Los Angeles hosted an unprecedented conference of Republican and Democrat leaders this week, meeting in this year before the election for an unusual purpose. They didn’t gather to discuss not how to claim America’s votes as though they were the rightful property of one political party or the other but, instead, this group proposed that this nation be governed for Americans – not its ruling political classes.
The roster of speakers at the University of Southern California’s Ceasefire! conference on bridging the political divide had the superstar status worthy of its location: the new Creative Artists Agency headquarters in Century City. Talking heads Juan Williams of Fox News, Jay Carney and Lawrence O’Donnell of the McLaughlin Group, Michael Kinsley of Slate.com and former Bush advisor Matthew Dowd were but an intermezzo between appetizer courses of mayors Michael Bloomberg of New York (who has left the Republican party) and Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and Governors Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.
Despite their party affiliations – Villaraigosa and Napolitano are Democrats, Schwarzenegger a Republican and Bloomberg an independent having been a Republican and a Democrats – the themes of the four speeches given by the state and local leaders were remarkably similar: if Washington is going to be paralyzed by gridlock in some many important policy arenas then it is up to the states and cities to take leadership on setting policy and taking action on the pressing issues of the day: immigration, health care and global warming (or climate change).
As Villaraigosa, a Democrat, said, “State and local leaders are moving the needle on big issues because we are daring to think and dream big. We’re doing so across party lines. We’re doing so by refusing to trim our expectations or to hedge our bets,” he said. “Like generations of Angelenos before us – we are imagining a brighter future, and we are building it. And I believe, like cities around the country, we’re demonstrating that it’s possible to create a different kind of government – one that is both fiscally responsible and socially progressive.”
Fiscally responsible and socially progressive – that sounds a lot like the agenda of Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promotes an agenda of economic and social freedom.
The California Governor pointed to the debate over immigration as a clear area where a post-partisan agenda would shun the extremes and build compromise. Advocating that politicians “re-introduce the concept of the mainstream,” Governor Schwarzenegger laid out a simple compromise for immigration reform in his keynote remarks, “How about being realistic and just solving the problem? There’s a totally reasonable centrist approach to the issue, and it is this; secure our borders while at the same time recognizing the economic and social reality by providing a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for those already here, and who meet certain criteria, like pay a fine for coming here illegally, learning the English language, and being law abiding citizens.”
If starting to build bridges across Washington’s partisan divide sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve heard it before.
At the end of the day, however, a Post-Partisan approach to governing will only work if it can translate into a post-partisan way of running for elected office. With the exception of Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in 1984, most Presidential races in recent memory have been won by single digits. As Bush Strategist Matthew Down pointed out, when all you need to win office is 51% of the vote, why spend the money to win with 61%?
This economical approach to campaigning leads candidates to win by ungovernable majorities which, rather than bring the nation together, split us apart. And it’s not like Dowd doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He perfected the practice of micro-targeting for politics – and got George W. Bush elected. Twice.
The partisan campaign starts with an established base of voters, then slowly tries to add to it to reach 51%, adding incrementally to the number of voters as the campaign wears on. By contrast, a post-partisan campaign, like that of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, embraces the center of the political spectrum and establishes itself as the only viable alternative for his own party’s base. It’s “put up or shut up” to some extent and while some politicians might think they have the skill and the courage to run such a race, they often take the easier course. Why? Well, it works. Unfortunately it also results in the election of poll-conscious politicians who cater to their parties’ extremes instead of attempting to forge workable compromises.
In California, the number of voters choosing not to affiliate with any political party has climbed 50% in the last eight years making it the third largest political group in the State. As more and more Americans abandon political labels and consider themselves members of neither the Republican nor Democratic Party – just as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has done – it’s possible that a post-partisan approach to politics will become the only winning strategy. And we can finally bridge America’s political divide, where action is valued ahead of posturing.
But that day may be some time away. If Americans don’t abandon their partisan affiliations, what looks like positioning for an “independent” bid is more likely to land Michael Bloomberg in the crossfire of American politics than on the front porch of the White House.