Front Lines of Partisanship

With Dr. Charles Wheelan from Unite America

episode artwork for the purple principle season 1 episode 2, titled the front lines of partisanship with charles wheelan. features dr. wheelan's photo and the purple principle logo
Season 1, Episode 2

In Episode 2, our guests include a former Republican speechwriter, a former centrist Democratic congressional candidate, a former Economist Magazine correspondent, a current Professor of Public Policy (Dartmouth College) and the founder of the non-partisan group, Unite America….

Lots of guests for one podcast? In fact, all of these perspectives come from a single featured guest, Dr. Charles Wheelan (a.k.a. all of the above), who has been working to overcome partisanship and legislative gridlock in the US for three decades. 

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Entertaining, articulate and insightful, Wheelan relates how his centrist orientation left him stranded on the American median strip as the country polarized. He describes awkward silence during his own Democratic primary addresses when raising such issues as merit-based teacher pay and entitlement reform. And he details the recent strategic shift at Unite America away from supporting independent candidates and toward supporting moderates from both parties in the 2020 Congressional primaries.  

Tune in for an expertly guided tour along the Front Lines of Partisanship with Charles Wheelan. 

Original music composed by Ryan Adair Rooney.

Robert Pease (narrator)

Does your world sound like this too much of the time?

Voice Collage:

More extreme… They call it polarizing… Point right there, right… Transcend partisanship… Deeply divided…as deep as it gets… Get the problem solved… We don’t talk about politics…

Robert Pease (narrator)

If it does, and you’re not exactly fond of that, then you’ve come to the right podcast. This is Robert Pease, creator and producer of The Purple Principle, a podcast for independent-minded Americans about polarization in US politics, society, and just plain daily life. Our guest today, Charles Wheelan, has been working to bridge the partisan divide in this country for nearly 30 years, as a writer, teacher, organizer, and political candidate, as well as founder and co-chair of Unite America. This bipartisan group is currently working to elect moderate candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties in the 2020 elections.

Charles Wheelan

I think one of the scary things going on here is you’ve got a lot of different forces at work. Anyone who’s been watching TV for more than 15 years knows that’s new, the rise of television news, where you pick your ideology; the rise of social media, where not only are you hearing the echo chamber, but also think about something like gerrymandering. Now, big data allows us to gerrymander better than we used to, which means more safe seats, which means the primaries matter more. They’re more expensive races. Who do you get the money from? The people who are the most extreme. Every single force that is going on is pushing us apart. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

We hear an awful lot in this country about Democrats versus Republicans, red versus blue, liberal versus conservative, but not much about people in groups trying to bridge the divide. Reporter Crocetti Crocetti and I sat down with Dr. Wheelan at Dartmouth College, where he currently teaches public policy.

Emily Crocetti (interviewer)

So I guess we can start from the beginning. If you could just walk us through how your interest in politics, and specifically independent politics, first started?

Charles Wheelan

After Dartmouth, I traveled around the world, wrote articles for the Valley News, which is our local newspaper, and realized first that my interest was policy. When I got back from traveling, I sought out a political job, but only because that’s where policy happens. And I became the speech writer for Maine’s governor John McKernan.1 He was what I would describe as a New England Republican – the breed that’s more or less been hunted to extinction.

Robert Pease (narrator):

“Hunted to extinction”… that sounds like a bit of an exaggeration. But at the beginning of the 1990s, moderate Republicans in New England and throughout the country were often tagged with the term “RINO”. As in “Republican In Name Only”.2 Then they were hunted from the Republican right during primary season, and the Democratic left during general elections, if they survived the primary. We asked Emily Crocetti and fellow reporter Mike Valeri to research their demise.

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (02:58):

Okay, Michael. So let’s try to figure out what happened here. How many moderate New England Republicans held Senate seats when Charles Wheelan says the RINO hunt began in the late 1980s?

Michael Valeri (reporter):

It looks like about five,3 including Lowell Weicker4 of Watergate fame in Connecticut, who lost reelection that year. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

And Jim Jeffords from Vermont who wins election, but becomes an independent in 2001.5 

Michael Valeri:

So by 2000, we were down to three.6 Then Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island loses in 2006,7 and John Sununu of New Hampshire in 2008.8 Judd Greg of New Hampshire also retires in 2010.9 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

As does Olympia Snowe of Maine in 2012, citing hyper-partisanship in the Senate as the reason.10

Michael Valeri (reporter):

Today, then, in 2020, just one RINO left: Susan Collins from Maine, who may not win reelection.11 So, nearing extinction. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

We went from five moderate New England Republicans to one, or even none, in three decades. Enough to change the balance in the Republican caucus.

