In Search of the Political Middle

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Sue Ogrocki / AP

David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma and former Democratic Senator

At the very moment when public attention was centered on the unexpected New Hampshire primary results, a bipartisan group of current and former lawmakers asserted this week that the future of the United States is at risk on an alarming range of deepening domestic and national security fronts and warned that neither party is truly wrestling with the scope of the problems.

The group, which included seven Democrats and six Republicans who have served as governors, Senators and Congressmen, listed eight challenges facing the next President. Convened by former Oklahoma Senator David Boren, the bipartisan group included former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. While the meeting drew attention for its discussion of a possible third-party candidacy in the 2008 election, the panel's most valuable contribution was that way it detailed — and did not sugarcoat — the nation's challenges over the next decade. Amid a campaign that is often criticized for shortchanging voters on a substantive discussion of the nation's problems, the panel's harsh diagnosis of the nation's prospects is worth reading.

The problems, said the panel, are as follows:

"Approval for the United States around the world has dropped to historically low levels with only one out of four people approving of our country's actions, even in nations that are our longtime allies.

We have eroded America's credibility and capacity to lead our urgent global and foreign policy issues, including terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, climate change and regional instabilities.

Our budget and trade deficits are out of control. We're squandering our children's future.... The ominous transfer of our national wealth has made our economy vulnerable, and our economic strength and competitiveness are both declining. Middle-income Americans are struggling to keep their jobs and their homes and educate their children.

We're not as secure as we should be. Our military is stretched thin and our nation remains vulnerable to catastrophic terrorism.

We are being held economically hostage because we have no energy policy worthy of its name.

Our educational system is failing to prepare our children to succeed in a globalized and technological world.

Nearly 50 million Americans remain without health insurance, and the cost of medical care continues to spiral.

The failures of bridges in Minneapolis and levees in New Orleans are harsh metaphors for the reckless neglect of our infrastructure."

After convening for two days to discuss these ways the country is "in danger," the group issued a statement urging the two parties to move past bipartisan games and instead work together to unravel the policy and political knots that have paralyzed Washington.

As difficult as the problems are to solve, the panel went further and said the eight problems were "uniquely interlocked" — meaning that it would be hard to solve one without dealing with the others. "You can't, for instance — if you take an issue like energy — talk about energy without talking about the environment, without talking about economics in this country, without the future and so on," said former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman. "One is linked to the other." She added that none of these challenges could be met without two-party teamwork.

John Danforth, former Missouri Senator, said that U.S. politics is plagued by "one-upmanship" and a tendency by both sides to appeal to their loyal and often uncompromising flanks, rather than the political middle. The sessions in Oklahoma were "intended to be a catalyst for people in the center of American politics who believed that they had been marginalized," said Danforth, a Republican. The bipartisan group urged candidates in a statement to "go beyond tokenism to appoint a truly bipartisan cabinet with critical posts held by the most qualified people regardless of their political affiliation."

Attending the sessions in Oklahoma was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, thought by many to be considering a possible presidential run as a third-party candidate. The Los Angeles Times reported that Bloomberg has begun investing in nationwide polling and voter analysis to explore what it would take to mount a third party candidacy. During the panel's meetings this week, Bloomberg dismissed such talk. "I'm not a candidate, number one. I am a former businessman and a mayor" — hardly a Shermanesque denial.

But one panel member said that a third party race would not be necessary if the parties nominated candidates who appealed to the middle and faced the nation's problems squarely. "The more successful the two-party candidates are at engaging independent voters," said former Colorado Senator Gary Hart, a Democrat, "the less reason there is to have an independent candidacy."