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June 10, 2006

The Self-Interested Center

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

I'm looking back at Stuart Rothenberg's article from Roll Call, titled "Challenge to Lieberman Shows What's Wrong With Politics," where he laments Ned Lamont's primary challenge to Joe Lieberman.  Here's a bit from the middle, to give you an idea of the flavor of the piece:

Lieberman’s crime is that he hasn’t always toed the party line. He’s decided for himself what’s right and wrong, even — and here is the most shocking thing — used his own values, judgment and intellect to decide where he stands on issues and how he’ll vote.

It's a typical sentiment among inside-the-beltway journalists like Rothenberg who make their living providing nonpartisan political commentary.  These are the same people who adore John McCain for his infrequent but high-profile departures from Republican orthodoxy and shower positive attention on any politician who criticizes his own party. 

There's no reason to think that one's "intellect, values, and judgment" would generally push one away from a partisan view, while less noble motivations would drive you towards partisanship.  Self-serving politicians following median voter theory to re-election have good reasons to move towards the center and not look partisan.  Sure, you might not get a lot of turnout from your base, but you'll win more voters in the middle and depress base turnout on the other side.  Low base turnout on both sides cancels out, and you win the large cluster of votes in the middle.  Every moderate of the other party that you steal is worth turning out two of your own base voters, since it deprives the opponent of a vote as well as winning one for you.  So you move to the middle and cut off your opponent's access to the large number of valuable moderate votes. 

When politicians resist the pull of the middle, we have much better evidence that values, judgment and an intellect that thinks of more than expediency are at work.  But Rothenberg is professionally required to be wrong about this.  Bashing partisanship and praising the courage of centrism is the way you position yourself in the center of the American political spectrum.  That's where Rothenberg's job requires him to be.  While partisans in Washington are a dime a dozen, people with a reputation for nonpartisanship are harder to come by.  If you can get this reputation, you can position yourself as an objective observer of politics, a referee in the contest between the parties, and people will listen to you.  If your magazine or your newspaper can position itself this way by running pieces like Rothenberg's, it'll rise in profile and be regarded as the voice of conventional wisdom.  And if the pursuit of median readers works like the pursuit of median voters, you're in good shape to be read by people across a large part of the political spectrum. 

And so Rothenberg pens his praise of Lieberman, Roll Call prints it, and the nonpartisan commentary industry cranks out its latest centrist-hyping piece.  Whatever the facts happen to be about Lieberman, Lamont, and the nature of politics, he couldn't write them any other way.

June 10, 2006 | Permalink


My problem with Lieberman is not that he is some sort of "moderate." I don't even care that he capitalized on Clinton's impeachment.

I don't care that he criticizes other Democratic politicians on a policy level. I don't care that he has ideas different from my own.

What I care about is that his criticisms of Democratic politicians are rarely about policy. They are usually about repeating some sort of baseless GOP talking point designed to damage Democrats, not serve some larger policy goal.

I especially care that he uses his Fox News bully pulpit to say that this Midwestern, church-going Democrat is outside of the mainstream of not only the USA, but my own political party.

Lieberman sacrificed his principles long ago for the sake of more TV interviews. He wants to be famous, wants to have "influence," wants to make sure that when he is finally ousted from the Senate he has a secure place on some gravy train somewhere.

I see that Dr. Rothenberg doesn't have a way for people to respond directly to his posts. How typical of the real elitists in this country - the DC politicians and pundits - telling us bumpkins in flyover country what to think and not deigning to provide a way for us to respond.

Posted by: Stephen | Jun 10, 2006 4:21:29 PM

This attitude that a primary challenge to a sitting Senator is an attack on him personally is one I find extremely annoying. Given that we currently have only two viable parties and thus our choices for candidates are severely constrained, the only outlet for criticism of an incumbent is to vote for the opposite party, or vote against the incumbent in a primary election. Primary challenges require the incumbent to make his case to his own team. At the very least it requires the incumbent to listen to the views of his supporters. Why is this a problem?

For what its worth, Lamont has taken an oath to support the winner of the Democratic primary. Given the current polls, Lieberman could safely do the same and get credit for integrity at the same time. So why hasn't he?

Posted by: Mike | Jun 10, 2006 4:54:52 PM

That is some fantastic analysis, Neil. I hope it doesn't get passed over by people who just want to skip ahead to comments to bash centrists. :-)

Posted by: Anonymous | Jun 10, 2006 5:09:25 PM

Outstanding analysis.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jun 10, 2006 5:21:16 PM

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