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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Adventures of a Principled Centrist

Like many of my peers in the late 1960's, I entered a law career with a radicalized illusion that I could shake up The Establishment from within. But early in my career as a public defender, I became persuaded that idealists made lousy lawyers. Viewing a case as "a cause" led to ineffective advocacy for the individuals who were our clients. Railing against "the system" was a losing strategy; tweaking it to make it work led to some success. To work from within demanded adherence to core principles - like those expressed in the Bill of Rights, but also a rational sense of moderation. Seeing the flaws of radical ideologies of Left and Right, I came to think of myself as a principled centrist.

The flaw of this philosophy is that it can easily lead to indecision, timidity, and a loss of confidence. Weak compromises are tempting when the risks are great. Uncertainty leads to failure and depression.

Barack Obama, by education and inclination, is a principled centrist. His legal education, which suited his innate propensities, prepared him well for effective advocacy. The first attribute of the lawyerly approach is the ability to see all sides of a question. The second is the exercise of judgments based on reason and evidence rather than faith and ideology.
The term itself is an oxymoron in presidential politics. The centrist is wedded to no firm ideology that huge numbers of people can identify with. It is historically rare to satisfy enough of the people enough of the time from the middle of the road.

The centrist is not an ideologue, except to moderation. Idealogues have a rigid vision, a religious faith in their righteousness. Moderation and consensus are lukewarm ideals. Neither notion stirs passion.

Ronald Reagan’s simple ideology allowed him to be certain and clear about every issue: lower taxes, secure defense, less government, American domination of foreign affairs, strict Christian morality and adherence to normative lifestyles. A centrist cannot be sure about any of these things, is sometimes for some of them, against some at some other times. He is a relativist - his motto must be "It depends." His survival depends on compromise.

A principled centrist in American politics is, by definition, in trouble. First, he states his principles, then is forced to compromise them. Bill Clinton’s adventure with the health care issue in the 1990's is a cautionary tale. He stated a principle: universal coverage. Eventually, he had to temporize, and was seen as weak, the inevitable risk of centrists. The result: his leadership coinage dissipated. He could not fall back on the moral leverage of ideology, had no constant constituency on left or right.

Obama has advantages Clinton never had. Times have changed. In 1993, Clinton’s "mandate for change" was tenuous at best. G.H.W. Bush had alienated a chunk of the Reagan coalition - the middle right - with higher taxes and a weak economy. Because Clinton was a "new" Democrat, based on a sensible, more conservative model, who shied from liberal doctrine, he was positioned as non-threatening. On the left, he was pictured as youthful, a JFK disciple, compassionate, with a feminist wife - a guy of the sixties, who had matured to moderate progressivism. Many "boomers" could identify with that beause they had moved that way as well.

The two-faced picture was enough to gain him a slim plurality in a three way race. Perot's candidacy made it clear that the only consensus in the public mind was that government was distrusted, and that the majority of voters were slightly to the right of center. But that is where the consensus ended.

There was no singleness of mind in the public for where it wanted a president to go. There was no mandate for any particular change. Clinton thought it was there for health care reform, fooled by the fact that he spoke about it in his speeches and he was elected. But the public was never fully committed to it, and was easily swayed by fears of expense and bureaucratic incompetence. In this as in every other issue the people wanted reform, but didn’t want to pay for it: crime, the economy, services, campaign reform. The public was schizophrenic: apathetic and impatient at the same time.

When the Republicans reclaimed the Congress in 1994 with a severe ideological conservative agenda, it forced Clinton the centrist to waffle to the right. The lesson was clear: a centrist may only succeed as a progressive leader if the public is ready to be led and only then by a leader who is perceived as a hero without baggage.

The commentators of the time blamed Clinton for a lack of leadership. The great leader defines the issues and unifies the people behind him. That Clinton failed to do. What he was forced to do is what a centrist does best: react to the extremes of left and right. He must be the captain of a sailing ship, tacking left and right but steering the middle. Clinton’s political acumen was such that he was able to survive well enough to be re-elected and, despite his tragic personal flaws, his presidency is now remembered as a time of peace and prosperity.

Obama’s advantage is that the crises caused by the failure of G.W. Bush’s failure, which is ascribed rightly to the flaw of rigid ideological governance, have forced public opinion to coalesce into a coherent consensus for change - not necessarily "radical" change, but at least, meaningful reform.

The last time that happened was in 1964, when L.B.J. took advantage of his opponent’s extreme conservatism, to form a strong coalition for social change. He succeeded in passing meaningful civil rights reform and programs that began a "war on poverty", only to self-immolate over Viet-Nam.

F.D.R. is probably the better model for Obama. F.D.R. was (and still is) perceived as a decisive leader because his motto was "do anything, but do something". He was able to take chances because the public of the time was willing to be led - almost anywhere. The times were that bad. His one principle was that government had to put people back to work. Everything he proposed, supported, persuaded, was directed toward that goal. He had many detractors from the left and right, but he had such a convincing presence to a people desperate for charismatic leadership that he prevailed and is revered as a great leader. He formed his consensus from huge chunks of the public: union members (in a time of solidly unified, active and powerful unions), Southern poor, the unemployed (25% unemployment in the depths of the depression) and the educated un-rich.

The Obama constituency is similarly broad: the educated and hopeful young, aspiring Hispanics and proud African-Americans, depressed boomers. Like F.D.R., he benefits from a bankrupt and disillusioned opposition party.

The fatal flaw of ideological and faith based governance is that when exposed as false by incontrovertible evidence it collapses. The strength of principled centrism is that its flexibility and foundation of moderation and reliance on evidence permit fine-tuning alterations without conceding defeat.

In the view of many historians, FDR’s policies failed to end the Depression because they were not radical enough. His centrism was a flaw, led to inconsistent contradictory policies. He wavered from his initial policy of governmental activism, caving to budget balancing contraction of spending, overly fearful of the political consequences of huge deficits. He was saved by the war which reinvigorated the broad consensus and commitment to action.

Obama, the principled centrist, walks the dangerous tightrope, his only net is his legal background.

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