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The Middle Road to Nowhere

Former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold on when not to make a deal.

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Illustration by Tony Millionaire  

When I was growing up in Janesville, Wisconsin, my parents had hung a painting of FDR with an inscription to the effect of “Never was one man loved by so many, and hated by so many.” I often puzzled over that inscription, but I am puzzling no more.

One of FDR’s enduring strengths was his rejection of ideological constraint. He sought solutions that could actually address problems, no matter where those solutions might sit on the political spectrum. But freeing oneself from ideological restrictions is not the same as seeking the middle ground. Today, many prominent elected officials, as well as a few prominent editorial pages, tend to celebrate the centrist path no matter the policy outcome and condescendingly reject ideas championed by those they believe occupy a less moderate position.

That is utter nonsense. The test of an idea is not whether it belongs to the political left, right, or center. The test of an idea is whether it will work. Yet too many of our nation’s current political leaders seem to be captives of a kind of political GPS system, programmed to seek either a specific set of principles laid down by a fervent base or, alternatively, a political middle ground whose inhabitants observe profoundly that “both sides dislike it, so it must be right.”

A favorite and related concept of these same sages is that of bipartisanship, but for them bipartisanship is not so much members of different parties’ hammering out meaningful solutions as it is a group of middle-grounders who can be relied upon to embrace impotent proposals. To many in the Beltway, bipartisanship itself has become its own hollow ideology.

True bipartisanship, of course, can be a powerful engine of pragmatic solutions. The campaign-finance reform I constructed with Senator John McCain was a classic, substantive measure that certainly did not adhere to any one ideology. And in my eighteen years in the Senate I was privileged to participate in several other serious bipartisan endeavors. But we shouldn’t confuse real efforts at cooperation with those that cloak the inadequacy of a middle road to nowhere with the label of bipartisanship. They may make some editorial boards happy, but they won’t get the job done.


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