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Silent majority fed up with Washington

Lou Zickar, Special to CNN

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The brilliant but disgraced President Richard Nixon once gave a speech in which he spoke of the "silent majority" in American politics.

These were the people, he observed, who didn't wave signs or march in the streets. Rather, they were the people who quietly went about their lives, going to work, raising their families and giving back to their communities.

Nixon gave this speech in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War. But more than four decades later, his basic observation still rings true. For if there was ever a time that a silent majority existed in American politics, it is today. The current debate over raising the debt limit is a good example.

The debate is dominated by the political extremes. Those on the far right would rather have the federal government default on its financial obligations than give ground on what is anathema to most conservatives: raising taxes. Those on the far left would rather risk default than give ground on what is anathema to most liberals: reducing entitlements.

Caught between these two extremes are those Americans who want their leaders to set aside ideology and do what's best for the country. This is America's silent majority. These are the Americans who watch ESPN and HGTV at night instead of MSNBC and Fox. They vote in most elections, although they've been known to miss a primary or two. If they contribute to a campaign, it's usually to a local candidate or a friend who's running for the school board.

They supported the Democrats in 2008 and the Republicans in 2010. They're sympathetic to the tea party, but only to a point. More than anything, what turns them off about politics is the pettiness and partisanship coming out of Washington.

They voted for Obama because he seemed like a different kind of leader, and then opposed him two years later because he ended up being not that different at all.

They're willing to give him another shot next year, because they like him. But they're keeping their eyes open for other possible candidates, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, as well.

If you had to put a label on them, it would most likely be independent, but there are also some Republicans and Democrats in the group. Political consultants are frustrated by them because they're unpredictable. But if you ask them, they'll make it perfectly clear what they're looking for. They're looking for results from their leaders, not rhetoric, because they want government to work. To that same end, they're looking for value, not values, from Washington, because they want to know the tax dollars they are sending to our Nation's capital are being put to good use and providing some sort of return.

This is America's silent majority, and they are underrepresented in American political life. Polls released over the past few days bear that out. Eighty percent of respondents to a Washington Post/ABC News survey reported they are "dissatisfied" or "angry" about the way the federal government is working.

Along those same lines, a USA Today/Gallup Poll found that at least two-thirds of those surveyed said members of Congress from both parties gave priority to their political interests above the country's best interests.

So what's the solution? Above all, Washington needs to figure out a way to free itself from the grip of the political extremes. And the best way to do that is to make sure America's silent majority is heard. For example, since many Americans are looking for results, we should establish a Sunset Commission, as Texas Sen. John Cornyn and other Republicans have recommended, that would put a time limit on every program and subject them to performance reviews.

Similarly, since many Americans are also looking for value, provide them with a taxpayer receipt, as the Third Way and other centrist Democrats have recommended, so they can see how their tax dollars are being spent on a programmatic basis.

Of course, these kind of common sense policy solutions will be for naught if the federal government defaults on its fiscal obligations. Which is why the most important thing the President and Congress can do right now is come together on an agreement to raise the debt ceiling.

Make no mistake -- raising the debt ceiling is a bitter pill to swallow, and something that would call into question America's commitment to live within its means. Unfortunately, failure to raise the debt ceiling would also call into question our commitment to another important principle -- the principle of paying our bills on time. This, in turn, could lead to fiscal chaos and, experts warn, result in an economic "death spiral" that would drive markets into the ground.

But it's not just the experts who feel this way. The American people do, too. In fact, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this week revealed that 55 percent of the American people believe that failure to reach such an agreement would create serious problems for our nation. This is America's silent majority talking. Amid all the rhetoric and finger pointing, isn't it time our elected leaders listen to their voice?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lou Zickar.

Editor's note: Lou Zickar is the editor of The Ripon Forum, a centrist Republican journal of political thought and opinion published by The Ripon Society.