Column originally published in the Tampa Bay Times.
Back in the old peewee football days, when giants were prized more for their mettle of heart than measures of height, strategy emanated from a two-play playbook. It was either “student body right” or “student body left.”
Coined half a century ago by the John McKay-led USC Trojans and professionally pioneered by Vince Lombardi’s legendary “Packers sweep,” this football tactic was wonderfully simple: choose a direction, and everyone moves together, in unison, as a force of one.
Fast forward to the whipsawed world of Washington today, where policy paralysis is chronic and political games are a constant sport.
On this man-made playing field, patrons in skyboxes only want to know which team you play for, what side you root for, what politics you stand for.
Are you conservative or liberal, frugal or fiscally carefree, Trumping or Trump dumping, voting Gorsuch or no such?
No wonder health care reform today has an erratic pulse, new infrastructure is without structure and purported Russian meddling has created a cottage industry in Web-fueled espionage and Ushankas (those fabulous fur hats).
In the campaign world, the fundamental strategy behind winning a competitive race is to enrage the base, entice the middle and captivate the media (while alienating your opponent from all three) — an electoral ballet choreographed as sincere and presented as truth.
In reality, it is nothing more than the art of political jiu-jitsu, a sport that rewards uber partisans and ideologues with a seat at the table while showing the door to those daring to occupy the center of the playing field.
When fully deployed in the world of governing, civic and civil discourse gives way to round-the-clock one-upmanship that only succeeds in paralyzing our government, freezing our leaders and bartering away our future.
That helps explain why both major political parties, empowered through an electoral monopoly grown more entrenched over time, increasingly nominate contenders more extreme and out of the mainstream than ever before.
Sadly, closer to the middle is where the majority of the American people are, where relative consensus on hot-button issues from abortion to the environment finds common ground, where the answer to systemic gridlock and mediocrity can be found.
In short, the nation’s hallowed ground has always been found closer to the 50-yard-line, where champions tread and patriotism grounded in character makes its bed.
Meet America’s team, devout centrists who lean conservative on economics, express tolerance on social issues and are unapologetic about balancing principles and perspective, innovation and ideology. They shun the push for winners versus losers, or us versus them. They root only for us.
These Americans, from every end of the demographic spectrum, have been ignored, defiled and forsaken by the loudest voices on the right and left, and by media focused more on documenting the nation’s schisms than her altruisms.
E.J. Dionne, in his still-timely tome Why Americans Hate Politics, referred to this team as “tolerant traditionalists” — conservatives, moderates and liberals who favor strong families, balanced budgets, conservative values and enough government to ensure health care, child care, senior care.
Yet today voices on the dueling fringes dominate the debates, television news commentaries and conversations around the nation’s dinner table. These politicians are made to be the stars of the democracy show, full of colorful voice and venom, driven by mediums that feed on it.
At the same time, the majority of Americans are left frustrated by the parties, the system and by a game that somehow seems to have left them on the sidelines, unused and unappreciated.
It’s time to proclaim they play for America’s team. Insist that rhetoric give way to remedy, that outrage be tempered by the ability to achieve outsized achievements and that when you play for this team it’s not red versus blue, but red, white and blue.
Do that, and we fill a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court left vacant for more than a year due to fissures and threats of filibuster.
Do that, and the infrastructure gets a true 21st century makeover, the border-that’s-not-a-border gets fixed without delay, affordable housing becomes more affordable and jobs are repatriated back into the U.S.A.
Do that, and we get to cheer again, believe again, understand again that no power on Earth can rival a democracy bred from sacrifice, built on selfless courage and grounded in freedom.
Instead of both ends against the middle, it’s time to cheer for the middle if we have any hope of achieving our ends.
Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in Tampa and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.