To the middle, not the mattresses

To the middle, not the mattresses
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There is some very wise political advice in a popular song these days: “Oh baby, why don’t you just meet me in the middle?” America is not a country of the right or the left but a country squarely in the middle and, yet, our clickbait-driven world has suffocated the true majority of the country.

The song goes on: “Of just how we got into this mess, got so aggressive. I know we meant all good intentions.” With shrill rallies on the steps of the Supreme Court protesting nominations before they are even made, our politics is becoming almost a caricature of itself. Even the once serious New York Times told Democrats that they should “go to the mattresses” over the Supreme Court nomination, making a reference to the tactics depicted in “The Godfather,” in which rival gangs shoot each other.

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In reality, nearly two-thirds of America in polls support maintaining Roe vs. Wade, which tremendously helped women at a time when back-alley abortions and unwanted pregnancies were commonplace. But today, the abortion rate has been declining to about a third of its 1980 peak, both in states with more restrictive laws and in those with liberal laws, to rates even lower than in 1973. Gallup data shows the public favors unrestricted abortion in the first trimester but would put significant limits in it beyond that point in the pregnancy. In fact, 92 percent of abortions in the United States occur even earlier, in the first 13 weeks, and only 1.3 percent occur after 20 weeks, where many conservatives and most voters would draw a line. Most voters are slightly to the right of the more expansive ruling in Roe v. Wade that allows abortions for any reason up to fetal viability, but a solid majority would not want it overturned.

Overall, though, Americans want judges who interpret the law, not make new law, and in a Harvard Caps/Harris Poll last year, most believed that the judiciary is now acting more on its political beliefs than on the law. After all is said and done, a majority of the public supported the Neil Gorsuch nomination to the Supreme Court, even though only three red state Senate Democrats joined Senate Republicans to confirm him.

Once again, despite all of the protests on both sides, people will take a serious look at Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and come to their own conclusions on his fitness. They will weigh their opinions mostly on his qualifications, listen carefully to gauge his willingness to support Roe v. Wade, and judge how his testimony shows a willingness to do the job fairly rather than based on politics. The public will take the kind of reasoned approach that senators used to take in looking at nominations.

When it comes to immigration, the public also is at a far more sensible place than most politicians. The voters are squarely behind offering work permits and even a path to citizenship to DACA recipients and others here illegally, as long as we do whatever it takes to fix the problem of border security to stop people from coming in on an unregulated basis and to limit chain migration and lotteries. Less than one-third support closing down ICE, and the data makes you wonder what could be behind the left’s new rallying cry, given its very limited support.

Unfortunately, structural problems in our politics have frustrated the sensible center from solving these and other issues. The most vocal Democratic senators are already running for president and falling over themselves to capture the Iowa caucus electorate, one of the most progressive, far removed from the working class Democrats in the big states who wind up with too little say in who will be the next Democratic presidential candidate. While the party is moving to curb the power of appointed superdelegates, it is doing nothing to get rid of the undemocratic caucuses or to change the order of the first nominating states, thus leaving in place a process that gives progressive leftist activists too much power relative to their numbers.

The House Republican Freedom Caucus, on the other end, has for years created a breakdown of the budgeting process plagued by delays, government shutdowns and endless continuing resolutions. We have gotten nowhere in terms of reforming the fiscal process and setting up a capital budget so that investments in the future of the United States are treated differently than transfer payments and government salaries. Only such a budget can identify the true current deficit and encourage the right investments in fixing our nation’s infrastructure.

While 47 percent of Americans approve of the president, only about 12 percent approve of Congress, and today’s legislative leaders are some of the least popular political figures in the country. We have moved to government by executive order and judicial activism because Congress has stopped seeing its job as arriving at fair compromises rather than just punting until the next election. They are locked in a battle to vie for ideological dominance — the one thing that our system of checks and balances is designed to prevent — and the result is deadlock. It is now the fringes of each caucus in Congress that winds up steering the ship rather than a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans.

But most pundits are wrong that the left is set to dominate if Democrats win the House this fall. That may be true in a landslide but, if the midterm election puts the majority within five seats either way, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus is set to force rule changes on both parties that will allow compromise bills to get out of committee and onto the House and Senate floors. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), for all his faults, made one deal after another with President Clinton and together they got things done, such as welfare reform and a balanced budget.

Republicans, who often have been unable to agree upon anything amongst themselves, and the current crop of Democratic leaders have produced a perfect storm of partisanship and gridlock at a time that voters want compromise and action on the tough issues of the day. Nearly 90 percent of the public wants to see them reach a consensus rather than stick only to their principles, according to the Harvard Caps/Harris Poll.

It is this fury over inaction that will be the strongest headwind in this coming election. I believe the candidates in swing districts who pledge to work across the aisle will be the ultimate winners, regardless of their party affiliation. It is not a time for the extreme right or the extreme left, but a time most voters want, on issue after issue, a swing to the middle.

Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.