CNN | 3/23/2019 | Listen

What happened to the middle in American politics?

Updated 8:00 AM ET, Fri March 15, 2019

(CNN) - Would you rather have a President who didn't do anything that the vast majority of the country didn't want -- or a President willing to do something very few Americans agree with but in which he or she believes absolutely?

President Donald Trump is bucking overwhelming public opinion, Congress and a large chunk of his own party to do an end run around Congress and find money that some say the Constitution suggests he shouldn't have to build a wall that less than half of Americans want built. He doesn't care; he's promised to veto the latest roadblock, put in his way by Democrats and a dozen fellow Republicans in the Senate who on Thursday rejected his national emergency declaration.

Square Trump's monomania with Beto O'Rourke's effervescent sort-of centrism built around nothing in particular. Climate change? Maybe. But what about it? The what wasn't clear in O'Rourke's announcement video, despite its pleas for togetherness and urgency.

"We are truly now, more than ever, the last great hope of earth," the former Texas congressman said. "At this moment of maximum peril and maximum potential, let's show ourselves and those who will succeed us in this great country just who we are and what we can do."

He's a 46-year-old blank slate and, perhaps, a cipher, which can be an advantage in politics. Wall aside, Trump found a way to be on multiple sides of many, many issues in 2016, and then he became President.

Short of a full-scale agenda or an organizing ideological principle, O'Rourke has been cast into the middle lane of the Democratic primary. He's voted with Republicans in the past. He's not in favor of a Sen. Bernie Sanders-style "Medicare-for-all" plan that erases the private insurance market, but he has expressed support for the principle of Medicare-for-all. So has Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who has chosen not to sign on to Sanders' proposal, nor has she endorsed the Green New Deal, both of which are becoming litmus tests for Democratic candidates in the eyes of progressive activists.

On the Green New Deal, which has so many progressives excited by the idea of tying the importance of addressing climate change to social efforts like a federal job guarantee, O'Rourke said Thursday, "I haven't seen anything better that addresses this singular crisis we face, a crisis that could at its worst lead to extinction."

Subtext: We're facing extinction here and he hasn't seen anything better. What's HIS idea?

Under questioning from Iowans during his first day on the campaign trail, he did inch toward some specifics.

There's an argument here that O'Rourke is being Obama-esque in his acceptance of a host of other ideas. Policy, after all, is built on what can pass Congress. The Green New Deal likely can't, as we'll soon learn when the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, holds a show vote to get Democrats on the record about it. Republicans will then use it to argue Democrats are moving toward socialism. Just wait.

A voice that is more clearly defined than O'Rourke's and more clearly in that middle lane is that of former Vice President Joe Biden, who is still "considering" a run for president. In a much-scrutinized speech to a group of firefighters in Washington this week, Biden was calling for Americans to talk to each other and to compromise.

"Mean pettiness has overtaken our politics. Today we seem to be at each other's throat. Sometimes it seems like we can't govern ourselves or even talk to one another -- if you notice, I get criticized for saying anything nice about a Republican," Biden said. "Folks, this isn't who we are. This isn't how we got here. We have to remember what it is that makes this nation so special."

Biden, who was a senator for decades, is a master of compromise. But he's learning this year that compromises don't always age well. He was a driving force behind the now-maligned 1994 crime bill, which has led to overcrowded US prisons and sentences seen as unjust. But Biden will point out that the bill was the product of compromise that also begat the Violence Against Women Act.

O'Rourke doesn't want to be mean, either. Told by CNN's Jeff Zeleny of Trump's remarks about his "hand movement," he wouldn't respond in kind.

"Oh did he? Ha, ha. I have nothing to say to that. I think people want us to rise above the pettiness, the smallness."

Howard Schultz took the very un-Trumpian and frankly un-politician step of admitting a mistake and apologizing effusively Thursday. He had said that he had more interaction with the military than any other candidate, although two Democrats, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, served in the military and in war.

Schultz tweeted: "I apologize to @PeteButtigieg and @TulsiGabbard who served our country honorably. In that moment I made something that should unite us all, about me. I made a mistake and I apologize."

But while he's quick to apologize, the coffee baron and former Starbucks CEO does not have a defining political issue other than being a centrist and not being in a political party, which he says are driving the country apart.

His latest pledge as a potential centrist independent candidate is to do nothing unless more than two-thirds of Americans agree with it.

Which could basically mean doing nothing in Washington, where the center feels frozen in place.

It's a place where things like gun legislation that enjoy bipartisan support cannot seem to pass the Senate.

Where the vast majority of Americans think the children of undocumented immigrants should not be kicked out of the country but instead should be offered a pathway to citizenship -- and yet there has been no workable solution presented that can satisfy both sides.

Where there's broad concern about the health care industry and the cost of health care and very broad opinion that Americans should have access to a public health insurance option -- while none exists. But many Democrats in Congress are moving toward Sanders' version of Medicare-for-all, which enjoys less support.

Until Trump took the country on an adventure of ideology and remade the Republican Party, every recent president had tried to govern from the middle.

President Barack Obama accepted a less-than-perfect and certainly not progressive health care bill to get something done on the issue. President George W. Bush tried to sell compassionate conservatism and an overhaul of immigration law. President Bill Clinton triangulated between the parties and revamped welfare.

A great question to be answered in 2020 is whether the country wants to return to that sort of leader, who speaks to a moderate middle of Americans.

The energy in the Democratic Party seems at this moment to be with progressives who want bold new social programs that Republicans fear are socialist.

In the GOP, the energy is with Trump, who wants to stick it to the entire system of government, which he thinks is rigged against him.

If those are the options, there's not much room for a middle.


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