Joe Manchin’s plans to travel the country to see if he can tap into the great middle of America that is fed up with the extreme politics of both parties will be an interesting exercise. Polls indicate there is a large portion of Americans who think, as Manchin does, that they no longer fit in the Democratic or Republican parties.
Let’s say Manchin is right, and a large swath of America wants an alternative. Getting people interested in, or at least open to, a third way will be the easy part. Getting on the ballot and then winning electoral votes will be really hard, since our political system is structured around the two party system.
But there is another problem.
A candidate who represents the Great Middle—Manchin, Larry Hogan, John Huntsman or whomever—cannot run successfully on the “I’m-just-as-fed-up-as-you-are” platform. That may be enough to get voters motivated initially, but those same voters will then have legitimate policy questions.
Imagine a town hall meeting of voters who consider themselves part of the Great Middle. The candidate—let’s just say it’s Joe Manchin—is giving a passionate stem-winding speech about how the two parties have gone to the extremes and our politics are broken. The folks in the hall are energized and nodding in approval. They occasionally break out into applause.
Then comes the time for questions, and this is where it starts to get tricky.
The first questioner wants to know what the Great Middle’s position will be on abortion. Manchin blanches a little. He always wants to find a way forward, a compromise, a bi-partisan agreement on issues, but how do you do that on abortion?
Next question, please.
What’s the Great Middle’s position on immigration? Will the U.S. still welcome asylum seekers? What should be done about the more than 11 million people who are in the country illegally? Will the Great Middle’s candidate support a pathway to citizenship or is that amnesty?
Manchin knows just saying “citizenship” or “amnesty” carries political risk.
Another questioner is worried about the debt, stating accurately that neither party has been willing to do anything about it. Meanwhile, Social Security and Medicare are headed toward insolvency. Manchin tries his best to explain that some tough decisions are going to have to be made.
But the questioner persists. Shouldn’t the Great Middle Party, which wants truth, not pap from its politicians, be willing to say that the retirement age is going to have to be raised or that the cap on income will have to be raised?
Manchin takes a deep breath. He knows, as everyone does, that the current path of these third-rail programs is unsustainable, but he also understands that voters really don’t like hard choices, especially if they are going to directly affect them.
Another questioner follows up, arguing that most Americans would be willing to pay more in taxes if it meant lowering the annual deficit. Some in the audience groan, while others cheer. Manchin takes a quick glance at his watch, and he realizes the town hall is scheduled to last another hour. For a split second, he imagines being back on his boat in Washington.
I’m making all this up, and at Manchin’s expense, but it is to make the point that the Great Middle is comprised of a lot of different views. Their commonality is their frustration with our tribal politics and the inability of Washington to solve major problems.
The two major parties do not have big tents anymore; they have litmus tests. They have become exclusionary, and that frustrates some voters and drives them away. But that frustration by itself may not be enough to unite a cohesive movement.
Many voters say they want an alternative to Biden and Trump, but they may want to fill that void with their own idea of who that alternative should be and where they will stand on the pressing issues of the day. What happens when their fantasy bumps up against a real person with specific policy positions.
That’s when we’ll find out if there really is a politically viable Great Middle.