Blogs > HNN > Yes Rush, Moderates Make Great Presidents -- and Book Subjects

Jul 25, 2009 7:39 pm

Yes Rush, Moderates Make Great Presidents -- and Book Subjects

In one his many riffs this week against Barack Obama's health care reform initiative, titled "This is a Very Dangerous Time: Socialized Health Care is Not Dead," on July 21, Rush Limbaugh explained himself, saying:"So this is an attempt by me to keep people inspired and motivated rather than on the sidelines and analyzing it, the brave moderates! The brave moderates? (laughing) By definition, moderates can't be brave! They don't have opinions. (interruption) Dawn doesn't like me saying things like that. But, I mean, brave moderates? Great Moderates in American History? Show me the book!"

Rush Limbaugh is triply wrong here. American history is filled with great moderates. The story of moderates in American history and in the American presidency makes for a great book subject. And Limbaugh's celebration of extremism is one of the many reasons why Republicans are failing to get any traction in opposing the Obama Administration.

In my book, "Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make Great Presidents," I show that America's greatest presidents succeeded by aiming for that presidential sweet spot, either finding the center or reconstituting it. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt were not wimps. They had opinions - contrary to Limbaugh's caricature. But again and again they demonstrated that important insight that an effective and constructive leader in a democracy has to build as broad a coalition as possible, rather than simply playing to the margins, or being satisfied with"50 percent plus one" of the vote. George Washington, pulled in opposite directions by his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, repeatedly urged them -- and their fellow citizens - to be reasonable, to remember America's"Common Cause." During the traumatic battle over slavery, Abraham Lincoln endured harsh attacks from abolitionists because he understood that America's survival hinged on working toward emancipation gradually, and keeping the Civil War a fight for union not for black freedom. Theodore Roosevelt - who was spasmodic, flamboyant, and not at all a moderate by temperament - built his presidential reputation by mediating during a great mining strike and finding a settlement to the Russo-Japanese War. And Franklin D. Roosevelt worked hard to build consensus during the New Deal - and even more painstakingly inched Americans toward involvement in World War II.

Even Rush Limbaugh's great hero, Ronald Reagan, understood he had to lead from the center. Reagan was elected to be president of the United States not president of the Republican Party or the conservative movement. To keep the nation united, Reagan infuriated conservatives by backing away from their"ABC agenda," focused on fighting abortion, busing, and crime. Instead, Reagan emphasized economic issues over social and cultural issues. When conservatives yelled"Let Reagan be Reagan," they erred. When he was singing his broad patriotic song, when he was compromising, when he was building consensus as his role model Franklin D. Roosevelt had done, Ronald Reagan was being Reagan.

Barack Obama also needs to remember the importance of leading from the center - and his promises to transcend the polarizing politics of his baby boomer elders. But shrill extremists like Limbaugh have made it easy for Obama to veer left and still appear reasonable. Having Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney function as the public face of the Republican Party is a recipe for Republican disaster - and national trouble. Democracies need effective oppositions as much as they need smart, reasonable, temperate, center-seeking leaders who appreciate the importance not just of winning but of maintaining the consent of as many people as they govern as they can.

So, yes, Rush, moderates make great presidents, great Americans, and great book subjects. I leave it to others to determine whether they also make for great books, although I appreciate Geoffrey Kabaservice's suggestion on the New Majority Blog that my book may be the right text to prove Rush wrong.

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Donald Wolberg - 7/30/2009

Mr. Bardaglio raises some very interesting and significant points with regard to FDR. Thank you for the Lippman reminder. I wish more folks would look at all of Lippman's writings. But I do think the FDR comments illustrate more about Mr. Lippman's agendas than the actual quality and experience of FDR. And of course, Mr. Truman was not a "Bidenesque" VP. My fondness for FDR, with all the well documented blemishes, falls back to my grandparents and uncles and parents, who lived throug the real Depression and that awful war and campaigned for FDR and then Harry Truman, and never ceased to stop talking about either decades later. I have found much to admire in Mr. Lippman but also much to not agree with. I do think Mr. Obama is most troubling, however; one cannot imagine FDR or Truman or Eisenhower sitting throuh decades of rants by disturbed ministers or associations with "retired" terrorists. We do live in a different world, of course, but there must be some basics of "depth" even in an age of superficiality. I would be pleased if the next years of this administration proves me wrong.

Peter Bardaglio - 7/30/2009

Hmmm...Mr. Wolberg seems to admire FDR for his "greatness" and strong stands on the issues of his day. I wonder if he recalls Walter Lippmann's observation of FDR immediately following the Democratic convention in 1932: "He is pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President." Lippman also insisted that FDR was nothing but "an amiable boy scout."

