What is a centrist?
There is a lot of talk about the political middle these days: "independents," "moderates," "centrists." Most of those terms mean different things to different people. Centrists are typically defined as somewhere between Republicans and Democrats on the political spectrum. The problem with that approach is that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have a coherent world view; a compromise between two intellectually incoherent parties is just a mess.
The Republicans talk about small government at the same time they are seeking a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. We can disagree about gay marriage, but no reasonable person can claim that using the Constitution to ban consenting adults from marrying one another is limited government.
The Democrats lay claim to being the party that represents America's most vulnerable citizens, yet they depend for electoral support on the teachers' unions, which fight school reform at every turn. There is no silver bullet for making schools better, but the Democrats have been complicit in allowing unions to thwart just about any serious reform with the potential to help America's poor and minority children.
And so on. Centrists ought to stop defining themselves using a political spectrum that no longer has any meaning. Instead, the political middle ought to start from scratch, building a set of guiding principles that: 1) make sense; 2) appeal to the large and growing segment of Americans who are disaffected with the two-party system; and 3) embody the tools necessary to deal with America's most serious policy challenges.
In that spirit, I've compiled a "centrist pledge." If you can answer "yes" to all of the following, then you belong in the political middle — a political middle that really does stand for something.
GOOD GOVERNANCE: I will put the nation's long-term interests ahead of the electoral interests of a political party, or of any other narrow interest group.
FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY: I am committed to putting the nation on a sound fiscal path. I recognize that this will require a combination of revenue increases, spending cuts and reforms to our major entitlement programs.
ENVIRONMENTAL RESPONSIBILITY: I will act as a steward of the environment for future generations. I believe that climate change represents a potential threat to the United States and the international community. I will support international efforts to curtail carbon emissions, including policies that raise the cost of polluting behavior, such as a carbon tax.
SOCIAL TOLERANCE: I believe that the federal government should not involve itself in private behavior that does not affect the broader public. I will work to heal America's division on social issues rather than exploiting them for political advantage.
COMMITMENT TO ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY: I believe that markets are the most powerful tool for promoting prosperity and innovation. The role of government is to create an environment in which the private sector can thrive; to provide a meaningful safety net; and to ensure that every American has an opportunity to achieve his or her economic potential.
PRAGMATISM: I realize that governing a nation of more than 300 million people is inherently difficult and contentious. I will set aside ideological purity if it enables me to achieve things that are broadly consistent with my views. I will let the most important lesson of the United States Constitutional Convention guide my behavior: In a vibrant democracy, compromise is an essential source of strength.
The Centrist Pledge sounds reasonable, even boilerplate. Yet there is a lot of powerful stuff buried in the common sense—things that would disqualify any candidate in a Republican or Democratic primary.
Yes, climate change is real. Try saying that in a Republican primary. Or more accurately, try saying that and winning, as Jon Huntsman learned in 2012.
Yes, a credible fiscal plan will require reforming Social Security and Medicare. Call Nancy Pelosi and tell her that. I dare you.
Yes, every American ought to have an opportunity to achieve his or her economic potential. This is the only long-term solution for income inequality. If a significant segment of the population begins to believe that the American dream is out of reach, then the fabric of our society will unravel.
Yet neither party has a credible, comprehensive plan for broadening prosperity in a time of profound economic disruption.
I'm eager to take the pledge, because it represents a new, refreshing approach to American politics. Are you?