Perhaps it's appropriate that we are of two minds about centrism these days. On the one hand, it's the Holy Grail of politics; the place where deals can be made and gridlock broken. On the other, centrism can seem like a confession to impure thoughts and a weak-minded desire for compromise. As Washington's House, Senate and Gov. Jay Inslee's budget proposals converge in Olympia, it's worth thinking about.
The question is, is centrism a kind of ideology itself, or merely a place to stand? Henry Louis Gates once called President Barack Obama a centrist, observing that he had been "bridging divisions his whole life." We're not much good at building bridges these days, even though that kind of centrism is less ideological than it is practical. Either way, "Great Facilitators" will hardly be rewarded in these hyper-partisan times.
Here’s what we’re missing: Centrism doesn't have to be about compromise. It can be about principle and conviction. Teddy Roosevelt is the great example. "I am a man who believes with all fervor and intensity in moderate progress," he said, wisely warning that "fervor" should not be left to the political extremes.
The middle in politics isn’t a static point of ideology, either. It meanders and changes. The political middle in Lincoln's era supported containing slavery, not ending it. In recent days, we've seen many centrist Democrats and Republicans come out in favor of gay marriage. The one time "center" on that issue has become dated and regressive. It's less an example of Roosevelt's moderate progress than a sign of the progress of moderates. But the two are linked: To work, centrism has to be in sync with the cultural center of gravity.
The real question about centrists is, can they lead? In the Pacific Northwest, there's long been a political trend of reluctant partisanship, and an electorate with an independent streak. Washingtonians hate taxes, but love social programs; we vote for Tim Eyman's initiatives and support Obamacare.
I was recently interviewed by Oregon Public Broadcasting for a radio show comparing the careers of the late Washington Gov. Booth Gardner and Oregon's Gov. Tom McCall.
It's an interesting idea for comparison. Gardner and McCall were both products of prep schools, from monied families. Both were independent, supported better land use planning, argued for "death with dignity" and led successful initiative campaigns shortly before their deaths. Neither was entirely comfortable in politics.
The Northwest has often liked Democrats who act like Republicans and Republicans who act like Democrats. McCall, like Governor Dan Evans, was a Republican with a strong passion for nature, the environment and the outdoorsy culture of the Pacific Northwest. McCall had to buck his own party on issues, and he did, passing a bottle bill in Oregon to incentivize reuse and recycling and leading the effort to clean-up the heavily polluted Willamette River. He also famously invited America to visit Oregon, but not to move there.
Both Evans and McCall pushed for better planning for growth, though McCall was more successful in getting stricter growth management passed. Oregon did it in 1973 — 20 years before Gardner finally signed it into law in Washington. Much of the impressive shaping of the Portland metropolitan area and the protection of rural Oregon is due to the "centrist" vision of McCall, who argued for the conservation of resources and a long-term vision that would pay off not in jobs today, but in a vibrant economy in the future. He wasn't afraid to ask the citizens of Oregon to sacrifice for the cause.
Gardner, a Democrat, created the template for the moderate-progressive governor of the last 30 years, which has since dominated the governor's mansion. He was young Bill Clinton's favorite governor, a prototype of what was once called a New Democrat. Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire were also firmly in that mold. Collectively, Gardner, Locke and Gregoire served 24 years. Gardner could easily have served a third term, as Evans did, if he’d had the will and the energy.
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