By Tom Baxter

Commenting on the Republican primary loss earlier this month of his friend, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, former Sen. Sam Nunn bemoaned the lack of political passion which he says is eroding the middle ground of American politics.

“The people who I call the common-sense middle are largely absent in the active role of the political – whether it’s fundraising or get-out-the-vote — and that’s a big part of the problem,” the former senator from Georgia, who worked across the aisle with Lugar to create a program for the elimination of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, told the AJC. “People on the extremes have every right to exercise their voice and pocketbook, but the people in the middle should as well.”

This failure of the middle to rise up can’t be blamed on a lack of money or media attention, as attested last week by the collapse of Americans Elect, the latest in a series of well-funded, high-profile attempts to gin up interest in a third-party, middle-ground presidential candidate. Americans Elect had ballot access in more than half the states, but it couldn’t generate enough interest in an online nomination process to justify holding an online convention.

Starting at the top with a presidential candidate is probably a strategic mistake, but pretty much any attempt to ignite the compromisers from the top down is doomed to failure. The word “bipartisanship” involves two parties, and until the two parties embrace it again as a political virtue, it has little chance of revival.

One of the costs of such sharply divided politics is a poisoned legislative system.

“I don’t think any normal human being would really like being involved in politics as combative and often hateful as politics is now,” Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), a 16-year veteran, told Politico in a recent survey of members who are leaving the U.S. House.

Miller blamed the Republican leadership for attempting to frame bills in a way Democrats will object to, fanning partisan flames. But Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), one of the most relentless conservative warriors in the House, voiced a similar distaste in discussing his reasons for leaving.

“There have always been aggressive campaigns on both sides and even within your own party, but it’s much more difficult than it used to be,” Burton said. “You feel like no matter what you say it’s going to be twisted around and changed.”

What’s remarked less often is the effect the decline of bipartisanship has had on the failure of political imagination. Much of the real political innovation of recent decades has come not from the idea factories of the left or the right, but from the ability of reasonable people, unencumbered with ideology, to understand an unmet need. Left to their own devices, neither party would have originated Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Nunn could speak without exaggeration when he said in a statement that the world is a safer place because of Richard Lugar. He deserves more credit than he got for his 1996 run for the Republican presidential nomination,  not for his skill as a candidate but for the imagination he showed in his platform. His ideas about taxes anticipated the Fair Tax Movement of coming decades, and he was the only candidate, not only in that presidential election but the one after it, to talk a lot about terrorism and the need to prepare for it. Lugar was thinking primarily about the dangers of nuclear terrorism, the issue on which he forged his bond with Nunn, but if more people had listened to him in 1996, the nation might not have been caught so unprepared five years later on 9/11.

Richard Mourdock, the Republican who handily defeated the 80-year-old incumbent, promises to be far more predictable if he’s elected this fall. He said in a recent interview that his idea of bipartisanship was getting the Democrats to come around to the Republicans’ way of thinking.

Mourdock’s comment is unfortunate because it shows the intractability of the current political impasse, but understandable in the political situation he’s in. It’s dangerous because it’s dumb, and it would be if the parties were reversed as well. There are too many challenges in the unfolding century more complicated than the platform language of either party to allow our elected officials to effectively run on automatic. But finding the “common-sense middle” to change the prevailing drift will be hard to do.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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