The Disappearing Middle Ground in US Politics

— by Bryan Schwartzman

A rare, borderline miraculous thing happened inside Congregation Rodeph Shalom: a Republican and a Democrat not only jointly identified a political problem, but also agreed upon a set of solutions. Perhaps the true miracle would be if any of their ideas are ever adopted by Congress.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Virginia) and Martin Frost (D-Texas) — former political adversaries — are co-authors of the recently released work The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis. The two former pols addressed an audience of roughly 50 people at the synagogue in a November 8 program sponsored by JSPAN. (A number of organizations and synagogues served as community partners in promoting the event.)

They presented a compelling case that the two parties are being driven further and further apart. Today’s high levels of partisanship, they argued, make it exceedingly difficult for Congress to complete its routine work — such as raising the debt ceiling and passing a budget — let alone reach meaningful compromise on pressing issues such as immigration reform. Hinted at, but never stated outright, was the fear that — if left unchecked — partisanship might threaten to tear the fabric of constitutional democracy.

In his introduction of the speaker, author and historian Dwight David Eisenhower II – grandson of President Eisenhower and son-in-law of President Nixon – called it “the number one constitutional and political issue facing our country today. Call it political dysfunction, call it hyperpartisianship, call it the breakdown of Congress.”

middle_ground_imageThe program was the first part of a two part series called “American Democracy Challenged.” On November 22, JSPAN is hosting another program at Rodeph Shalom focusing on gerrymandering. Speakers will include State Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) and State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Upper Merion). The Philadelphia event came a week into the Speakership of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) who is attempting to bring order to an unruly Republican caucus, and in the midst of an unruly presidential campaign that is defying expectations.

In his presentation, Davis attributed polarization and gridlock to three factors that have largely emerged over the past two decades: unfair redistricting, polarized media and out-of-control political financing.

“Although we have many philosophical differences, in terms of analyzing what went wrong, we share many of the same observations,” said Davis, referring to himself and Frost. “Basically, the middle has gone away.”

Davis, who served in Congress from 1994 to 2008, noted that in most congressional districts, “basically the only election that counts is the primary. The primary is what the members orient their time, rhetoric and voting records to. Primary voters represent an overly narrow slice of the electoral pie. They don’t reward compromise. They tend to punish it.”

Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District

Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district.

Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee between 1998 and 2002, argued that increasingly sophisticated data analytics have allowed state legislatures to make districts safer and less competitive than ever before. He cited Pennsylvania’s meandering 7th congressional district — held by Republican Pat Meehan — as an egregious example of a gerrymandered district. Davis also took aim at a popular target, partisan broadcast media and websites, claiming they proliferate a culture in which talking to the opposition is virtually unheard of. Then there is the series of events, from the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill in 2002 to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, that has allowed wealthy individuals, unions and privately held corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to fund outside groups unconnected to candidates or political parties.

“The point in all this is that voters behave as if it were a parliamentary system, which it is not,” Davis said. “Instead of being the minority party, you are now the opposition party.”

Frost – only the second Jewish congressman in the history of the Lone Star State — presented a series of recommendations that the two have put forth in their book. Chief among them is the idea that Congress might mandate that non-partisan commissions, rather than state legislatures, control the congressional redistricting process. The goal would be to increase the number of competitive races and force candidates to pay attention to centrist voters who value pragmatism and compromise.

“We have a system now, where 80 percent of congressional districts are safe districts,” Frost said.

He also suggested several changes to current campaign finance laws that would require all groups that are spending money on elections to report that spending to the Federal Election Commission. He also suggested that all congressional primaries nationwide be held on the same date, to increase interest in House races and voter turnout. A higher turnout, Frost argued, would curb the influence of fringe groups.

heaven_sakeFollowing the formal presentation, the two former congressmen took a series of pointed questions from the audience. This reporter pointed out that, in the years following World War II, the parties were not necessarily aligned on ideological grounds and it was in fact a bipartisan alliance that for years blocked any advancement on the civil rights agenda. Is it such a bad thing for voters to know what parties stand for and base their vote upon it?

“There is nothing wrong with good, solid parties,” responded Davis:

The real problem today is that the fastest growing group of any electorate is independents. In some states, they are prohibited from participating in primaries, which is the only election that counts. The reality is, you have a system where independent voters are excluded from the process. It de-centers American politics.

In his response, Frost cited Master Of The Senate, the third volume in Robert Caro’s series about Lyndon Johnson. The book describes in great detail how LBJ, as Senate majority leader, wheeled and dealt with members of both parties to pass the first Federal Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction. In the end, he managed to garner more Republican votes than Democratic votes.

“If Lyndon Johnson were in power today, could he do that?” said Frost. “Even as capable as he was, the answer is probably no, because the parties would not cooperate — even on something as important as civil rights.”

American Democracy Challenged: Political Gridlock and What We Can Do About It

The Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) is pleased to host two renowned former Congressmen, Tom Davis (R -Virginia) and Martin Frost (D- Texas) for an in-depth examination of how partisanship has led to Congressional gridlock and what can be done to reverse the trend.

The program will take place on Sunday, November 8, at 2 p.m., at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 615 N. Broad St., Philadelphia.
Davis and Frost are the co-authors of the 2014 book, The Partisan Divided: Congress in Crisis which outlines a bipartisan approach to making Congress more responsive to the needs of the American people. Davis is the former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Frost served as Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Joining forces in an effort “to save Congress from itself,” Frost and Davis argue that the legislative branch is incapable of reforming itself without “a good kick in the seat from the American public.” Together, the two retired lawmakers have developed a common sense, bipartisan plan for making our Congress function again.

The program comes at a time when the leadership of the House remains in doubt and the agenda for the remainder of the 114th Congress’ term is uncertain.

Two weeks later, on November 22, also at 2 p.m. at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, JSPAN will sponsor panel discussions on campaign finance and redistricting/gerrymandering, two of the issues Davis and Frost cite as contributing to the gridlock and hyper partisanship. The panelists will explore how gerrymandering affects the value of each vote cast and therefore voter turnout, and the role money plays in politics, with special attention to local elections. Journalist and professor Dick Polman and State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-King of Prussia) are among the panelists scheduled.
Founded in 2003, JSPAN strives to advance progressive social policies on the critical issues of our time. JSPAN focuses a range of domestic policy issues such as: voting rights and election law, economic justice, race relations, church/state separation, gun violence, reproductive rights, public education, and more—all of which are affected by access to the political process.
We invite coverage of the event as well pre-publicity. Please contact George Stern to arrange interviews with the congressmen.
Event registration is free and can be accessed on the JSPAN website, www.jspan.org.