Obama's Allegedly "New" Centrism and His ABC Interview Today
The central tenets of the Beltway religion -- particularly when a Democrat is in the White House -- have long been "centrism" and "bipartisanship." The only good Democrats are the ones who scorn their "left-wing" base while embracing Republicans. In Beltway lingo, that's what "pragmatism" and good "post-partisanship" mean: a Democrat whose primary goal is to prove he's not one of those leftists. The Washington Post's David Ignatius today lavishes praise on Barack Obama for his allegiance to these Beltway pieties -- and actually seems to believe that there is something new and innovative about this approach:
The impatient freshman senator is about to become president, but he hasn't lost his distaste for Washington politics as usual. And as the inauguration approaches, Obama is doing something quite remarkable: Rather than settling into the normal partisan governing stance, he is breaking with it -- moving toward the center in a way that upsets some of his liberal allies but offers the promise of broad national support.
Obama talked during the campaign about creating a new kind of post-partisan politics -- and dissolving the country's cultural and racial and ideological boundaries. Given Obama's limited record as a centrist politician, it was hard to know if he really meant it. . . .
It turns out that Obama was serious. Since Election Day, he has taken a series of steps to co-opt his opponents and fashion a new governing majority. It's an admirable strategy but also a high-risk one, since the "center," however attractive it may be in principle, is often a nebulous political never-never land.
Whatever else one might want to say about this "centrist" approach, the absolute last thing one can say about it is that there's anything "new" or "remarkable" about it. The notion that Democrats must spurn their left-wing base and move to the "non-ideological" center is the most conventional of conventional Beltway wisdom (which is why Ignatius, the most conventional of Beltway pundits, is preaching it). That's how Democrats earn their Seriousness credentials, and it's been that way for decades.
Several weeks ago, I documented that this was the exact approach that fueled Bill Clinton's candidacy and the Clinton Presidency. That's what Clinton's widely-celebrated Sister Souljah moment and his Dick-Morris-designed "triangulation" were all about: "moving toward the center in a way that upsets some of his liberal allies," as Ignatius put it today as though it's some brand new Obama invention. Clinton's approach even resulted in his own GOP Defense Secretary. And, during the Bush era of the last eight years, moving to the Center and spurning their base was about the only "principle" that ever animated Congressional Democrats.
That's why it's been so bizarre listening to Beltway pundits, along with some of the hardest-core Obama followers, acting as though they've discovered some brand new exotic elixir -- the most important discovery since the Fountain of Youth -- with all of these tired buzzphrases about centrism, post-partisan transcendence, and "competence over ideology." These are the same things Democrats have been saying and doing since the early 1980s. This is from some random, typical 1998 Democratic Leadership Council document about "The Third Way":
The Democratic Leadership Council, and its affiliated think tank the Progressive Policy Institute, have been catalysts for modernizing politics and government. From their political analysis and policy innovations has emerged a progressive alternative to the worn-out dogmas of traditional liberalism and conservatism. . . .
The Third Way philosophy seeks to adapt enduring progressive values to the new challenges of the information age. It rests on three cornerstones: the idea that government should promote equal opportunity for all while granting special privilege for none; an ethic of mutual responsibility that equally rejects the politics of entitlement and the politics of social abandonment; and, a new approach to governing that empowers citizens to act for themselves.
"The worn-out dogmas of traditional liberalism and conservatism." And even before Clinton and the DLC, here was the centerpiece of Michael Dukakis' 1998 Democratic Convention acceptance speech:
It's time to understand that the greatest threat to our national security in this hemisphere is not the Sandinistas-it's the avalanche of drugs that is pouring into this country and poisoning our children.
I don't think I have to tell any of you how much we Americans expect of ourselves or how much we have a right to expect from those we elect to public office.
Because this election isn't about ideology. It's about competence. It's not about overthrowing governments in Central America. It's about creating good jobs in middle America.
It's not about insider trading on Wall Street; it's about creating opportunity on Main Street.
