The idea that a few independent centrists in the US Senate could block the worst hyper-partisan legislation is a great medium-term goal, and should work sometimes. Ultimately though, we need more than just a few votes – especially if we want it to do more than just stonewall the worst legislation or be a ‘caucus of no’.
The Centrist Fulcrum Strategy – Our Medium Term Goal
I’d heard of the concept now called the ‘fulcrum strategy’ before, but Charles Wheelan’s book ‘The Centrist Manifesto’, 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 (and then some).
There is nothing faulty about the concept itself, and the core concept it 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 pass better, bipartisan 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 goal really is to be fairly represented in government and see good centrist ideas passed into law.
Three Centrists Aren’t Enough
The most frequently used number when discussing the centrist fulcrum strategy is that we just need three for it to work. Just the other day, an independent running for congress (who I’m a fan of) echoed just that view:
We do need more, agreed! But 3 could eliminate at outright majority in the Senate, and that would stop the bleeding
— Eric Agnew (@EricAgnew) December 2, 2017
The problem is that 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.
The reality is that we’re not going to get people who 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 centrist independents and moderates who have a tangible policy lean toward one side or another on some issues.
The example of Maine’s Senior US Senator, Republican Susan Collins, illustrates the need for a certain amount of padding if we really want to block virtually all of the worst legislation. Collins’ voting record and public stances on the issues show a mix of centrist/moderate and conservative views, so naturally she’s going to end up not voting the way we’d like on issues where she’s more conservative than centrist.
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 not just near-perfect centrists (I wouldn’t even fit into that narrow of a label).
We’re going to have members that part ways rightward with most centrists on issues like guns, abortion and taxation – the latter being an issue where Collins clearly has a conservative streak. Similarly, we’re going to have members that part way leftward on issues like healthcare, education and spending. 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 partisan legislation. 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.
Saying that the fulcrum is our medium term goal in no way diminishes its importance. It’s just that the ultimate / long term goal is for the American political center to be fairly represented in government, not to accept a level of permanent under-representation that allows us to block the worst partisan legislation sometimes, and maybe get the occasional centrist clause written into law.
When a doctor treats someone with deep wounds, they first have to stop the bleeding, and before you get to play offense, you first have to succeed at defense and get the proverbial ball back. That’s what Wheelan’s centrist fulcrum is, and we should to focus on it – for the time being – for the same reason… but keep going after that.
A few votes isn’t enough for Wheelan’s fulcrum to work consistently, and it can’t be the end goal – it’s the bridge to a future where we, and our views, are fairly represented.