There’s more than one way to skin a moderate
Writing of Evan Bayh, Ross Douthat opines:
America needs politicians who stake out interesting, politically-courageous positions on important policy questions. What it doesn’t need is politicians who occupy the safest possible ground on the great issues of the day, shift slightly left or slightly right depending on the state of public opinion, and then get congratulated by the press for being so independent-minded. [….]
Wherever the Beltway conventional wisdom settled, there was Evan Bayh — and he was rewarded for it with endless presidential and vice-presidential chatter, which has followed him, absurdly, even now that he’s announced his retirement.
In his farewell statement, Bayh complained that in today’s Washington, there’s “too much partisanship and not enough progress — too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving.” He’s right, up to a point, but his own record suggests that centrists as well as ideologues can be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
Reading this, it struck me that there really are two kinds of so-called "moderates" out there. Or maybe even more. Maybe the term "moderate" or "centrist" is just a blanket term used to either applaud or tear down people with whom we agree or disagree.
For instance, that line about occupying the "safest possible ground on the great issues of the day" rushed out at me. For the purposes of Beltway moderates, that really is the case. They occupy the safest ground. They take the positions which will earn them the most adoration, funding, or media attention. Perhaps Bayh was this sort of moderate. I know very little about Bayh, and care even less.
As a self-professed ideological schizophrenic, I can see how I might be lumped into this category as well. I wonder, though, if the ground I’ve been treading is so safe. And there are other so-called moderates who seem to be walking on similarly thin ice – like Bruce Bartlett for instance, who was all but exiled from many conservative circles, but who will never find a warm reception on the left nonetheless. Is he speaking his mind just to play it safe, or is he doing it because he has ideas that don’t fit nicely in any of these scripted narratives we’ve been given.
I read almost exclusively conservative writers (probably that is a flaw) and generally agree mostly with conservative lines of thought (or libertarian lines of thought, depending). I want to write for conservative publications. Almost all my contacts in the writing and publishing world are conservatives.
My best chance at success in this business is to take sides, go partisan, and let whatever little writing talent I have do the rest. If I really wanted to play it safe, I would ditch my support for gay marriage; I would rally behind our foreign policy; I would run screaming from even the mildest support of any sort of healthcare reform. This would be the safe ground for me as a young conservative writer in today’s world.
I might even denounce Barack Obama as a socialist. I don’t because I respect my opponents, I respect their ideas and believe that for the most part they mean what they say. They believe in it. I hope to be given the same benefit of the doubt. I don’t want us to ditch our partisanship, I just want us to be able to have a beer while we argue. And I don’t feel comfortable housing my entire cadre of ideas and inklings beneath one banner. I’d rather be honest and homeless than have a political home and no integrity.
The fact is, our political definitions are lacking. And so we fall back on calling anyone who doesn’t nicely fit into our little boxes a "moderate". I wrote about this recently in regards to the conservative intra-party disputes:
Simply because someone isn’t fully in line with all the proper talking points that the GOP expects, or that talk radio conservatives like Limbaugh or Beck demand out of thinkers or politicians on the right does not mean that one is a “centrist.” If anything, that term seems either a convenient way to take the easy, comfortable middle road or, conversely, to sling around as a pejorative in order to marginalize political opponents. One man’s centrism is another man’s radicalism, or something to that effect. Either way, I don’t think the debate is really between “moderates” and “conservatives” so much as it is between reasonable people and people who are in it entirely to win.
In this sense, the reasonable people may be very conservative – Paul Ryan, for instance, is hardly a “centrist” but he is in every sense of the word a reasonable man whose politics are well grounded in first principles. Bruce Bartlett has added to the conversation not by being a “moderate” but by coming up with new and relevant ideas. Conversely, there are those on the right with very little grounding in conservative first principles who take so well to the rightwing populism of the day that no one would ever consider them to be “centrists”, even if philosophically they are anything but principled conservatives.
Update: I actually do read quite a few liberals, come to think of it. I read Yglesias, Klein, the TNR folks (especially Jonathan Cohn), Jamelle, and a number of others (such as some of the folks over at Obsidian Wings). I do not read publications such as the Huffington Post, and I’ve never really been that interested in TPM or Firedoglake. I read Andrew Sullivan, though, and he’s essentially moved to the left at this point.