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The Myth of the Sensible Center

Carl Bloice: The “moderate Republican” has gone the way of the typewriter. As the tea party people and their ilk become more racist and reactionary – and their rhetoric more incendiary, each day - the GOP encourages them and endeavors to pull them into its embrace. Meanwhile the “bluedog Democrats” become increasingly irrelevant with each passing day, their bark more in evidence than their bite.
David Frum

David Frum

Amidst the drama of the passage of a new healthcare measure and the wigging out of the tea party people and their Republican Party sponsors, there has been an interesting sideshow involving the contortions of the pundits who consider themselves moderates or part of something they like to call the political “center.” Of course, that’s relative term. If you position yourself in the middle, your position shifts with the political wind. But right now some of the nation’s political observers find themselves in an unenviable position. When they look around they are worried; when they look over their shoulders at what’s coming up behind them they are terrified. As well they might be. I have in mind commentators such as Republican operative David Frum and New York Times pundits Thomas Friedman and David Brooks.

The “moderate Republican” has gone the way of the typewriter. As the tea party people and their ilk become more racist and reactionary – and their rhetoric more incendiary, each day - the GOP encourages them and endeavors to pull them into its embrace. Meanwhile the “bluedog Democrats” become increasingly irrelevant with each passing day, their bark more in evidence than their bite. But, alas, there are more reasonable people who have come forward costumed as members of a responsible center.

Frum is more to the point about the emerging threat than the others. Following the Congressional healthcare vote, he said:

"We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

“I've been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters - but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say - but what is equally true - is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed - if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office - Rush's listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

“So today's defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it's mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it's Waterloo all right: ours.”

Laying all the blame on the “conservative entertainment industry” is nonsense, but what else is he going to say? My party is being hijacked by some people whose shirts are increasingly looking brown?

There are people in both parties who are alarmed at the prospect that the people on top in Washington, attuned to the message voters sent in November 2008, might actually do something to address the very real problems people – working people in the first place – are facing. Up come the centrists with lots of worries and words. The problem is the center doesn’t really have much to offer in the way of ideas, especially in the areas that most people consider critical today. Take, for instance, this from Thomas Friedman’s promotion of an oxymoronic “radical center”:

“The radical center is “radical” in its desire for a radical departure from politics as usual. It advocates: raising taxes to close our budgetary shortfalls, but doing so with a spirit of equity and social justice; guaranteeing that every American is covered by health insurance, but with market reforms to really bring down costs; legally expanding immigration to attract more job-creators to America’s shores; increasing corporate tax credits for research and lowering corporate taxes if companies will move more manufacturing jobs back onshore; investing more in our public schools, while insisting on rising national education standards and greater accountability for teachers, principals and parents; massively investing in clean energy, including nuclear, while allowing more offshore drilling in the transition. You get the idea.”

What’s there to get?

I am especially intrigued by that last notion. I’ve thought that the central questions of energy policy revolved around safety and environmental impact. Some people oppose new nuke stations and oil rigs off the California coast because of things like Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez. You may agree or disagree but it’s hard to see it as a matter of political principle, unless you conclude philosophically that decision making today should not be hindered by concerns for the future. In any case, I know too many people fearful of nuke plants or rig spills for that “center” to hold up.

As for the rest of Friedman’s prescription, duh? It’s hard to argue with most of it – even for those of us on the hard left. I especially like the part about: “investing more in our public schools.” If he’s serious about that I can suggest a few demonstrations he might like to take part in around the country.

What’s important here is what Friedman leaves out; not a mention about the growing economic inequality in the country, the growing poverty, or the fact that while some people – bailout-receiving bankers, for instance -- are living high on the hog, while millions of people are without a way to earn a living or keep a roof over their heads. Or that the hardships are falling heaviest on the already most disadvantaged in the country, people of color and the young. The critical “budgetary shortfalls” right now are the ones being discussed around the kitchen tables of the nation’s working families.

