Blogs > HNN > Do We Need a Moderometer to Push for Centrism?

Jun 22, 2008 9:12 pm

Do We Need a Moderometer to Push for Centrism?

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is

As we transition from the primary campaign to the general election, there is a struggle for the souls of both presumptive nominees. Both Barack Obama and John McCain came to national prominence as centrists. Obama seized the lyrical center – Reagan style with a multicultural twist – thanks to his 2004 Democratic National Convention Speech, and McCain won the Republican nomination because he was the Republican candidate most independent of his party leader, George W. Bush. Nevertheless, partisans from both extremes are insisting that their respective candidates run away from the center. Many liberals, especially in the blogosphere, claim that Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton repudiated Democratic centrism; conservatives keep warning McCain to shore up his base. Amid this struggle, where are the passionate moderates, the people who believe in a principled center, both as the shrewd place to be – and the right place to be?

Unfortunately, the gravitational physics of American politics, especially during election time, tends to polarize. Our culture and our politics reward the loudmouths, the partisans, the controversy-generators, rather than the bridge-builders, the centrists, the peacemakers. And, in fairness, moderates are frequently too reasonable, too passive. It is easy to see the forces pulling the candidates to particular extremes; where are the forces pushing toward the center?

Note, for example, the New York Times coverage regarding John McCain’s reaction to last week’s Supreme Court decision regarding the detainees at Guantanamo. When first asked to react, before he had a chance to read the decision, McCain responded carefully saying, “It obviously concerned me.” A blog post on National Review Online, the Times reported, asked in fury: “Concerned? Concerned?” Subsequently, after studying the matter and consulting with Senator Lindsey Graham, McCain called the ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

The bloggers’ attack – as well as the Times reportage – reinforced the narrative of John McCain’s strained relations with the Republican base. But shouldn’t we applaud a leader who hesitates before condemning the Supreme Court, who studies an issue before pronouncing on it? Don’t we need people praising McCain for his initial restraint and encouraging such behavior?

Just as partisans monitor candidates for their ideological purity, we need a moderometer to keep track of a candidate’s centrism both substantively and tactically. This barometer assessing the two nominees’ moderation should focus on various statements they make over the next five months, illustrating whether they shift left, right, or center, while also assessing their behavior, the tone they set. This way, centrists can have some push-back, can make their play for the middle. In the case of McCain’s reaction to the Supreme Court decision, the moderometer would stand level – and reward the candidate for his patience and temperance.

By contrast, the moderometer could teeter tracking another controversy from this week. Republicans pounced on Barack Obama’s comments to ABC’s Jake Tapper pointing to the investigation of the first World Trade Center bombing as a model for fighting terror. “Once again we have seen that Senator Obama is a perfect manifestation of a Sept. 10 mindset,” McCain’s adviser on national security, Randy Scheunemann snapped – shifting the McCain moderometer rightward as Obama’s shifted leftward for treating terror as a law enforcement matter rather than a military and foreign policy challenge. However, Obama’s clever response was well balanced, showing his commitment to fighting terror, as he said: “These are the same guys who helped to engineer the distraction of the war in Iraq at a time when we could’ve pinned down the people who actually committed 9/11.”

The call for moderation is not a call for pallid namby-pamby candidates no more different from each other than tweedle dee is from tweedle dum (to recycle a criticism William Allen White used against Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in 1912). Ideally, Barack Obama’s moderometer will dip slightly left, and McCain’s will dip slightly right. But a gradual incline just enough to emphasize differences and articulate them is not a steep angle that further divides the country.

The two moderates should narrow the battlefield – showing where they agree and then slugging it out where they disagree. But it would be a mistake – and represent a lost opportunity – if the rhetoric of the campaign starts setting up the two as polar opposites of each other, reverse images, with one personifying strength and virtue, the other weakness and wrongheadedness. The United States faces serious challenges at home and abroad. Neither candidate is perfect but both are patriots committing to solving those problems. For once, if we push them toward the center, maybe we can have a campaign that fights about substantive differences without character assassination or caricature. Such a campaign will help the winner do what needs to be done – lead from the center, uniting as much of the country as possible in a concerted attempt to solve the serious problems afflicting us today.

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Max J. Skidmore - 6/25/2008

It is fascinating that anyone still would think that a criterion for "moderation" is opposition to universal health care. If anyone who favors it is "extremist," then "extremism" characterizes the rest of the developed world. I applaud those who truly hear a different drummer, but one needs to think carefully. More often than not, being out of step is simply being out of step. In this case, the result of the policy that Mr. Marte calls "moderation" is enormously expensive health care that excludes huge numbers of people, often leads to bankruptcy, and fails even to ensure quality of the care that it does provide.

Dennis Slough - 6/25/2008

I like moderation. I think it may be even more important for the parties to be moderate. Once the Republicans are gone I'd love to see a center left party reach viability to balance out the center right Democrats.

DeLay, Gingrich, Rove, et al; worked for awhile, but the GOP is reaping what they sowed now.

Jon Marte - 6/23/2008

There should be an "are" towards the end of the third sentence.

Jon Marte - 6/23/2008

I've never quite understood why people label Obama a "moderate".

Is it his history of almost perfect ratings by the ADA that have only declined recently because he stopped attending Congress, favoring the campaign trail?

Or perhaps his push for things like universal health care and punishing the oil companies because Americans buying too much gas?

To me the word "moderate" means someone who isn't extreme in his/her views. Obama isn't moderate at all-- he's actually quite extreme in many his views--is he not?

Gil Troy - 6/23/2008

I would say partially a creation of the courts, partially a creation of politicians.

Robert Lee Gaston - 6/23/2008

One should not forget, those districts are largly a creation of the courts.

Gil Troy - 6/23/2008

Excellent point -- there's a major problem in the US Congress. A corrupt bargain between Republicans and African-Americans in the 1980s and 1990s led to a more polarized Congress with districts carved out to increase more African-American representatives -- at the cost of more Republican districts too. Districts should have some geographical integrity not be carved out for political reasons. More broadly we have to ask what structural forces push toward polarization rather than moderation.

Stephen Keith Tootle - 6/23/2008

What we need in California is redistricting if we really want to encourage centrism.