Archive for the ‘Moderates’ Category


Culture Warriors Don’t Win

By Gil Troy, NYT, 4-27-12

Campaign Stops - Strong Opinions on the 2012 Election

Ronald Reagan campaigned for governor on Nov. 5, 1966 in<br /><br /> Hawthorne, Calif.,
Associated Press Ronald Reagan campaigning for governor on Nov. 5, 1966 in Hawthorne, Calif.

Mitt Romney’s apparent nomination proves that Republican voters are more pragmatic and centrist than their reputation suggests. The Republican candidates this year fought a classic political battle. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul campaigned as purists, echoing Henry Clay’s famous expression from 1844, “I’d rather be right than president.” The realist Romney updated the belief of nineteenth-century partisans that a candidate’s most important ability is what they called his “availability,” as in “his ability to avail” – and prevail.

Gingrich and Santorum frequently justified their extremism by invoking the modern Republican demigod, Ronald Reagan. Gingrich is just now giving up on campaigning as a “Reagan conservative” against Romney, the “Massachusetts moderate.” In March, Santorum visited a Reaganite holy site – the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, Calif., which produced Reagan’s favorite jelly beans. “They’re asking you, people of principle, to compromise your principles and to be for someone who is less corely convicted than Ronald Reagan because we need to win,” Santorum said. He had a pragmatic argument too: “Every time we run someone that the moderate establishment of the Republican Party said we need to win, we lose.”

Santorum’s diction – corely convicted? – is as flawed as his historical memory. Republican voters have rejected culture wars and fanaticism in presidential campaigns repeatedly – they know culture warriors don’t win. Despite the talk about the rightward lurch of their party, a majority of Republicans have learned Reagan’s central political lesson. A Republican candidate can only win by wooing the center, and a president must govern as a national leader, not a factional chief or a cultural crusader.

Even when it began in the 1850s as an ideological anti-slavery breakaway group, the Republican Party favored more “available” nominees. The first Republican nominee, John C. Frémont, was most famous as “The Pathfinder.” In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the compromise candidate, defeating the zealots Salmon P. Chase and William Henry Seward. Lincoln’s strategy was “to give no offence to others – leave them in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love.” He even made his acceptance letter “sufficiently brief to do no harm.”

There has been a more substance-oriented counter-tradition, epitomized by Grover Cleveland’s challenge, “What is the use of being elected or re-elected, unless you stand for something?” But the need to appeal broadly to America’s diverse electorate has usually prevailed. American voters’ weakness for popular icons over articulate ideologues ultimately frustrated even Henry Clay, the conscience of the Whig Party. As the Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, who had never even voted for president before, conquered his party in 1848, Clay, well aware that Americans loved turning soldiers into presidents, moaned, “I have thought that I might yet be able to capture or to slay a Mexican.”

In the twentieth century, Ronald Reagan delivered his best lines as a culture warrior, including the grand slam — “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah” – while governing California, not while he was running for president. Reagan won in 1980 by moving beyond Barry Goldwater’s cranky conservatism, which had triggered the Democratic landslide of 1964.

Reagan’s conservatism with a smiley face emphasized economic issues. Within weeks of his inauguration in 1981, conservatives were complaining that Reagan’s Cabinet was too moderate. Their cry — “Let Reagan be Reagan” — demanded a more ideological and confrontational “corely convicted” leadership. But in compromising and popularizing, Reagan was being Reagan.

Nevertheless, conservatives revered Reagan because they never doubted his essential conservative identity. In Puritan terms, Reagan had a “covenant of grace” with conservatives, not a “covenant of works.” His salvation came from sharing core beliefs not engaging in particular acts.

Since Reagan, conservative ideologues like Santorum have inspired voters, disrupted primaries, enraged Democrats, alienated independents, but lost. In 1988, the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson surged in Iowa, then faltered. In 1992, Pat Buchanan was only popular enough to hurt President Bush, not to win. This pattern has held, with flareups of varying incandescence from Alan Keyes to Gary Bauer to Mike Huckabee. George W. Bush did not run as the conservative ideologue many saw when he governed but as the Romneyesque “compassionate conservative” whom many on the right at first mistrusted.

