Obama really let these clowns win? How right-wing obstruction always trumps sober centrism

The president longed to bridge the partisan divide. The right made the conciliator into a dictator -- and won

Published July 29, 2014 11:44AM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann                                   (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Lott)
Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Lott)

The following essay was one of many articles I have written over the years for which my working title was “the poverty of centrism.” My editors never seem to like that handle; in this case they gave the essay the far better headline, “Obama Should Act Like He Won.” But somehow the original title still resonates for me — centrism still feels to me like a fraud, an inexcusably vapid way of governing for otherwise intelligent people.

It is important to remember, I think, how conciliatory Barack Obama has been since the very beginning, and how the GOP — following its age-old playbook — immediately charged headlong at his point of strength. In the case of a man who longs to be the healer of partisan divides, that tactic meant — of course — making the partisan divide into a crevasse and making the conciliator out to be a dictator.

What’s tragic is that the succeeding years of GOP obstructionism were entirely predictable, as was the ultimate failure of Obama’s centrist strategy. But that failure has taught us nothing, as the failure of Clinton’s centrist strategy taught us nothing. Centrism is not merely a mental habit of the comfortable, but an ideology of its own, a system of cognition that stands beyond proof or refutation.

I have edited the story slightly differently for this outing than from its appearance in the Wall Street Journal.

* * *

As we await the debut of the Obama administration, we hear more and more about the incoming president’s “post-partisan” instincts. He has filled his cabinet with relics of the centrist Clinton years; he has engaged the evangelical pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration; and according to Politico he wants 80 Senate votes for his stimulus plan — a goal that would mean winning a majority among Republicans as well as Democrats.

Maybe these will turn out to be wise moves; maybe they won’t.

Audacity they ain’t, though. There is no branch of American political expression more trite, more smug, more hollow than centrism.

After all, as Mark Leibovich pointed out in the New York Times, transcending faction has been the filler-talk of inaugural addresses going back at least to Zachary Taylor. When you hear it today — bemoaning as it always does “the extremes of both parties” or “the divisive politics of the past” — it is a foolproof indicator that you are in the presence of a well-funded, much-televised Beltway hack.

Centrism is something of a cult here in Washington, D.C., and a more specious superstition you never saw. Its adherents pretend to worship at the altar of the great American middle, but in fact they stick closely to a very particular view of events regardless of what the public says it wants. And through it all centrism bills itself as the most transgressive sort of exercise imaginable. Its partisans refer to themselves as “New Democrats,” “Radical Centrists,” clear-eyed believers in a “Third Way.” The red-hot tepids, we might call them—the jellybeans of steel.

The reason centrism finds such an enthusiastic audience in Washington, I think, is because it appeals naturally to the Beltway journalistic mindset, with its professional prohibition against coming down solidly on one side or the other of any question. Splitting the difference is a way of life in this cynical town; to hear politicians insist that it is also the way of the statesman, I suspect, gives journalists a secret thrill.

Yet what the Beltway centrist characteristically longs for is not so much to transcend politics but to close off debate on the grounds that he—and the vast silent middle for which he stands—knows beyond question what is to be done. Here, for example, is Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby, writing on the debate then raging over the role of deregulation in precipitating the financial crisis: “So blaming deregulation for the financial mess is misguided. But it is dangerous, too, because one of the big challenges for the next president will be to defend markets against the inevitable backlash that follows this crisis.”

Got that? Criticizing deregulation is not merely wrong but “dangerous,” virtually impermissible, since it problematizes the politics that everyone knows president forty-four will ultimately embrace. The answers to the big questions of the financial crisis have been arrived at already and without our input; the only question before us is how to put these big decisions over without riling the volatile public.

The real-world function of Beltway centrism has never been to wage high-minded war against “both extremes” but to fight specifically against the economic and foreign policies of liberalism. Centrism’s institutional triumphs have been won mainly if not entirely within the Democratic Party; its greatest exponent, President Bill Clinton, persistently used his own party’s rank and file as a foil in his great game of triangulation.

And centrism’s achievements? Well, there’s NAFTA, which proved Democrats could stand up to labor. There’s the repeal of Glass-Steagall. There’s the Iraq war resolution, approved by numerous Democrats in brave defiance of their party’s left. Triumphs all.

Histories of conservatism’s rise, on the other hand, often emphasize that movement’s adherence to principle regardless of changing public attitudes. Conservatives pressed laissez-faire through good times and bad, soldiering on even in years when suggesting that America was a “center-right nation” would have made one an instant laughingstock.

And what happens when a strong-minded movement encounters a politician who acts as though the truth always lies halfway between his own followers and the other side? The dolorous annals of Clinton suggest an answer, in particular the chapters on Government Shutdown and Impeachment.

That’s why, in political game theory, it is so obviously preferable to be part of the movement that doesn’t compromise easily than to side with the one that has developed a cult of the almighty center. Even a conservative as ham-fisted as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay seems to understand this. When confronting Clinton, he recounted in his 2007 memoirs, the Republicans under his leadership learned “to start every policy initiative from as far to the political right as we could.” The effect was to “move the center farther to the right,” drawing the triangulating Clinton along with it.

President-elect Obama can learn something from DeLay’s confession: Centrism is a chump’s game. Democrats have massive majorities these days not because they waffle hither and yon but because their historic principles have been vindicated by events. This is their moment. Let the other side do the triangulating.

By Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

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Barack Obama Centrism Glass-steagall Nafta Thomas Frank Tom Frank