The Plan That Beats No Plan

Here's how we can fix America's broken political system.

Editorial cartoon on Congress
By + More

What is the plan for making things better? That is the lens through which I now look at every facet of our broken political system. Everyone has an opinion as to what is wrong. Almost no one has a feasible plan for making things better.

To quote one of the best (recurring) lines from former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s book on the financial crisis: "Plan beats no plan." Right now we are a nation of no planners.

There used to be a belief that gridlock in Washington is a good thing, since politicians just tend to mess things up. That view was naïve in the best of times; now it is downright dangerous. The most serious challenges in the country — entitlement spending, climate change, immigration, foreign policy conflagrations in the Middle East and elsewhere — are getting steadily worse.

[SEE: Political Cartoons]

The country is on cruise control headed for a cliff while we all squabble in the back seat. At a time when “plan beats no plan,” here is a tour of what the major actors are doing (or, more accurately, not doing).

The Democrats and the Republicans: The two parties do have a plan: total victory. Each party would like to thoroughly trounce the other, take control of the government and get everything they want. This would start with the 2014 midterms and obviously continue with a White House victory in 2016. Each party seems to believe it has a monopoly on what is good for the country. So, like the Sunni and the Shiites, the goal has become total victory in order to dominate the other.

This is a ridiculously bad plan. First, from a practical standpoint, neither party is going to win 60 votes in the Senate, and without 60 votes in the Senate, neither party will get everything it wants. Second, from a philosophical standpoint, neither party should be able to dominate the other. We should not pass major legislation if it cannot attract even a few votes from the minority party. It’s not fair to the minority, and it’s not durable. (See the Affordable Care Act.)

So our two major parties really don’t have a plan — at least not a good one. Meanwhile, the political ill will generated by this all-or-nothing approach is ruining our capacity to do even basic bipartisan housekeeping (e.g. confirming judges).

[ READ: One Corporation, Under Law, Indivisible]

The Media: The line between journalism and entertainment continues to blur, creating an environment in which politics is treated like the World Cup. There are winners, losers, outsized personalities, scandals. At best, modern media outlets cover the dysfunction objectively. At worst, they make it worse by pandering to ideologues and exploiting our political differences to generate interest. No plan there.

The Academy: You will find lots of very smart people in the Ivory Tower who can explain why Americans are polarized, how polarized they are, and even in some cases why this polarization is a good thing. What you won’t find are any plans for making things better. (Lawrence Lessig’s work on campaign finance reform is a notable exception.)

Political scientists typically explain to me why we can’t fix the current system, or that it doesn’t need fixing. This strikes me as akin to declaring in 1840 that Civil War is inevitable. Maybe that’s correct, but can’t we try something?

Business Leaders: That phrase itself is at risk of becoming an oxymoron. Business leaders? Like where? Corporate America has focused relentlessly on promoting narrow interests rather than advocating for improvements to the system overall. Former New York City Mayor and business magnate Michael Bloomberg deserves credit for leaving the comfort of the private sector to engage in policy, but he may be the exception that proves the rule.

Can you think of anyone else? Writing big checks to one party or the other doesn’t count. (See Republicans and Democrats above.) There is plenty of frustration in the business community over D.C. dysfunction, but not a lot of sustained effort to make the system work better.

[SEE: Cartoons on President Obama]

At this point, I hope you are asking: “So what’s your plan?” After all, that’s the point here. We need action, not just more analysis of what’s wrong.

I do have a plan. As I’ve written before, I think any meaningful path forward involves energizing America’s pragmatic middle. Here is how it can happen:

1. Build a movement of pragmatic problem solvers who are fed up with the partisan dysfunction. Define what it means to be a centrist in America (see my earlier column) and get 50 states worth of those folks to flex their muscles.

2. Use that organization to influence a handful of key U.S. Senate races. This is the leverage point: 50 states of centrists focused on supporting pragmatic problem solvers (Republicans, Democrats or independents) in targeted races. When the U.S. government works, the Senate tends to lead. And when the Senate leads, it always begins with some bipartisan “gang.” So elect people who are likely to be part of that gang.

3. Scale up the model. Support moderate, pragmatic candidates wherever they happen to emerge. Build a sustained movement that can push back against the entrenched partisan interests. The bigger and better organized the movement, the more good candidates it will attract. And the more good candidates it attracts, the more powerful the movement becomes. And so on.

This is not theoretical. It’s called the Centrist Project Voice and it started last week, as you can read here.

Plan beats no plan.