The take-away here, at least for me, is that a rush to judgment this early in Obama's presidency could be a big mistake. We gave George W. Bush eight years; Barack Obama hasn't even been in office 8 months. Time will tell who the better president is, no matter what Mr. Wolberg asserts.

Maarja Krusten - 7/30/2009

Dr. Troy, have you read the book by Michael Gerson, former Bush aide, that Peter Baker, then still with the WaPo, describes in this article from 2007? ?

I've often wondered how GWB might have done as President and as steward of his party had he had a different VP and different team of advisors. W clearly had principles (the recent account in TIME of his pardon decision was fascinating.,8816,1912297,00.html

But so many of his surrogates and supporters, including in the blogosphere, appeared to give off a vibe of being afraid of the American people as a whole. When W's poll numbers started going down, I kept thinking "you need people on your team who can signal fundamental liking of and respect for Americans, including those who are not affiliated with your party! You needed their votes to get elected, remember? That includes signalling comfort with dissent and with engagement. That's the best way to signal confidence in your vision and to garner abd hold on to broad support." That this was missing may have affected his efforts at goverance.

I felt badly at times that W lacked key spokesmen who could step up and reach out that way on his behalf. As a former archivist as well as historian, I'll be curious to see what future revelatios from the Bush Presidential Library show about the issues and conflicts that Gerson mentions. Initially, of course, historians will have to turn largely to memoirs and he said/she said accounts. Release of such paper trail that may exist on such issues will take time.

Maarja Krusten - 7/30/2009

Dr. Troy: When I posted my comment about the 2008 election above, I had not yet clicked on the link to Mr. Kabaservice's article. I've now read it. Looks as if I am going to have to order your book and to read it. (I enjoyed your Reagan book, BTW.)

As you know from our previous exchanges here on HNN, when I was younger, I used to self identify as a conservative Republican. Since around 1989, I have been an Independent, unaffiliated with either party.

I gather your book focuses on leading from the center. Do you get into changes in Washington and in the political culture since Nixon's day? (I recently saw a Nixon associate muse about whether or not Nixon could get his party's nomination now.) As a nation, we still trail a lot of baggage from that time. As you know, Nixon served as President during the Vietnam War, a very tumultuous period in our history.

I voted for Nixon (1972 was the first election in which I was eligible to vote). At the time, I enjoyed Spiro Agnew's speeches, with their red meat rhetoric (some of which was supplied by speechwriter Pat Buchanan). I find that my retrospective view of them is quite different than it was while I was young. The turmoil over Vietnam at its core came from the inability of the Johnson and the Nixon administration to convince a majority of of the U.S. public that fighting a war there was worth sacrificing the lives of young Americans. As I worked with the Nixon tapes as a NARA employee during the 1980s, I gave a lot of thought to Agnew's speeches. I've come to regard the "blame the press" undertone in some of Agnew’s speeches as fundamentally unmanly. It comes from a different place than the sentiments embodied in Dwight Eisenhower’s “in the event of failure” prepared for D-day.

Mr. Kabaservice mentions how difficult it can be for politicians to do anything other than to say "mistakes were made." Blame shifting is much more common than acceptance of individual responsibility for judgments made, actions taken. This is so different from what happens to most ordinary Americans, many of whom sit face to face with a boss once a year and discuss their performance and how it fits in with a company's goals or an agency's strategic plan.

I think one thing that distinguishes moderate voters from those on the right or the left is the extent to which that they are drawn to people who project the ability to deal. I don't necessarily mean make deals, although that often is a necessary part of governance in a country which values democratic principles. By people who can deal, I mean leaders who seem balanced at the core, self aware enough to recognize where they fit in, willing to accept responsibility, as Ike, a moderate, was. And who are not drawn to reach instinctively for cudgels to bash others over the consequences of their own decisions. That doesn't mean they don't offer robust defenses of their actions, program, and policies. It's just that they speak moderately, from a place which respects accountability and responsibility for their own role, rather than from a fundamental place of grievance and victimization. That is what I now find missing in re-considering Agnew's speeches.

Do you get into that in your book? The exit poll numbers for 2008 on party identification and ideological leanings suggest that neither candidate could have won by appealing solely to his party’s base. That means it is very challenging to get the calibration right. Fiery rhetoric and red meat appeals that can work with a party’s base (right or left) may leave moderates cold or to be a turn off in general elections. But to win primaries, candidates have to craft their appeals to the base, which is most likely to turn out for caucuses and primaries. The trick is to win nomination, then election, then govern in a way that attracts the votes of enough of the party faithful and the moderates and Independents when it comes time for re-election. Does your book focus mostly on governance or does it get into the election process?