Winning candidates need a broad national reach. The appeal of the culture warrior is far more limited than the Tea Party crowd claims. If Americans actually embraced Rick Santorum’s worldview, the rates of premarital sex, abortion, births to single mothers, divorce, and same-sex relationships would be much lower, especially in the “red states.” But these are not “blue state” phenomena or liberal Democratic behaviors.

Most Americans are not ready to jettison traditional moral strictures even as many live non-traditional lives. Especially in this election, with no particularly pressing social or cultural issue demanding the attention of voters, Santorum’s sanctimony functioned as a form of identity politics, telegraphing membership in a self-selected club of the “virtuous,” while churning divisive emotions.

Romney should be wary because culture warriors can sabotage presidential campaigns. When, at the Republican National Convention in 1992, Pat Buchanan declared a “religious war,” a “cultural war,” a war “for the soul of America,” it was President Bush who suffered. Karl Rove blamed the 2000 electoral deadlock on millions of evangelical voters who stayed home because harsh conservative attacks on George W. Bush made them doubt his ideological purity.

Romney also has to worry because when smartphones and Facebook make everyone a reporter and modern journalists can shamelessly eavesdrop at Palm Beach fundraisers, it gets harder to reconcile primary-driven genuflection toward the right with more moderate inclinations. Both Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats will resurrect his most extreme statements as he veers toward the center. But in recalibrating, he will be behaving like most nominees. As one Republican Party founder, the passionate, wild-bearded Gideon Welles, advised his ambitious friend Franklin Pierce in 1852, when Welles was an anti-slavery Jacksonian Democrat: “Be the candidate of all.”

In 1984, Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, offered a recipe for victory that was more apple pie than red meat: “Crime, Education, Economics – Unity.” Reagan understood that Americans had complex feelings about many issues. He knew that a presidential campaign was not a Christian camp meeting. His covenant of grace gave the conservatives a popular victory they never would have achieved otherwise. And it taught Republicans (and Democrats) that even in primary season, winning the center and the swing voter remains the candidate’s central mission; political purity is useless if you lose.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition.

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By Gil Troy, History News Network, 7-25-09

In one his many riffs this week against Barack Obama’s health care reform initiative, titled “This is a Very Dangerous Time: Socialized Health Care is Not Dead,” on July 21, Rush Limbaugh explained himself, saying: “So this is an attempt by me to keep people inspired and motivated rather than on the sidelines and analyzing it, the brave moderates! The brave moderates? (laughing) By definition, moderates can’t be brave! They don’t have opinions. (interruption) Dawn doesn’t like me saying things like that. But, I mean, brave moderates? Great Moderates in American History? Show me the book!”

Rush Limbaugh is triply wrong here. American history is filled with great moderates. The story of moderates in American history and in the American presidency makes for a great book subject. And Limbaugh’s celebration of extremism is one of the many reasons why Republicans are failing to get any traction in opposing the Obama Administration.

In my book, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make Great Presidents,” I show that America’s greatest presidents succeeded by aiming for that presidential sweet spot, either finding the center or reconstituting it. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt were not wimps. They had opinions – contrary to Limbaugh’s caricature. But again and again they demonstrated that important insight that an effective and constructive leader in a democracy has to build as broad a coalition as possible, rather than simply playing to the margins, or being satisfied with “50 percent plus one” of the vote. George Washington, pulled in opposite directions by his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, repeatedly urged them — and their fellow citizens – to be reasonable, to remember America’s “Common Cause.” During the traumatic battle over slavery, Abraham Lincoln endured harsh attacks from abolitionists because he understood that America’s survival hinged on working toward emancipation gradually, and keeping the Civil War a fight for union not for black freedom. Theodore Roosevelt – who was spasmodic, flamboyant, and not at all a moderate by temperament – built his presidential reputation by mediating during a great mining strike and finding a settlement to the Russo-Japanese War. And Franklin D. Roosevelt worked hard to build consensus during the New Deal – and even more painstakingly inched Americans toward involvement in World War II.