"This election isn't about ideology. It's about competence." That was Michael Dukakis' battle-cry more than 20 years ago in order to prove that he wasn't beholden to those dreaded leftist ideologues in his party, that he was instead devoted to pragmatic solutions, to "whatever works." Yet Beltway centrist fetishists like Ignatius and some Obama supporters genuflect to those clichés -- Competence, Not Ideology! -- as though they're some kind of revolutionary, transformative dogma that the world has never heard before and that therefore serves as an all-purpose justifying instrument for whatever Obama does.
The mere fact that these ideas aren't remotely new doesn't prove that they're wrong. Old ideas can be valid. And it may be that Obama, once he's inaugurated, will do other things differently (Andrew Sullivan and Greg Sargent, in response to my last post on this topic, both described what they think will be new about Obama's approach). It's also possible that Obama's undeniable political talent, or the shifting political mindset of the country, will mean that Obama will succeed politically more than anyone else has in implementing these approaches.
But whatever else is true, what Ignatius and others are celebrating as "remarkable" -- that a national Democratic politician is alienating "the Left" and embracing the center-right in the name of transcending ideology -- is about the least new dynamic that one can imagine. That's what the most trite Beltway mavens -- from David Broder and Mickey Kaus to Joe Klein and The New Republic -- have been demanding since forever, and it's what Democratic leaders have done for as long as one can remember.
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I've been saying since the election that it makes little sense to try to guess what Obama is going to do until he actually does it. That's especially true now, since we'll all have the actual evidence very shortly, and trying to guess by divining the predictive meaning of his appointments or prior statements seems fruitless. Moreover, anonymous reports about what Obama is "likely" to do are particularly unreliable. I still believe that, but Obama's interview today with George Stephanopoulos provides the most compelling -- and most alarming -- evidence yet that all of the "centrist" and "post-partisan" chatter from Obama's supporters will mean what it typically means: devotion, first and foremost, to perpetuating rather than challenging how the Washington establishment functions.
As Talk Left's Jeralyn Merritt documents, Obama today rather clearly stated that he will not close Guantanamo in the first 100 days of his presidency. He recited the standard Jack Goldsmith/Brookings Institution condescending excuse that closing Guantanamo is "more difficult than people realize." Specifically, Obama argued, we cannot release detainees whom we're unable to convict in a court of law because the evidence against them is "tainted" as a result of our having tortured them, and therefore need some new system -- most likely a so-called new "national security court" -- that "relaxes" due process safeguards so that we can continue to imprison people indefinitely even though we're unable to obtain an actual conviction in an actual court of law.
Worst of all, Obama (in response to Stephanopoulos' asking him about the number one highest-voted question on Change.gov, first submitted by Bob Fertik) all but said that he does not want to pursue prosecutions for high-level lawbreakers in the Bush administration, twice repeating the standard Beltway mantra that "we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards" and "my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward we are doing the right thing." Obama didn't categorically rule out prosecutions -- he paid passing lip service to the pretty idea that "nobody is above the law," implied Eric Holder would have some role in making these decisions, and said "we're going to be looking at past practices" -- but he clearly intended to convey his emphatic view that he opposes "past-looking" investigations. In the U.S., high political officials aren't investigated, let alone held accountable, for lawbreaking, and that is rather clearly something Obama has no intention of changing.
In fairness, Obama has long made clear that this is the approach he intends to take to governing. After all, this is someone who, upon arriving in the Senate, sought out Joe Lieberman as his mentor, supported Lieberman over Ned Lamont in the primary, campaigned for Blue Dogs against progressive challengers, and has long paid homage to the Beltway centrism and post-partisan religion. And you can't very well place someone in a high-ranking position who explicitly advocates rendition and enhanced interrogation tactics and then simultaneously lead the way in criminally investigating those who authorized those same tactics.
So Obama can't be fairly criticized for hiding his devotion to this approach. But whatever else one wants to say about it, one cannot call it "new." This is what Democrats have been told for decades they must do and they've spent decades enthusiastically complying.
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