By Gil Troy, US News & World Report, September 29, 2008
It is not easy being a moderate. Despite widespread grumbling that President George W. Bush was too headstrong and polarizing, both John McCain and Barack Obama were scorned this summer whenever they played to the center.
Reporters mocked McCain’s “Macarena,” sliding right then left, along with Obama’s “policy pirouettes.” When McCain insisted on reading the Supreme Court’s Guantánamo decision before condemning it, conservative bloggers blasted his “tepid” response. Similarly, Obama’s musings that by visiting Iraq, he might refine his position angered so many supporters he backpedaled quickly.
As a result, during their respective conventions, both nominees acted more conventional, sounded more partisan, and chose less centrist running mates. Even more disturbing: When the financial crisis hit, ideological adversaries, ranging from the Republican Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson to the Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, cooperated on a bailout plan, while both candidates initially made simplistic, demagogic comments scapegoating Wall Street rather than offering creative, visionary problem-solving proposals.
This descent into partisanship is destructive. America needs muscular moderates—nimble and adaptable but anchored in core values. We need presidents who think first and bluster later, who adjust positions based on often messy facts. Running toward the center to lead from the center is the right thing to do and the shrewd political move to make, especially with the contest so close and the issues so serious. Neither McCain nor Obama is a Johnny-come-lately to centrism—moderation is central to their political identities. Both appeal to independents disgusted by the perpetual fights pitting Fox News cheerleaders against MoveOn.org critics. Like most Americans, both candidates understand that crises in finance, healthcare, energy, immigration, and national security require thoughtful analysis, not shrill attacks, complicated compromises, not partisan sloganeering.Barack Obama first wowed Democrats as a lyrical centrist. The son of a white American and black African, celebrating a purple America, promised to heal the red-blue and black-white divides. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama crossed ideological wires, fusing the normally conservative critique of American cultural excess with liberals’ faith in government. In 2006, Obama united five Democrats and three Republicans to raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards. Their bipartisan Fuel Economy Reform Act delighted environmentalists and manufacturers, as the government’s tax incentives and flexible standards helped automakers cut fuel consumption.
John McCain is even better known for legislative bridge-building. From leading the “Gang of 14,” breaking the logjam over judicial nominations, to spearheading the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, McCain has been one of Washington’s most passionate moderates. That track record, plus his reputation as the Republican maverick, propelled his candidacy.
Historically, muscular moderates, not spineless centrists, inhabited the great American center. This moderation is rooted in principle, tempered by practicalities, anchored in nationalism, modified by civility. In the White House, it included George Washington’s reason, calling on Americans to rally around their “common cause,” Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatism, focusing on union, not abolition, to keep the border states in the Union, Theodore Roosevelt’s “bully, bully” romantic nationalism to inspire the people, Franklin Roosevelt’s visionary, experimental incrementalism to solve the Great Depression, and Harry Truman’s workmanlike bipartisanship in the face of the Cold War. On Capitol Hill, Henry Clay’s tradition of great compromising inspired the roll-up-your-sleeves horse-trading of Sens. Bob Dole and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose bipartisan “Gang of Seven” saved Social Security in 1983.
Presidents preside most effectively over this diverse country by singing a song of centrism rather than shouting partisan slogans. Using slim majorities to impose radical changes violates the implicit democratic contract between the leader and the people. Great presidents aim for the center, targeting the popular bull’s-eye, sometimes after repositioning it.
During the general presidential campaign, with the nominees wooing swing voters, not party warriors, this push to the center is frequently tonal and tactical. As nominees realize that selling simplistic solutions to complicated problems may shackle them when governing, many moderate their policy positions and philosophies, too. Alas, partisans yank their nominee left or right while journalists caricature policy refinements as pandering.
American citizens tired of the toxic red-blue bickering must push for the center. Finding energy alternatives, fighting terror, stabilizing Wall Street, and ensuring quality healthcare are national needs. Always seeing issues through Democratic or Republican prisms distorts reality. Some issues beg for bipartisanship. Even the dueling antagonists from 2000’s recount, James Baker and Warren Christopher, recently cooperated to re-evaluate the War Powers Act, just as both nominees eventually supported the bailout package.
Not all adjustments are betrayals. In accepting a different FISA domestic surveillance bill from the one he initially opposed, Obama was nuanced. By contrast, his turnaround from supporting public campaign financing to spurning it was dizzying. Similarly, many Republicans’ recognition that the Wall Street crisis required government intervention reflected maturity, not spinelessness.
When done right, cross-cutting centrist appeals should be hailed as consensus-building, not always dismissed as flip-flopping. Barack Obama should give a speech detailing where he agrees with George W. Bush’s antiterrorism strategy—before highlighting the disagreements. John McCain should identify what constitutional limitations he accepts when fighting terrorism—before justifying the emergency measures he feels the war warrants. Such statements would shrink the partisan battlefield, emphasizing the consensus Americans share with their two presumptive nominees in abhorring terrorism and cherishing the Constitution.
Americans must not blow this moderate moment both candidates have, at various times, in different incarnations, said they seek. We can make centrism sexy. We should applaud John McCain when he studies a judicial decision; we should cheer Barack Obama’s willingness to learn in Iraq. We should encourage the statesmanlike bipartisanship we recently saw in the White House and on Capitol Hill while condemning the petty demagoguery we witnessed on the campaign trail. Letters to the editor and blogs should overflow with passionate moderates denouncing the partisans and celebrating the centrists. Most important, when the pollsters call—and when the polls open on November 4—we should support the candidate most likely to govern as a muscular moderate, not a polarizing partisan.
Gil Troy, the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents (Basic Books), is a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and professor of history at McGill University.