Even Rush Limbaugh’s great hero, Ronald Reagan, understood he had to lead from the center. Reagan was elected to be president of the United States not president of the Republican Party or the conservative movement. To keep the nation united, Reagan infuriated conservatives by backing away from their “ABC agenda,” focused on fighting abortion, busing, and crime. Instead, Reagan emphasized economic issues over social and cultural issues. When conservatives yelled “Let Reagan be Reagan,” they erred. When he was singing his broad patriotic song, when he was compromising, when he was building consensus as his role model Franklin D. Roosevelt had done, Ronald Reagan was being Reagan.

Barack Obama also needs to remember the importance of leading from the center – and his promises to transcend the polarizing politics of his baby boomer elders. But shrill extremists like Limbaugh have made it easy for Obama to veer left and still appear reasonable. Having Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney function as the public face of the Republican Party is a recipe for Republican disaster – and national trouble. Democracies need effective oppositions as much as they need smart, reasonable, temperate, center-seeking leaders who appreciate the importance not just of winning but of maintaining the consent of as many people as they govern as they can.

So, yes, Rush, moderates make great presidents, great Americans, and great book subjects. I leave it to others to determine whether they also make for great books, although I appreciate Geoffrey Kabaservice’s suggestion on the New Majority Blog that my book may be the right text to prove Rush wrong.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 2-3-09

In a recent HNN posting, Professor John Grigg urged President Obama to stop seeking consensus, characterizing bipartisanship as “often a cynical effort to silence dissenting views.” Professor Grigg’s article is worth dissecting because he captures the current – dare I say it – consensus among academics to dismiss bipartisanship and consensus-building while romanticizing partisanship and radicalism. In fact, President Obama should press for a genuine consensus, building as much bipartisan support for his proposals as possible. As I argue in my book, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” this approach is not just what we need today – especially amid the economic downturn and the continuing terrorist threat – but that moderation has often been the secret to presidential success and broader American good feeling.

Professor Grigg’s indictment rests on three pillars. For starters, he tries to apply the shortcomings of the consensus school of history to the broader effort at consensus-building. He notes that the historians from the 1950s who emphasized America’s center-seeking tradition often painted a one-dimensional portrait of American development that minimized some of the constructive conflicts that made this nation great. Moreover, Grigg continues, seeking consensus breeds political complacency. Rejecting a status quo politics, he argues that “the extension of liberty in American history has come not from consensus but from confrontation.” Finally, he claims that the current chorus for consensus comes from a few insiders who seem “to welcome political debate; but only within a narrow field of vision.” The result, he insists, is a politics that gets intensely personal not because it is too partisan but because it not partisan enough.

Grigg’s critique of the consensus school has merit. There was a tendency in the 1950s – among academics and others – to assume that the unity Americans achieved at the height of World War II was typical. Fortunately, waves of historical revisionists since the 1950s have painted a richer, more complex portrait of America’s history. But, it is possible to acknowledge conflict, even constructive conflict, while still appreciating the strong, consensus-oriented, pragmatic streak in American history? Modern historians have been so successful at charting America’s disagreements – and dysfunctions – they often fail to answer the most basic question about American history – how has the country succeeded? A new, more sophisticated, post-consensus-history understanding of American consensus can incorporate diversity and conflict into the broader narrative of a country that functioned best when leaders sought to find the center – or, as we are currently seeing and have seen before – tried to forge a new center.

