Archive for June, 2008

Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents

Author: Gil Troy


Upcoming Schedule: Sunday, July 6, at 8:45 AM
About the Program

Gil Troy writes that the best American presidents have all been moderates, citing the examples of George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.  He says most presidential candidates pretend to be moderates, but show themselves as partisans once they are in office.  Mr. Troy urges politicians of all stripes to be “muscular” unapologetic moderates.


About the Author


Gil Troy is a history professor at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He is the author of “Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s” and “Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady.”


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Transcripted from the New America Foundation

It is not easy being a moderate. I have been shamelessly shilling for my book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents since launching it last Monday. Correction: I have been constructively engaging in discourse about my latest historical monograph. Sitting in my office in Washington, DC at the Bipartisan Policy Center, I have been traveling across America, doing one of these satellite radio tours.

While ricocheting virtually from North to South, I discovered – or, to be more accurate – rediscovered – that in today’s partisan universe, even centrism and attempts at non-partisanship can be highly politicized.

  • “Ah, you say you’re for centrism,” said a talk radio host in Detroit, “do you think a true centrist would be willing to be an appeaser and talk to dictators who hate America?” Of course, I had no idea which candidate he might be talking about……
  • For balance – both geographical and political – a talk radio host from across the aisle in Georgia said: “McCain may talk about centrism but aren’t all Republican policies about greed and selfishness.” Hmm, not sure who he was favoring either…

But my two favorite comments were actually non-partisan comments in defense of partisanship, Dmitri and Bob, right in Washington, DC, introduced my WTOP interview by saying:

“If you want to say a word that sucks the air out of the room – say moderate – -it’s so boring, it just gets people yawning….”

And, more crudely, one radio host asked:

“if you hang out in the middle of the road, doncha just end up as road kill?”

This slam reminded of the Texas populist Jim Hightower’s 1997 polemic against his fellow Democrat Bill Clinton’s centrism entitled: There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadilloes.


This, of course, is the problem. We need to remember that there is a rich, vigorous tradition of muscular moderation in America, of dynamic leaders who sought the center out of strength not weakness, seeking to unite the country not just rile the partisans. Both Barack Obama and John McCain, in different ways, have said they want to lead from the center. Unless we figure out how to give them positive reinforcement for that constructive centrism, unless we push for moderation, we will see yet another round of red versus blue divisive politics.

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XMRadio, POTUS ’08 channel

June 25, 2008

Gil Troy, author of Leading From the Center, will appear on XMRadio POTUS ’08 channel.

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HNN, June 24, 2008


Despite both presumptive nominees’ rhetoric about center-seeking, if moderates do not figure out how to push from the center for centrist leadership, this campaign will degenerate into another divisive slugfest. We are all well aware of the gravitational physics of American politics, how partisans from the left and the right pull their respective candidates to the base, and how difficult it is to resist the lure of going negative, at a certain point in the campaign. The challenge for moderates is to reinforce candidates when they play to the center – and chide them, reporters, bloggers and other players when they play to the extremes.

Consider the current argument about terrorism. In a recent interview with Jake Tapper of ABC News, Barack Obama made it clear how passionately he feels about civil liberties. He argued that just as the original attackers of the World Trade Center from 1993 were brought to justice within the boundaries of the Constitution, so, too, could future terrorists be fought legally but effectively. This comment allowed Republicans to pounce on him for his “September 10” mentality, for treating terrorism as a domestic law enforcement issue, rather than an external military threat.

With everyone playing their roles, with the media and the campaigns treating the campaigns as polar opposites, reverse images of each other, Barack Obama was caricatured as strong on civil liberties, John McCain as tough on terror. Following that polarizing logic, if Obama was pro-Civil Liberties, McCain was caricatured as being “con”; and if McCain was anti-terror, Obama was caricatured as “pro.” Of course, Obama is not in favor of terrorism and McCain has distinguished himself – as a former prisoner of war – by speaking out against torture and for civil liberties. Both candidates have to work hard not to get stereotyped and to limit the battlefield on which they fight.

What if Obama gave a speech about what George W. Bush has done right in the fight against terror. Obama could start with a strong repudiation of Islamism and terrorism, detail the Treasury interdiction efforts that slowed the flow of cash to Al Qaeda, and specify other areas of passionate agreement with Bush and the Republicans. He could then talk about where Bush and the Republicans have fallen short, but with much more credibility as a tough-on-terror Democrat. Similarly, McCain should give a strong address about the importance of civil liberties and Constitutional processes in wartime – then detail where he would limit liberties and for whom, showing where he would deviate from the Administration’s approach and from the Democrats’ views.