David Brooks outlines a similar approach to this centrist formula. Discussing the recently passed healthcare reform legislation, he writes, “Nobody knows how this bill will work out. It is an undertaking exponentially more complex than the Iraq war, for example. But to me, it feels like the end of something, not the beginning of something. It feels like the noble completion of the great liberal project to build a comprehensive welfare system.” Actually, it’s nothing like that. Why give such a grandiose description to a limited move toward reaching a level of social protection that most of the advance capitalist world achieving half a century ago?

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“The task ahead is to save this country from stagnation and fiscal ruin,” writes Brooks. Now that’s serious. “We know what it will take,” he goes on. “We will have to raise a consumption tax.” Guess who pays for that? “We will have to preserve benefits for the poor and cut them for the middle and upper classes.” In today’s lingo that means the working class as well as the rich. The problem is that on the pie charts, the share for the former keeps getting smaller and for the latter bigger; not exactly a mandate for equal sacrifice. “We will have to invest more in innovation and human capital,” Brooks concludes, whatever that means.

Brooks writes that, after watching the healthcare debate and conclusion, ‘’I feel again why I’m no longer spiritually attached to the Democratic Party. The essence of America is energy — the vibrancy of the market, the mobility of the people, and the disruptive creativity of the entrepreneurs. This vibrancy grew up accidentally, out of a cocktail of religious fervor and material abundance, but it was nurtured by choice. It was nurtured by our founders, who created national capital markets to disrupt the ossifying grip of the agricultural landholders. It was nurtured by 19th century Republicans who built the railroads and the land-grant colleges to weave free markets across great distances. It was nurtured by Progressives who broke the stultifying grip of the trusts.”

It’s hard to beat that as a selective reading of the country’s history. He seems to have overlooked the struggle against slavery and Jim Crow, the movement for women’s equality, the working class energy that went into building the nation’s steel mills and auto factories, the gains made against old age poverty secured by the enactment of Social Security and Medicare, the social solidarity influenced by the rise of the organized labor movement, and the unity and sacrifice that went into the effort to defeat world fascism.

Finally, Brooks joins in the chorus of those who says the country is threatened because its inhabitants are getting old and the “exploding federal debt” and decries the fact that the country is not poised to cut spending. All that sounds to me like just another call to undermine Social Security and Medicare. If that’s the center’s idea of the way forward, who needs it?

“The Democratic Party, as it revealed of itself over the past year, does not seem to be up to that coming challenge (neither is the Republican Party),” writes Brooks. “This country is in the position of a free-spending family careening toward bankruptcy that at the last moment announced that it was giving a gigantic new gift to charity. (By this he means healthcare reform) You admire the act of generosity, but you wish they had sold a few of the Mercedes to pay for it.”

Don’t we all? And maybe throw in a few drones and aircraft carriers in the process.

While it can add confusion to the debate over pressing matters, the centrist argument is largely beside the point. In its essence it fails to recognize that what bothers most people – even some of the deluded teabaggers – is matter of social and economic fairness, the need for an expansion of democracy and increased, rather than diminished, economic security.

Postscript: Frum is a former speechwriter for George Bush the senior and a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Or rather was. Rumor has it AEI ditched him after he made his comment. John Aloysius Farrell of the Thomas Jefferson Street blog wrote last Friday: “So, not knowing all the circumstances behind David Frum’s sudden departure from AEI yesterday, I am baffled this morning. The timing is certainly suggestive: It looks like an ideological purge. A few days after warning his fellow Republicans that their party was indeed becoming the Party of No and an instrument of Rupert Murdoch’s avidity--and had met a “Waterloo” with the passage of the healthcare bill--Frum went to lunch with his boss and was told that his services were no longer needed, or at least no longer worth a paycheck. He could stay on as a volunteer if he wanted. Now, I do some volunteer work. It fulfills the soul, but does not feed the children. And so Frum left."

Frum is reported to have ascribed AEI’s decision to dump him to “donor pressure.”

Carl Bloice

Crossposted with permission from The Black Commentator.