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Who's Ceded the Center?

Ron Brownstein's column today starts off on a point that I got obsessed about a year or so ago: whether the low cost of entry to the internet will lead to the creation of a third party or an independent candidacy.

I won't repeat my longest and most phony-erudite post ever, but my basic point then as now was that this is sort of an old-style way of thinking about a new-style problem. (It's like saying, "The internet will make it easier to start a newspaper.") The internet won't necessarily create a third party, and it doesn't have to. Instead, it will continue to foster much more transitory and transactional interactions among people, which might never coalesce into anything like what we know as a political party. These gateways for citizen participation will be very different from the mass-membership single-issue groups that thrived in the 1970s, however, and may actually strengthen political parties as a result.

But the point in Brownstein's column that I really want to take issue with is the idea that this hypothetical new party would claim the "center" of the American political space, which Brownstein says has been ceded by both parties. Citing Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, Brownstein argues that the self-organizing qualities of internet politics tend to drive it to extremes:

President Bush has been much more willing [than Clinton] to risk alienating voters in the center to advance ideas that energize his base. Exit polls showed that Bush lost moderate and independent voters in November's election. But he won reelection largely by vastly increasing turnout among Republicans and conservatives.

More and more Democrats see their future in Bush's model, not Clinton's. Trippi says Clinton's conviction that elections are won mostly by converting swing voters "is obsolete." Democrats, Trippi argues, are more likely to win back the White House by increasing turnout among their own supporters with a pointedly partisan message, as Bush did.

But a tilt in Trippi's direction is evident in the surprisingly unified Democratic congressional opposition to Bush's priorities. The result is that both parties are offering policies and messages aimed primarily at their core supporters.

Even strategists such as Trippi who support that approach acknowledge it could have a cost. By ceding the center, it might leave both parties vulnerable to a new force.

These are easy paragraphs to write, and easy to read and nod along. But really? Is the unified congressional opposition to hugely unpopular policies such as Social Security privatization really putting Democrats out on a far-left limb? What exactly are the policies that Democrats are pushing that are "aimed primarily at their core supporters"?

It might be more accurate to say that Democrats are choosing a tactical position that causes their main message to be opposition itself, and centrist voters might be more comfortable with a party that at least appeared to cooperate. But that's tactics, not policies. And it also leaves the problem that Democrats still have no policies and little message at all. But that's a very different problem.

Brownstein goes on:

Yet if the two parties continue on their current trajectories, the backdrop for the 2008 election could be massive federal budget deficits, gridlock on problems like controlling healthcare costs, furious fights over ethics and poisonous clashes over social issues and Supreme Court appointments. A lackluster economy that's squeezing the middle-class seems a reasonable possibility too.

Another classic "pox on both your houses" paragraph. But do the examples serve the point? What if the Democratic Party did not continue on the current trajectory, but just abstained and let the Republicans continue on theirs? The backdrop for the 2008 election would still be massive federal budget deficits, no progress on controlling healthcare costs (certainly not from the wonderful folks who brought you the Medicare prescription drug bill), maybe not "furious fights over ethics" but huge ethical problems, and a lackluster economy. There might not be "poisonous clashes over social issues" if the Democrats just rolled over, but it is the Republicans that are forcing those poisonous social issues onto the agenda, not the Dems.

If one party shoots over to an extreme, and the other opposes it, the opposition party has not automatically moved over to the other extreme. In fact, if the center is open, it is because Bush, Rove and DeLay ceded it. There is no reason for Democrats not to claim it. Democrats can become -- or, I should say, they are -- the party of responsible long-term federal budget choices, of sensible progress on health care, of political reform and ethical behavior, of leaving settled social issues as mostly private choices, and of reasonable Justices like Ginsburg and Breyer. Moving beyond Brownstein's list, add responsible stewardship of the environment, cooperative foreign policy, and more support but less federal intervention in education. Is there anything on that centrist list that the most committed MoveOn.org member would not be comfortable with?

