Blogs > HNN > Memo to Arianna Huffington: The Middle is Good for Obama -- and America

Jul 6, 2008 10:48 pm

Memo to Arianna Huffington: The Middle is Good for Obama -- and America

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

Arianna Huffington's slam on centrism - "Memo to Obama: Moving to the Middle is for Losers" -- proves that the struggle for the soul of Barack Obama continues. Moderate voices must stand tall and strong against the partisans pulling him to the left. Obama's meteoric rise to national prominence -- and his victory in the Democratic primaries -- resulted from the lyrical centrism of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Without that message of unity, moderation, centrism, civility, and sanity, Obama would be just another junior senator. If Obama forgets the origins of his brief career and lurches left, he risks returning to his Senate seat in the fall of 2008, behind even Hillary Rodham Clinton in the pecking order.

Huffington’s post on this issue rests on a false choice between principled extremism and centrist pandering. Huffington caricatures “tacking to the center” as “watering down th[e] brand,” playing to the “fence sitters,” and “dilut[ing]” Obama’s “own positioning.” Huffington fails to understand that being a moderate does not necessarily mean being a pushover. Obama’s vision of new politics, which she chides him for abandoning, is rooted in a traditional push for the center, with a renewed, optimistic vision for today.

Obama’s centrism is part of a great American political tradition. America's greatest presidents were maestros of moderation, who understood that the trick to effective leadership in a democracy is finding the middle, or creating a new middle. George Washington viewed his role as more of a referee than a crusader. He preached repeatedly to his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, about finding common ground. Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time in office, negotiating, compromising, cajoling, and conniving to keep the badly divided North united against the South. That is why he emphasized fighting to keep the Union together rather than liberating the slaves, despite his personal dislike of slavery. Theodore Roosevelt, although temperamentally immoderate, proved to be an adept arbitrator, ending the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, and even earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic skills in resolving the Russo-Japanese war. Franklin Roosevelt, though often denounced as a radical, in fact tacked carefully between the extremes of the radical left and the complacent right, inching America toward a modified welfare state.

All these presidents succeeded because they understood that they had to play to the middle. Part of the reason why so many Americans are so angry with the current administration comes from George W. Bush’s disdain for the center. By not reaching out sufficiently, Bush has left many Americans alienated from his policies –and from America’s democracy.

Democracy is ultimately a fragile flower. Presidents – and presidential candidates – have to tend it carefully, remembering that the consent we who are governed grant is implied, and rests on a collective act of good will. Great presidents tap into a broad, mainstream strain of American nationalism that keeps this nation of now over 300 million people united and, on the whole, even-tempered.

Arianna Huffington also erred in claiming that previous Democratic nominees stumbled when they shifted to the center. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton did not lose because they were too centrist; they lost because each lacked an effective message – and allowed their opponents to define them. Huffington also conveniently overlooks the only Democrat to win a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton, who repeatedly played to the center, and triumphed.

For Democrats to win in 2008 -- and for America to heal and to prosper – Barack Obama needs to find his centrist voice, showing that he can bring a new tone to American politics, as well as creative, broad-based solutions to some of the pressing problems the country faces. Obama has to make sure that the Republicans do not cast him as the next George McGovern. The young Illinois Senator could learn a lot from the pantheon of democratic heroes who understood how to have core principles but also the broad centrist vision necessary to keep this country united.

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John Chapman - 7/11/2008

“… being a moderate does not necessarily mean being a pushover.” I agree. Many presidents in the past needed to play the middle. But in these times, where drastic measures seem to be needed, I wonder if it really applies since the Bush administration doesn’t seem to have been practicing a legitimate form democracy during the eight year train wreck to begin with. Bowing to AIPAC, supporting Congress’s decision to grant the communications companies immunity, NAFTA, among other u-turns Obama has made, appears like it will be business as usual by just another smarmy politician who will bow to corporate America under just another slogan.

Rodney Huff - 7/10/2008

Well, folks. The executive lapdogs in Congress passed it. See? Power gets what it wants.

This bill has nothing to do with protecting us from terrorists. Even the fraudulent 9/11 Commission admitted that we had all the information we needed to stop 9/11. It wasn't inadequate intelligence gathering that allowed the attacks to happen. We had all the intelligence we needed - intelligence that wasn't obtained through warrantless wiretapping.

No, according to the 9/11 Commission, it was a failure (or unwillingness) of FBI and CIA agents to communicate with each other what they knew. Communication barriers prevented key intelligence officials from putting all the pieces together and getting the bigger picture before it was too late. That's the explanation given by the 9/11 Commission.

Yet the justification for FISA rests on the assumption that, had there been a warrantless wiretapping program in place before 9/11, intelligence officials would have gotten the information they needed to stop the attacks. Bullshit!

No, this bill is all about protecting the Telecoms from lawsuits; and, of course, it's about continuing a program intended to keep dissent and one's political opponents in check. It will have at least a chilling effect on anyone who desires to speak freely over the phone and Internet. And this will be of benefit not just to this administration but to the next one as well.

