The Central Powers
Beltway centrism undermines true political moderation
For all the initial hoopla surrounding the supposed audacity of President Obama’s new, Trumanesque approach to reelection, the political strategy behind it is rather timid. After all, the president’s American Jobs Act was designed to be a fail-safe ploy to demonstrate his support for—and his opponents’ instinctive hostility toward—what amounts to little more than voter candy: payroll tax cuts, support for firefighters, police officers, and teachers, and the chimerical promise of deficit neutrality. However, while it was designed to be fail-safe, it was not designed to be foolproof, and it is now a confederacy of such unforeseen fools that threaten to derail the president’s best—laid plans.
The fools in question are Democratic moderates. It is ironic that while the strategy for the jobs bill was intended to expose immoderation as a political liability for the Republican Party, it has instead exposed moderation as a greater political liability for the Democrats. On Oct. 12, a majority of the United States Senate voted in favor of the American Jobs Act but failed to reach the 60-vote benchmark to break the Republican filibuster, effectively killing the bill. Two Democrats, however, broke ranks and gave Republican obstruction a bipartisan fig leaf: Nebraska’s Ben Nelson and Montana’s Jon Tester. Both men are up for reelection in 2012, and both men threatened to vote the same way on upcoming votes on the bill’s constitutive elements. The bill and its political message were also undermined by Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Jim Webb of Virginia who blasted its contents in spite of voting yea.
The sight of flailing red-state Democrats throwing their party under the bus in the vain hope that their conservative constituents will reward them for it is at once comic and tragic. In the great 2010 midterm massacre, 20 of the 34 House Democrats who voted against Obamacare were defeated anyway, and in all likelihood, Nelson and Tester’s nay votes last week will prove similarly futile in 2012. Opposition to the Iraq War wasn’t enough to save moderate Republicans like Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee and Connecticut Congressman Chris Shays in 2006, either. The fact is that in the polarized environment of modern American politics, the two parties generally rise and fall as collective entities, regardless of individual heresies.
Time after time, voters have demonstrated that the better a party’s political standing, the better the political standing of individual members of that party, moderate or radical. And yet, time after time, a beleaguered party is further plagued by a cadre of suicidally self-interested centrists who only worsen the plight of both their party and themselves by jumping ship. If this political nonconformism were borne out of principle rather than expedience, it would be admirable. But invariably, one can predict when the so-called “mavericks” will crawl out of the woodwork by the proximity of the next election and the condition of the party brand.
Most aggravating, however, is how this flavor of spineless, milquetoast centrism is put on a pedestal by the likes of holier-than-thou, armchair moderates like New York Times columnists David Brooks and Thomas Friedman. These self-appointed arbiters of the political center are in reality nothing more than shameless apologists for the Beltway cult of conventional wisdom. To them, the center is quite literally the midpoint between the extremes of both parties, a fallacy that is dangerously susceptible to false equivalences, totally neglects objective, historical standards of what constitutes the “mainstream” and worst of all, obsesses over symbolism rather than substance.
A classic example of such false equivalence and total divorce from objectivity and history was displayed by Friedman in an exceptionally vapid—even by his own standards—piece in which he wrote, “Do I feel that Republicans have tried to make President Obama fail from Day 1? Yes, I do. And their dabbling with another government shutdown now is pure madness. But the president is not blameless. He walked away from his own Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission, which still could be the foundation for a sane Grand Bargain.”
Friedman’s equating of President Obama’s decision not to symbolically embrace the specific provisions of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan with Republican threats to allow the United States to default and thus devastate the global economy—in spite of obvious indications of the president’s obsession with obtaining a Grand Bargain during negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner—is among the dumber things Friedman has written over the years. Friedman’s argument is built on the premise that both parties must be equally culpable for the failure to obtain a Grand Bargain, reality be damned, for only a partisan would ever suggest that one side was more unreasonable than the other.
Brooks, likewise, betrayed the shallowness of his thinking in a column responding to President Obama’s September jobs speech, writing, “The president is sounding like the Al Gore for President campaign, but without the earth tones. Tax increases for the rich! Protect entitlements! People versus the powerful! I was hoping the president would give a cynical nation something unconventional, but, as you know, I’m a sap.”
Brooks does not deny that there was nothing remotely radical or especially liberal about the substance of the speech or that there was nothing in it that candidate Obama of 2008—once the object of Brooks’ affection—did not support. All that was different was the president’s more defiant tone, which was inevitable and justified after three years of unrequited bipartisan overtures. And that alone sufficed for Brooks to title his piece “Obama Rejects Obamaism.”
Brooks’ semi-sarcastic admission of sappiness should not, in fact, be sarcastic. He is a sap, and his feel-good, faux centrism bears no resemblance to true centrism. Centrism should not feel good at all but should instead come at great political cost, entail great political risk, and demand great political courage. This is the kind of governing-focused centrism practiced by the members of the Simpson-Bowles Commission and, yes, President Obama. There is nothing brave about a centrism that focuses on optics and self-interest. In fact, recent history shows that this style of false moderation only empowers radicalism; if it weren’t for the likes of Tester, Nelson, Brooks, and Friedman, it wouldn’t be so easy for Republicans to nudge that cherished center ever rightward and make it ever harder for real centrists to get credit for their political sacrifice.
Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, a former associate editorial chair, is an English concentrator in Currier House.