Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why Centrism Requires Partisanship

In earlier posts I have praised centrism; to me it’s not a mushy form of triangulation, but a pragmatic style of politics that takes the best from the left and the right.

Centrism is not without ideological principles, but ideology does not overwhelm facts. For example, a centrist position on abortion retains the ideological position that women have an inherent right to control their reproductive decisions; but centrists also recognize that late-term abortions confront us with ethical challenges that cannot automatically be resolved in favor of women’s rights.

On the economic front centrist policies meld the recognition that market-based capitalism is the engine of our prosperity with the understanding that regulations are required to ensure equity and maintain health, safety, and environmental standards. Centrist economic policy neither fetishizes free markets nor demonizes them.

Centrists do not seek equal outcomes in America, but they do believe that government has a role in guaranteeing equal opportunity. There are legitimate differences on how best to provide this opportunity, but basic agreement with the idea that government resources should be used to make sure every American has a chance to excel and contribute to society.

Centrist foreign policy recognizes that America has a unique role to play as a world superpower, and that more often than not American influence has helped to tilt the world against authoritarianism and toward freedom. At the same time, America’s exceptionalism hardly makes us perfect; we have also engaged in unjust and unwise foreign interventions that have led to humanitarian disasters. Centrists don’t want isolationism, but they do want wise engagement and an emphasis first and foremost on diplomacy and economic tools.

Unfortunately, the GOP has drifted so far right during the Bush Administration that its guiding philosophy conforms to almost no centrist principles.

On domestic issues, GOP leaders seem to think that tax cuts alone (mostly for the wealthy) are the end all and be all. Nobody in the GOP talks about making college more affordable for the middle class, or increasing teacher pay in poor communities, or providing health care for poor children, or any of the other policies that are needed to truly provide equal opportunity. Instead the GOP lionizes the “market” and denigrates all forms of regulation, an approach that has taken us in swift succession from Enron to Katrina to the current subprime mess, costing hundreds of billions of dollars and ruining countless thousands of lives.

Things are little better on the foreign policy side. The Administration has had some success with North Korea and seems finally to be taking an interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is too little too late. The Iraq War has been a disaster, and the bellicose militarism that has dominated the GOP’s strategy has hardly made America more secure: Al Qaeda is still potent and again gaining in strength, Iran is emboldened, Pakistan dangerously close to becoming a failed nuclear Islamic state. For the most part the GOP presidential nominees have learned nothing from this imprudent course, and spend their time trying to out-tough each other.

The only exception is Arizona Senator John McCain, who, despite some reactionary stances, comes closest to a centrist position; unfortunately for McCain, this is exactly why the GOP establishment can’t stand him. Except for him, the establishment all line up on the far right.

Across the aisle, however, the Democrats are mostly staunch centrists. There are Kucinichs in the party, but the leaders and the serious presidential candidates are textbook centrists on a wide range of issues.

This may change. The GOP was once home to many moderates (remember the Rockefeller Republicans?), and may be again. (Among the party’s presidential nominees, Mike Huckabee has shown an almost Democratic interest in workers who’ve lost jobs and families whose annual incomes are well short of six figures.)

But if you’re a real centrist, there’s no doubt you should be fighting to elect Democrats in 08.

Jason Scorse

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