Grigg is correct that seeking consensus can often degenerate into simply maintaining the status quo. But to inflate a tendency to avoid into a permanent condition is like complaining about the common cold as if it were cancer. Historical change in America at its most constructive has occurred when consensus-oriented politicians like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy played off against more radical voices fomenting division. A great president takes the strong, occasionally divisive currents agitating for change and tames them, making them more mainstream, more primed for domestic consumption. Currently, Barack Obama seems to be doing just that. He is making dramatic moves, but by trying to build a consensus, he is making them more palatable politically. Such leadership goes way beyond cheap political posturing. When done correctly it fosters the kind of engagement and support we need in a democracy, rather than the bruised feelings and alienation we have seen far too frequently in recent decades.

Grigg should not be so quick to dismiss the healing possibilities of bipartisanship – or the broad cries in the country for such leadership. The success in 2008 of bridge-builders like Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama suggests that the desire for center-seeking goes beyond the Beltway insiders Griggs seeks to demonize. And the Clintons, among others, would be the first to testify to the fact that the “politics of personal destruction” which they so famously denounced came from the harshest of Republican partisans rather than the moderate, David-Gergen-like Washington types I am assuming Griggs targeted – without naming any names or offering up any evidence.

Bipartisanship and consensus-seeking need not mean namby-pamby leadership. The American political tradition we need to appreciate is one of muscular moderates, proud nationalists, who understood that in forging a national consensus they were maintaining democratic legitimacy and nurturing nationalism. This center-seeking is the call of George Washington, urging squabbling partisans to remember Americans’ “common cause.” It is the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, understanding that first he had to keep the North united before he could end the blight of slavery. It is the romanticism of Theodore Roosevelt, using the White House “bully pulpit” to position the president as the tribune of the “plain people” building consensus for progressive change. It is the experimental incrementalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, introducing enough reforms to silence working class cries for revolution but not so much change that capitalism vanished and America’s Constitution became unrecognizable or moot. And, with any luck, it will be the Reaganized liberal pragmatism of Barack Obama, restoring a sense of community and self-sacrifice, reinvigorating government where necessary, without forgetting all the lessons of the last 40 years so that America does not end up saddled again with inefficient big government programs offering delusional solutions rather than constructive change.

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By Gil Troy,HNN, 11-19-08

I agree with three of Allan Lichtman’s four “simple rules” suggesting how Barack Obama could be another Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, among others, also knew to “Strike Early.” Americans’ desire to see their new president succeed gives an administration a great launching pad. “Bringing the People With You” is essential in a democracy. Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill described Americans’ insistence in 1981 that he give Ronald Reagan a chance to succeed. “Thinking Big and Broadly” is the example FDR set, and other successes such as John Kennedy followed. I lost Professor Lichtman on his fourth rule “Don’t Govern from the Middle.” In fact, Obama should lead from the center – but as a muscular moderate not a spineless centrist.

Lichtman builds his case against moderation by mentioning a grab bag of mediocre presidents. Actually, the greatest presidents including FDR led from the center. Being a muscular moderate entails having core principles, thinking big, but mastering the art of compromise too. Franklin Roosevelt understood that, as did the other president whom Lichtman identifies as a success, Ronald Reagan.

To understand Roosevelt as a moderate we have to recall the historian’s favorite text – context. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March, 1933, America’s prospects looked bleak, radicals demanded revolution. “Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you’ll be the greatest president in American history,” an admirer told Roosevelt. “If it fails, you will be the worst one.” Roosevelt responded: “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.” Against that backdrop, Roosevelt’s reforms were pioneering but temperate. He preserved private property. He restored American capitalism. The American welfare state he created was a stretch considering America’s past, but a far cry from European varieties, let alone the Soviet model so many American intellectuals desired.

