Pondering Bill Keller’s ‘Middle’

Nobody loves centrism, writes Bill Keller in the New York Times (4/16/12), but they should. “Centrism is easily mocked and not much fun to defend,” writes, noting that critiques of centrism from the left and right have a certain appeal:

The politics of the center–including the professional centrists and trans-partisans of groups like Third Way and Americans Elect–do not quicken the pulse. White bread, elevator music, No Labels, meh.

So what’s to love about white bread? Winning. Elections are, Keller writes,

usually decided by voters who are not wedded to either party, who don’t stay in any ideological lane. These voters are thought to constitute roughly 15 percent of the electorate, give or take a few points. Add enough of them to your loyal base, and victory is yours.

And the middle isn’t boring after all: “The middle is not the home of bland, split-the-difference politics, or a cult that worships bipartisan process for its own sake.” He ticks off a list of centrist attributes, courtesy of the Third Way think tank. Such voters worry about debt, they are progressive on social issues, and “have nothing against the rich–but they don’t oppose tax increases.”

So what does this mean for the general election? “My hunch is that Romney will manage to shake off most of his extremist accouterments, because they never seemed to fit him,” Keller explains.

And what about Obama? Keller worries that Obama’s embrace of the Buffett Rule–which would make sure that millionaires pay more in taxes–makes him seem like less of a centrist:

The president sometimes, as in his last two State of the Union addresses, plays the even-keel, presidential pragmatist, sounding themes of balance and opportunity. Then sometimes lately he sounds more as if he’s trying out for the role of Robin Hood.

The policy isn’t a bad one, according to Keller–it’s just that arguing in favor of it doesn’t sound right:

The problem is that when Obama thrusts these populist themes to the center of his narrative, he sounds a little desperate. The candidate who ran on hope–promising to transcend bickering and get things done–is in danger of sounding like the candidate of partisan insurgency. Just as Romney was unconvincing as a right-wing scourge, Obama, a man lofty in his visions but realistic in his governance, feels inauthentic playing a plutocrat-bashing firebrand. The role the middle really wants him to play, I think, is president.

The Buffett Rule is very popular with the public–Democrats overwhelmingly support it, but so do independents, by a margin of 63 to 33 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll.

That sounds like it’s kind of…centrist, maybe. The lesson here seems more like the same old, same old: When corporate media talk about the “center,” they mean somewhere off to the right of the Democratic Party, wherever that may be. It’s a handy definition if you want to continually move the “the middle” to the right.

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.