I just heard Joe Manchin say Biden should move to the “center.” Political consultant Mark Penn wrote in the New York Times that “Biden should follow the lead of Bill Clinton, and move to the center.”
Duh. Who wants to be on the fringe? Political careers are imperiled by labels like “left-winger” (or “right-winger”). The public feels safer with a president who proclaims total commitment to the middle. FDR always sought to position himself as a centrist. So did Nixon (remember the “silent majority?”). Barry Goldwater’s “extremism in defense of liberty” helped cost him the White House.
But this is just positioning. Visionary leaders of America have always understood that the “center” is a fictitious place lying somewhere south of thoughtless adherence to the status quo.
Virtually any attempt to lead — to summon forth the energies and commitments of public — will not “centrist” be at the time. That’s the essence of leadership. Teddy Roosevelt didn’t discover the evils of industrial concentration at the political center. FDR didn’t knit a safety net for the poor and dispossessed, or take the nation into the Second World War, from the center. Kennedy and Johnson didn’t locate the cause of civil rights at the center. Nixon didn’t find support for recognizing China in the center. Nor even did Reagan find his mandate for a smaller government at the center.
Leadership, by definition, does not cater to the center. If it did, there would be no need to lead. The nation is already there.
A president will exert some influence on where the “center” is at any given time simply by virtue of the office and the pulpit that comes with it. If a president moves rightward in an attempt to be at the “center,” the center shifts even further to the right. When Bill Clinton succumbed to pressure from the right to seek a balanced budget, the debate over whether to balance the budget was silenced. The debate shifted to whether to balance it quickly or gradually. The new “center” moved to the right — seeking a reasonably quick balance.
There’s much talk in Democratic circles these days about so-called “swing” voters in the upcoming midterms. Where is this elusive voter to be found? Where else? At the center. Not in the traditional “Democratic base,” which is assumed to be left of center, nor in the “Republican base,” to the right, but in between. And where does this “swing” voter presumably live? In the American suburbs, we’re told. Not the close-in suburbs of blue-collar, semi-detached aluminum sidings, nor the farther-out suburbs of manicured lawns and underground wires, but somewhere in between.
The center? The base? The swing? The suburbs? Pollsters and political consultants like Mark Penn reap fortunes out of such amorphous bullshit. The words substitute for thought. Tactics emerge from thin air.
There’s a simpler way: Look at who’s losing ground in the economy. They’re the ones who are up for grabs. Lead them by giving them the means to do better — and a reason to vote for you.