When the Campaign Moves Back to the ‘Center’

The presidential campaign is breaking down along familiar ideological lines, according to New York Times reporter John Harwood (1/12/12):

American voters loathe both major symbols of the forces squeezing their pocketbooks and life savings.

President Obama will seek re-election vowing to rein in one of them: Wall Street. Mitt Romney will focus on the other: Washington.

There are some complications (Republicans attacking Mitt Romney’s “vulture” capitalism for starters), but Harwood assures readers that soon enough the candidates will be back to the sensible middle.

But what’s the center?

Romney’s right-wing rhetoric about Obama’s fondness for Big Government and European socialism is a staple of his campaign. But the evidence of Obama’s leftward anti-Wall Street message is a little harder to come by. This is where Harwood sees it:

He called for a 21st-century version of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive movement that would raise taxes on the wealthy to finance job-creating improvements in infrastructure, education and scientific research. Mr. Obama’s view draws strength from voters’ antipathy toward a Wall Street culture thatprospered while Main Street struggled–and then received a taxpayer bailout.

Harwood tells readers not to much worry about what they’re hearing, since they’ll be back to The Middle soon enough:

Dramatic oratory aside, Messrs. Romney and Obama are seeking ways to position themselves as reasonable centrists in a general election. Mr. Obama on Wednesday announced that he will offer new business tax breaks for companies that return jobs to the United States. Mr. Romney has defended Social Security against Mr. Perry’s ideas for transforming it, and criticized Mr. Gingrich for suggesting a weakening of child labor laws.

The implication, of course, is that neither of them is being particularly reasonable now. In the case of Mitt Romney, perhaps that means he doesn’t really mean Obama is seeking “to put free enterprise on trial.” To Harwood, Romney’s centrism is that he supports child labor law and doesn’t believe Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. That doesn’t tell us much.

But as the Christian Science Monitor reported, Romney’s actual Social Security plan would “gradually raise the retirement age to reflect increases in longevity.” That’s not a particularly popular idea, but it’s the kind of thing corporate media tend to support.

As for Obama, is it really reasonable centrism to call for corporate tax breaks? Harwood seems to think so, especially when set against the left-wing Obama who calls for tax hikes on the wealthy to finance jobs programs. But those unreasonably progressive policies would seem to be fairly popular, even by the Times‘ own polling.

As is often the case, when media say “center,” they don’t mean policies that most people support. They mean policies that seem sensible to them. The two are not the same thing.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.