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.