The Tyranny of the Centrists

If they're in charge, we're all in trouble.

If six months ago you had said that within three weeks of taking
office, President Obama would pass a $787 billion stimulus bill with
billions of dollars for food stamps and schools, infrastructure and
energy modernization, health care and broadband, anyone would have said
it would be an extraordinary victory for the president, his party and
his ideology. Yet now that it has actually happened, the administration
is hardly acting triumphal, while some other people are imagining
themselves the true winners.

The Republican minority, calling in from some alternative universe,
is convinced that by achieving lockstep opposition to a popular
economic-recovery plan pushed by a popular president in a time of
economic crisis, they've laid a firm foundation for future electoral
gains. For the moment, they seem more delusional than dangerous. But
the people we should really worry about are the "centrists," that merry
band of legislators who determined the fate of the legislation. It was
the centrists -- a group that may have held as many as a dozen senators
but was most represented by Democrat Ben Nelson and Republicans Arlen
Specter, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins (the three GOP members who
voted for the bill) who got what they wanted, and what they wanted was
for the entire nation to beseech them for their favor. Every time they
were photographed, they seemed barely able to contain their glee, one's
goofy grin wider than the other's.

So just what does it mean to be a "centrist"? To people who don't
care much about politics, it may just seem like centrists are a third
team between the right and the left, doing their best to advance their
own interests, just as everyone else does. But if you believe political
beliefs matter, and that politics is where our competing visions of the
world come to fruition or are defeated, then centrism is the most
cynical ideology of all, one utterly devoid of substance.

That isn't to say that one has to be a conservative or a progressive
to be principled. Libertarians are among the most politically
principled people you'll ever encounter, and their views don't line up
neatly on the left-right axis that defines much of our politics. But
unlike libertarianism -- or conservatism, or progressivism -- centrism
defines itself not by fundamental principles or a particular view of
the way the world works, but simply by what other people are thinking.
The centrist isn't sure what he believes until you tell him what the
left and the right believe. Only then does he know where he should put

And that's what we saw during the final negotiations over the
stimulus bill. What mattered most to the centrists was not producing a
bill that would create the most jobs, do the most to help the economy
recover, or give the wisest investments for future growth. What
mattered was whether they were in control, whether they had made the
administration and Democrats in Congress squirm, whether everyone knew
that if the bill was to pass, they would have to be appeased. It was
all about them.

So we had Specter proudly writing in The Washington Post
of "the high price that moderates have been able to extract for their
support of stimulus legislation." We had the country looking hopefully
to Ben Nelson, who when interviewed by Rachel Maddow,
was barely coherent when asked about the bill whose fate he held in his
hands. Nelson babbled nonsensically about "unfunded mandates" and No
Child Left Behind when asked why he had favored cutting billions of
dollars for school construction out of the bill.

(Looking at Nelson, one couldn't help but think, "Meet the new
Breaux, same as the old Breaux." That would be former Louisiana senator
John Breaux, who tormented Democrats for years by seemingly always
being the Democrat whom Republicans could count on to wax poetic about
"bipartisanship" while taking the GOP's side. Breaux's priority was
always deal-making -- so long as he was at the center of the deal, and
everyone on both sides had to come begging him to join them. "I love a
50-50 tie," he told the Prospect
in 2001. Last year, Breaux joined with former Republican Senate
Majority Leader Trent Lott to form the Breaux Lott Leadership Group.
Atop the firm's web site in
large type is a dictionary definition: "bipartisan: marked by or
involving cooperation, agreement, and compromise between two major
political parties." It's enough to make you think that they're running
some kind of nonprofit devoted to legislative conflict resolution,
until you remember that it's a corporate lobbying firm.)

Once the centrists slashed hundreds of billions of dollars of
stimulus spending out of the bill, many observers concluded that
President Obama would have done better to start negotiating with a much
bigger proposal -- say, $1.2 trillion or $1.5 trillion. Then the
centrists would have demanded that it be reduced, and he could have
complied, in which case he would have ended up with a couple hundred
billion dollars more in stimulus than he eventually got.

To believe such a strategy would have failed to produce more
stimulus, you'd have to think that the centrists were operating from
some firm set of principles that would have led them inevitably to $787
billion, no matter where they started from. But nothing they have done
or said suggests that's true.

As The New York Timesreported
after the deal was reached, "Senator Collins said getting the final
number to under $800 billion was more than symbolic; it meant 'a
fiscally responsible number,' she said." So how did Collins and the
other centrists arrive at their judgment about the non-symbolic
symbolism of $800 billion? It isn't as though there is some centrist
scripture somewhere that reads, "Yea verily, should there ever be an
economic crisis, a stimulus package amounting to more than 5 percent of
GDP will be vile in thy sight, but 4.9 percent shall bring glory to The

The truth is that like the rest of us, centrists are very fickle
about numbers. Clever marketers have known for a long time that you can
make something seem smaller by putting it next to something larger.
This is true of cupcakes, and true of dollar figures. Why do
infomercials tell you that the regular price on this electric toenail
clipper is $50, but today they're offering it for only $29.95? Either
the toenail clipper is worth $30 or it isn't; whether you're persuaded
to buy one shouldn't have anything to do with a fictitious "regular"
price. But of course, it does. And $787 billion only seemed
"responsible" because it was less than the $819 billion originally
approved by the House and the $838 billion approved by the Senate.

Listen to the endless Washington chatter, and you might think that
whether a bill is "bipartisan" is more important than whether it
actually accomplishes what it's supposed to do. And you'd think that
there is something inherently morally virtuous about being a centrist
rather than a believer of the left or right. There isn't, of course,
but if there's a silver lining in the continuing power of the Senate
centrists, it's that the current state of public opinion and the
increased Democratic majorities in Congress have moved the center
leftward. So the political fulcrum at which the centrists will
inevitably plant themselves is more in the direction of progressive
change than it has been in recent years.

But the reality is that the fight over the stimulus bill was
relatively brief and bloodless, even as the stakes were so high. If you
thought we saw some self-important demands for ring-kissing coming from
the centrists on this one, just wait until we get to a real fight, like
health-care reform.

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