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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 24, 2005

Moderate no longer dirty word

By John Griffin


One memory of my days on the editorial pages is of a radicalized veteran in the 1970s who came in to argue about issues of the day. Finally, he said in exasperation:

"You know what you are? You're just a moderate."

I then considered myself a quiet liberal, but in retrospect, he was right.

Add to that a comment from an activist woman friend who concluded one long discussion we had by saying: "A zealot you will never be."

This comes of mind now because it seems to me that moderation might be on the verge of edging back into style, even in this period when conservatives seem to dominate in national politics and most headlines focus on the far right-left and red-blue battles.

Some hopeful evidence I see:

  • That bipartisan group of 14 U.S. senators who broke ranks with party leadership and fashioned the compromise that headed off a ban on filibusters while allowing three of President Bush's controversial appellate court appointments.

    Of course, those nominations were just a warm-up for battles over U.S. Supreme Court nominations. Still, it remains a ray of hope.

    And Bush's likely home run appointment of the conservative but respected and seemingly reasonable Judge John Roberts to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the high court is being cast in the spirit of relative moderation — and thoughts that it could have been much worse.

  • The praise heaped on O'Connor for being an influential moderate on the court was widespread, indicating how her nonideological centrist positions were vital and also struck a chord with the nation at large.

  • A Pew Research Center poll earlier this year showed 39 percent of Americans identify themselves as independents while Democrats were 31 percent and Republicans 30 percent. Of the situation, the Economist magazine said:

  • "The most striking fact about American politics is the disjunction between the opinions of ordinary Americans and the behavior of the political elites. Most Americans have fairly centrist views on everything from multilateralism to abortion. They like to think of themselves as 'moderate' and 'nonjudgmental.' "

  • President Bush, whose celebrated base is the far right, has managed to turn off increasing numbers of moderates and thus decline in the polls — to the point where one shows that centrist former President Clinton, for all his flaws, would beat him in a race today.

  • Of the national situation, liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote: "American moderates may not be screaming but they are in revolt. Many who reluctantly supported the president and Republicans in 2004 are turning away. The party's agenda on Social Security, judges and the Terri Schiavo case is out of touch with where moderate voters stand."

  • The Christian evangelical right has been a Bush asset that too many Democrats underestimated. But even there, you can see signs and stories about the religious right and left meeting in the middle to show faith can be a uniter rather than a divider. Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks suggests there could be "a natural alliance" between evangelicals and American liberals to fight poverty at home and abroad.

    So, what is a moderate these days you might ask?

    Columnist Dionne put it in this context: "Politics these days is said to be dominated by ideological enthusiasts. Moderates are thought of as people who sit on the sidelines and decide which batch of true believers they can most easily live with."

    While I appreciate the role of the political parties, I also feel they have become overly partisan clubs serving their special interests and often beholden to extremists. Moderates won't eclipse the parties, but they can stress a problem-solving approach above lock-step partisanship, as did those 14 senators.

    For the more activist-minded, there is the thought offered by author John Avion, a former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani, who writes that, far from being the death of dissent, centrism is itself dissent from outdated political extremisms. That still leaves room for moderates taking strong, reasonable stands where appropriate.

    Now these rays of hope for more moderation and compromise may turn out to be a false dawn amid escalating partisan warfare in Washington.

    The Bush people may be poor at governing, but they are usually skilled at tough political fighting. The divided Democrats are still a minority in search of stands more positive than being against Bush. The wars on terrorism and in Iraq and Afghanistan remain wild-card factors.

    Here in Hawai'i, it seems the transit tax compromise was a plus for both Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and majority Democratic legislators. More of that might be good for everybody's election chances next year — but I suppose that's the moderate in me coming out again.

    In any event, nobody's battle cry is likely to become: "Now is the time for all good people to stand up and compromise."

    Still, it's good to see more recognition that moderation can help the yin of realism balance the yang of idealism. We need both — and we need good people willing to speak out for the middle.