As we transition from the primary campaign to the general election, there is a struggle for the souls of both presumptive nominees. Both Barack Obama and John McCain came to national prominence as centrists. Obama seized the lyrical center – Reagan style with a multicultural twist – thanks to his 2004 Democratic National Convention Speech, and McCain won the Republican nomination because he was the Republican candidate most independent of his party leader, George W. Bush. Nevertheless, partisans from both extremes are insisting that their respective candidates run away from the center. Many liberals, especially in the blogosphere, claim that Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton repudiated Democratic centrism; conservatives keep warning McCain to shore up his base. Amid this struggle, where are the passionate moderates, the people who believe in a principled center, both as the shrewd place to be – and the right place to be?
Unfortunately, the gravitational physics of American politics, especially during election time, tends to polarize. Our culture and our politics reward the loudmouths, the partisans, the controversy-generators, rather than the bridge-builders, the centrists, the peacemakers. And, in fairness, moderates are frequently too reasonable, too passive. It is easy to see the forces pulling the candidates to particular extremes; where are the forces pushing toward the center?
Note, for example, the New York Times coverage regarding John McCain’s reaction to last week’s Supreme Court decision regarding the detainees at Guantanamo. When first asked to react, before he had a chance to read the decision, McCain responded carefully saying, “It obviously concerned me.” A blog post on National Review Online, the Times reported, asked in fury: “Concerned? Concerned?” Subsequently, after studying the matter and consulting with Senator Lindsey Graham, McCain called the ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”
The bloggers’ attack – as well as the Times reportage – reinforced the narrative of John McCain’s strained relations with the Republican base. But shouldn’t we applaud a leader who hesitates before condemning the Supreme Court, who studies an issue before pronouncing on it? Don’t we need people praising McCain for his initial restraint and encouraging such behavior?
Just as partisans monitor candidates for their ideological purity, we need a moderometer to keep track of a candidate’s centrism both substantively and tactically. This barometer assessing the two nominees’ moderation should focus on various statements they make over the next five months, illustrating whether they shift left, right, or center, while also assessing their behavior, the tone they set. This way, centrists can have some push-back, can make their play for the middle. In the case of McCain’s reaction to the Supreme Court decision, the moderometer would stand level – and reward the candidate for his patience and temperance.
By contrast, the moderometer could teeter tracking another controversy from this week. Republicans pounced on Barack Obama’s comments to ABC’s Jake Tapper pointing to the investigation of the first World Trade Center bombing as a model for fighting terror. “Once again we have seen that Senator Obama is a perfect manifestation of a Sept. 10 mindset,” McCain’s adviser on national security, Randy Scheunemann snapped – shifting the McCain moderometer rightward as Obama’s shifted leftward for treating terror as a law enforcement matter rather than a military and foreign policy challenge. However, Obama’s clever response was well balanced, showing his commitment to fighting terror, as he said: “These are the same guys who helped to engineer the distraction of the war in Iraq at a time when we could’ve pinned down the people who actually committed 9/11.”
The call for moderation is not a call for pallid namby-pamby candidates no more different from each other than tweedle dee is from tweedle dum (to recycle a criticism William Allen White used against Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in 1912). Ideally, Barack Obama’s moderometer will dip slightly left, and McCain’s will dip slightly right. But a gradual incline just enough to emphasize differences and articulate them is not a steep angle that further divides the country.
The two moderates should narrow the battlefield – showing where they agree and then slugging it out where they disagree. But it would be a mistake – and represent a lost opportunity – if the rhetoric of the campaign starts setting up the two as polar opposites of each other, reverse images, with one personifying strength and virtue, the other weakness and wrongheadedness. The United States faces serious challenges at home and abroad. Neither candidate is perfect but both are patriots committing to solving those problems. For once, if we push them toward the center, maybe we can have a campaign that fights about substantive differences without character assassination or caricature. Such a campaign will help the winner do what needs to be done – lead from the center, uniting as much of the country as possible in a concerted attempt to solve the serious problems afflicting us today.