The baseless, and failed, “move to the center” cliche

Why do Democrats continue to follow the same strategic advice that has produced one failure after the next?

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below – Update II)

Republican Nancy Johnson of Connecticut was first elected to Congress in 1982, and proceeded to win re-election 11 consecutive times, often quite easily. In 2004, she defeated her Democratic challenger by 22 points. The district is historically Republican, and split its vote 49-49 for Bush and Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

In 2006, Rep. Johnson was challenged by a 31-year-old Democrat, Chris Murphy, who ran on a platform of, among other things, ending the Iraq War, opposing Bush policies on eavesdropping and torture, and rejecting what he called the “false choice between war and civil liberties.” Johnson outspent her Democratic challenger by a couple million dollars, and based her campaign on fear-mongering ads focusing on Murphy’s opposition to warrantless eavesdropping, such as this one:

The result? Johnson was crushed:

Rep. Nancy Johnson, a 12-term Republican who ran a tough-on-terror campaign and touted her co-authorship of the Medicare prescription drug legislation, lost her re-election bid Tuesday to anti-war Democrat Chris Murphy.



Murphy had 56 percent to Johnson’s 44 percent with 12 percent of the precincts voting. Johnson was the longest serving representative in Congress in state history.

Johnson’s final margin of defeat was 12 points. Despite continuing to represent a tough, split district, Rep. Murphy — as he runs for re-election for the first time — recently voted against passage of the FISA/telecom amnesty bill, obviously unafraid that such Terrorism fear-mongering works any longer.

That pattern has repeated itself over and over. In the 2006 midterm election, Karl Rove repeatedly made clear that the GOP strategy rested on making two National Security issues front and center in the midterm campaign: Democrats’ opposition to warrantless eavesdropping and their opposition to “enhanced interrogation techniques” against Terrorists. Not only did the Democrats swat away those tactics, taking away control of both houses of Congress in 2006, but more unusually, not a single Democratic incumbent in either the House or Senate — not one — lost an election.

With Rove’s National Security, Terrorist-fear-mongering campaign, huge numbers of GOP incumbents were removed from office and replaced with Democratic newcomers. Voters were simply impervious to claims that Democrats should be denied power because their opposition to eavesdropping and torture made them Soft on Terror. Earlier this year, Bill Foster made opposition to the Iraq War a centerpiece of his campaign — and emphatically opposed both warrantless eavesdropping and telecom immunity — and then won a special election to replace Denny Hastert in his bright red Illinois district.

As the 2008 election approaches, the Democrats’ position has strengthened further still. In fact, in attempting to determine the best targets for the $325,000 we have raised so far to target Bush-enabling Democrats in Congress, the most difficult obstacle by far has been to find even a single Democratic incumbent who is vulnerable. Not only does it appear that they all are likely to be re-elected, it’s actually difficult to identify ones who have any real chance of losing. That’s how weakened the GOP brand is and how vehemently the country has rejected their ideology and politics — in every realm, including national security.

* * * * *

So what, then, is the basis for the almost-unanimously held Beltway conventional view that Democrats generally, and Barack Obama particularly, will be politically endangered unless they adopt the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism and National Security, which — for some reason — is called “moving to the Center”? There doesn’t appear to be any basis for that view. It’s just an unexamined relic from past times, the immovable, uncritical assumption of Beltway strategists and pundits who can’t accept that it isn’t 1972 anymore — or even 2002.

Beyond its obsolescence, this “move-to-the-center” cliché ignores the extraordinary political climate prevailing in this country, in which more than 8 out of 10 Americans believe the Government is fundamentally on the wrong track and the current President is one of the most unpopular in American history, if not the most unpopular. The very idea that Bush/Cheney policies are the “center,” or that one must move towards their approach in order to succeed, ignores the extreme shifts in public opinion generally regarding how our country has been governed over the last seven years.

One could argue that national security plays a larger role in presidential elections than in Congressional races, and that very well may be. But was John Kerry’s narrow 2004 loss to George Bush due to the perception that Kerry — who ran as fast as he could towards the mythical Center — was Soft on Terrorism? Or was it due to the understandable belief that his rush to the Center meant that he stood for nothing, that he was afraid of his own views — the real hallmark, the very definition, of weakness?

By the time of the 2004 election, huge numbers of Americans already turned against Bush’s position on the War and ceased trusting him even in the realm of National Security. Thus, the defining claim of Bush’s 2004 acceptance speech at the GOP Convention — the central distinction he drew between himself and Kerry — was not that his National Security views were right, but rather, was this:

This election will also determine how America responds to the continuing danger of terrorism — and you know where I stand. . . . In the last four years, you and I have come to know each other. Even when we don’t agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand.

Bush’s ability to project “Strength” came not from advocacy of specific policies, but from his claim to stand by his beliefs even when they were politically unpopular.

