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October 21, 2013

A man of the new American Center

INDIANAPOLIS — U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly likes to joke that the way he learned to embrace negotiation and compromise was by growing up in a big family where everyone had to give up something for the common good.

“I’m the fifth of five kids,” Donnelly says. “If I didn’t act that way when I was growing up, I wasn’t going to get dinner.”

As the second oldest of 10 siblings, I can relate. When you have that many people coming to the table, nobody gets everything they want.

So the Democrat Donnelly contends he’s a centrist by nature, which is how he got involved with the bipartisan “gang of 14” moderates that worked quietly behind the scenes to forge a framework leading to the deal that re-opened the federal government late Wednesday.

Details of Donnelly’s involvement emerged in a Washington Post story published last Monday. In it, the writer described the group as “not the Senate’s usual impact players.”

Five of the 14 — Donnelly included — are in the first term in the Senate. A place, the writer went on to say, where “traditionally, time turns into power at roughly the speed that dead plants turn into oil.”

Donnelly isn’t claiming he has the power to end the powerful polarizations that define Congress these days. But he and his fellow compromising compatriots may be onto something when they claim that Americans want them to seek more answers in the middle.

A new Esquire-NBC News poll released last week found that more Americans are in the vast middle than on the narrow sides of left or right. Among the interesting findings of the study: Centrists disagree with each other on a multitude issues, but their disagreements come in moderate degrees and not in big yawning gulfs.

The new American Center, for example, supports abortion rights but thinks they should be limited to the first trimester. They support gun rights, too, but think expanded background checks are okay. The Center favors government intervention that ensures everyone has their basic needs met and has a fair shot at earning a decent living. But they’re also tired of what they see as too much government intervention in people’s personal lives.

“For a generation, our trusty labels liberal and conservative have been adequate to the task of describing our differences on these and just about any other issue,” the poll editors write. “Our culture wars have always been fought with the language of politics, but now the language itself is broken, the labels are meaningless, and our normal tools for understanding ourselves are hopelessly outdated.”

The editors contend that “seldom has there been a time in which the extreme partisanship of Washington has been more disconnected from the actual national mood and values.”

One reason: Just like my big family that has a hard time organizing an event where everyone shows up, the American Center lacks the organizing principles to form the critical mass needed to elect centrists to Congress in significant numbers.

Still, the magazine editors conclude that the data show there are millions of American voters — even a majority — who are passionate about issues, can be persuaded in their beliefs and are very real in numbers: They are merely waiting for the power brokers in Washington to find them.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at statehouse_ bureau@indianamediagroup.com.

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