Saturday, April 09, 2005

EZRA KLEIN, commenting on a post at Political Wire, says he doesn't understand the "obsession with centrism" in presidential electoral politics. Ezra says it's more important for a candidate (say, Hillary Clinton) to convince her constituents that she gets it when it comes to their issues than for that candidate to be exactly in the middle of the political spectrum. Matthew Yglesias says that's a good point, but there really is no "unique center" -- the center shifts depending on who you're talking to and what issue you're talking about.

The GOP could, for example, probably do better in presidential elections by moderating its social conservatism a little. At the same time, moving to the literal center of public opinion on abortion would be counterproductive because there are a certain number of people who will always vote for a pro-life candidate over a pro-choice one, but who, with abortion off the table, might vote Democratic or stay home. One could go on and on about this (and I'm sure some clever academicians have), but the point is simply that choosing the median stance on every issue is unlikely to actually be a winning strategy -- depending on where your opponent is, some selective extremism is likely to be useful.

I think Ezra and Matthew both miss the point. When I hear someone say that presidential elections are won by moving to the center, I think, What center? The Kennedy-era center? The Nixon administration center? The center when Clinton was president? Or the center now? My point is, the center has been moving to the right for several decades now, and that is what liberals should be concerned about. In every presidential election, the Democratic candidate has felt the need to "move to the center" in order to be elected. And in every presidential election, that move to the center has moved the entire spectrum farther to the right. A look back at the 1964 presidential election is instructive here.

[In 1964, Barry Goldwater] was attacked by Democrats and opponents within his own party as a demagogue and a leader of right-wing extremists and racists who was likely to lead the United States into nuclear war, eliminate civil rights progress and destroy such social welfare programs as Social Security.

So how hard are you all laughing? Barely believable, isn't it? Those "right-wing extremist" positions would all be firmly in the center now. Indeed, in the first decade of the 21st century, Americans have a president who has made the destruction of Social Security the centerpiece of his second term in office; and who advocates preemptive first strikes against other nations -- including a willingness to use nuclear weapons in a first strike.

Liberals should stop worrying about presidential candidates being too far from the center of the political spectrum, and wake up to the fact that the political spectrum itself hasn't been in the center of anything reasonable for quite some time.

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