to the fuller reality before us; the United States will not stay increasingly prosperous forever. We should use this season of peace and bounty to build a stronger foundation of agreement on the principles that can sustain a rightly defined government— principles that promote a healthy and balanced relationship between government and the rest of society.

While this is no coin-tossing matter, it may be time to try to mint a new coin for the next administration.

—Christen Borgman Yates, Program Assistant
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”