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The Hole in the Center of American Politics

Republican politicians who don’t support Donald Trump have made starkly different choices over the last five years.

Some, like Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have tempered their criticism of the 45th president — opposing him at times, while accommodating him at others in service of their partisan objectives.

A smaller coterie of others, like Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, have opposed Trump vigorously — in her case, voting to impeach him and helping lead the House investigation into his conduct on Jan. 6, 2021. On Thursday evening, Cheney will again take center stage as the Jan. 6 panel holds what is expected to be its final prime-time hearing of July.

As Peter Baker writes, Cheney and her allies are betting that history’s judgment will eventually vindicate their choices, while insisting that her motives are not political.

“I believe this is the most important thing I’ve ever done professionally,” Cheney told Baker in an interview, “and maybe the most important thing I ever do.”

Thus far, however, the accommodationists have carried the day. McConnell worked closely with the Trump White House to stock the federal judiciary with more than 200 conservative judges, realizing a decades-long project that culminated with the hard-right transformation of the Supreme Court and the reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Republicans are also poised to retake the House in November, and possibly the Senate, even though the official organs of the party have rallied behind Trump and, in the case of the Republican National Committee, helped pay his considerable legal bills.

Still, Trump’s consolidation of the base of the Republican Party — the MAGA die-hards who wouldn’t blanch if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, proverbially speaking — has left a vacuum at the center of American politics that both parties have jostled to fill.

Democrats seized the middle in the 2018 midterms, retaking the House by focusing on kitchen-table issues like health care, while setting themselves up to win full control of Congress two years later. Republicans have countered this year by seizing on inflation and various cultural issues in an attempt to portray Democrats as out of the mainstream.

One reason behind all this political volatility: College-educated suburban voters have bounced around from election to election, making that bloc a kind of no-man’s land between two entrenched camps.

Vacuums like this always attract political entrepreneurs, and there has been a flourishing of activity aimed at these voters. On Politics has covered a lot of that new energy over the past few months, from new parties popping up to megadonor-backed independent ballot initiatives to cash-flush super PACs mucking around in Republican primaries.

In previous years, groups with names like “No Labels” and “Third Way” have claimed the mantle of political centrism. But partisan voters have generally scoffed at those efforts, suspecting them of being Trojan horses for corporate donors. Other centrist initiatives, like the anti-communist, pro-labor group Americans for Democratic Action, faded in influence as their historical moment passed.

David Greenberg, a historian of American politics at Rutgers University, said there was a “huge number of people who are disaffected from where the Democratic Party seems to be going,” along with the exhaustively documented and better organized never-Trump Republicans.

But he noted that structural impediments like the Electoral College had made it difficult for third parties and other groups to establish themselves, even when voters seem sympathetic to their arguments.

On occasion, charismatic figures like Theodore Roosevelt, who ran for president in 1912 under the banner of the “Bull Moose Party,” have tried to galvanize the middle of the electorate and run against both poles. More often, though, attempts to break Democrats’ and Republicans’ chokehold on the system have foundered owing to a lack of strong leaders.

Greenberg marveled at the irony, too, that so many Americans now feel that the two major parties have been driven to appeal only to their respective bases.

“If you really go back historically, it was thought that our two-party system itself was a bulwark against extremism,” he said — as opposed to multiparty systems in places like Weimar Germany that allowed radical groups to assume power without ever commanding a majority of voters.

One of the more interesting centrist-y experiments out there is happening in Missouri, where a former Republican senator, John Danforth, is backing an independent candidate for Senate, John Wood. A former Danforth aide, Wood was most recently a prosecutor on the Jan. 6 panel.

In an interview, Danforth said his goal was to provide an alternative to two major political parties that, in his view, have each gone off course in their own way.

“The problem is not just in Trump or the Republican Party,” Danforth said, though he said he was disturbed that Republicans were attacking the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and of court cases ratifying the results.

“But on the other hand,” he added, “we have identity politics, we have the cancel culture. We have the whole sort of presentation of America as oppressors and victims. And that’s not healthy, either.”

“The whole point of this campaign is: We have to heal the country,” Danforth said.

A consummate Republican insider, Danforth grew up in elite circles in St. Louis and attended Princeton University and Yale Law School, where he also picked up a master’s degree in divinity. After a stint in corporate law, he was elected state attorney general, then became a senator at the dawn of the slow Republican takeover of Missouri politics.

At a time when politicians tend to find more success by railing against Washington elites, Danforth, 85, is an unapologetic defender of the old ways of doing business. He was especially offended by the storming of the Capitol, an event that led him to break with Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri politician he mentored and helped usher into office in 2018.

Supporting Hawley, Danforth told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the freshman lawmaker greeted the Capitol mob with a raised fist on Jan. 6, was “the worst mistake I ever made in my life.”

And while Danforth professed optimism about Wood’s chances, which most Missouri political analysts rate as poor, he said he felt compelled to try.

“We are not a corrupt system,” he said. “We are not a system that people should attack, either in the Capitol Building or by this take-up-arms view of politics. That’s why I’m doing this. I have to do it. You know, I just feel that I must.”

— Blake

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