Wednesday, August 15, 2007

We May Need Moderates, But We Don't Need Centrists

Watching the debate between Markos and Harold Ford yesterday was a bit like watching a rerun of Rocky IV, wherein Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa goes to the Soviet Union to fight Dolph Lungren's Ivan Drago. Not because Markos took the fight into the hostile territory of Meet the Press, or because Markos endured Ford's blather patiently before emerging victorious, or because the entire spectacle was brimming with the expectant propaganda of two competing ideologies.

Rather, the resemblance lay in the fact that the fight was already over before it started: we already know who wins in the end, because the end of the debate already took place. As everyone knows, Rocky wins at the end of Rocky IV; in the case of Markos and Ford, the debate was over when labor unions, issue groups, and seven Democratic Presidentials came to YearlyKos, overlooking the DLC's annual convention. There is no more doubt as to whether triangulators or the people-powered, reality-based movement will wield more influence within the party: we won that one already--whether the traditional media realize it yet or not.

It is curious that Ford would choose to attempt to debate on ground that he not only knew he would lose, but that he had already lost in advance. The DLC's sun has set in terms of the party's overall strategy going forward, and it is unlikely that they will return to the height of political influence, only to be rendered weak-kneed and sucked of their courage by the strong political winds and rarefied air they find there. No matter whom the party nominates in the upcoming primaries, they will forced to adapt to the changed political landscape regardless of their previous predilections--and should she they fail to do so, she they will lose, adding yet more fuel to the blazing fire of people-powered influence.

The question that remained unresolved during and after the debate, however, was the proper role of moderates and centrists in the party and within the new movement. This was a question that David Gregory, whether he realized it in his unflattering framing or not, feebly attempted to ask without receiving a completely satisfactory answer. This was primarily because Mr. Gregory failed to understand the question in the right way, but even more so because Markos and Mr. Ford were both using different words to convey what appeared the be the same idea, when in fact the two ideas are quite distinct from one another.

For, you see, the traditional media (and many in the netroots as well) does not quite understand the distinction between a moderate and a centrist. The first problem started when David Gregory framed the debate as between "Liberals" and "Centrists", when in fact those terms describe not apples and oranges, but rather entirely different food groups. When Markos told Mr. Gregory that we would need more conservative candidates in places like Kentucky where we had little other choice, both Mr. Gregory and Mr. Ford were taken somewhat aback; Mr. Ford, somewhat disconcerted, promptly ignored Markos' endorsement of moderate candidates to claim that the party needed not to go "too far to the left" and instead embrace a centrist agenda. It was clear that two intelligent men were talking right past one another about very different things (though I suspect Markos understood this, while Ford did not.)

The key to clearing this confusion and resolving this conflict lies in gaining a more precise understanding of the dichotomies involved. As diarist and Calitics frontpager dday and I will be discussing on our FrameWork show over at Political Nexus today, there are really two axes of division at work:



The first mistake is to believe that a "moderate" and a "centrist" is the same thing. A "moderate" is a person who is neither ideologically left nor ideologically right, but rather has policy positions which set squarely within the middle of the Overton Window of popular political possibilities for the mainstream American public. Thus, a moderate may want lower taxes, be pro-death penalty, and desire slightly stricter controls on abortion, but be fairly progressive on a number of issues where public opinion resides squarely with us--issues from guaranteed healthcare to Iraq to the environment to even national security at this point.

A "centrist", on the other hand, is a person who stands squarely between the two major political parties. A "centrist" is a person like Joe Lieberman, who assumes a smorgasbord of policy positions taken from each of the parties, and has no compunction about trashing his/her own party if it benefits his/her political career. Due to the rightward shift of both political parties over the last 25 years, a "centrist" is guaranteed to stand to the right of the American Public on most issues, while trashing the overall image of the Democratic Party brand. Joe Lieberman is no "moderate"; rather, he's a crazed "centrist."

This crucial distinction was the source of the miscommunication between Markos and Mr. Ford. While Markos was conceding the necessity of backing moderates in areas weak in progressive voters, Ford was insisting on the necessity of taking a centrist line that minimized divisions between the parties. When Markos stressed the need for the candidates to be "proud Democrats" regardless of their specific positions on specific issues, both Mr. Gregory and Mr. Ford looked flummoxed and confused. It was as though they could not understand how a "moderate" could also be a "proud Democrat" emphasizing divisions in the party. The confusion was further intensified when Mr. Ford attempted to take ideological credit for the victories of James Webb in VA and in Jon Tester in MT, ostensibly because they had conservative positions on a few key issues, much to the astonishment of Markos and most of us here in the netroots. What neither Mr. Ford nor Mr. Gregory quite understand is that Tester and Webb are not centrists, but rather moderates on a few key issues: their popular positions on some issues do not prevent them from drawing sharp distinctions between themselves and the out-of-touch, corrupt Republicans they oppose.

It is an unfortunate byproduct not only of politics itself but also the way congressional districts have been gerrymandered, that we will certainly need moderates to win in many areas--especially when it comes to House races in red districts. The last thing we need, however, is centrists who serve only to weaken the Democratic Party's core brand and core values while selling both moderates and progressives down the river if ever they manage (rarely) to win elected office. The vision of Harold Ford and the DLC is moribund because the politics of "centrism" have been proven an absolute disaster. That says nothing, however, of the politics of "moderation" when necessary, especially in deeply red areas.

It is an important distinction to keep in mind as this debate continues into the future--past Harold Ford and his increasingly irrelevant organization, and into the trickier territory of swing states, purple Senate races and uphill Congressional races. The temptation of resorting to "centrist" rhetoric to win these races will be great, but it must be avoided. If, on the other hand, we maintain proudly progressive candidates in blue areas, with moderate but proudly Democratic candidates in red areas--and they speak directly and honestly to their constituents all the while, without DLC-style packaging--we will succeed in taking back our country.

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