By JULIA KAMIN
“Leading From The Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents”
By Gil Troy
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.