Arianna Huffington’s slam on centrism – “Memo to Obama: Moving to the Middle is for Losers” — proves that the struggle for the soul of Barack Obama continues. Moderate voices must stand tall and strong against the partisans pulling him to the left. Obama’s meteoric rise to national prominence — and his victory in the Democratic primaries — resulted from the lyrical centrism of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Without that message of unity, moderation, centrism, civility, and sanity, Obama would be just another junior senator. If Obama forgets the origins of his brief career and lurches left, he risks returning to his Senate seat in the fall of 2008, behind even Hillary Rodham Clinton in the pecking order.
Huffington’s post on this issue rests on a false choice between principled extremism and centrist pandering. Huffington caricatures “tacking to the center” as “watering down th[e] brand,” playing to the “fence sitters,” and “dilut[ing]” Obama’s “own positioning.” Huffington fails to understand that being a moderate does not necessarily mean being a pushover. Obama’s vision of new politics, which she chides him for abandoning, is rooted in a traditional push for the center, with a renewed, optimistic vision for today.
Obama’s centrism is part of a great American political tradition. America’s greatest presidents were maestros of moderation, who understood that the trick to effective leadership in a democracy is finding the middle, or creating a new middle. George Washington viewed his role as more of a referee than a crusader. He preached repeatedly to his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, about finding common ground. Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time in office, negotiating, compromising, cajoling, and conniving to keep the badly divided North united against the South. That is why he emphasized fighting to keep the Union together rather than liberating the slaves, despite his personal dislike of slavery. Theodore Roosevelt, although temperamentally immoderate, proved to be an adept arbitrator, ending the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, and even earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic skills in resolving the Russo-Japanese war. Franklin Roosevelt, though often denounced as a radical, in fact tacked carefully between the extremes of the radical left and the complacent right, inching America toward a modified welfare state.
All these presidents succeeded because they understood that they had to play to the middle. Part of the reason why so many Americans are so angry with the current administration comes from George W. Bush’s disdain for the center. By not reaching out sufficiently, Bush has left many Americans alienated from his policies –and from America’s democracy.
Democracy is ultimately a fragile flower. Presidents – and presidential candidates – have to tend it carefully, remembering that the consent we who are governed grant is implied, and rests on a collective act of good will. Great presidents tap into a broad, mainstream strain of American nationalism that keeps this nation of now over 300 million people united and, on the whole, even-tempered.
Arianna Huffington also erred in claiming that previous Democratic nominees stumbled when they shifted to the center. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton did not lose because they were too centrist; they lost because each lacked an effective message – and allowed their opponents to define them. Huffington also conveniently overlooks the only Democrat to win a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton, who repeatedly played to the center, and triumphed.
For Democrats to win in 2008 — and for America to heal and to prosper – Barack Obama needs to find his centrist voice, showing that he can bring a new tone to American politics, as well as creative, broad-based solutions to some of the pressing problems the country faces. Obama has to make sure that the Republicans do not cast him as the next George McGovern. The young Illinois Senator could learn a lot from the pantheon of democratic heroes who understood how to have core principles but also the broad centrist vision necessary to keep this country united.