Does “centrism” have a future in Northwest politics?

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

Mike Lowry (1993-97) was the closest to being an outlier — an old-fashioned liberal Democrat who lasted only one term. Still, it should be noted that even he campaigned with a no-taxes pledge (which he broke) and a pledge to be business-friendly. Even recent GOP gubernatorial candidates Dino Rossi (twice) and Rob McKenna have attempted to move middle-ward — or appear to — running closer races than farther right Republicans.

Our new governor, Jay Inslee, slides somewhere between the moderate template and Lowry. He's another liberal Congressman with a hedged no-new-taxes promise (extending taxes, he's okay with that). He embraces green-tech companies and promised to make Olympia more businesslike by introducing lean corporate management practices, a staple Democratic pledge from Gardner on. But the jury is still out on Inslee. We'll know a little more how to measure him after he signs his first budget.

The trick will be whether or not he, like McCall, will be able to bring people along with him. The current experiment in "centrism" in Olympia, the so-called Majority Coalition Caucus ruling the state Senate, reveals the potential of centrism to turn toxic. The handing of so much power to a minority party defeated in recent elections at the legislative and executive levels opens a Pandora's box of resentments.

Medina's Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-Apostate Rodney Tom, who led the Senate coup, seems like he has decided to take to heart Teddy Roosevelt's message about fervor. The emphasis is mostly on fiscal restraint and education reform, and creating a "predictable" business environment — issues which can cross party lines. But Tom himself realizes that he's out on a wire without much of a net. As he told the Association of Washington Business, "If I was doing this for political ambition, I must be an idiot because I have no clue going forward how this works."

But working — effectiveness — is central to the centrist argument. Suzan DelBene, the Democrat who represents Washington's new Congressional swing district, the First, has to walk a fine middle line. She comes from the Eastside's Points communities and part of her district overlaps with Tom's. I asked her if she thought Tom's senate strategy was effective. "Has it broken gridlock?" she asked. "It's about the person with the ability to get things done."

One drawback of the experiment — in addition to the fact that committee extremists now control the Senate agenda — is that, unlike with McCall or Evans or Gardner, the vision is missing. If sacrifices must be made, how will we bear them and to what end? What will austerity mean? What advantage is there of "living within our means" if the people with the most means don't bear their share of the burden?

Simple fiscal responsibility does not make a full argument. Nor does it reflect the nature of Washington’s electorate, a beast-with-two-minds that, say, votes for teacher raises, but provides no way to fund them. That requires a stronger picture of future outcomes. McCall, for example, promised voters a vision of a cleaner, progressive future in exchange for restraint today. He, Evans and Gardner were superb communicators. Though they weren't always successful — Gardner specifically said he was held back by his distaste for Olympia trench politics — all three wove a kind of tapestry of a smarter, cleaner and attainable future that connected with people.

In the absence of vision, with ill-will generated among former allies and the problematic exercise of trying to lead from a legislative seat rather than the governor's chair, it's natural for people to wonder about hubris, ego and cynicism. The Senate tactics have turned eyes to a rogue majority leader without a party. With a budget to hammer out in the next few months, one wonders if we'll continue to see ugly sausage-making or whether some kind of new, forward-thinking moderate core (or corps or corpse) will emerge.

In the shadow of giants like Gardner, McCall and Evans, and with budget challenges ahead, the stakes for centrism's future as an effective, guiding political principle are high.

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