Maarja Krusten - 7/29/2009

In the 2008 Presidential election, in terms of party affiliation, exit polls show that 39% of those voting identified themselves as Democrats, 32% as Republicans, and 29% as Independents.

In terms of ideology, 22% identified themselves as Liberal, 34% as Conservative, and 44% as Moderate.

I count many so-called moderates among my friends. I think they are easy to misunderstand, especially since the political culture often overlooks the value of nuance. Yet the polls last year showed the moderates made a big difference in how the vote turned out. When it came to the general election, it was people such as my self-described moderate and Independent friends who made the difference.

Being a moderate doesn't mean one doesn't have an opinion. It means one doesn't veer to extremes (left or right). That has nothing at all to do with bravery, or lack thereof. Based on what I've seen and heard, leaders who understand that will appeal to moderates; those who don't, won't. Moderates aren't low hanging fruit, they aren't picked easily, however.

Donald Wolberg - 7/29/2009

Unfortunately to respond with: "gee, Mr. Obama is smarter than Mr. Bush," is rather shallow in intself. Mr. Bush was as he appeared with few pretenses, and many flaws. He was tough and resilient and had a true moment in glory. But, we forget he had a higher GPA than John Kerry without Mr. Kerry's pretense and smugness! Mr. Obama will always be regarded as the "keen" intellect who commented that he, "was not sure if he visited 57 of our 59 states," and, "we need to do away with all forms of carbon," and has a feeble grasp of anything. Mr. Obama is lost without prepared and digested notes via a teleprompter, is almost always superficial in matters of policy, history, science, geography, and the words of those documents that matter, the Constitution and Delaration of Independence, or a sense of the world and its dangers. His reflexive and very sinister behavior over the Cambridge police incident was a certain indicator of a less than judicial temperment or knowledge-base of the world.He is the least experienced occupant of the White House, even beating Millard Fillmore in that distinction. His notable writings were ghosted and insunstantial. I would suggest looking at the 14 volumes or so of that other Illinois politician of long ago, for an extreme comparison. Mr. Carter, of course has a body of literature including biography, poetry, fiction and history, some workmanlike, some rather bad, but all his own. Mr. Obama's major flaw is the very unreasoned and superficial left agenda he brings to the Nation and that is proving to be an economic disaster festering.

Peter Bardaglio - 7/29/2009

Wow, if President Obama suffers from "real intellectual shallowness," then what do we make of the fellow who was in the White House just before him? There are lots of valid criticisms that can be made of Obama but "intellectual shallowness" is one of the weakest, especially relative to recent occupants of the office.

William S. Doolittle - 7/29/2009

Rush is making the point that what Republicans need to do to regain power it to embrace conservative principles. I think history is pretty clear that when the Congress was in control of the Republicans, under George W., that the Senate Republicans suddenly forgot what party they represented. This failure to lead with conservative principles - principles which brought them to office - angered and frustrated voters looking for leadership. Mr. Troy should bear in mind that self-described conservatives outnumber self-desribed liberals by 2 to 1 according to Gallup's latests polling. If the Senate Republicans would only keep this fact in mind, they would do better.

Donald Wolberg - 7/29/2009

I am perplexed by placing Washington, Lincoln, TR, FDR in some kind of "moderate" alcove of history, that upon reflection, not many wouls see as exisiting. If this is a means of finding a place for Mr. Obama in the same alcove, it plays badly. Mr. Obama is transparently agenda driven, as transparent as his real intellectual shallowness and inexperience in other than superfically posturing to the very, very left of mythology. There was little "moderate" in Washington, Lincoln, TR or FDR; their greatness reflects their "extreme" postures on the correct side of issues, not their effort to work from a center that did not exist in their time or problem sets with which they dealt.

The clarity of the present painful moment for the Nation is the total lack of preparation of Mr. Obama and the "brain trust" that formed him: the bizarre Reverend Wright and the "retired" terrorists Ayers and Dorn, and the mix of anachronistic Chicago gutter politics. To hang Mr. Obama's perspectives, whatever they are at any momemnt--truly a transient experience for viewers--on the coattails of a "moderation" that never existed, seems less then genuine.More appropriate would have been comparisons to that other phrophet of doom and gloom, Mr. Carter, or will the claim be made that Mr. Carter wished to govern from the center as well?

Tim Matthewson - 7/27/2009

If you are looking for a book about Reagan, Will Bunch begins the long overdue process of deflating Reagan's bloated reputation, Tear Down This Myth (New York, 2009).

Tim Matthewson - 7/27/2009

Reagan was a highly partisan president who like George Bush 43 talked about building consensus but who set about an aggressive program of polarization. Reagan the moderate is a figment of Troy's imagination.