For that reason, isn’t the perception that Obama is abandoning his own core beliefs — or, worse, that he has none — a much greater political danger than a failure to move to the so-called “Center” by suddenly adopting Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies? As a result of Obama’s reversal on FISA, his very noticeable change in approach regarding Israel, his conspicuous embrace of the Scalia/Thomas view in recent Supreme Court cases, and a general shift in tone, a very strong media narrative is arising that Obama is abandoning his core beliefs for political gain. That narrative — that he’s afraid to stand by his own beliefs — appears far more likely to result in a perception that Obama is “Weak” than a refusal to embrace Bush/Cheney national security positions.

What’s most amazing about the unexamined premise that Democrats must “move to the Center” (i.e., adopt GOP views) is that this is the same advice Democrats have been following over and over and which keeps leading to their abject failure. It’s the advice Kerry followed in 2004. It’s why Democrats rejected Howard Dean and chose John Kerry instead.

And in 2002, huge numbers of Congressional Democrats voted to authorize the attack on Iraq based on this same premise that doing so would enable them to avoid looking Weak on National Security. The GOP then based its whole 2002 campaign on attacking Democrats as Weak on National Security and the Democrats were crushed — because, having accepted rather than debated the GOP premises, there was no way to challenge GOP National Security arguments. What makes Democrats look weak is their patent fear of standing by their own views. A Washington Post article last week on Obama’s move to the center included this insight:

“American voters tend to reward politicians who take clear stands,” said David Sirota, a former Democratic aide on Capitol Hill and author of the new populist-themed book “The Uprising.” “When Obama takes these mushy positions, it could speak to a character issue. Voters that don’t pay a lot of attention look at one thing: ‘Does the guy believe in something?’ They may be saying the guy is afraid of his own shadow.”

The central problem is that if Democrats embrace the GOP framework of National Security — that “Strength” means what the GOP says it means — then that framework gets enforced and perpetuated, and it’s a framework within which Democrats can’t possibly win, because Republicans will always “out-Strength” Democrats within that framework. It’s only by challenging and disputing the underlying premises can Democrats change the way that “strength” and “weakness” are understood.

The Democrats had such a smashing victory in 2006 because — for the first time in a long time, and really despite themselves — there was a perception (rightly or wrongly) that they actually stood for something different than the GOP in National Security (an end to the War in Iraq). Drawing a clear distinction with the deeply unpopular GOP is how Democrats look strong. The advice that they should “move to the center” and copy Republicans is guaranteed to make them look weak — because it is weak. It’s the definition of weakness.

The most distinctive and potent — one could even say exciting — aspect of Obama’s campaign had been his aggressive refusal to accept GOP pieties on National Security, his insistence that the GOP would lose — and should lose — debates over who is “stronger” and more “patriotic” and who will keep us more safe. The widely-celebrated foreign policy memo written by Obama’s adviser, Samantha Power, heaped scorn on Washington’s national security “conventional wisdom,” emphasizing how weak and vulnerable it has made the U.S. When Obama took that approach, he appeared to be, and in fact was, resolute and unapologetic in defending his own views — the very attributes that define “strength.”

The advice he’s getting, and apparently beginning to follow, is now the opposite: that he should shed his prior beliefs in favor of the amorphous, fuzzy, conventional GOP-leaning Center, that he should cease to insist on a re-examination of National Security premises and instead live within the GOP framework. That’s likely to lead to many things, but a perception of strength isn’t one of them. One of the very few things in the universe with a worse track record than America’s dominant Foreign Policy Community is the central religious belief of the Democratic consultant class and Beltway punditry that Democrats, to be successful, must shed their own beliefs and “move to the Center.”

* * * * *

As a brief follow-up to the Keith-Olbermann-promoted claim that Obama’s support for the FISA bill is justifiable not only because it lets him avoid being depicted as “soft on terror,” but also because it leaves open the possibility that Obama can criminally prosecute telecoms once he’s President, NPR correspondent Daniel Schorr said last January that he “can imagine Mr. Bush, if nothing else avails, issuing a blanket pardon for phone companies that may have broken the law.” As I pointed out on Friday, a Bush pardon would completely foreclose any Secret Plan to prosecute the telecoms criminally, even if Obama really did harbor such a plan and intended to execute it (despite never having even hinted at any such thing). On Friday, Olbermann announced that he intends to deliver a “Special Comment” on Monday’s show to elaborate on his “Obama/FISA” defense. When doing so, he should address this rather towering defect in his Obama-defending theory.

UPDATE: To clarify, I’m not making an argument here about why Democrats (including Obama) “really” support Bush policies in terms of their “true motives.” The term “Democrats,” even when confined to those in Congress, includes several hundred individuals, and their motives can’t be discussed monolithically.

Many Democrats support Bush policies because they believe in them. Others don’t believe in them but are persuaded that they must support them in order to be re-elected. Still others have no beliefs at all other than their own re-election and do whatever they perceive is most likely to achieve that. Here, I’m simply taking the political argument at face value — that Democrats must “move to the Center” in order to win — and arguing why that’s empirically false.

UPDATE II: Without my endorsing every point that’s made, Digby adds several thoughts in a post that is well worth reading.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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