Does "centrism" have a future in Northwest politics?

The hijinks of Washington's 'moderates' are missing one key ingredient. What they could learn from the state's great centrists.
Ed Murray, left, and Rodney Tom chat after a pre-session discussion of legislative issues.

Ed Murray, left, and Rodney Tom chat after a pre-session discussion of legislative issues. John Stang

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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Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 8, 5:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Inslee is a party machine Democrat, his vision is what the party tells him it is. He doesn't have the ability to build coalitions or work effectively across the aisle to do what is best for the average Washingtonian. Until Washington decides to ppurge the one party monopoly, no moderates will emerge in the near future.

Cameron

Posted Mon, Apr 8, 10:51 a.m. Inappropriate

"[Inslee's] vision is what the party tells him it is." Baloney--I don't see Dwight Pells driving the agenda at all.

"Until Washington decides to ppurge the one party monopoly..." More baloney--in case you hadn't noticed, no one ideological "party" has been in charge of the Legislature in this state for a long time. Even when a majority have "D" behind their name, the urban/suburban/rural and Puget/Eastern fault lines are preeminent.

louploup

Posted Tue, Apr 9, 5:09 a.m. Inappropriate

There can be no such thing as a "party machine" in a state that doesn't have partisan registration or a closed primary. Anybody can call themselves a Democrat and run -- and everybody does.

Party endorsements are meaningless in a Top Two primary state, and have been flouted by the electorate in many cases. "The party" doesn't tell Jay Inslee, or any other Democratic governor in my memory, what to do. Gary Locke, who IMO wasn't much of a Democrat, much of a centrist, nor much of a governor anyway, went ahead and kissed Tim Eyman's ring after 695 was declared unconstitutional, even though "the party" warned him not to. Our highways and ferries are still feeling the results.

A "party machine" exists only where there is party discipline. Even if we didn't have laws against it to begin with, even if urban, rural, and suburban Democrats weren't always at odds, the closest we come to party discipline here is the no-tax, free-lunch, gay-bashing, racist agenda that Tea Party droolers like Cameron try to impose on the Republicans, while clinging to their fantasy that there is this Democratic "machine" here in Washington.

ivan

Posted Mon, Apr 8, 11:36 a.m. Inappropriate

A thoughtful piece by Knute, but he doesn't really come to grips with the greater ideological polarization of the voters, driven mostly by the movement of Republicans rightward. It's very hard to be an effective centrist Republican or Democratic governor with hard-right ideologues pushing Republican legislators to more extreme positions, even in Washington and Oregon. That leaves less and less room for compromise. Gregoire, Inslee, and Obama would have been more successful in McCall's and Gardner's day.

Posted Mon, Apr 8, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't know of any moderates in the GOP...there are a few who say they are (Litzow for one) but all they really do is help keep people like Pam Roach and Don Benton in positions of power.

TaylorB1

Posted Tue, Apr 9, 6:16 a.m. Inappropriate

As usual Ivan and the true believers cannot argue the point with childish name calling and unfounded accusations. The Democrats have and do exercise Party Machine politics in Washington State. They control the Governors mansion, the legislature, The most powerful county in the State and the largest City in the State. Jay Inslee is not driven by his own agenda, anyone who watched his performance in the election can see that. It is backed by his performance thus far in his first 100 days. It does show the weakness of the State Democrats that they have to continue to blame a minority party for their own failures to lead or govern effectively.

Cameron

Posted Tue, Apr 9, 9:13 p.m. Inappropriate

It seems that McKenna attempted to exercise Party Machine politics in Washington State He spent $13 million trying to become Governor; I doubt if those millions came from individual Washingtonians. However, I guess it shows the weakness of the State Republican party's agenda that he didn't win. So not only can Republicans not govern effectively, they can't even win office.

sarah90

Posted Wed, Apr 10, 7:17 a.m. Inappropriate

So not winning in an office is evidence that you cannot govern effectively? Interesting perspective Sarah90. Does the inverse then hold true? Does having a one party monopoly in Olympia lead to effective Government? Does an entrenched One Party monopoly that is largely funded by those who work for the Government, lead to innovation,reform and a more efficient use of scarce resources? Does it even do a good job of monitoring it's own performance? Democrats denile of being a Machine State is laughable.

Cameron

Posted Tue, Apr 9, 9:49 a.m. Inappropriate

The state democratic party and its functionaries have used their lock on the levers of power around here to incessantly raise regressive taxes. They target the individuals and families in the lower half of the economic power spectrum, and have pushed sales taxes, car tab taxes, motor vehicle fuel taxes, and alcohol taxes here to the highest levels in the country.

What accounts for the state and local democrats' extreme and anti-social proclivities when it comes to taxing policies and practices? They are the antithesis of progressive fiscal policies.

The government heads and their flacks around here don't like that question. That's because the truth hurts.

