If there were a legislator’s bible, one proverb in it would be, “Blessed are the majority-makers, for they give us the keys to the kingdom.”
The majority-makers are those legislators in the House and Senate who come from swing districts. They don’t always vote with the majority of the majority, because they can’t if they want to stay elected.
The majority that treats that majority-makers with great respect, tends to their needs with care and feeding and tries to find compromises with them at crucial points in the legislative process will last long.
The majority that treats the majority-maker with contempt, that calls them names like squish or sellout, that runs primary opponents against them to “keep them honest” will be a minority in short order.
Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) is a majority-maker. His brand of Republicanism does not always reflect the philosophy of the majority of his colleagues. He is pro-choice. At times, he has been pro-labor. He is an appropriator, so he wasn’t always with the team when it came to spending. But Specter’s political philosophy reflects his state and his region.
My old boss, Denny Hastert (Ill.), recognized this dynamic better than most. He worked hard at listening to the concerns of the moderates and the conservatives, and he hammered out compromises big and small throughout his four terms as Speaker. He used to jokingly say that his job should have been called “Listener” instead of “Speaker,” he invested so much time listening to both sides of every debate.
But somehow, as with every majority, the center could not hold. And Republicans lost their majority when they started treating the majority-makers with contempt. You can trace it to one particular issue: when Tom DeLay (R-Texas) called the House back into session to deal with the Terry Schiavo controversy. No single issue more alienated moderate Republicans, especially in the Northeast. Combined with the increasing unpopularity of the Iraq war, Schiavo put many moderates on the defensive. Scandals, a struggling economy and the Bush administration’s ratings put them out of their misery.
In the first congressional term of the Clinton administration, Democrats did the same thing to their majority-makers. They made them walk the line on a House vote on the BTU tax, an unpopular provision that that raised revenue from all kinds of energy sources. That provision died in the Senate, but the vote severely weakened many Blue Dog Democrats. They were finished off by an effort to more strictly regulate gun ownership — popular in the big cities, but deadly in rural America. They treated their majority-makers with contempt, and as a result, they lost their majority in 1994.
Today, Republicans and Democrats both seem intent on treating their majority-makers with equal contempt. Republicans organizations continue to threaten to run primary challenges to those who don’t toe the party line. Democrats seem inclined to push a left-wing agenda on issues like cap-and-trade, energy taxes and unpopular spending programs that already are making moderate Democrats nervous about facing their constituents a year from November.
The center is the biggest voting bloc in America, but it is one of the curiosities of the political system that it is largely unrepresented by either party, treated as pariahs by the bases of both and as a nuisance by the respective leaderships.
As Yeats said in his epic poem The Second Coming, “the center cannot hold … the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” While the vast middle go about their lives, paying little attention to daily fights in Washington, lacking the passionate intensity of the political fight, the wings fight a vicious war of attrition, calling each other names and tearing away at the fabric of our democracy.
When Rahm Emanuel, now the White House chief of staff, was tasked with the seemingly formidable challenge of taking back the House for Democrats, he actively recruited candidates who fundamentally disagreed with him on many of the key political issues of the day, such as abortion, guns and spending. His No. 1 concern was whether they would win their elections and then vote for the Democratic candidate for Speaker. His strategy paid off, as the Democrats took back the House with legions of majority-makers who had little in common with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Ask Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) if he agrees with Pelosi on anything, and I guarantee he will respond with a quick no.
Heath Shuler is a majority-maker. Arlen Specter is a majority-maker. To win a majority, you need majority-makers. They won’t always agree with you, but if you treat them with respect, they will give you the keys to the kingdom. If you treat them with contempt, you will give the keys to the kingdom to the other side.