Obama, who promised to filibuster this bill and backpedaled, may have just lost my vote - and McCain the warmonger ain't gettin it either.

Rodney Huff - 7/10/2008

Moving to the middle is clearly not good for America. It means appeasing the corporate elite while glossing over public issues with vacuous democratic rhetoric and feel-good patriotic slogans. That's precisely what Obama is doing in modifying his previous stance on FISA and NAFTA.

No longer constituting a true center, the new middle is where those who oppose it and repeat Eisenhower's warning are painted as "extremists," principled or otherwise, by both civil and not-so-civil commentators. Tone matters not; substance is the key.

Daniel Ortner - 7/10/2008

Obama has been working hard to choose the worthwhile fights. He is hoping to avoid making the same mistake that Clinton did by wasting first term energy on the unpopular issue of gays in the military, or George Bush in 2004 fighting the unpopular battle to reform social security and wasting away any goodwill the election brought him. He is hoping to focus on the key issues of the war, health care and the economy and to minimize the perception of a culture war on so many polarizing issues. We shall see if this promising strategy can succeed.

Rodney Huff - 7/10/2008

Not long ago, many Americans were outraged at the suggestion that what's good for GM is also good for America. These days, however, a new abstract element has been added to the equation, so that now what's good for the corporate elite is also good for "The Economy" and thus is good for America. (Recall that treasonous GM aided the Nazi war effort against the Allies

Meanwhile, the manufacturing base of the economy continues to erode, jobs sail overseas, pensions disappear, Wall Street runs wild (and gets bailed out in an apparently consequence-free environment), the dollar shrinks, and the middle class gets the squeeze. These are all epiphenomena of moving to the "middle" and doing what the chest-pounding males on TV think is good for The Economy (code for “corporate bottom line”). This is precisely what moving to the middle by American presidents has brought us in recent years.

Rodney Huff - 7/10/2008

Recall a certain Republican president, an ex-military man, who warned us about the military-industrial complex and its undue influence on government policy.
There was nothing sensational about it: It was a sober call to vigilance against anti-democratic forces, as well as a nod to the sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose idea of the Power Elite approximated the changing structure of power in the United States since the Civil War and highlighted the threat to democracy posed by increased concentration of power in the corporate, political, and military establishments. If democracy is all about spreading power out, the concentration of power threatens to hollow out our democratic institutions - if it doesn’t destroy them in plain view for “national security” reasons.

Apparently, we have not heeded the warnings. The trend towards the concentration of power has continued. Corporate domination of the economy, along with the corporate financing of election campaigns, seriously compromises the ability of elected officials to act on behalf of We the People. It leads them - our so-called leaders - to define America's interests in terms favorable to corporate interests, which may not be favorable to the average American citizen either in the short or long run.

Reflecting this trend, the so-called middle has shifted right, where the corporate elite, often indistinguishable from the military and political elite, feel right at home. There, the freedom to do business routinely trumps all other concerns, including the rights of real people who endure what economists call externalizations – the costs of doing business that get passed on to others (e.g., environmental degradation, rising average global temperatures, depletion of scarce resources, exposure to toxins, occupational hazards, war, etc.).

Rodney Huff - 7/10/2008

Hi Gil,

You insist that the middle (where it is now located) is not only good for Obama but also good for America. In this post, then, you initiate a debate over whether this repositioned middle is “for good or ill.” Why save this debate for another post when you’ve already started it here?

The middle these days, as you acknowledge, has shifted right. Today the middle is where "America's interests” are equated with corporate interests; and, increasingly, our foreign policy conforms to the interests of the defense and oil industries. After all, who has profited most from Cheney's wars of aggression?

And why is it "naive" these days to follow the money trail or to think that the Iraq war is all about the oil (even Alan Greenspan admitted this)? And why did the 9/11 Commission maintain that the source of the funding for 9/11 was neither known nor important - two blatant lies?

Why? Because Power does what it wants. And it will continue to do what it wants as long as the majority of the people remain unaware of how Power works to perpetuate and strengthen itself, even as it drapes the American flag over everything it does in its own unenlightened self-interest.

Are these propositions sensational?

Gil Troy - 7/9/2008

Thank you Maarja for your kind comments -- when I started blogging I promised myself two things, one I would try to keep a civil tone, two I would try to avoid predictions. I believe you can be passionate, have convictions, stand proud, without being harsh, nasty, sensationalist or vituperative. And I do agree that the media as currently structured rewards hysteria and not civility. As for the substance, because i think the other comments are important to address, yes, I agree that the center has been repositioned in the Reagan era. That is an extraordinary achievement (for good or ill can be debated in another post, I'm interested in the political dynamic and leadership strategy). But if you read Obama's works and look over his short but illuminating track record, you will see a Reagan-era Progessive, not a 30s- or 60s- Progressive. That's appropriate - and that's why he has gotten as far as he has...