What fiscal policies here now are is a function of how the corporate lobbyists and public employee union "legislative outreach" teams always push for regressive taxing. The democratic party heads they control in turn march in lockstep to the wishes of those interest groups. It isn't pretty; it's realpolitik.

The token republican party reps play right along . . . their constituents' interests are coextensive with what the democratic party's rich base wants.

Why should the democratic party and its figureheads behave any differently? It's easy to pump up regressive taxes to extreme levels to gain political clout. They just keep dancing with the date that brought them. What's so pathetic is how they aren't able to express any new rationale for their extremist policies -- they still open their eyes wide, wave their hands around, and proclaim "We have to do this because Ellen Craswell was a religious extremist anti-abortionist!"

crossrip

Posted Tue, Apr 9, 9:19 p.m. Inappropriate

A much more fair way of supporting state services would be an income tax. However, the State Republican party and its functionaries have incessantly refused to allow it to come into being.

Sales taxes (which aren't levied on food) are not regressive taxes. Most low-income people can't afford to buy anything except food; people who can make most purchases on-line and pay no state sales tax on those purchases.

Saying the Democrats have a "rich" base is laughable. As far as Ellen Craswell, I don't think most people remember who she was, let alone use her views as a rationale for their views.

sarah90

Posted Tue, Apr 9, 11:39 p.m. Inappropriate

A state income tax would be based mostly on the federal income tax, which is incomprehensible and replete with loopholes and favoritism for the well connected. Washington's voters had a chance to vote for a state income tax in 2010, Initiative 1098, which carried one county (San Juan) and got less than 36% of the vote. Who knew there were so many functionaries of the State Republican Party?

There will be no state income tax until the federal income tax is reformed. If ever.

simorgh

Posted Thu, Apr 11, 10:16 a.m. Inappropriate

A state income tax could be completely different than the federal income tax. You're flat wrong about that. It could be flat tax, imposed only on high-earners with the "kick-in" level indexed for inflation (as one example).

crossrip

Posted Fri, Apr 12, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Washington's voters had a chance to vote for a state income tax in 2010, Initiative 1098, which carried one county (San Juan) and got less than 36% of the vote.

That initiative was flawed. For one thing, it would have led to a lawsuit that would have required the justices to reverse themselves. Moreover, had that initiative become effective in two years the state legislature could have amended the "kick-in" level as low as they chose to go. People didn't want to risk that -- the state democrats are in control and they'd lower it REALLY low. Just look how regressive they structured the rest of the state/local taxing scheme around here.

crossrip

Posted Wed, Apr 10, 9:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Well now, an apologist for the state democrats showed up here, with some garbage arguments:

A much more fair way of supporting state services would be an income tax. However, the State Republican party and its functionaries have incessantly refused to allow it to come into being.

The democratic party has not even tried to implement a fair income tax. Due to a ruling by the state supreme court that construed our state constitution it would take a constitutional amendment. The way to get public support for that would be to set a high-earner’s threashold for individuals, and index it to inflation as part of the amendment. The democrats have not tried that . . . ever. What the state democrats do instead is pump up regressive taxes incessantly.

Sales taxes (which aren't levied on food) are not regressive taxes.

Riiiiight. The state democratic party agents like this one LOVE playing stupid about basic fiscal realities. FACT: the regressive taxes here are taxes on being poor.

This disinformation agent could not be more wrong about the regressive nature of sales taxes. Sales taxes are designed to target individuals and families in the second and third quintiles from the economic bottom. The high sales taxes on clothing (particularly childrens’ clothing and shoes), household maintenance and repair supplies and services, furniture, school supplies, etc. consume a far bigger slice of a poor household’s budget than they do from the rich. The state and local taxing regime the democrats in control here have set into place is designed to hit those with the least disposable income the hardest, especially young families

The following blog entry centers for the most part on the regressive taxing structure in the south, but it’s as bad or worse here:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/09/in-the-south-and-west-a-tax-on-being-poor/

That’s right – the deep south and we have identical -- and extremely UNPROGRESSIVE – policies about taxing. Car tab taxes also are not progressive – they impact those with the least disproportionately heavily.

Saying the Democrats have a "rich" base is laughable.

The WEA, SEIU, urban land speculators, entities that get rich off muni-bond sales and public works contracts, all public employees and their unions, and the rich corporations and individuals benefiting from the status quo ante all are in the state democratic party’s base. They all are filthy rich.

What the democrats here do in terms of serving their rich base is a mirror image of the “progressives” at the national level:

http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/03/15/the-progressive-movement-is-a-pr-front-for-rich-democrats/

The only thing that is “laughable” is how willing this PR agent is to play stupid about this reality.

crossrip

Posted Thu, Apr 11, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Where’d the democratic party PR agent run off to?

