Opinion: Senate’s centrists must take the lead in restoring bipartisan consensus

Listening to the TV talkers and the purveyors of conventional wisdom, the conclusion is clear: The defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in a recent Republican primary represents the death of the middle in American politics.

Our politics has for the most part always been played between the forty-yard lines. Unlike a parliamentary form of government where the majority party has all the power, our system is designed to be incremental — and it usually is.

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As a consequence, it is almost always necessary to include the minority party in any action that is going to actually lead to governance, especially if the act contemplated affects a significant number of Americans.

This means that if there is no middle ground, nothing happens. Big issues of significant national concern go unaddressed.

The question arises therefore as to whether, in today’s climate, members of Congress can move to the middle and still get re-elected. This is the point emphasized when pundits expound upon the Lugar loss.

If you look at the House, the claim seems to have some validity. The majority of House districts are now gerrymandered by party. This means that to get elected and stay elected a member of Congress must retain the support of the most activist membership of his or her party. These are the people who show up and vote in primaries.

In these districts, winning the primary is winning the seat. The only way a member from a politically gerrymandered district can lose is if they cross the aisle and work with the other party on core issues of concern to the base.

In the Senate, on the other hand, uncompromising purity of purpose is not an operative course. Senators must be elected statewide; primaries are important but not determinative in most cases. As has been shown in the recent losses of candidates chosen for their appeal solely to their party’s base in states like Delaware and Nevada, independent voters rule the roost in most general elections.

In addition, because of the sixty-vote rule in the Senate, it is rare for the majority party to have enough votes to govern without the involvement of some members from the minority. This is healthy for the country, as it requires that major issues involve some level of bipartisanship. There are fewer times when the majority overwhelms and suffocates the views of the minority.

In the Senate today, as in the past, there is a strong and working middle. Take the Gang of Six as an example. Members of that gang such as Sens. Dick DurbinDick DurbinLawmakers eye early exit from Washington Senators crafting bill to limit deportations under Trump Warren pushes Dems to get tough with Trump MORE (D-Ill.) and Mike CrapoMike CrapoEx-Im faces new problems with Trump GOP debates going big on tax reform Top Banking Dem pushes back on Trump Dodd-Frank 'dismantle' MORE (R-Idaho) are men of deep ideological purpose. But they are also committed to getting things done rather than simply standing in their corners and shouting. 

Lugar’s loss will not affect the energy of this group or its basic attitude which, in fact, is shared by many more than six senators — perhaps as many as 40. They understand that, in order to govern, they must reach agreements with members of the opposite party on issues like entitlement reform and tax reform, albeit without giving up their commitment to their core beliefs. This is the way our form of checks-and-balances government is supposed to work.

This brings us back to the intractable nature of the gerrymandered House. What would be required to re-establish a working middle that could govern there?  Tip O’Neill, the Speaker in the 1980s, ran the House in an even more partisan and less tolerant way than it is run today. But on major issues like Social Security reform and tax reform, bipartisan consensus was reached and important action that addressed critical issues facing the nation was taken. 

The opportunity is also there today. First the Senate needs to develop effective solutions that come out of its working middle at least on fiscal issues. Second, the president must lead. The House will participate if the other two branches of government show the path.

Unfortunately, just the opposite is happening. The House keeps putting up ideas but they are couched purely in partisan terms and rhetoric; the Senate cannot reach consensus; the president has disappeared.

Most Americans want a government that works. Partisanship cannot fulfill this need in the end because it cannot lead to effective governance in our constitutional system.

The American people understand this, which is why their level of frustration with Washington is so high right now. Many members of Congress, to be fair, understand this too. 

Yes, reelection is important. But what is the point, if you do not govern once you get there?

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations. He also is an international adviser to Goldman Sachs.