In the historian Richard Hofstadter’s apt metaphor, FDR was a nimble quarterback, always scrambling but usually remaining within America’s constitutional boundaries. Perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest failure – his attempt during his second term to pack the Supreme Court – resulted from running out of bounds. The Court-packing scheme – adding up to six new justices for each justice over seventy – failed because Roosevelt overestimated his own power and the American people’s appetite for revolution. This miscalculation set back the New Deal – but taught FDR a valuable lesson. When World War II broke out in Europe, Roosevelt was a model muscular moderate – advancing forward in an important direction, toward intervention, but always staying half a step ahead of the American people, rather than outrunning them.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan proceeded more cautiously than conservatives hoped and liberals feared. From the start of his administration, Reagan demonstrated that he was not the president of the Republican Party or its conservative wing but president of the United States. The Reagan Library has many files filled with letters from conservatives blasting Reagan for being too accommodating. Reagan’s Cabinet, filled as it was with moderates like Alexander Haig and Malcolm Baldridge, let alone Rockefeller Republicans like Richard Schweiker, infuriated conservatives.

One of the few ideologues Reagan appointed to a high position, his Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman, would write a kiss-and-tell book, “The Triumph of Politics,” complaining that the so-called Reagan Revolution was headed by an amiable former actor more interested in being popular than storming the big government Bastille. Ultimately, the Reagan Revolution slowed the rate of growth of government – but it preserved the New Deal status quo. Stockman’s glum conclusion was that American government was more “Madisonian,” fragmented, temperate, incrementalist, than he had hoped.

This moderation provides essential ballast in a democratic system. America remains a center-right nation – and a country of pragmatists wary of revolution. Even the American Revolution itself was a relatively mild, reasonable affair – compared to the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutionary bloodbaths. In his victory speech, Barack Obama acknowledged the tens of millions who did not vote for him, whose support he will need to succeed. George W. Bush presidency should be remembered as a cautionary tale warning against the Karl Rove strategy of mobilizing the base and neglecting the center.

When President Bush struck early, thinking big and broadly, one Democratic senator proposed minor changes to Bush’s controversial tax cuts. The senator promised that with those compromises, “I guarantee you’ll get seventy votes out of the Senate.” Rove replied, “We don’t want seventy votes. We want fifty-one.” This polarizing take-no-prisoners attitude alienated many and derailed Bush’s presidency. The writer who recounted that anecdote was Barack Obama himself, in “The Audacity of Hope.” Obama then wrote: “Genuine bipartisanship … assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficit.” This is a great description of what muscular moderation is all about – and what Barack Obama needs to remember as he reads about FDR’s presidency – and plans to lead from the center in an Obama administration.

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Barack Obama’s mad rush toward the middle
The Democrat is following a well-trod path to moderation on the political stage

L. IAN MACDONALD, The Montreal Gazette, Wednesday, July 23, 2008

…There’s a fine line between pragmatism and cynicism, and Obama runs a risk of crossing it, especially since he started out as the candidate of hope and change.

But Gil Troy, for one, perceives that Obama is returning to his centrist origins, as well as heeding the rules of post-primary positioning.

Troy, a McGill University history professor and presidential scholar, has just brought out a timely book in the U.S. on the subject of centrism in American politics, entitled Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

“When you read Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, or when you hear his 2004 speech to the Democratic convention,” Troy says, “that’s a much more centrist vision than what we saw in the primaries.”

From Washington, where he’s a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Centre, Troy adds: “I look at it less as pandering that someone needs to do than as someone being what he’s always been.”

In Troy’s centrist all-star lineup, Obama could fit right in with 20th-century presidents who usually found the common middle ground – Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who named the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, to the Supreme Court.

“To the frustration of his core supporters,” writes Troy, “Reagan repeatedly compromised, caring more about national unity, relative political calm and his own popularity.”

Troy defines the “Great American Centre” as having “a long proud history of offering a muscular moderation, not a mushy middle.”

Obama also seems to be on what Troy describes in his book as “this search for the centre, this majoritarian stance, (which) may be the quintessential democratic quest.”

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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?

Barack Obama on the campaign trail

Barack Obama on the campaign trail from http://www.barackobama.com

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.

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HNN, July 3, 2008

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.

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