I hate to break this to my fellow progressive-conservatives, but those of us who believe in progressive social values and conservative economics won't have a presidential candidate who satisfies us next November.
Barack Obama made noise about going this way in 2008. But the president has embraced the progressive part of the code more than the conservative side. He even has gone populist.
And Republicans, wow. They're bent on electing a candidate who'll satisfy the conservative economic part of the equation but completely reject the progressive aspect. No compassionate conservatism or McCain-like independence this time around.
But those who want a humane immigration system, stronger public schools, a place for gays in the military — plus debt reduction, entitlement reforms and private-sector-led growth — need not sit out this cycle. Progressive-conservatives can start now to create an agenda that would encourage fellow travelers to compete in future elections. It also would allow the numerous current officeholders who are quiet about their center/right beliefs to come out of the closet.
Patience is needed. But not too much patience. We need to muscle our way into the conversation with smarts and strong policies. We don't need placards and screaming, but we can make the case for a politics of the center with relentless consistency.
That starts with using the off-year to develop a "muscular middle" agenda. Here are a few suggestions:
Press for better public schools: Partner with civil rights groups and business leaders who, like us, believe Washington should hold local schools accountable. The Obama administration started strong in this direction but has faded, and Republicans are distancing themselves from federal involvement altogether.
By standing up for testing that shows whether children are learning at grade level, prog-cons will stand on the side of minority students whose public schools have left them behind. But accountability isn't enough. Also delve into what makes schools work, starting with how districts develop principals and teachers as leaders — and retain them.
Welcome immigrants: The top goal is immigration laws that create more permits for foreign workers to come here legally and a process for illegal immigrants to become citizens. But that priority has been hard to achieve and will be until at least 2013.
So, start working with churches, schools and other mediating institutions to integrate the many immigrants from Latin America into our culture. The school part especially matters.
In states like Texas and California, Latino students are the dominant demographic group. But they often trail their Anglo peers. This gap needs attention so young Hispanics don't end up in a parallel universe. America needs them becoming inventors, doctors and executives.
Let the private sector grow jobs: Obama had to stimulate the economy, but he relied too much on government to grow jobs. Better to let the private sector lead. The place to start is the energy industry. Numerous states have natural gas reserves. Push for access to them — and press producers to invest in environmental technologies.
Also, flatten the tax code. Create two rates, scrap many exemptions and lower firms' cost of capital. America may not rebound immediately, but an efficient tax code could stimulate growth.
Go gonzo about the debt: Progressive-conservatives should hope Congress' super committee succeeds in reducing the debt by $4 trillion. But even if the panel hits a homer, entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security need attention.
Former GOP Sen. Pete Domenici and former Clinton adviser Alice Rivlin have the best Medicare idea. Keep traditional Medicare for seniors who want it, but give others a voucher they could use to buy private insurance. The choice model could control costs.
The 2012 race may be less than satisfying for those of us who lean left on cultural issues but right on economics. But this is the time for the muscular middle to create its future.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News.
© 2011 Dallas Morning News