Left to Take Blame for Centrism’s Political Disaster–Once Again

In his New York Times column today (7/19/10), Paul Krugman offers a prediction about the likely pundit response to the drubbing Democrats are expected to take in the November elections:

What I expect…if and when the midterms go badly, is that the usual suspects will say that it was because Mr. Obama was too liberal–when his real mistake was doing too little to create jobs.

Krugman is on solid historical ground here: There is indeed a longstanding pattern of Democratic politicians, previously praised by pundits for their determinedly centrist policies, later being attacked by the same punditocracy for their self-defeating left-wing tendencies. As Extra! wrote back in 1992, in “Conventional Wisdom: How the Press Rewrites Democratic Party History Every Four Years”:

According to mass media, [Bill] Clinton is running as a moderate who appeals to the “middle class” — a plan that is seen as a contrast to previous Democratic runs. “The platform is not Mondale-Dukakis liberal, but Clinton moderate,” reported the Christian Science Monitor (7/17/92).

Actually, both Mondale and Dukakis tried to win by moving the party to the right. “Look at our platform,” said Mondale in his acceptance speech. “There are no defense cuts that weaken our security, no business taxes that weaken our economy, no laundry lists that raid our treasury.” At the time, journalists agreed: “Democrats’ Platform Shows a Shift From Liberal Positions of 1976 and 1980,” ran the headline of the New York Times‘ analysis (7/22/84). “The minority planks that could have crippled his campaign were blocked,” said the Christian Science Monitor (7/20/84).

It was the same story with the 1988 platform. Wrote the Washington Post (7/19/88): “The expansive promises of Democratic Party platforms of earlier years–the crowded bazaar of special interests and special pleadings–have been streamlined into the version that will go before the convention here Tuesday.”

The piece concluded:

Why is it that Democratic party history gets revised every four years? It’s largely because the “left” perspective in mainstream debate is represented by centrists who identify with the establishment politicians who dominate the Democratic Party leadership and feel estranged from the party’s progressive constituencies. These pundits and political journalists seem reluctant to acknowledge that it was insiders, not activists, who led the party to crushing defeats in 1984 and 1988.

After describing the 1988 convention as a transition between the “Old Party” dominated by liberal “special interests” and the “New Party” characterized by post-ideological “problem-solvers” like Dukakis, William Schneider made a prediction (L.A. Times, 7/24/88): “If the problem-solvers can’t win…there is every likelihood that Democrats will go back to what they really believe in.” What actually happened, of course, was the same move that was made in 1984: When the “pragmatists” lose badly with their centrist approach, they are repainted after the fact as radicals, so the strategy of tilting to the right can be tried again and again.

And, in fact, when the Clinton administration’s centrist policies, particularly NAFTA, resulted in the political disaster of the 1994 midterms, the Democrats’ trouncing was indeed blamed on Clinton’s supposedly left-wing policies (Extra!, 1-2/95).

It looks like history is going to repeat itself once again in November 2010.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.