Look, “sarah”, here’s some evidence the state democratic leadership intends to harm the least well-off people in this state financially to benefit key members of its base: urban land speculators and the financial beneficiaries of muni-bond sales. The ST2 financing plan – the one that was not even described to the public before the 2008 vote – involves democrats imposing high sales taxes and car tab taxes for four more decades just as security for the holders of long term bonds. Those bond contract security provisions will cost the individuals and families (mostly) around here something like $85 billion in new regressive general taxes through 2053 or so. In constrast, in the three-county region surrounding Portland the individuals and families pay no regressive taxes for their bus and growing train and streetcar system. The difference is attributable to our democrats wanting to enrich Goldman Sachs and its local enablers: some lawyers and financiers like Maude Daudon’s colleagues.

Go ahead, explain why the ST2 financing plan’s heavy regressive tax costs targeting lower-middle class familes most heavily – 99% of which don’t use the trains or buses regularly – is better than the progressive financing plan used in the greater Portland area that employs only a modest general tax on employers. Sound Transit’s financing plan is an all-democrat product. Its architects are keeping it hidden. It primarily benefits rich entities (contractors, financiers, urban land speculators) at a cost to the public of heavy sales taxes for decades.

Stop playing stupid about fiscal realities and explain why you guys think ST2's financing plan is reasonable and fair to the people here targeted by its general taxes.

crossrip

Posted Fri, Apr 12, 1:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Hey democratic party PR agent – where’d you go? Don't cut and run -- try backing up your arguments.

Here’s a recent study saying Washington has the most regressive state and local taxing regime in the country:

http://www.advisorone.com/2013/02/05/top-10-most-regressive-tax-states

The state democratic party leaders caused that. Their tax policies are worse for low-income people here compared to anywhere else in the country. You claim sales taxes are not regressive – that’s an asinine assertion. Stop playing stupid.

crossrip

Posted Wed, Apr 17, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

That democratic party mis-information agent sure disappeared quickly when asked to defend “her” position!

The EXTREMIST democratic party heads around here now are trying to make the overly-regressive taxing regime in this part of the state even worse:

http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2020793800_transpotransitxml.html

Transit is popular. Will the democratic party leadership give voters the opportunity to benefit transit by hiking capital gains taxes on the rich, hiking the B and O tax on rich software developers, internet commerce facilitators, and the private companies getting fat federal government contracts? No way – Dwight Pelz, Frank Chopp and Ed Murray want all regressive taxes all the time. No balance!

Those knobs’ new plan is to hike sales taxes and car tab taxes for transit even higher. That is the democratic party sucking up to its rich base to make those entities richer. The primary beneficiaries of this new round of regressive taxes would be the transit operators union and rich corporations/governments that would get more bus service to deliver cubicle monkeys to them on time in the morning.

Those are the rich groups the democratic party sucks up to at the expense of the lower middle class, the disabled, young families, minorities, and the retired.

crossrip

Posted Wed, Apr 10, 12:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Is "centrism" the same as "middle of the roadism?" Wasn't it Jim Hightower who said all you find there is yellow stripes and dead armadillos?

As for our new Governor, he talks endlessly of climate change yet his preferred response is to build breathtakingly expensive new dams to destroy ancient forests (at Bumping Lake) in order to give more water to Yakima agribusiness so they can waste more. Does good ole fashioned corporate welfare qualify as "centrism?" I suppose it does.

Posted Wed, Apr 10, 2:36 a.m. Inappropriate

How could Gardner have been "a young Bill Clinton's favorite governor?" Gardner wasn't elected governor until Clinton was 38, six years after having first been elected governor of Arkansas himself.

Posted Wed, Apr 10, 2:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Centrism tends to lapse into austerity and continuing inequality with a happy face. Rodney Tom is a stealth con.

Posted Thu, Apr 11, 9:03 p.m. Inappropriate

McCall had "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."

Oregon has a "vibrant economy"? McCall's vision was right that it wouldn't pay off in jobs today. It hasn't. And the citizens of Oregon have certainly sacrificed for "the cause" -- whatever that was.

Posted Fri, Apr 12, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Not sure why you think Oregon has such a poorly-performing economy. If you look at the BLS figures for "U-6" under- and unemployment Oregon and Washington are about the same:

http://www.bls.gov/lau/stalt12q4.htm

Both Oregon and Washington have higher U-6 rates than the national average. You weren't trying to suggest the economy in Washington is better than in Oregon were you? At least in Oregon the government heads don't target middle-class families with the higheest regressive taxes in the country, the way the democratic party heads and their functionaries in this state do.

crossrip

Posted Fri, Apr 26, 11:46 a.m. Inappropriate

The whole idea of centrism becomes lost when the liberals are the conservatives and the conservatives are revolutionaries. There is no center between those trying to preserve an ideal and those trying to destroy it. Teddy Roosevelt lived in the luxurious center between aggressive liberals and cautious liberals in the transition between classical liberalism and modern liberalism. "Moderate progress." As in I believe in justice, just not too much of it too soon. Hogwash, and he knew it.

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