Friday, July 29, 2011

A Soft Chewy Center

Paul Krugman doesn’t see any merit in being a “centrist.”

Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself. I don’t. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily reside in the middle of the road, and I want leaders who do the right thing, not the centrist thing.

But for those who insist that the center is always the place to be, I have an important piece of information: We already have a centrist president. Indeed, Bruce Bartlett, who served as a policy analyst in the Reagan administration, argues that Mr. Obama is in practice a moderate conservative.

Mr. Bartlett has a point. The president, as we’ve seen, was willing, even eager, to strike a budget deal that strongly favored conservative priorities. His health reform was very similar to the reform Mitt Romney installed in Massachusetts. Romneycare, in turn, closely followed the outlines of a plan originally proposed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation. And returning tax rates on high-income Americans to their level during the Roaring Nineties is hardly a socialist proposal.

True, Republicans insist that Mr. Obama is a leftist seeking a government takeover of the economy, but they would, wouldn’t they? The facts, should anyone choose to report them, say otherwise.

So what’s with the buzz about a centrist uprising? As I see it, it’s coming from people who recognize the dysfunctional nature of modern American politics, but refuse, for whatever reason, to acknowledge the one-sided role of Republican extremists in making our system dysfunctional. And it’s not hard to guess at their motivation. After all, pointing out the obvious truth gets you labeled as a shrill partisan, not just from the right, but from the ranks of self-proclaimed centrists.

There is no virtue in being in the center if it means you have no convictions of your own. Too many people are willing to substitute being reasonable with being mushy. It is possible to hold fast to a position without being inflexible, but it helps if you have some core beliefs and aren’t willing to give them up just to gain a few yards on the political gridiron.

Another part of this discussion is that the needle has moved far to the right on the scale. What used to be considered way-out far-right extremism is the new normal to the point that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t stand a chance with the Tea Party crowd, and Richard Nixon, who gave us such things as the EPA and wage and price controls in an attempt to control inflation, was a Commie (ironic, given how he rose to power as a red-baiting acolyte of Joe McCarthy). If Barack Obama, who’s to the right of Bill Clinton and right-wing compared to Lyndon Johnson, is considered a lefty, then the scale hasn’t just moved to the right; it’s tipped over.