Conventional wisdom holds that political success lies in finding the center of popular opinion, which remains moderate to conservative. Coming from a media that have consistently failed to anticipate or even fully acknowledge the current economic crisis, such wisdom is suspect. Success in stable times may lie in claiming the center.
Nonetheless, in times of turmoil it can depend on recognizing that politics is not always a linear enterprise. Merely offering refined revisions of conventional wisdom fails to address fluidity and emerging trends that may presage wholly new beginnings. Centrism may not even inspire voters. Politically astute and effective leaders encourage, though they cannot control, new beginnings.
Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was a centrist endeavor, but not in the sense that term has for elite media. In the 1920s, Republicans were ardent free marketeers. Herbert Hoover's Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon viewed the crash of 1929 as a beneficent lesson to the reckless and irresponsible.
But 1920s Democrats were hardly radicals. They had moved a long way from Wilsonian progressivism. They were a muddled alliance of corporate conservatives and big city machines. In 1932, FDR ran on a platform advocating a balanced budget. The reforms for which we know FDR hardly represented a midpoint between two moribund parties. FDR's pragmatic mind-set and political astuteness lay in his response to and creative harnessing of several diverse and emerging currents.
Amid desperate Republican efforts to discredit him, powerful grass-roots efforts by Communists to repudiate the entire capitalist economy gained potency. Huey Long's Southern populist, share the wealth campaigns were even more popular. Social Security and the Wagner Labor Act both accepted market capitalism, but also added important elements of security and modest redistribution to the system. These acts, along with the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, set the terms for a reformed capitalism that would prosper for a generation.
But the very economic security it provided allowed other concerns to emerge. Both FDR and his Republican opponents had assumed that work and economic growth were the meaning of life. As long as workers received fair compensation, owners could control the workplace and working hours.
Both also had assumed the U.S. was the world's predominant power. These smooth assumptions were challenged as younger workers in the full employment 1960s demanded more of work than a paycheck. Minorities and foreign nations rebelled against a consensus that left them out.
Turmoil and stagflation in the late 60s created an opening for Ronald Reagan, another master politician, to fashion a new center. That center was a loose but potent marriage of market fundamentalists, nationalists and social conservatism that few could have foreseen fully. His conservatism endured even during the Clinton era, though with modest revisions.
To reassure voters, who had not forgotten late 60s turmoil, of his "soundness," Clinton advocated toughness on crime and ending welfare. His one modest claim to progressive credentials lay in expanded education as a way to toughen workers for participation in an international knowledge economy.
The Reagan-Clinton era emphasis on education, corporate trade deals, financial deregulation and competitiveness has left most workers in the lurch. Inequality and insecurity have grown even more under Bush.
Americans remain suspicious of welfare, but other steps to reduce inequality and improve security now have a clear opening. New polling data suggest that a majority worry more about government not doing enough to stimulate the economy than about tax increases - especially on the wealthy.
Americans now increasingly recognize that much modern wealth is not created by individual initiative but by political favoritism. Even now, President Bush and Henry Paulson are using, perhaps illegally, the bank bailout program to enrich executives and stockholders.
Congressional Democrats should continue hearings on the implementation of this bailout. If such hearings cannot force or shame the Bush administration to redirect bailout funds to the real economy, they can at least lay a foundation for tax reform under Obama. Fair capital gain and income taxes will in effect recapture some ill-gotten gains so that the costs of economic reconstruction are fairly distributed.
Activists must also pressure Obama and congressional Democrats to enact both short- and long-range stimulus programs to reduce unemployment, resource scarcity and climate change. Clinton-style triangulation in the midst of economic turmoil is unlikely to right the economy and will undermine Obama's popular support.