Robert Pease (narrator) (03:51):

Over the same period, our guest Charles Wheelan went through changes of his own. Remember, he started out as a Republican speech writer in 1989, then served as an Economist magazine correspondent and got his PhD in public policy. Then, in 2008, he seized on a new opportunity. 

Charles Wheelan:

I was teaching policy at the University of Chicago, still very engaged in policy, when Barack Obama was elected. He appointed Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff.12 And that opened up a congressional seat. It was my congressional seat. It was the depths of the financial crisis, 2008. And I decided, as somebody who cares about policy, who’s written about economics for lay audiences, who was living through the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, that I should run for Congress. At that point, the Republican party had moved far, far away from what I remembered in Maine. I ran in the Democratic primary.

Robert Pease (narrator) (04:44):

And run Charles did, though you might say that he swam for that congressional seat as well. In this campaign ad, Wheelan is floating in a tank of water while delivering this campaign pitch. 

Charles Wheelan (archival audio):

“Underwater. That’s where a lot of us are financially thanks to the Bush administration and greed on Wall Street. But I can do something about it. I’m an expert in economics, not a professional politician. Together, we’ll be like a breath of fresh air in Congress. I’m Charles Wheelan. And I approve this message.” 

Robert Pease (narrator):

The campaign itself did not go so swimmingly. Wheelan ended up finishing sixth in that Democratic primary, with 7% of the vote.13 We asked why he thinks his candidacy failed to stay afloat. 

Charles Wheelan:

My wife was on her way to becoming a charter school teacher. And I can only tell you that running in a Democratic primary when you have any connection to a charter school is not very good. And that, by the way, is only one thing that would have sunk my candidacy. As soon as I said, ‘and by the way, we need to reform social security and we need to curtail Medicare spending’, I mean, I would have been shot repeatedly. They would have been firing at the corpse. 

Robert Pease (interviewer):

And was there any particular event or moment during the campaign when things kind of hit the wall? 

Charles Wheelan:

There was a moment – I do remember going to the endorsement session that was run by one or both of the major teacher unions. The question I do remember was, “how do you feel about performance-based pay?” I actually teach education policy here. I think it’s a blunt instrument, but under some circumstances, if you change the incentives, you change the outcome. So I said, “you know, I think if you use it carefully, it could be an important tool”. That is not what the teacher’s unions wanted to hear. And there was just a resounding silence. And if you imagine being in an endorsement session where you still have 10 minutes to go and people have no interest in asking additional questions, because they’ve already, like, “should I have the pastries? What do we do now?” I’m done, you know I’m done.

Robert Pease (interviewer) (06:39):

So how much of an ideological difference do you think there was between your first job for a Republican Governor and your Democratic candidacy for Congress? 

Charles Wheelan:

Almost none. That’s the thing. I don’t feel like I’ve moved very far at all. Certainly on the social issues, there was no major change. I feel like the rest of the country moved and left me stranded.

Robert Pease (narrator) (07:03):

So, to review: Former Republican speech writer, Economist magazine reporter, and former Democratic candidate for Congress. That makes for an interesting take on today’s partisan politics. 

Charles Wheelan:

One thing that’s going on here is that the primaries are like the tail wagging the dog. And if you can’t get out of a primary, you’re not gonna win an election.

Emily Crocetti (interviewer) (07:19):

And to win a Democratic primary, it seems like you have to pander more and more towards left-leaning views these days.

Charles Wheelan (07:25):

Right? And right-leaning views to win a Republican primary. And of course the more you have gerrymandering, the safer the seats, and what people fail to realize is if it’s a safe seat, the only challenge is in the primary. So if you are a Democrat in a safe blue seat, you’re not safe, you’re just safe from Republicans. What you’re not safe from is a challenge from your left flank, and same is true in a red district for Republicans, which means if you want to protect yourself, don’t do anything cooperative in Congress, because then you’ll get some wingnut coming in and saying, “Oh, he said he would never raise revenue from any source under any circumstances. And he agreed to this increase in the price of a fishing permit. Let’s get rid of him.” 

