In search of third-way politics

From its inception, the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus was a coalition of convenience. Two defecting Democrats gave Republicans control of the state’s upper chamber. But neither Rodney Tom nor Tim Sheldon were willing to jettison the Democratic label. And, so, the coalition with Tom as chief, and the patina of a moderate, third-way agenda, was conceived.

It seemed an inspired experiment for a population repelled by partisan clatter. But Tom, who announced that he won’t run for re-election, was a weathervane. A Republican. Then a Democrat. Then a leader by way of a power-sharing canoodle. There always was the subtext of a coalition in name only.

Tom was paired with Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, the de facto message enforcer. It was a humbling, paradoxical job. Tom personally advocated for a range of policies, but his hands were tied, he said.

Tom worked hard. He deserves credit for shepherding issues controversial among Republicans, such as the Real Hope Act. While the Senate punted on a capital budget, it passed an operating budget by a coalition-burnishing 48-1. But not moving on a transportation-finance package was a step backwards.

Washingtonians have horse-sense: If it walks like something it isn’t, and looks like something it isn’t, it isn’t. The curious response is hunger for the authentic: Red-meat Republicans or red-meat Democrats.

Be careful what you wish for. The Senate was a check on Gov. Jay Inslee and a Democratic House, a cudgel to compromise. Today, the challenge is both parties are ideologically rigid, hampered by litmus-test politics underwritten by deep-pocketed interest-groups. Ideological diversity — along with the sensible center where most voters dwell — is the donut hole.

“The purpose of democratic politics is to solve problems and resolve disputes.” E.J. Dionne writes in “Why Americans Hate Politics.” “But since the 1960s, the key to winning elections has been to reopen the same divisive issues over and over again. The issues themselves are not re-argued. No new light is shed. Rather, old resentments and angers are stirred up in an effort to get voters to cast yet one more ballot of angry protest.”

Divided government worked well for Washington’s most accomplished governor, Republican Dan Evans. And Washington even elected a nonpartisan “fusion” governor in John Rogers, author of the Barefoot Schoolboy Act of 1895. But politics are different today. If Washingtonians want a third-way, centrist political movement, it needs to flow from the grassroots, not political expediency.

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