(There may be, in that when I say "sensible progress on health care," I am assuming something other than single-payer, which I don't think is politically tenable or centrist, and there are people who would consider that a sell out. But that's perhaps the only major policy question on which there would be a huge difference between the center and the liberal "base" of the party, and neither the congressional Democrats nor any recent presidential candidate has sided with the liberal base on this one.)

The idea that Democrats should claim the political center still has a little bit of a bad name. (I'm still smarting from being criticized on the DailyKos for being "center-left.") But that's because its associated with tactics: centrist is taken to mean "cooperating with Bush." But the center doesn't have to be defined as "halfway toward Bush." There's no reason to cooperate with an extremist agenda, and equally no reason Democrats cannot to find great common ground in the true political center.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 25, 2005 | Permalink


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By now it doesn't take a genius to figure out what's seriously wrong with this country. Swollen military budgets, no effort at energy conservation, a healthcare system that costs more and does less than any other in the world, failing schools neglected to pay for prisons- these are all problems on the verge of being disasters.

If the Democrats use their exile from power to demand that these issues be dealt with, they will look like geniuses when the chickens come home to roost. If not, they will look as clueless as the Republicans.

I know, it doesn't look good, for them, or us.

The mythical centrist position, in which our goofy kleptocacy just careens into the future with not much changing, may exist, but that doesn't make it worth supporting.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 25, 2005 8:02:25 PM

Mark, I love your perspective and analyses. I wonder, do you know of one such as yourself (reasonable and informed blogger) on the other side of the aisle?

Posted by: Peatey | Apr 25, 2005 8:15:40 PM

Why do you say that universal healcare is politically impossible? General Motors would love it, Blue Cross California advocates it, many Walmart workers already have government provided health care (because so many of them fall below the poverty line), and two thirds of Americans want universal care. As Kevin Drum notes, Americans on government health care are happier than those who are not. And then there is the fact that government heath care in the United States (e.g. in the Veterans Administration) and in other countries is more efficient and delivers better outcomes than the private health care we have here.

Not only is it immoral that so many Americans cannot afford care but, as Krugman recently pointed out, our current system does more to simply throw sand in the gears of the economy than provide good health care. There are so, so many staples of our political system that were once "impossible politically" (e.g. the income tax, legal inter-racial marriage, women in the military, social security, the Federal Reserve, a large standing army, the FDA....).

Why is universal health care different? Why is change impossible?

It's clear why conservatives and their insurance-company paymasters would say so, but they have an interest in saying so -- the hope that everyone will believe them.

It is not so clear why liberals would not be saying that change is possible -- and working for it.

Posted by: fred | Apr 25, 2005 9:11:40 PM

I think that I support a single-payer system. I certainly think that the idea needs to be out there, because we need to drag the terms of the debate somewhat leftward.

I'm a pretty moderate person, but I know that if I were in large swathes of Texas, they would consider me a commie.

Why do you oppose single-payer? Why do you think that having a lot of insurers is a better way to go, given the administrative costs involved?

Matt Miller's 2% Solution reeks of dressed up conventional wisdom and management consultant speak. Nobody has made the case for why private insurance (as opposed to single payer with an option to upgrade a bit out of your own pocket--not quite Canada) is better. What innovation has it resulted in and why would this be impossible with a single payer plan?

Posted by: Abby | Apr 25, 2005 9:13:52 PM

Good post. I have only one issue with it. When you say that the Republican have moved to the extreme right, and the center is open, you need to take into account that the center (politically as physically) is defined as the middle point between the two extremes. So when the Republicans (or a wing of the Republicans) moves far out to the right, they are in effect moving the center to the right. The ability to define the center is the key to future success.

Posted by: Carlos | Apr 25, 2005 10:05:08 PM

I didn't say I don't support universal coverage. I said that I think single payer is, for now, untenable. Individual mandate w/ subsidy, employer mandate, some variation of pay or play -- all those are more plausible, at least as interim steps. I recognize that all of them would fall a little short of 100% universal coverage, even in the best case, but they're close.

