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April 08, 2005

The Imaginary Center

Via Political Wire, pollster Scott Rasmussen, annoyed at his post-2004 election irrelevance, has created the Hillary Meter, an enormously useless waste of webspace tracking, twice monthly, how close to the political center Americans think Hillary is.

The obsession with centrism is, to me, the single most puzzling thing about presidential politics. It's as if the strategists and pollsters and commentators all sat down over Scrabble one night, decided the work they did was too hard, and unanimously agreed that, from then on, the middle would be the ideal and everybody could simply work off that. Then the pollsters would know what to poll, the strategists would know what to strategize, the commentators could pen their critiques, and everyone could hit the bars by seven. They did all this in a century where none of the great and effective leaders were middle-of-the-road kinda men. FDR, Kennedy, Johnson (got an enormous amount done), Reagan -- there was no obsession with moderation directing their compasses, and had there been, they'd be consigned to dust-gathering biographies in particularly well-stocked libraries, not still injecting themselves into political discussions.

Whether Hillary hits dead middle is far less important than whether she connects with the American people. Because, surprise surprise, the nation doesn't quite rest in the magic center either. They like class warfare, soaking the rich, government-run health care, preserving the environment, and participating in all manner of international treaties. Of course, Hillary's move to the center will be judged on how well she rejects these American priorities -- how quickly she gives up the ideal of universal health care, how blithe her dismissal of international treaties is, how much she protests against a progressive tax code.

But then it's not the American middle she'll be moving to, instead, she'll by traveling to a hypothetical center that exists only in the heads of the commentariat. And to get the secret key that opens up the hidden door to that electoral treasure room, she'll have to gut punch what she believes in, deny good policy, and show herself willing to bleed her supporters. Being judged viable in politics has the distinct oder of a frat hazing, where not only do you have to demean yourself, but for entry, they love it if you offend and even cause pain to your former friends. And so, If Hillary were smart, she'd take her husband's advice, not Scott Rasmussen's.

Strength and certainty will do her much more good than meaningless, muddled moderation. Her current attempts to frame her positions in massively appealing and concrete terms are exactly right, so much so that they've even sent her marching towards the center in Scott's polls without changing her positions a bit. Because, in the end. the American people judge the center to be where they are, and so long as they like what's being said, they'll drag the middle over to is. Hillary should just keep on keepin' on, no matter which direction these meaningless polls point in.

April 8, 2005 in Electoral Politics, Strategy | Permalink

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Comments

Ezra

The nation also doesn't like criminals, welfare scroungers, illegal immigrants, Islamofacists, treacherous foreign governments, partial birth abortion, money grabbing lawyers, fake war heroes, power obsessed politicians, inefficient public services and excessive taxation.

Posted by: Boethius | Apr 8, 2005 12:24:52 PM

Ezra,

Thanks for mentioning the fact that ALL of America's national heroes were EXTREMELY controversial. I speak of Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Lyndon Johnson, and Martin Luther King. The David Brooks-New Republic folks seem to think that "National Greatness" or whatever their tagline is means great plans to spread democracy/colonize Mars or do whatever all good Americans will come together and support, blah blah blah. Here's a national greatness platform:

Enact Universal Healthcare
End the Culture War by Winning It
Eliminate Restrictions on Immigration

Yeah, I know, not likely to happen. But let's not kid ourselves that centrism and "common ground" are the way to greatness. Politics can do great things.

Posted by: Marshall | Apr 8, 2005 12:52:45 PM

This also relates to the Daddy/Mommy frame you're talking about. We cannot afford to be a moderate, smack-bang-in-the-middle party because we already have to fight this perception that we're too wishy-washy. It plays exactly into the stereotype of Republicans as the strong and decisive Daddy and the Democrats as the sweet and reasonable mommy who's also a pushover.

Battlepanda's Back

Posted by: battlepanda | Apr 8, 2005 1:03:03 PM

Marshall

I notice you didn't include Ronnie as a "national hero" or Washington.

I suppose wining the Cold War doesn't rate high in your book?

Republicans will often criticise FDR, HST or JFK but will also acknowlege that they did many good things as well. Why can't some Dems do likewise?

BTW The politician making the most noise about getting tough on immigration is Hillary. Any politician who advocated "eliminate restrictions on immigration", a policy which could lead to hundreds of millions of immigrants arriving, would be committing electoral suicide.

Posted by: Boethius | Apr 8, 2005 1:13:51 PM

Boethius,

Not a big fan of the huddled masses, yearning to be free? Ah, well. I guess the iconography of America is only meaningful when a republican mantles himself in it?

Posted by: TJ | Apr 8, 2005 2:02:34 PM

Oh, I realize immigration liberalization will never be popular. Oh well--just saying that real greatness is controversial.

Don't get me started on Reagan.

Posted by: Marshall | Apr 8, 2005 2:03:20 PM

Bush is right about one thing: the only poll that matters is the one they take every two years in November.