Gil Troy - 7/9/2008

I disagree. Look at JFK toward the end of his presidency, when he finally realized the compelling case for civil rights. He did not become an extremist, but in the great tradition of what I call muscular moderation, he took a strong stand and was ready to lead the nation, repositioning the center so that -- as we see today -- supporting civil rights became mainstream not marginal.
Bipartisan, centrism, moderation are not necessarily mushy, cowardly, or status quo oriented.

Gil Troy - 7/9/2008

Thanks for your comments -- FDR was not only denounced as a radical -- the Hearst papers compared him to Stalin -- but he was also praised as a great reformer. I think his greatness as a centrist stemmed from the fact that he was able to placate the left and the right, without being a mass of contradictions. He did institute changes that previous generations of Americans resisted, but he also maintained the fundamental capitalist status quo.
As for Kerry, Gore and Clinton, the real truth is that each of their campaigns had so many flaws, so many reasons for losing, it is impossible to isolate one factor over the others. But all I can say for sure is that Ariana Huffington's claim that by going centrist they failed is far too, dare I say it, extreme.

Michael Green - 7/8/2008

Mr. Huff makes an excellent point that I would like to build on, if I may. What DOES Professor Troy mean by the center? Let me cite the Supreme Court. Today, Anthony Kennedy is considered a centrist. Before him, Sandra Day O'Connor was a centrist. Where I come from historically, they are moderate conservatives, not moderates. If you want to say that Obama is moving to the center, which center do you mean?

Rodney Huff - 7/8/2008

Hi Maarja,

Achenbach seems to imply that one cannot be angry and "nuanced" at the same time. I don't agree with this assumption at all.

The tone of an argument, however it comes across in discourse, should not be valued over substance. And the substance of Troy's article is deeply flawed in suggesting that Huffington offers a false choice between "principled extremism" and "centrist pandering."

Considering the issues on which Obama seems to be wavering - which Troy glosses over completely - Huffington is correct to point out that, indeed, the "nuances" Obama has recently injected into his positions constitute a retreat from more principled positions - his stance on FISA and NAFTA, e.g.

Perhaps maintaining a pleasant tone requires glossing over the issues. I say this because once you drill down to the core of an issue, and you see who's getting screwed and who's doing the screwing (and getting away with it), moral indignation is the appropriate response.

As far as Troy's examples of previous presidents moving to the "sane" center - well, the center ain't where it used to be. The center has shifted right - insanely right! - since at least the Reagan years.

To create a new center - instead of merely finding it - Obama must "lurch" left and refuse to sell out to the corporate money that saturates our electoral politics and that stands behind all those chest-pounding males blustering on tv (hey -don't forget Anne Coulter!).

Maarja Krusten - 7/8/2008

You mention tone, Dr. Troy. This is an area where I believe you yourself do well in your essays.

Joel Achenbach, who writes an online column for the Washington Post (Achenblog), wrote in May about op ed columns in his paper. He the turned to the broader issue of discourse. Achenbach noted that

"The demands of punditry disallow intellectual modesty. Certainly we see that in the world of TV and radio, where we've created a political culture dominated by a certain kind of loud, angry, chest-beating male. The culture of bluster is driven by ratings -- and, online, by page views. The moderated opinion, nuanced and open-minded, is a field mouse in a land patrolled by raptors.

Punditry increasingly is the province of partisans, table-pounders, the permanently outraged, the congenitally ungenerous."

Achenblog noted disapprovingly that hostility appears to be the foundation of discourse.

His comments reminded me of what linguistics professor Deborah Tannen wrote some ten years ago about the "argument culture." A reviewer noted of her 1998 book on the subject that "Tannen finds that 'our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention,' and that we thus most often argue emotionally when we should instead be trying to understand and evaluate rationally different points of view."

Fortunately for readers of varying positions who are not drawn to raptors or yelling, you achieve a good tone in the essays you post on HNN, Dr. Troy. For that, I thank you.

Randll Reese Besch - 7/7/2008

The middle is equivication and not in the best interests of the rest of us not on the 'middle' re right wing.

Michael Green - 7/7/2008

I have no objection to centrism. I do object to shifting principles to get there. I think what motivated Ms. Huffington's post (no pun intended) was Obama's discussion of issues like FISA (where he essentially changed his vote) and Iraq (where he indeed made the correct point, as he has all along).

While I greatly admire Professor Troy, I think he errs historically. To say that Franklin Roosevelt was denounced as a radical does not mean that he was a radical; he did not run as one and was not one. To say that moving to the center did not hurt Gore, Kerry, and Clinton is a bit specious. Gore polled better when his message was clear, and he was clearest when he wasn't trying to be all things to all people. Similarly, Kerry had a 20-year voting record to run on and tried to run from it. Clinton ran for the nomination as though she had won it and was seeking a victory in the general election, and that did not appeal to the, yes, more liberal and, more importantly, excessively pure party ideological base. But the point here is that they muddied and muddled their messages when they tried to be centrist on issues where they really were not. And when you try to be what you are not, you are going to have problems. This may help explain why John McCain is running into so much trouble by portraying himself as a principled maverick. He is not a maverick and he has no principles.