November 28, 2012
Appearing on CNN, retiring Senator Joe Lieberman gave voice to the conventional wisdom: "In my opinion the last two years, 2011-12, have been the least productive and most partisan and uncompromising in my 24 years here." For Lieberman, like much of establishment D.C. -- both political and media -- being a "moderate" or a "centrist" or a "pragmatist" is synonymous with the ability to "get things done." Yet, according to the AP, this year's election resulted in "a thinning of pragmatic, centrist veterans in both parties," and that "among those leaving are some of the Senate's most pragmatic lawmakers, nearly half the House's centrist Blue Dog Democrats and several moderate House Republicans."
As William Hoagland of the Bipartisan Policy Center put it, "This movement away from the center, at a time when issues have to be resolved from the middle, makes it much more difficult to find solutions to major problems."
It's the sort of boilerplate quote that's found in virtually every piece about our current political landscape, a sentiment so common that we barely even notice it anymore. But we should, because it's also the real problem in a nutshell: the assumption, unexamined and taken as gospel by most of Washington, that the solutions to our major problems are somehow to be magically found by splitting the difference in the middle. It's the result of an old left-right way of thinking that is increasingly outdated. Arthur Schlesinger, who coined the phrase "the vital center" more than half a century ago to describe the common ground between fascism and communism, later lamented that the phrase had been reduced to signify nothing more than the "middle of the road." In fact, many of the problems we're facing were created by just the sort of bipartisan compromise rhapsodized about by much of the media. For instance, as proof of how much less "moderate" -- and thus further away from "solutions" -- the Senate is supposedly going to be, the AP cites the victory of "one of the most liberal members," Elizabeth Warren, over "moderate Scott Brown."
But moderates like Scott Brown are why we're still looking for a way to ensure that no banks are too big to fail, and that taxpayers will never again be on the hook for the gambling of our financial institutions. In fact, after burnishing his "moderate" credentials by voting for the 2010 Wall Street reform bill, "moderate Scott Brown" set about weakening its provisions and opening up loopholes for the banks. It's why Simon Johnson wrote that Brown was sometimes referred to as an "ATM for the bankers."
It's just one example of many, from the Iraq War to the repeal of Glass-Steagall, of how dangerous it is to equate bipartisan agreement with good policy. All those "moderates" whose departure Lieberman and many in the media are now mourning were there in the last Congress, and yet, as Lieberman notes, it was the "least productive and most partisan and uncompromising" Congress he'd ever seen.
What we need isn't faux pragmatism, but real principles -- like being devoted to protecting taxpayers instead of being devoted to ensuring that the banks can continue to act like casinos. And yet, somehow, it's Elizabeth Warren who represents a threat to finding solutions? The bold leadership we need from Harry Reid is to resist being browbeaten by the financial industry and its well-funded lobbyists (many of whom will no doubt be former "centrist" colleagues), and to put Elizabeth Warren on the committee where she can do the most good: the banking committee.
This is the time for both Congress and the White House to be bold. The beginning of a new Congress, right after an election and as far as we can be from the midterms, is the best time to go big. After the 2004 election, in which President Bush was reelected with almost exactly the same margin and vote totals as President Obama, Bush declared, "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it." Unfortunately, he happened to spend it on many wrong things (helped out, of course, by many "moderate" Democrats). But that was exactly the right attitude -- and one President Obama should adopt. As Bill Maher put it, "There's no third term, Mr. President, so you may as well throw caution to the wind, 'cause it's not like we're using it to produce energy." Because "if not now, when?"