Temperamentally, I find centrism to be quite appealing. It’s fun to try to remain above the fray and criticize the extremes on both sides for all evils.
However, centrism doesn’t fit our current context. As we’ve seen in the debate over the health insurance mandate, raising the debt ceiling, the payroll tax, and more or less every other policy issue, the fundamental problem with our politics is the extremism, cynicism, and savage partisanship of the Republican Party.
Being a centrist today, therefore, requires criticizing the actually-existing policies of the Republican Party, while smearing the Democratic Party with proposals that are either unpopular within the party, or wholly imaginary.
We’ve seen Tom Friedman in on this act lately, but the most extreme centrist is probably Clive Crook. A little while back, Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber flagged a column about torture where Crook criticized the expressed views of GOP leaders like Dick Cheney, then wrote that “The Democratic party’s civil libertarians seem to believe that several medium-sized US cities would be a reasonable price to pay for insisting on ordinary criminal trials for terrorist suspects.” This was, of course, an insane lie that no one believes in the first place. And it ignores the fact that the Democrats didn’t really do all that much to prevent US torture of suspected terrorists. All in the service of seeming “above the fray.”
(Farrell later described Crook’s worldview in a post entitled “Centrism As Tribalism“).
In January, Crook wrote of the debt ceiling debate:
Next, sometime in the spring, public borrowing will run up against the statutory debt ceiling. Congress must vote to raise it, or else the government will default. Again, Republicans thought to use this to intimidate the administration. Meet our demands on spending, or we shut you down. That was the idea.
Tea Party true believers may be salivating at the prospect of the coming Battle of the Debt Ceiling, but the GOP’s leaders are dreading it. Shutting down the government is a button they dare not press – not if they retain the least grip on reality. They did it once before, during the Clinton administration, and were slammed: the shutdown rescued the Clinton presidency. To do it in 2011, with the economy laid low and financial markets still twitchy, would be the limit of irresponsibility. It would be betting the recovery to make a point. This time, political annihilation might follow, and the party would deserve it.
Avoid this they must, but how do they retreat from their campaign positions without being seen to climb down? My advice to them is simple: they cannot. The Republicans need to moderate their zeal to cut discretionary spending too much and too soon; they need to make the case for measured, long-term reform of Medicare and Social Security; and they need to advance tax reform that will raise revenue without pushing marginal tax rates any higher. The sooner they start climbing down the better. Otherwise, they will fall and go splat.
Then it happened– the GOP forced a showdown over the debt ceiling.
Did Crook live up to his word, and make sure people knew that the Republicans should “fall and go splat”?
Of course not. He wrote, “Obama the Bystander Will Pay the Price.”
(Crook’s weaselling had been predicted by Brad DeLong: “sometime ago Clive Crook said that if the Republicans resist raising the debt ceiling and use it as a political football that they would risk and would deserve political annihilation. But experience shows that they soon return to their both-political-parties-are-equally-at-fault-don’t-bother-me-with-facts crouch…”).
At the moment, the Democratic Party is a centrist, wonkish party, and the Republican Party has nothing but anti-government talking points it crafted in response to the policy challenges and political scene of 1972. Hasn’t always been thus, shall not ever be thus, but that’s where we are right now. Commentary that obscures, rather than highlighting, this essential point actually detracts from readers’ understanding of the world.
ADDED: From a Paul Krugman post on Clive Crook, involving a different debate:
Clive used to be a reasonable guy; in his mind he probably still is a reasonable guy. But he has misunderstood what it means to be reasonable. He now apparently believes that it means declaring, in all circumstances, that Democrats and Republicans are equally in the wrong, even if the Democrats are talking Econ 101 and the Republicans are being led by the crazy 36.