Robert Pease (interviewer):

To depart just a bit. Let’s talk about your time at The Economist magazine. We noticed one media group in the U.S. places The Economist as center left, and another, in the UK, places it as a center right publication. Where would you place The Economist

Charles Wheelan:

I would probably place it nowhere. And the reason is that we’ve got this crazy linear way of looking at politics in the United States, but politics isn’t linear. It’s multifaceted. And the wonderful thing about The Economist is that it does not fit on that spectrum. So it’s very liberty focused. It very traditionally defaults to the individual. Which you would think, so it’s right-leaning, it’s Republican – except they’re avowedly pro-choice because it flows from that Libertarian-leaning perspective.14 But they endorsed Bill Clinton because they also believe that the government has an important role in doing the things that make capitalism work better. So it’s pro-markets, but not pro-business, because the difference is, pro-markets means you want to encourage competition, as opposed to protecting vested interests. It is pro-market. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

A few years after his primary loss, Wheelan wrote a book called The Centrist Manifesto, which proposed that a small number of centrist independents in the House or Senate could actually make a huge legislative difference. Here’s Wheelan explaining the manifesto to an audience at the 2013 National Book Fair. 

Charles Wheelan (archival audio):

Let’s do one from each side. 

“How would you ensure that that caucus of half a dozen or so senators, once they actually came to the Senate, stuck together and voted as a body above all else? Because once you have issues that are reporting to this state for reelection or this constituent or whatever, once you start to peel off one or two on individual issues, it becomes really easy for the whole thing to just fall apart.” 

“First of all, I want to have that problem. I want to get to the point where there are six Senators and they’re not agreeing all the time. That would be a victory. They’re not going to agree on every issue, even if they are part of a party. And I think honestly, part of this strategy would be electing some “big C” centrists and also some independents, like Angus King, who are in that space, but may not buy into the party. I want more people willing to make compromises in the middle, not on every issue, but I think if you send more people with this mindset, with this core set of beliefs, to the Senate, you’re more likely to get that behavior. I can’t guarantee that it’s going to happen all the time. So, I am over time, they’re waving the sign, but I appreciate your interest and your time. Thank you very much.”

Robert Pease (narrator) (10:44):

Wheelan’s Centrist Manifesto is not as hypothetical as it sounds. A substantial center actually existed in the Senate as recently as three decades ago. Earlier in this episode, Crocetti Crocetti and Mike Valeri documented the near extinction of the moderate New England RINO, or Republican In Name Only. We asked them to do the same for the fate of the Southern conservative DINO, or Democrat In Name Only.

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (11:08):

We looked at six northeastern states on our RINO hunt. Now let’s compare that to six southeastern states, as in Florida, the Carolinas… 

Michael Valeri (reporter):

Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia.15 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Exactly. And we’re looking for the demise of conservative Southern Democrats, or DINOS.

Michael Valeri (reporter) (11:23):

Okay, twelve Senate seats from those six states. It looks like seven are held by centrist Democrats in 1990, but by 2010, only two. So what happened? 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

It’s complicated – lots of things. The south shifts a little bit to the right each election, but one Democratic Senator in office, Richard Shelby, switches parties after the ‘94 Republican Revolution.16 

Michael Valeri (reporter):

When Republicans win both houses…

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

And when popular DINOS like Sam Nunn or Fritz Hollings retire, their seats swing, like really swing, from conservative Democrat…17

Michael Valeri (reporter) (11:51):

To conservative Republican, opening that gap in the middle. So many DINOs are left now? 

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (11:54):

One, just one out of 12 seats. Doug Jones in Alabama.18 And he barely won a special election over Roy Moore, who…

Michael Valeri (reporter) (12:00):

I know, I know, and who has a tough reelection in 2020. So DINOs are going the way of –

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (12:05):

RINOs. And the RINO/DINO extinction is destroying the center. 

Michael Valeri (reporter):

Like a completely different Senate.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

In just three decades.

Robert Pease (narrator) (12:12):

We asked Dr. Wheelan to explain the importance of the political center to today’s audience of independent-minded Americans, hoping for more effective government after the 2020 elections.

Charles Wheelan:

I usually use the Senate because the math is easier. When I speak to a group, I’ll say, okay, 40 to 44% of Americans say they’re independent. And we can quibble over where they actually stand ideologically, but they are saying, unequivocally, “we do not belong to one party or the other”. That is not an inconsequential statement. Which means that the Senate, a hundred people, the number of independents should be somewhere between 40 and 44. There are two. One is Angus King, who’s a legit independent, and one is Bernie Sanders, who’s left of the Democrats. I’m not sure that counts. So yes, something is not tracking.19 If you imagine a world, because the Senate is so closely divided, where instead of one legit independent, there are five. In which case the Senate now looks like, say, 48, 5, 47. And now the institutional factors work differently, which is to say those five, because they’re in the middle, get to pick the majority leader. And they can actually negotiate with both sides.

