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A Centrist Party With Clout? Maybe Startup Cash Would Help

Michael Bloomberg, Howard Schultz and Peter Ackerman — meet Charlie Wheelan.

The mayor of New York (and proprietor of  the Independence USA PAC), the CEO of Starbucks and the financier behind the failed 2012 Americans Elect effort to nominate a third-party presidential candidate on the Internet are all rich guys clearly unhappy with polarized, gridlocked U.S. politics.

Wheelan, a popular Dartmouth public policy teacher, shares their dismay and has an idea for making things better that needs funding.

The idea is a Centrist Party. Yes, a third party, but one that’s focused — in the first instance, anyway — just on winning enough Senate seats to hold a balance of power in that body and using it to push an agenda of “pragmatic problem-solving.”

Wheelan argues that Centrist Party candidates could win Senate seats with just 34 percent of a state’s vote. Then, in a closely divided Senate, maybe as few as four Centrists could leverage their power to affect policy.

He figures that Maine independent Sen. Angus King would be the first Centrist. Under current circumstances — effectively, 54 Democrats, 45 Republicans and a Democratic vice president to break ties — it would take five more to hold the balance of power.

In the meantime, 17 states have one Democrat and one GOP senator — purple enough to offer hope to Centrists. The party would have to pick its targets, recruit good candidates, adequately fund them and provide national media oomph.

Wheelan has written a new book, “The Centrist Manifesto,” that spells out the need for a new party, its agenda and the means to get it rolling.

He’s also formed a 501(c)(4) and collected $100,000, but the effort clearly needs a Bloomberg.

There are definitely problems with the whole scheme, which I’ll get to. But Wheelan’s diagnosis of the country’s political woes is right on, his centrist agenda is utterly sensible, and it would appeal without a doubt to a plurality of voters.

He says there is a lot to like in the basic principles of both the Republican and Democratic parties: respect for free markets and skepticism of big government in the first case; a heart for the underdog and belief in public investment in the second.

“But Congress is not made up of politicians who represent the best of each party,” he writes. “The tragedy of American politics … is that these partisan Members have an agenda of their own that is a bastardization” of their basic principles.

Current Democrats are “too skeptical of business, too hostile toward wealth creation and overly abusive of America’s most productive citizens.” They have allowed unions and liberal interest groups to call the shots and think that a government program is the answer to every problem.

Republicans are split between traditional conservatives and “radical right wingers, as embodied by the Tea Party” which has “an almost pathological aversion to taxes and government” except when it wants to ban abortion and gay marriage.

The country’s serious problems aren’t being addressed because “our two political parties are increasingly dominated by their most vocal and extreme members” and the clash between them has moved the political system “from gridlock to paralysis.”

But the population is not extreme. In the 2012 exit polls, 41 percent of voters self-identified as moderate (versus 35 percent conservative and 25 percent liberal), and in the last Gallup poll, 39 percent of voters self-identified as independent (versus 28 percent Republican and 32 percent Democrat).

“These are people without a party,” says Wheelan. So he proposes to invent one.

The Centrist agenda he identifies is reasonably conservative on economic issues, favoring free trade, means-testing of entitlements and Simpson-Bowles-style debt reduction. Yet it also favors public investment in infrastructure, education and research.

It’s more liberal on other issues, favoring a carbon tax, same-sex marriage, comprehensive immigration reform and campaign finance reform. But Wheelan also advocates education reform and labor union cooperation with business.

Wheelan thinks gerrymandering renders it hopeless for the Centrist Party to run House candidates, and Electoral College difficulties make it hard to mount a presidential race. But he says Centrists could rule the Senate.

The problems include:

  1. The Centrists’ power would lie in the ability to obstruct and stifle the majority, at least threatening more gridlock, not less.
  2. While the Centrists want campaign reform, they’re hoping super PACs will pay the bills, at least initially.

  3. Even if — big if — the Centrists brilliantly maneuvered problem-solving legislation through the Senate, it could be stymied by a conservative House and a liberal president.

Still, I think it’s worth a try. If a dedicated group of moderate independents established a beachhead in the Senate, they could sponsor constructive legislation, get press attention, bargain collectively and even attract support from moderate Republicans and Democrats fed up with the status quo.

Lawmakers such as former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican, and former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a centrist Democrat, wouldn’t have to quit the Senate in frustration. They could switch.

Bloomberg’s PAC gave out $10 million in 2012. He’s going to spend lavishly this year to promote gun safety. Schultz persuaded 100 other CEOs to stop making political contributions unless the nation’s fiscal house got put in order. And Ackerman wasted $22 million on Americans Elect.

There must be hundreds of other rich people fed up with things as they are. If  they got the Centrists off the ground, I’d guess millions of small donors would join up and kick in, too.

We moderate independents can’t just keep grousing. We have to plant a flag someplace, sometime. This may be it.

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