As for Hillary: she is easily understood as the communitarian Joe Lieberman would be if not for his corporate whoring and his undisguised contempt for large swathes of the Democrat coalition.

Posted by: ktheintz | Apr 8, 2005 3:10:48 PM

TJ

I have nothing against LEGAL immigration and I want the huddled masses to be free but in their OWN counties, such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Marshall

Fair point.

Posted by: Boethius | Apr 8, 2005 3:39:06 PM

Boethius, Regan was a fine actor. I will give him credit for that. As for giving him credit for anything whatsoever during the cold war, I will admit that he is partially responsible for the arming and proliferation of the Islamofacism you rail against. If you want to give credit to individuals for "winning" the cold war (which is a really stupid andi-intellectual endeavor), at least give credit to the correct world leader; Pope John Paul II. His courage in Poland had infinately more effect on the people of Eastern Europe than the great confabulator.

Posted by: Blogsy McBlog | Apr 8, 2005 5:12:50 PM

Boethius,

Saying "I want the huddled masses to be free but in their OWN [countries]" sort of undermines your position that you're a fan of immigration. You want this country to be (or remain) great? Then you'd better start making it easier for people to legally immigrate. Really, that holds every promise for reducing the illegal immigration.

Posted by: TJ | Apr 8, 2005 6:04:02 PM

First, I don't think that there's anything bad about supporting a moderate for a executive position - that person has to represent not only those who voted for him - but those who didn't. Someone who is a relative centrist is often best suited for this sort of leadership.

The "center" doesn't have to be real for it to have very real political force, and very real political consequences.

The language of the right in the past few years hasn't so much accused progressives and Democrats of being left, as it has accused them of not being moderates. We can have candidates move to the center without actually affecting any change in policy - but simply using language that cast ourselves as moderates, and our right-wing opposition as immoderate.

We're not outside the mainstream, they are.
We're not tax and spend big government liberals - they're theocratic right wingers who want to but into every aspect of your personal and financial life.

The perception of moderation is fostered by two things:

1. Counter language - painting your opponent as immoderate.
2. An apparent willingness to compromise.

We can do both of these without actually sacrificing anything we believe in.

Posted by: Brew | Apr 8, 2005 6:14:18 PM

Blogsy

I can't say I was ever impressed by Reagan's acting ability. As for saying he had nothing to do with defeating Soviet communism then I think this proves my point earlier about Dems not being big enough to give some praise to their opponents.

Do you really think the cold war would have been won if Carter had been reelected? Well perhaps it would but not by our side.

In 1980 Brezhnev was seriously considering an attack on Western Europe. Somehow I can't see Jimmah having the guts to stand up to him, he didn't even have the guts to stand up to Iran did he.

As to Eastern Europe have a look at what Lech Walesa and Natan Sharansky have said about Ronnie's "evil empire" attack on communism. It was criticised by liberals but it gave hope and encouragement to those suffering under oppression.

Before Ronnie nobody was saying that the Soviet Union could be defeated. It was him, together with the Pope, Walesa, Thatcher, Solzhenitsyn and others, who gave us victory.

Posted by: Boethius | Apr 8, 2005 9:24:29 PM

TJ

I agree it should be easier for people to legally migrate.

I would also do more to discourage illegal immigration, starting with a crackdown on businesses that employ illegal immigrants.

Posted by: Boethius | Apr 8, 2005 9:27:37 PM

Boethius,

I can certainly agree with you, there. Very exploitative.

Posted by: TJ | Apr 8, 2005 10:34:16 PM

Uh oh Boethius -- you better take a look at Carter's doctrine vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. You're massively off-base here. Beyond that, didn't Hillary call for tougher immigration standards recently? Where's your info coming from?

Posted by: Ezra | Apr 9, 2005 2:57:23 AM

Ezra

I do know what the Carter doctrine was but it's one thing to draw doctrines up it's another to put them into force.

You weren't around in those days but I can remember the Carter era and the sense of increasing foreboding that was widespread and the feeling of hope that Ronnie brought.

I can't prove this but nothing will convince me that a Carter reelection would not have led to disaster - either Soviet tanks on the Rhine or Persian Gulf or nuclear war.

The Soviet empire collapsed without any major war, that was beyone our hope and expectation in 1980. I will always regard Ronnie as a hero for his part in that. Sure he made mistakes (though I guess my list of his mistakes may be different to yours) but I think everyone should hold him in respect for this.

Perhaps it's a generation think - two generations before me they had FDR, a generation before me they had JFK. I had Ronnie and will always be protective of his memory.

Hillary did call for a tougher stance on immigration (I pointed that out in my second post here). It's a clever political move by her though I don't know how much she really believes in it.


