The Great Prevaricator strikes again : now in blackface. Obama, the silver-tongued opportunist, is a worthy member of the Centrist cabal in the power establishment. On Jan. 20, with his inauguration, America is likely to enter a long and painful period of extremely dangerous demagoguery. And, as all bright demagogues, he’ll work the symbols while betraying the substance.
Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Obama Should Act Like He Won
By THOMAS FRANK | [print_link]
As we anxiously 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 Sunday’s New York Times, transcending faction has been the filler-talk of inaugural addresses going back at least to Zachary Taylor’s in 1849. When you hear it today
— bemoaning as it always does “the extremes of both parties” or “the divisive politics of the past” — it is virtually 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 are “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 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 centrist Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby, writing last October 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 44 will ultimately embrace. As this should remind us, the real-world function of Beltway centrism has not 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 movement 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 the Glass-Steagall Act.
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 it is so obviously preferable to be part of the movement that doesn’t compromise easily than to depend on the one that has developed a cult of the almighty center. Even a conservative as ham-handed as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay seems to understand this.
As he recounted in his 2007 memoirs, 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 Mr. 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.
Thomas Frank approaches political analysis for the left. His book, What’s Wrong with Kansas? brilliantly disssected the mentality of ordinary folks voting against their political and economic interests due to the eternal trash dished out by the media-political spheres, and their deeply entrenched socially conservative leanings.
Watch HOW CONSERVATIVES RULE, by Thomas Frank