Sticks in the mud. Overly cautious. Obstacles to progress.
That’s how I’ve tended to view political moderates – especially those in my own party. As a 30-something state legislator (1999-2005) deeply committed to individual liberty, limited government and personal responsibility, I often grew frustrated with moderate Republicans who always seemed to move too slowly toward those goals.
I remember telling Republican activists: “The most significant legislation often passes by the narrowest margin” and “nobody is motivated by moderation.”
Today, as progressive Democrats, and some Republicans, say many of those same things to drive moderates to the sideline, my exasperation with “centrist” lawmakers has evolved into grudging admiration — at least for those willing to stand strong for their beliefs. When emboldened, centrists in both parties serve an important function that benefits the vast majority of citizens who aren’t died-in-the-wool Republicans or Democrats: they slow the pace of change.
In a country as evenly and fiercely divided as ours has been for at least 20 years, the public shouldn’t be subjected to political whiplash when a few thousand votes in a handful of states narrowly shift power from one party to the other.
Convincing a skeptical centrist to support legislation can be like reasoning with that relative or neighbor who picks apart every one of your ideas but ultimately makes them work better. Accommodating centrists can be the difference between governing by executive order – which may last only until the next election – and actually passing legislation into law.
In Colorado where Democrats control the executive and legislative branches, some new legislation and ballot initiatives are so odious and disrespectful to small business and rural voters that local governments responsible for enforcement have simply decided to ignore the law – taking a cue from Democrats who govern “sanctuary cities” and refuse to enforce immigration laws.
The governing majority could help restore civility if it simply practiced what it once preached about respecting the rights of the minority and refrained from making every progressive policy into a statewide mandate. Although the bulk of Colorado’s population clusters along the Front Range, those who live in the other 90 percent of the state’s land mass deserve deference.
Is it so unreasonable to craft compromises that are mutually beneficial so the majority rules but minority concerns are accommodated? Some will call this “selling out.” But it’s the same “horse trading” that routinely results in win-win agreements in our personal and professional lives, making America different from countries where majority rule is absolute and minority views are crushed.
For example, large majorities of Americans favor both secure borders and legal citizenship for those who came here illegally but have lived in the U.S. productively for many years. Republicans generally oppose the citizenship component, while Democrats oppose an impervious border. Today, we have the worst of both – a border disaster in every sense.
Likewise, voters overwhelmingly want our elections to be both convenient and secure. Republicans are slowly accepting early or mail-in voting with proper safeguards. However, Democratic politicians protest that requiring voter identification will result in vote suppression – though it hasn’t suppressed legitimate sales of beer, tobacco or legal drugs.
In each case, it’s extreme partisanship that prevents government from giving most voters what they want.
Statesmanship is what we once called the art of understanding what’s important to others and helping them achieve those ends without violating our own principles.
It is even possible for people — including politicians — from opposing parties to build genuine friendships yet remain true to their beliefs. President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill famously regarded each other as friends despite political disagreements. Finding true friends in the opposing party makes it easier to apply the Golden Rule: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
That doesn’t need to change what we believe about important issues, but it should deter a scorched-earth, win-at-all-costs thirst for political power which only leads to more bitterness, resentment and deepening divisions.
Mark Hillman, a Burlington Republican, served as Senate majority leader and Senate minority leader in Colorado's legislature. To read more or comment, go to www.MarkHillman.com.