Moving the Goalposts Has Made Moderation Moot
With due respect to my editor at The Tribune, the headline to this week's column is just wrong, and it's a perfect example of the problem I described in the column. The "donut" metaphor implies that both extremes are moving out from the center, but that's not the case. It's the right wing moving away; nobody with any heft or power on the left is getting more extreme. We're just getting angrier. If you don't understand what I mean, that will be this week's column, so I'll explain later.
My choice for a headline was "Until a Republican Is 'Too Conservative,' Being a 'Centrist' Is for Suckers." But maybe the donut analogy isn't completely wrong, because people may say they're in the middle, but I don't think they really are. Sheesh. I used to be idealistic; now I try to be cynical, but as Lily Tomlin once said, I just can't keep up. Hope you like the gender gap joke.
POLITICS AS A DONUT -- THERE'S NO CENTER ANYMORE
East Valley Tribune, May 28, 2006
Joe Lieberman is discovering that being a moderate just isn’t as much fun as it used to be. With Republicans insistent on moving farther and farther to the right, trying to find common ground requires Democrats to move larger distances and forget more of our core principles. Once the GOP started denouncing Barry Goldwater as too liberal, where exactly should Democrats find compromises worth making?
Republicans aren’t just moving the goalposts, but insisting on moving their side of the playing field to an entirely new (and usually publicly-financed) stadium. In Arizona, Democrats wax nostalgic for the days when we had to reach compromises with Burton Barr. Then the GOP threw him over as too moderate, and we had to find common ground with Jim Skelley or Jane Hull. Then they both retired, and being moderate meant agreeing with Mark Killian until he got term-limited; then we had to find something on Jeff Groscost's agenda that wasn’t too much to stomach.
Now, of course, Groscost is a retired statesman and we’re stuck trying to find anything Jim Weiers or Russell Pearce want to do that isn’t totally vindictive, regressive, and foolish -- and most legislators, on those salaries, just can’t afford that powerful a microscope.
Lieberman now faces a surprise revolt among his home-state Democrats, in the form of a primary challenge from Ned Lamont. (Lamont is a college classmate of mine. I recall him as a swashbuckling hockey player, but now he looks like a nerdy cable television executive, which he is.) While Lieberman has never lost a statewide election, Lamont’s prior political experience consists of service as a city councilmember and an unsuccessful 1990 state senate race.
Lamont managed to get on the ballot despite Connecticut’s incredibly cumbersome primary system, designed by incumbents for incumbents. While Lamont is a virtual unknown, he’s riding a wave of anger among base Democratic voters.
It’s not just Lieberman’s support of the Iraq war, which of course isn’t a positive today either in Connecticut or nationally, according to the polls. It’s his almost-delusional support for the war that doesn’t comport with what people see and know about what’s happening.
It’s a gender-gap kind of thing, with people who supported going to war based on what is now clearly bad information, bad planning, and bad execution, insisting that Americans want to "move on" and "not rehash the past" and instead focus on "achieving our goals."
Lots of women have heard that reasoning from a philandering husband or boyfriend who got caught, but who then insists that nothing good can come from assigning blame and that instead the couple should focus on the future. It doesn’t sound any better coming from Joe Lieberman than it did from that cheating no-good.
A LATE CHARGE
But as Paul Krugman wrote in his recent column, "Talk-Show Joe," the real problem is that what talk shows and journalistic lions consider a centrist isn’t someone who actually reflects the center of public opinion. Instead, a Democrat is considered a centrist solely based on the extent he (or she) agrees with Republicans. That used to be a good working definition, but once Republicans started acting like contestants on some "Who Is More Right-Wing?" reality show, it kind of lost its value. Now, finding "common ground" with Republicans means abandoning both Democratic principles and clear majorities of voters on issues like Iraq, Terri Schiavo, Social Security, and health care and the minimum wage.
That definition of "centrist" also has suffered from how Republicans treat their moderates. After so-called moderate Senate Republicans caved for yet another time to the Bush administration and the right wing, most Democrats have awoken to the short-term and long-term folly of trying to strike deals with people who always insist that we bargain against ourselves.
Lieberman’s trying to change his image by suddenly calling for investigations of the Bush administration and discussing his own "anger" at GOP mismanagement and malfeasance. But he’s made his national image based on the outdated insider definition of centrist, and it may take all of his overwhelming advantage in name recognition and fundraising to change it in time for his August primary.