Emily Crocetti (interviewer) (13:24):

What’s the main reason that there’s currently only one independent Senator out of a hundred?

Charles Wheelan (13:29):

A lot of what’s going on is partisanship, negative partisanship. My party’s fine, but they are horrible. As soon as an independent steps in, because we don’t have runoffs or ranked choice voting, the fear is, well, if I support that independent, I might inadvertently elect the person that I hate even more. In which case the third party is attributed to being the spoiler. The spoiler effect means it’s very hard for independents to get much traction out of the box. In the three-way race people are very… think about Ralph Nader in Florida in 2000, just a small number of people voted for him. And by all accounts that tipped the state from Gore to Bush, and therefore tipped the election.20 People are very wary of that. Rightfully so. 

Robert Pease (interviewer): 

Back to your point about trying to help moderates in 2020. For example, in a deep red or blue state, would your organization be considered non-partisan enough to actively support a moderate in a primary, or would that be viewed with concern?

Charles Wheelan (14:24):

So we have a fund that is investing in two prongs. One is process reforms: ranked choice voting, anti-gerrymandering. And we pick those very carefully to make sure that the reforms aren’t considered to be red or blue. Our second prong is supporting candidates. And we are supporting both Democrats in Democratic primaries, and moderate Republicans in Republican primaries. And paying fastidious attention to the number of races and nature of races, so that people don’t look at us as closet reds or closet blues. 

Emily Crocetti (interviewer):

That sounds like a tough line. 

Charles Wheelan:

It’s a terribly tough line, you know, because one of the things that characterizes this climate is, “if I don’t know what you are, I just assume you’re my enemy”.

Emily Crocetti (interviewer) (15:07):

Do you think that social media or technology factors into people having a perception of a more simplified version of what government actually is?

Charles Wheelan (15:16):

When I log onto Facebook and listen to all the people who believe the same thing I do – I mean, we’re all geniuses! So I think that that kind of echo chamber is quite dangerous. One thing that probably gets too little attention is that there’s been a profound residential sorting in the country. It used to be for all kinds of reasons: in 1940, 1950, people were in closer proximity to others who were more socioeconomically diverse. So now, we pay a lot of attention, rightfully so, to racial and ethnic diversity. We’ve kind of forgotten the socioeconomic piece.

Robert Pease (interviewer):

So we obviously live in a very polarized environment. Is it more difficult teaching students at this partisan time? 

Charles Wheelan:

I think it can be. There are tools you can use, I think, to overcome it. One is just to play the devil’s advocate to frame issues in a way where my beliefs are agnostic. I used the word defensible a lot, which is to say, here’s a view that’s defensible. I may or may not agree with it, but it’s not inconsistent with logic or facts or data. So I think being pro-life has an entirely defensible position. It’s not one that I share as a policy view, but if you think life begins at conception, then abortion should be illegal. That’s defensible. 

Robert Pease (interviewer):

Well, with that said, it’s still a remarkable accomplishment of fact spinning that many people deny climate change, and it goes on year after a year. How are they able to maintain a factually indefensible position? 

Charles Wheelan:

A lot of what’s animating the right, I think, is just an animus towards the left. And part of it is, if they’re pro-environment, I’m anti-environment. I firmly believe that if Al Gore had stood up and said, “climate change is a hoax”, Republicans would have said, “you lie! It’s real!”

Robert Pease (narrator): 

In Wheelan’s writing, lectures, as well as in Unite America’s moderating efforts, there’s much reference to legislative gridlock. Let’s quickly get a grasp on that topic. In a really acute crisis, even in a divided government, with one party controlling each chamber, there will tend to be legislative compromise and resolution. Such as with a series of COVID-19 relief packages passed this year. But with chronic issues like immigration reform or gun safety, where we haven’t had a comprehensive bill in decades, that legislative train gets slowed down by partisanship. And there’s not enough moderates such as, for example, those New England RINOs or Southern conservative DINOs to cross the aisles and push the bill to passage through negotiation and compromise.

