In Praise of Moderate Presidents
Historian Gil Troy talks about the promise of centrism in the 2008 presidential election
When historian Gil Troy began writing his latest book, Leading From the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, he feared the American idea of playing to the center was being lost in an age of polarizing, “my way or the highway” politics. But Troy says the United States is now facing a “moderate moment” that he didn’t anticipate. As America lines up to select its next president, Troy calls for a muscular moderate, a leader who can compromise and build bridges while preserving core values. Troy, who comments frequently about the American presidency on television and radio, is a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center. In a recent chat with U.S. News, he discussed his new book and the current presidential race. Excerpts:
In this election, there are three major issues, at least, that could galvanize society. The first is the fight against terror, the second is the energy issue, and a third could be a sense of American renewal. Here, at the best, we would have John McCain and Barack Obama channeling that Ronald Reagan capacity to make patriotic renewal and economic renewal reinforce each other.
Are Barack Obama and John McCain moderates?
We currently have two people, two politicians, each of whom are talking about centrism in different ways. But they’re both sort of going to the center. Right now, America is kind of facing this moderate moment. The aspiration for more moderation and for more centrism is a repudiation of the red and blue polarization in politics that we’ve seen.
How specifically has Obama played to the center?
To me, it’s not surprising that during the primary campaign, Obama talked about Ronald Reagan. Because while obviously in terms of policy they differ, the vision of being able to articulate a unifying theme for Americans is so important for a politician, and I think Reagan did it very effectively. It’s a lamentable reflection of the hyperpartisan age in which we live that as soon as “Ronald Reagan” crossed his lips, all of a sudden Obama was deemed to be some kind of conservative sellout who was betraying the Democratic Party.
And how has McCain sought a golden mean?
John McCain has approached his centrism in a very different way. I think that he won the Republican nomination by being the Republican who was most famous for deviating from party orthodoxy, the Republican who was most famous for tweaking George W. Bush. He is much more of a maverick centrist.
In one of your blog posts, titled “Do We Need a Moderometer to Push for Centrism?” you acknowledge that moderates are frequently too reasonable and passive. In what ways has Obama been too reasonable and passive?
When the Jeremiah Wright issue came up, the kicker for Obama was when he felt sort of personally betrayed. It wasn’t the betrayal of national ideals, the disrespect for the victims of 9/11—it wasn’t a whole series of things. When it finally got personal, it was time to cut the ties. That was an example of him not acting quickly enough to stop the bleeding, to cauterize the wound.
What about McCain?
With McCain, the softness that emerges is sometimes in the mushiness. It’s hard to know exactly where he stands, let’s say, on the challenge of the economy and what to do about the gas crisis.
Your write that “It is hard for anyone who loves America, and loves democracy, not to be moved by [Obama’s] centrist, inclusive, nationalist vision. Whether he can implement it, of course, is the big question.” What specific challenges would Obama face in implementing his vision if elected?
One of the great fears of Barack Obama is that he will emerge as Jimmy Carter II, someone who has lovely thoughts but a little bit too much naiveté. It’s one thing for a president to come in on a white horse singing a beautiful song that the voters have embraced. It’s another thing to get the Washington insiders to change their policy. Sometimes the more you critique from the outside, the less willing the insiders are to work with you.
How does age affect political moderation, if at all?
With individuals you can’t overgeneralize, but the danger of a 71-year-old candidate is that he will be too rigid, and the danger of a 46-year-old candidate is that he will be too callow. I think we’ve seen dimensions of that in this campaign.
Does Chuck Hagel fit your prototype of a moderate? Would you like to see him on either ticket?
Chuck Hagel is very much a McCainian in that like McCain, he has shown that he can be a member of a party but also, when necessary, deviate from the orthodoxy. But one of the reasons why I talk so much about moderation and core principles is because I believe in parties. I actually believe that political parties have been the secret to American political success. So when we talk about putting together the ideal ticket or picking the ideal vice president, my ideal is not necessarily crossing the aisle. My ideal is two strong-principled Democrats against two strong-principled Republicans.
What do you think about Lieberman switching teams?
Given what occurred in the primary in Connecticut, he would say, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me.” The danger for the Democratic Party of sort of expelling or exorcising Joe Lieberman is that it might no longer be broad enough to include a national security hawk.
You wrote in the introduction to your book that America’s historic commitment to centrism is menaced by the “shrill invective” resonating in the blogosphere. As a frequent blogger yourself, how do you envision the role of blogs in politics?
Again and again, when I go on the blogosphere, the shorter, the punchier, the snappier, and the harsher the better seems to be the rule. It’s a disappointment. In my blog, I try to keep to a certain civility, and I think more of us have to try to push the conversation to a more substantive and civil arena.
You talk about finding our own inner moderate. What if voters feel strongly about a polarizing issue? Would you suggest seeking moderation on all fronts?
When we talk about moderation, there are always two dimensions: the policy dimension and the dimension of tone and tactics. I think what’s happening right now is that the two are getting blurred, and we’re forgetting that the two categories are very, very different. My whole vision for Americans is not being mush balls or wimps. There doesn’t have to be a mushy middle. There can be a muscular middle.