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Centrism Died in Massachusetts

Obama needs to fight even harder for Democratic principles.

The surprising results of last week's special Senate election in Massachusetts have exposed all manner of Beltway shortcomings, but none so forcefully as the terminal exhaustion of the professional pundit corps.

Consider the wretchedness of the advice presently coming in from all quarters of the Washington establishment. It might be summed up as follows: The Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy's old seat was beaten by a Republican, Scott Brown. Only one conclusion can be drawn from this, apparently: that the public has gone decisively to the right. Ergo, so must the president. Barack Obama must capture the center, even if it means leaving his party behind. He must do as Bill Clinton did. When faced with opposition, capitulate! When that opposition grows, cave faster!

The president needs to pick a fight with members of his own party in Congress, the Sunday talk show sinecurists have murmured. That will surely help matters. He must embrace a sort of transcendent bipartisanship, suggests Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post. He needs to learn, like the New York Times's David Brooks believes our ancestors did, to "tolerate the excesses of traders" because that's the only way to have "vigorous financial markets." Thomas Friedman, a man as consistent as he is banal, opines that the way to turn things around is by . . . embracing entrepreneurship.

The awkward thing is, President Obama has already spent a year following this traditional script. He has repeatedly let down his party's base. His all-important economic team is filled with protégés of Robert Rubin, the centrist hero of the Clinton years-whose image should be irreparably tarnished thanks to his role in bank deregulation, that great centrist endeavor of the '90s.

But not only is this advice wrong, its premises are, too.

Here is an actual bit of data from the Massachusetts debacle. The AFL-CIO conducted a poll in the state and, according to the union's pollsters, it revealed that the election "was a working-class revolt" driven by a "huge swing among non-college voters," who went for President Obama in 2008 and for Mr. Brown this time around.

Here is a second data point: The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, together with two other liberal groups, did a poll of Massachusetts voters who voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 and then for Mr. Brown last week. Health-care reform was, as everyone knows, the most important issue in the Massachusetts race, and yet if this poll is to be believed, an incredible 82% of these swing voters favor the late "public option," a bête noir of the centrist punditry. Even if the poll is off by a few points, that number is shocking.

A third bit of data: A nonpartisan national poll of 800 voters who closely follow politics by Clarus Research Group in December found the Obama administration's most prominent centrists-its economic team of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner-to be its only members whose "disapproval" numbers were higher than their "approval" ratings.

And yet what our genius centrists are calling for, in effect, is to hand over even more authority to these least popular and least successful elements of the Obama administration. They are basically telling Mr. Obama that the way to court alienated blue-collar voters is by extolling entrepreneurship and toning down the administration's occasional anti-Wall Street rhetoric. It is like suggesting someone kick smoking by going from one pack a day to two.

I have my own suggestion for Mr. Obama as he prepares for his State of the Union address: Instead of knifing your allies, try fighting for the principles of your party. It's true, that's not what Mr. Clinton did. But it's what Franklin Roosevelt did, and Harry Truman, and John Kennedy-and it worked for them. In those days, "working-class revolts" helped Democrats, not Republicans.

Last year's dream of bipartisanship was an attractive one, but it should be clear to you by now that you will never win over the GOP. As you gaze over their contemptuous faces tonight, wondering what clever insults they will spontaneously blurt as you pause to take a breath, try to remember that, for the most part, they are not your friends; that many of them took the financial crisis as a signal to dedicate themselves even more wholeheartedly to the laissez-faire superstition. You cannot appease these zealots. No one can.

What you need to do now is pick a fight, preferably one that forces the obstructionists of the right to take the side of privilege. You need a battle that will expose their populism and their protest for the pretenses they are. Your target is obvious: the financial industry, from Wall Street to the credit card companies. Yes, taking them on will cost you campaign contributions for 2012, but take Wall Street down a few pegs and Americans might start to remember what it was their grandparents loved about Democrats all those years ago.

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