Frequently, when we think about centrism we think about triangulating, about compromising core principles to create some kind of neutered policy. Campaigns should be about disagreements, about passionate fights over competing principles and policy prescriptions. But the candidates should be careful to emphasize the core values they and all Americans share in common not just their clashes regarding vision and tactics.

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In Person….




Washington, Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan – most would agree their presidencies were amongst the most successful in American history. What made these very different men such effective leaders? According to presidential historian

Gil Troy ‘82, A.M. ‘84, Ph.D.’88, they succeeded not because of bold political visions, but because of moderation. Although many candidates often claim to be moderates, the word cannot conceal a political climate defined by extreme rhetoric and virulent partisanship. Gil Troy, Professor of History at McGill University and author of Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s and Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady, argues that this is an un-American state of affairs.The great presidents have always sought a golden mean – from Washington, who mediated between Jefferson and Hamilton, to Lincoln, who rescued the union with his principled pragmatism, to the Roosevelts, who united millions of Americans with their powerful, affirmative, nationalist visions. As America lines up to select its next president – a president who will likely lead from the center – GilTroy reminds us of the finest traditions of presidential leadership from our nation’s past.

Karen Levine, Program Committee



27 West 44th Street

NewYork, NewYork 10036

212-840-6600 phone • 212-827-1270 fax




On Radio….


Wednesday July 9, 2008 @ 10 to 11 PM EST on the Jim Bohannon Show http://www.jimbotalk.net/Future-Guests.php

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NY Post, June 22, 2008

“Leading From The Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents”

By Gil Troy

Basic Books

Hail compromise! Huzzah negotiation! Purple power!

Four presidential terms of red-blue politics, culture wars, impeachment threats, left-right blogo-sparring, Swift Boaters and Bush-bashers have brought America to perhaps a new high in partisan entrenchment. But, if you believe the pollsters, there are signs – by the names of John McCain and Barack Obama – that Americans weary of heated hyperbole and itch for some cool consensus.

According to Gil Troy, that’s very good news.

“Moderation is an odd thing to get passionate about,” admits Troy, but that doesn’t stop the McGill professor from waxing Socratic over the virtues of the golden mean. America has a “long and vibrant tradition of cultivating civility and seeking the center,” Troy claims, which has produced many leaders to steady our nation’s course.

“Leading from the Center” – part history, part manifesto of centrism, and part political how-to – sets out to rewrite the history of the presidential greats as “maestros of moderation” and reorient our present day notion of how a president should lead. Troy constructs a presidential A-list of masters of the middle, starting with George Washington, the “gold standard” of moderate leadership and working his way through Ronald Reagan, who understood the value of “big picture pragmatic governance.”

Troy also admits that tacking center is not only about good leadership, it’s the surest way to get into office in a “winner take all” electoral system. Recent polls certainly suggest that Obama and McCain need to do the same to win. Unsurprisingly, most presidents seek out the middle (with a few exceptions) – but that doesn’t mean all do so successfully.

It’s in piecing together what separates the ineffective centrists from Troy’s concept of the “muscular” moderate that the true mystery lies. Apparently some mixture of nationalism, pragmatism, moral conviction, statesmanship and force of personality will do the trick. Troy is a little vague.

Troy says that charisma and ability to inspire patriotism on their own will get a president far, even for an “amiable ideologue” like Reagan whose “temperament, leadership techniques and patriotism tethered him to mainstream public opinion.” But to create a wellspring of consensus out of a national crisis, you need Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s knack for writing a “successful narrative” that invites “all Americans to uphold and enjoy the country’s most noble ideals” as well as his ability to “find that muscular middle, clearly standing for something but compromising when necessary.” Add “elan, great charm, and a steady smile,” and you have a New Deal president that “not only preserved the American center” but “repositioned and strengthened it.”

Bill Clinton’s presidency, on the other hand, is a “cautionary tale” in how centrism alone won’t do it: “offering moderation with no muscle, Clinton perfected a spineless centrism, a poll-driven posture whose addiction to popularity diminished the presidency’s transformational potential,” Troy writes.

As for the presidents who threw moderation to the wind, they did so either by failing to notice that the center had shifted or by mistaking rigidity for strength. In this category, George W. Bush earns one of Troy’s harshest history-lashings. As a “conviction politician,” Bush risked “being imprisoned by ideology, handcuffed to the world [he wished] to see rather than adjusting to the world that is.” His immoderation is particularly troubling because it was coupled with what Troy sees as an “unnatural” change in our political culture – toward a rhetoric of “slash and burn, all or nothing, red versus blue, my way or the highway.”

It’s a good time to start getting passionate about moderation. Enter Sens. McCain and Obama.

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