REICH: The Phony Political Center

Tony Blair moved there with great success. So, of course, did Bill Clinton after 1994. George W. Bush was supposed to move there when he assumed office but hasn't yet, which cost the Republicans the Senate; maybe he'll move there now. Trent Lott seems constitutionally unable to travel there. John McCain is doing everything he can to get there. Al Gore lost what should have been an easy win by not remaining there.

Where? The Center. Such is the new wisdom according to political consultants, pundits and editorial writers. By moving to the center and claiming the ground as your own, the contemporary politician is almost guaranteed a second term, a second wind, favorable press,
public esteem, his party's revival. We are living in the golden age of political centrism, or so it seems.

But all that is meaningless blather. The political "center" is imaginary, and its recent elevation as a desirable place for politicians to inhabit is dangerously misleading. What's more, the politician who seeks to move there is abdicating any semblance of political leadership.

By one view, the center is wherever most people happen to be -- whatever positions are supported by the broadest consensus. Yet, as Walter Lippmann noted 80 years ago, public opinion is amorphous and doesn't stay in one spot for long. Staying centered, by this dim light, is nothing more than shifting with the polls.

That's something Blair has mastered, as evidenced by the British Labor Party's impressive victory earlier this month. In 1997, Britain seemed finally to have had its fill of Lady Thatcher's small-government Social Darwinism but was no more enamored of Old Labor's big-government planning. So Blair cleverly charted a "Third Way." He kept most of the Conservatives' budget plan intact but instituted a wage subsidy for low-income workers -- similar to Clinton's expanded Earned Income Tax Credit -- a much-heralded move to the center. Yet in his just-completed campaign, Blair promised to spend far more on public services such as health and education, for which Britons have been clamoring. So did he move back to Old Labor, or to a new center? Neither. He just stayed with the polls.

Blair has self-consciously modeled himself after Clinton. But was Clinton a centrist? It all depends when and how you look. In September 1993, when Clinton launched his universal health care plan, a Washington Post-ABC poll found 67 percent of Americans in support and only 20 percent opposed. The plan seemed ingeniously positioned smack in the center -- neither a lefty "single-party payer" scheme nor a right-wing, private, "fee-for-service" one. Republican Sen. John Danforth declared, "We will pass a law next year."

Barely five months later, universal health care was dead, with the plan widely condemned as too extreme. The subsequent Republican takeover of Congress was attributed in part to what was seen as "extremism," and the plan came to symbolize the supposed left-leaning waywardness of the first two years of Clinton's presidency. He never mentioned universal health care again.

Did the center move to the right? Not exactly.The Clinton plan appeared to move left. Its opponents created a specter of big government encroaching on individual choice, and they won the public relations war. Yet the ideal of universal health care has remained popular. An survey this past April showed 52 percent preferring that the budget surplus be used "to provide health care for uninsured people," with 42 percent opting to "cut my taxes" instead.

Bush's giant tax cut didn't garner the support of a majority of Americans until just before it was passed. For months, polls had showed far less public enthusiasm for it than for beefing up education, saving Social Security or making health care more affordable. Yet the 12 Senate Democrats who joined an almost-unified phalanx of Republicans to nudge the cut down from $1.6 trillion to $1.3 trillion became the "centrists" who carried the day.

So which was closer to the "center" -- Clinton's health-care plan, originally supported by a large majority of Americans but ultimately defeated, or Bush's tax cut, initially lacking strong public support but eventually victorious? It's a meaningless question. Trying to gauge the political center by where the public happens to be is a futile exercise.

If public opinion is too mercurial, here's another fashionable way of defining centrism: A successful move to the center, it's assumed, requires abandoning your old political base for the growing suburban middle class. The Democratic Leadership Council, avowedly and proudly centrist, has consistently urged this route. Republicans are relatively well-positioned in upscale suburbs but, according to the new suburban-centrist logic, Bush mustn't take these voters for granted. They're more independent than hard-core Republicans, worried about clean air and water, uneasy about handguns and suspicious of the religious right. His recent drop in the polls occurred largely because relatively well-to-do suburbanites don't like what the White House has been saying about energy and the environment.

But this definition of centrism is almost as unhelpful and tautological as the first one. Upscale suburban dwellers may well constitute a growing portion of voters, but they in turn are only a fraction of eligible voters. In 1996 and 2000, almost half of those who could vote didn't bother. An appeal to upscale suburban swing voters may keep them interested and involved but probably won't do much to re-engage the growing number of nonvoters outside the suburbs. In fact, the more centrists pitch! their message to upscale 'burbs, the less nonvoters sense that politicians listen to them and care about their welfare. Suburban centrism is a guide for political success, then, only in the limited sense that it's a self-fulfilling prophesy of gradual disengagement by everyone else.

Don't expect to find the "center" in the putative middle ground between those who want more or less government. That age-old debate is steadily less relevant to the problems facing modern societies -- such as controlling firearms, immigration, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, global criminal gangs or the unauthorized use of intellectual property. All require a highly active government that acts smart. And the old debate is all but useless for deciding how to go about such complicated things as trading with China, establishing school standards or ensuring privacy over the Internet. Issues like these don't come down to a place on a continuum between more or less government. Instead, they entail delicate tradeoffs between many important public values.

And don't confuse centrism with a preference for gradual reform over bold strokes. Sometimes there's good reason to go slowly. Smaller steps can reveal pitfalls that need to be addressed before more ambitious efforts can succeed, and small-scale experiments can yield new ideas for better accomplishing a big objective. Maybe in hindsight, it would have been more prudent for Clinton to expand health coverage piecemeal, beginning with children, rather than embarking on universal coverage all at once. Bush's new tax cut phases in gradually over 10 years, but this also permits a future Congress and president to cancel scheduled cuts that are no longer affordable. Incrementalism isn't always best, of course. Franklin Roosevelt had to summon the nation's will to confront Hitler with everything we had.

The new centrism doesn't necessarily prefer small steps over large. It just wants to be as far as possible from any controversial position, regardless how fast its proponents want to move. And it's precisely in this respect that centrism as a political ideal is most dangerous. For it suggests that politicians have no legitimate role as leaders of society, that they are mere conduits. They cannot and dare not take strong stands on divisive issues for fear of losing their precious centrality.

Yet surely the essence of political leadership is to focus public attention and debate on hard issues the public would rather avoid or dismiss. To accomplish this requires courage, cunning and great powers of persuasion. Had Lyndon Johnson sought refuge in the political center, we wouldn't havethe Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act or Medicare. Had Ronald Reagan and Thatcher been centrists, they'd never have embarked on their efforts to dismantle the Great Society and the British welfare state, respectively. McCain was acting as a leader, not a centrist, when he launched his crusade to reform the nation's campaign finance laws. At the time, few Americans were paying much attention to the ongoing scandal of money in politics. That McCain is now reaching out to embrace already popular positions on several other issues does not make him more of a leader.

One cannot lead from the center because most voters are already there, and it is no great accomplishment to lead people to where they already are. That's much more like pandering. In this sense, moving to the center implies a politics responsive to the immediate and unreflective desires of constituents, especially those most likely to vote. That's familiar politics to the legions of Washington strategists and pollsters who make their livings charting and responding to such desires. But it's hardly how politics should be practiced in a deliberative democracy.

Centrism is bogus. There's no well-defined, consistent political center in America. And the rush by politicians to the so-called center is a meager substitute for sharp, open debate about what a nation needs to do, and why.

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, is the Hexter Professor of Social and Economic Policy at Brandeis University and founder of the American Prospect.

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