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Parties play to extremes; voters left stranded

(Originally published July 20, 2011)

The coverage of Betty Ford’s funeral last week pushed my thoughts back to the mid-1960s, when I ran the Capitol Hill congressional office of Rep. Paul Todd, Jr., D-Kalamazoo.

Those were days when Rep. Gerry Ford, R-Grand Rapids, was on his way up in a career that would ultimately take him first to the position of House minority leader, then, unexpectedly, to the presidency. Meanwhile, his Democratic colleague, Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, was on his way to becoming first a powerful committee chair, then the longest-serving congressman in U.S. history.

Those were also the days when Ford and Dingell might fight like cats and dogs on the floor of the House, yet, when the day was done, they’d kick back over a drink. Ford used to call his favorite martini a “mart.” And those were days when Democrats and Republicans might disagree occasionally on what needed to be done and often disagree on how to do it. But they were united in feeling a deep responsibility to get things done to serve the national interest.

So I was touched at the news that Mrs. Ford had asked National Public Radio reporter Cokie Roberts to speak at her funeral of the days when politics “was a sport, not a blood sport.”

Roberts’ father was Rep. Hale Boggs, the House majority leader when Ford was minority leader. No matter how strongly they might disagree on the floor, they stayed friends off it.

That’s not saying they were selfless angels. Those who ran for office did so out of personal ambition, to be sure. But they also ran because they had an instinct to serve -- a wish to get things done.

Most of them also knew that getting things done in a democratic system requires all participants to compromise. “If you want the whole loaf, you’re likely to wind up with no loaf,” was the catchphrase. Compromise might be arduous and aggravating, but they knew it was necessary to get the things done that needed doing.

Sadly, those days now seem to be gone. Dingell tells me the atmosphere in Washington is pretty close to partisan paralysis and the worst he’s ever seen. Nor do you have to possess his expertise to have a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach about our nation when you look at the astonishingly juvenile bickering going on in Washington.

Why has this happened? Much of it is due to fact the leaders of both major parties think their top priority must be stirring up their respective bases. That means constantly agitating each side’s highly motivated, bitterly partisan activists who are deemed so necessary to win elections.

My estimate is that each party has a base that is no more than 15 percent of the total population. That leaves something like 70 percent of us in the middle, rolling our eyes at all the partisanship and feeling increasingly divorced from the political scene.

This is potentially destructive to democracy. To many, it seems each party is interested in a sort of pointless and repellent ideological self-strangulation. Here’s a current example in Michigan:

Last week, the Republican caucus in the state Senate met with Gov. Rick Snyder to talk about its interest in “social issues,” such as partial-birth abortion and the disposition of fetal remains.

According to the MIRS news service, Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, urged Snyder to support legislation that “would appeal to the base,” whipping up activist enthusiasm and loyalty. The governor reportedly responded: “My agenda is jobs.”

The governor is where the voters are. Every poll I’ve seen shows a vast majority of Michigan citizens are far more interested in jobs than in partial-birth abortion policy. Too often, the knee-jerk reaction of many politicians is to focus attention on wedge issues that are of little interest to the silent majority -- but of intense concern to a few activists.

A result of this behavior is the parties’ loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of citizens, who mostly want practical, common-sense solutions. And our democratic system is jeopardized by pushing out those who aren’t fierce partisans.

Sometimes party leaders act like this is what they want.

Republican National Committeeman Saul Anuzis argues, for example, that independent voters shouldn’t participate in the 2012 Republican presidential primary election. “I think Republicans should nominate Republicans and Democrats nominate Democrats. (Independents) don’t want to be part of a party, so they shouldn’t be part of the nomination process,” said Anuzis, again according to an article in MIRS.

So he seems to be saying that ordinary citizens (otherwise known as independent voters) should simply stand aside while the rabid partisans choose two candidates at either extremes. Then, maybe, the rest of us might be allowed to pick between the two.

That’s not my idea of democracy. What worked so well for years was the acceptance of the necessity of compromise.

But today, a current rigid ideological insistence on both sides threatens to lead to a wholesale, highly dangerous withering of public confidence in the way our democratic processes work.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at

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