From an online discussion on The Power Line Forum, July 9-10, 2008
Let’s distinguish between two different questions here. One, is Obama (or McCain) a centrist? What does that mean, is that a good thing? I start from the premise that both of them, in different ways, are more moderate than most of their party colleagues and that for each of them that centrism was a strength. Moreover, I find that moderation not surprising and actually a good thing, because I believe that centrist leadership is the right way to go – it’s both politically wise and constructive. Which is why I call my book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. (I confess, I constructed that sentence in response to the product placement remark).
Now, the second set of questions, is Obama repositioning – and is that a good thing. Well here too we’re seeing two things. One, a bit of a corrective after some of the absurdities of the primary battle. Note, for example, the ridiculous scapegoating both Obama and Hillary Clinton were guilty of with NAFTA… Second, we’re also seeing the “Oh, boy phenomenon,” where Obama says, “wow, this is real, I might actually become president, so sloppy sloganeering during the campaign about Iraq might actually lead to dead Americans (or Iraqis) – pretty sobering. I think that’s a good thing, no? Don’t we want a president who can adjust a bit to changing circumstances?
Well, for starters, to be technical, he hasn’t yet been nominated, but I know what you mean. George McGovern would certainly give Obama a run for his money in a leftist sweepstakes, and if you examine his ideology, rather than his track record in 1976, Jimmy Carter, too. So historically, there’s much to be debate there. More pressing, I think Obama is a hologram. I certainly see his liberal voting record in the Senate, and the leftist academic milieu that nurtured him intellectually, socially, culturally and politically. At the same time, when you read Audacity of Hope, when you watch his great 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, not only a lyrical centrist emerges – but actually, a smart, post-Reaganite Democrat. In Audacity, Obama accepts major parts of the traditionally-oriented, family-values conservative cultural critique of America. He also sees some limitations on government – that shows a more conservative side than, say, John Kerry, ever displayed. But Obama also believes that government can intervene constructively, and his agenda is very much a progressive one. So, in all, he’s more complex than the centrist or leftist caricature suggests. But I believe that if enough moderates voices push him, his inner centrist will come out – for the good of the country.
There has been much debate over labeling Obama. Is he a “Lefty”?? Is he a “Moderate”? He claims he is “complicated,” but what does that really mean??
I believe that Obama — or McCain, or whoever becomes our next POTUS —- MUST remain in the middle. As I argue in my latest book, Leading From the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, 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.
Americans have a tradition of muscular moderation, and if we don’t figure out how to push our candidates towards the centre, rather than to the poles, we are going to deeply regret it.