To be moderate is often held up as the paragon of modern political virtue.
With apologies to the bard, today's narrative argues that: to be uncompromising is to err, to be moderate is divine. But what does it mean to be moderate in today's parlance?Pundits bemoan the defeat of moderate U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. Lugar explains his loss as a great defeat for moderation, but what does that mean? What do these moderates actually stand for?
Contrary to the conventional "wisdom," moderates are often the problem in Washington. Often these moderates represent what is wrong with both parties, not because of what they do or don't believe in, but because of how they will tend to "compromise."
Democrats champion expanded social welfare spending over defense spending. Republicans champion tax cuts and limited social spending and blank checks for the military.
Moderates support all of the spending. Instead of being moderate, these middle-of-the-roaders actually have embraced an extreme of fiscal irresponsibility by voting for the wish-list spending of both parties. By refusing to stand up to any spending, they have been the core of the problem in Washington.
So don't believe what you hear from most talking heads: Bipartisanship and moderate influences are the defining characteristic of the Congresses and administrations that ran up our $15 trillion debt.
One media figure does have it right, though: George Will noted in a recent column, "Bipartisanship, the supposed scarcity of which so distresses the high minded, actually is disastrously present."
So, if you're worried about trillion-dollar annual deficits, you should worry about having too many moderates in Congress, because their bipartisan love fest too often results in the big spending programs of the Democrats and the Republicans.
Does this mean we shouldn't attempt to find compromise or attempt to reach across the aisle? Absolutely not, we should seek to work together, but let's not create some Pollyanna myth that moderates who vote for all spending programs are the answer. In fact, the compromise that is necessary is exactly the opposite.
We need to compromise and restrain both domestic and military spending.
You can work across the aisle and still not forsake one's principles. For example, I have worked with Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico on issues such as speeding up the end of the Afghanistan war and in defeating encroachments on Internet freedom (SOPA).
I put a legislative hold on a pipeline regulation bill because it grandfathered in the old pipelines, precisely the pipelines that had led to fatal accidents. I took abuse in the media for this hold, abuse that no "moderate" would likely have withstood, but in the end, Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Dianne Feinstein of California and Barbara Boxer of California compromised with me to get rid of the exemption for older pipelines and within weeks the new testing detected a deadly weakness in a pipeline that had already killed eight people.
I requested to travel with the president to discuss ideas for finding revenue to repair and replace our aging bridges in Louisville and northern Kentucky. I told the president I would work with him to find money in the budget for infrastructure.
Moderates love not to make waves, to vote for everybody's bills. Maybe what we need are principled legislators who read the bills and then stand their ground until the bills are made better.
But what of the heralded compromise? Is it true that the tea party won't compromise? To compromise you need to have the other side present a position. For example, Social Security has a $6 trillion shortfall over the next several decades. To save Social Security, we will need entitlement reform. I have offered a reform bill that gradually raises the age of eligibility and means-tests the benefits. My bill saves Social Security and makes it sound forever.
Democrats have offered no entitlement reform. In fact, Harry Reid doesn't even agree that Social Security even has a problem. Would I compromise in the details about how we fix Social Security? Yes, but the Democrats must first admit the looming insolvency and promote a reform in order for us to have a dialogue, in order for us to find middle ground.
The budget debate is similar. I have proposed a budget that balances in five years. The president's budget never balances and adds $11 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years. Senate Democrats have offered no budget and voted unanimously against the president's budget. Will I compromise on how long it takes to balance the budget? Yes, but the Democrats must acknowledge that the budget must be balanced and that it must occur with a finite future, at the very least within the lifetime of the current legislators.
Moderation is valuable but only if you choose the best of both parties' platforms, not all of the above.