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | Apr 26, 2005 1:03:54 AM

You make an argument like the one in the comment above, and then you're stung when someone describes you as 'center left'???
Embrace your inner centrist, Mark! {insert smiley emoticon here}

I'm with the single payer crowd, but then I'm for serious cuts in the imperial military budget, too. And for getting the heck out of Iraq. But that's because someone has to be the left that makes the center look appealing... and because if you don't ask for what you want, you'll never get even halfway there.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Apr 26, 2005 1:23:39 AM

I find that tossing around terms like "left" and "center" tends to obfuscate the issues rather than clarify them. The Republicans may be pandering to the far-right social conservatives, for example, but ask any libertarian if he thinks they have moved to the economic far-right. Not to mention, all the polls asking Democrats "should the party move to the left or to the center?" Unless you focus on a particular issue - as this post does with health care - then you're just playing word games.

Posted by: Steve | Apr 26, 2005 10:54:40 AM

As someone who would take no offense at all being described as "center-left", I would offer a couple of thoughts: I view my vote as a mechanism for holding off either (or any) extreme. In 2004, Kerry, Edwards, or Dean were preferable to GWB. The importance of differences between them paling by comparison to the need for so-called "regime change". Brownstein's article (along with Joe Trippi's comments) also leaves me cold. Is it really possible that a large, moderate, center-left to center-right voting populus (the Clinton swing voters)are and will continue to be out-numbered by either (mobilized) extreme? It sounds odd, but what if someone tried to mobilize the center for a change?

Posted by: jm | Apr 26, 2005 2:25:39 PM

Of course, all this depends on our definitions of "left," "right," and "center". I would argue that there is currently a false "center" that is so far to the right that even the "center-left" is seen as radical leftist extremism. This is largely the product of successful media manipulation by the right, not to mention the right's own effective media outlets. And I would argue, too, that both Gore and Kerry tried to mobilize the "center". Well, Gore really didn't know what he was trying to mobilize, which was his problem, but how is Kerry anything other than a moderate? Only in Bush's America is he some raving, drooling lunatic of the far left. For someone who lives in Canada, like me, it's insane to think of Kerry as anything but a fair and balanced moderate!

It is unlikely that a third party would ever successfully occupy the center of American politics. It would be absorbed into the two umbrella parties before it could ever become a viable alternative. For all the talk of third-party emergence -- and, remember, Brownstein was once a devout Naderite -- America's is a two-party system, with the occasional rise of a temporary third option (like Perot). It's much more likely that a third party will emerge on the far left (as a green-progressive party) or the far right (as an evangelical party). The two parties do mobilize their bases, which tend to be outside of the mainstream, but, in the end, they usually govern more from the center. Even Bush, after all, hasn't governed according to his more extremist rhetoric.

Excellent points, Mr. Schmitt. I cover some of the same ground, without in any way trying to compete with The Decembrist (!), at my own liberal Straussian blog:


Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | Apr 26, 2005 5:05:07 PM

As a center-right republican who supports gay marriage, opposes tampering with the fillibuster, and believes in environmental issues I disagree with our northern friend that there is no center right in this country. Most of the people I know are firmly in the center in the USA and lean only slightly to the left or right so that is the party they go with or they stay independent.

I didn't see Kerry as a raving lunatic but had my own personal reasons for not voting for Kerry that had 0 to do with swiftvets. I voted for a republican president who I am not happy with but was the lesser of two evils in my opinion and a democratic senator who wone in New York in a landslide. The right and the left don't get any moderates because when it is time for the primaries it is the extremes who turn out to vote and the furthest to the left or right at the time end up moving on to the general election. The rest of us who would like a more moderate person are left in the cold voting for people we don't particularly care for.

I can't see any of the moderate republicans getting past the primaries nor can I see a moderate democrat. I don't think in my life I will see a Lieberman-Giliani race. That would be a great campaign by two moderates who can't get their way through a primary.

Posted by: Adam | May 6, 2005 9:26:23 PM

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