Posted by: Boethius | Apr 9, 2005 9:51:10 AM

The stampede for the center is a function of electoral politics. You have to picture two graphic concepts that I can't draw here, because I have no genius for ASCII art, which is a shame. First, picture a bell curve. This is the classic sort of jellyfish shaped graphic representation of where people place themselves on the continuum of opinion. The X axis is political affiliation, left to right, and the Y axis is how many people put themselves at that point on the continuum. So, way out at the left, just to the left of where I put myself, there are your 2%ers of the left, and way out on the Right, where we put Matt Hale and trolls like Boethius, are the 2%ers of the right. As one approaches the middle, the numbers of people responding "this is my set of political opinions and affiliations," rises.

Now, in the primaries, for any election, presidential or otherwise, the candidates have to de-moderate their positions, in order to highlight the differences between themselves and the other candidates running for the nomination. Now picture a continuum that is simply an X axis of positions within the party. The candidates on the primary continuum need to populate the outer ends of that set of positions, lest they be branded as "all the same guy in different suits." Joe Lieberman failed to understand this, and he got his ass handed to him in the primaries. They do this by highlighting their positions on ISSUES, exploiting identity politics and issues that they know segments of the party voters hold near and dear. Notice the romancing of organized Labor and other single issue voting blocs BEFORE the convention, not after. As candidates stampede to the middle in the primaries, they become an undifferentiated mass. If this happens, voters generally say "What's the difference, anyway? Oh, look McGuyver's on!"

However, as soon as the primary is over, it's back to the Bell Curve of our original example, because despite what the media tells a credulous public about "living in divided times," the bottom line is that THE VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE ARE MODERATES. You could easily get a completely opposite impression from reading weblogs, but moderates often don't feel the need have weblogs, though you, Ezra, and Big Media Matt, I think do a fine job of holding forth with the slightly-left-of-center moderate liberal voice in the blog world. (You also don't often see many moderates trolling, fuck you very much, Boethius.)

Once primaries are over, it no longer behooves the candidate to trumpet his diversity from the field of other candidates in the primary and his best advantage is to pursue the largest pool of voters, right there in the middle. So, it's out with ISSUES and in with identification with The American People as a Whole. After the convention, the surviving campaign radically shifts gears in a different direction on two fronts- 1. Attack the other side's candidate coming out of their convention, and 2. highlight CHARACTER and moderate positions (the almighty center).

The center is where the numbers are, and It's about numbers after the conventions, because numbers are what win elections. (If the voting machines are busted. Another post for a different day...)

And by the way, Boethius, only a complete farking idiot and ideologue starts a sentence with the phrase "I can't prove this but nothing will convince me that [insert insane conjecture here]" without feeling some shame. You, sir, are a jackanapes. (Look it up.)

Posted by: patrick | Apr 9, 2005 11:43:32 AM

Patrick

My my you are a happy bunny aren't you - funny isn't how those who claim to be "liberal" or "progressive" are so often the most intolerant of other viewpoints.

Why should I feel any shame about my thoughts on a hypothetical situation (Carter's reelection). Those are my convinced opinion of what would have resulted. Of course I can't prove it with it being HYPOTHETICAL but neither could anyone else prove their opinion on this case.

I would also put myself 10-20% from the right edge of the political spectrum. My personal opinion varies as to what the particular issue is, on many (abortion, gun control, euthanasia, third world, gay marriage, energy) I would be even closer to the centre.

Perhaps you think I'm so right wing because you don't hear much from other conservatives. In that case I'd recommend a visit to a site like Polipundit (there are plenty of liberal "trolls" there so you wouldn't be without support).

I don't known what you have against "trolls" in any case. When constructive and polite (as I endeavour to be) they usually improve the debate and allow different views to be heard. Unless that is you prefer to live in an echo chamber.

Posted by: Boethius | Apr 10, 2005 11:36:24 AM

are so often the most intolerant of other viewpoints.

My apologies. You have every right to be an idiot. Please, don't let me interrupt. You may continue.

Posted by: patrick | Apr 10, 2005 8:52:17 PM

Boethius, this argument is beneath most people. Are you seriously implying that Reagan's rhetoric was the force that allowed the sucessors after Breshniv (Yuropov, Chernenko) to die quickly, and to allow Gorbachev to become the Soviet's leader? Are you stating that he advocated his positions of Glastnost and Perystrokia out of fear of Ronald Reagan's rhetoric? What concrete steps do you attribute this to? Our disgusting human rights violations in Latin America? The 300.00$ hammers Ronnie bought for our military? People on the right seem to make bombastic causual relationships out of events that occur simultanously. A great example of that is occuring with Lebanon right now. However, I am encouraged by your ability to ignore the fact that Reagan fanned the flames of islamofacism, a real threat that is causing us immense discomfort to deal with. This ties in with the "cloud of hope" that Reagan brought. Some people would state that the Carter administration was the first administration that tried to actually deal with the problems caused by our excessive consumption of energy and the massive poverty present in our world. Regan promised the electorate the ability to ignore these problems, and think about nice things. The Republicans have had a complete inability to deal with the "reality based world" ever since. You are no exception.

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