The idea that a few independent centrists in the US Senate could block the worst legislation is a great medium-term goal for centrists, and would work under ideal situations. Ultimately though, we need more than just a few votes – especially if we want it to do more than be a ‘Caucus of No’.
The Centrist Fulcrum Strategy – Our Medium Term Goal
I’d heard of the concept often now called the ‘fulcrum strategy’ before, but I believe Charles Wheelan, in his book ‘The Centrist Manifesto‘, may have coined the phrase. Certainly his subsequent writing and media appearances, as well as The Centrist Project (dark money group that supports independents running for office) organization he launched have definitely done more to convince people of its merits than everyone else put together.
The core concept is sound. A few centrist votes in the US Senate could block either side from a majority, block them from pushing through hyper-partisan legislation and contribute to the passage of better, less partisan legislation. But some of the claims made in support of it don’t add up, and the lower the number of votes, the less likely it is to work consistently – especially if you want to do more than just stonewall.
And that’s really the goal here, isn’t it? We can’t just settle for creating a ‘Caucus of No’ – the ultimate goal is to be fairly represented in government and see them pass good centrist ideas into law.
Three Centrists Aren’t Enough
The most frequently used number I see when people are discussing the centrist fulcrum strategy is that we just need three for it to work in the US Senate. Just today an independent running for congress predicted that just three would “eliminate” an outright majority and stop the bleeding. The problem is that this is only true if those three always vote how we want them to, and three is enough to keep both sides from a majority.
We can’t count on either of those things to be true. Three wont always be enough to keep both sides from a majority (we can’t predict which party will lose seats to them, nor the overall balance of power), and said fictional two (on top of the reliable junior Senator from Maine, Independent Angus King) wont always vote how we want them to. Just like Democrats and Republicans have different factions under their tents, we’re going to have a mix of centrists and moderates who have tangible policy leans that lead to them voting differently than we’d like sometimes.
The example of Maine’s Senior US Senator, Republican Susan Collins, illustrates the need for more padding than the narrow margin of error three provides if we really want to consistently block all of what most in the center would consider bad partisan legislation. Her vote for the GOP tax bill was disappointing, but not surprising.
We’re Not Centrist Zealots, but Rather a Big Moderate Tent
A (thankfully) pretty widespread view among centrists and moderates is that we shouldn’t build a tent that is as narrow and rigid as that of the Democrats and Republicans. If we’re going to succeed in electing people to high office with any regularity, we can’t be centrist zealots – we need a tent welcome to more than near-perfect centrists (I wouldn’t even fit into that narrow of a label).
We’re going to have members that part ways rightward or leftward with most centrists on issues like guns, abortion, healthcare, regulation and taxation – the latter being an issue where Collins just displayed a conservative streak. Counting on 100% unity in votes is neither reasonable, nor realistic.
This is why we really need closer to five or six votes for the fulcrum strategy to work consistently in blocking bad partisan legislation. With that amount there is virtually no chance the terrible legislation that passed the Senate 51-49 earlier today would have passed. It’s also probably the bare minimum needed to have enough influence to move beyond merely blocking bad legislation, into joining with legislators on the left and/or right to craft and pass legislation with more than a marginal amount of our ideas in the mix.
When a doctor treats someone with deep wounds, they first have to stop the bleeding. That’s where we are right now, and while we’ll need far more than even five or six to have our views fairly represented in Congress, stopping the bleeding with Wheelan’s centrist fulcrum is something worthy of some of our focus, regardless of whether those that make up those ~5 votes are independents, or come up through one of the centrist parties forming and growing around the country.