Robert Pease (narrator) (17:53):

We asked Charles Wheelan about some less obvious factors contributing to a gridlock. His answer included a reference to one of those extinct RINOs, or moderate Republicans, Judd Gregg, former Governor and Senator from New Hampshire, who was also briefly considered for a cabinet position in the Obama administration.21 

Charles Wheelan:

One thing we haven’t talked about is how the climate in Washington is different. There is not the spirit of camaraderie, and it’s amazing how these things are connected. So what I’ve been told is that before, you had to raise as much money as you do now, when campaigns are so much more expensive, members of Congress typically lived in D.C. Which meant that their family socialized, they had a personal relationship, which meant that they could argue by day, but they just couldn’t be as mean to each other. Their spouses knew each other. They knew their dogs. And as that has dissipated, those personal bonds, like between Reagan and Tip O’Neill; between Judd Gregg and Ted Kennedy. Judd Greg routinely comes back to Dartmouth, he’s very generous with his time. One question I love to ask any legislator is, “who’s your favorite person in the other party?” And without a beat Judd Gregg said, “Oh, Ted Kennedy, I love Ted Kennedy”. And it was personal.22 He said Ted Kennedy’s dog used to sit under the dais between Judd Gregg and Ted Kennedy. And what he said about Ted Kennedy was that he was there to legislate. And if we agreed on something, which was not always, then we’d write a bill together. They did No Child Left Behind. They did a whole bunch of other things. That spirit is gone. That’s what’s lost, when the moderates don’t win. 

Robert Pease (interviewer):

So we’re wondering about funding sources. Are there funding sources for a bipartisan centrist strategy such as, are there any centers billionaires out there? 

Charles Wheelan:

The one person I would keep an eye on is Howard Schultz. Schultz was running for president for about 20 minutes if you remember, and was just crushed. He came out running as an independent and the Democrats just landed on him. The fear was that he would take just enough votes away from the Democrats to reelect Donald Trump. But Schultz is still very interested in the reform landscape. 

Robert Pease (interviewer):

Well, let’s go back once more to this sort of perilous point in a hypothetical primary, where you have a moderate in either party against, let’s call them wingnuts. How dangerous is it for an avowedly centrist group to publicly support the moderate? 

Charles Wheelan:

There’s certainly going to be backlash from the wing nuts. I mean, that’s what they do very well. I think it’s incumbent upon us to be very clear about what the strategy is and why we’re doing it, and to be even-handed in the application of that. So we actually count up the number of races where we’re supporting Republicans in primaries. Some very conservative people, by the way, but they’re in very conservative States. I’ll have conversations with someone in New York and I’ll say, “look, you need to support this Senate candidate in Utah”. And the person in New York says, “well, you know, he’s, pro-life, I’m not pro-life”. And I say, “it’s bloody Utah. Like, what do you expect?” 

Robert Pease (interviewer):

Well, that’s a good place for us to ask our final question. Because we appeal to independents, we ask you to show a little purple and name one major Republican or Democratic candidate, or a position, that you either did or could support. 

Charles Wheelan:

Well, obviously I started by writing speeches for McKernan, but on the fiscal issues, I’ve always supported the Republicans. I would say on fiscal issues, my brain has always been with the center-right. Certainly my heart is with the left. I think the Democrats are spot on with climate change. The Republican view is indefensible as we’ve discussed. I think in a time of such rapid economic change, somebody’s got to be thinking about those who are left behind. It’s not obvious by the way, why that has to be a Democratic position. This gets back to why I like The Economist so much. I think Milton Friedman, if we were to resurrect him from the dead, I think he would say, “look, you’re not going to have a vibrant market economy if you don’t take care of the losers, the people were left behind”.

Robert Pease (narrator):

That was today’s featured guest, Charles Wheelan, founder of Unite America, Professor of Public Policy at Dartmouth College, former Republican speech writer, and former Democratic candidate for Congress. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Purple Principle, a podcast for independent-minded Americans about polarization in politics, society, and daily life. This is Robert Pease for the Purple Principle team. Sarah Holtz, associate producer; Janice Murphy, senior editor; Crocetti Crocetti, staff reporter; Kevin Kline, audio engineer; Crocetti Holloway, research and fact-checking. Original theme and background music created by Ryan Adair-Rooney. 

We have some questions about partisanship in these not-so United States. How did we get so partisan? How do we get less partisan? And can independent-minded Americans help bridge the gap? Stay tuned for more insight and discussion. 


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