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

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 proteges
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.

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 bete 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

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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