It’s an article of faith in the elite ranks of journalism: Political virtue and electoral success reside in the ideological center. Though it’s not overwhelmingly popular with the American public, centrism is the dominant message of national political pundits and journalists—at least for Democrats.
While few commentators would disagree with the conventional wisdom that Republican success depends on the care and feeding of the GOP’s conservative base—GOP leaders would laugh at them if they did—pundits who make the same argument for the Democrats are virtually non-existent in national media. Instead, many of the most prominent political journalists in the country have made it their business to press the Democrats to move the party rightward.
Media advocates of centrism typically call on Democrats to reject their natural supporters, often denigrated as “special interests”: liberals, unions, civil rights and feminist groups, and environmental and consumer rights organizations. Meanwhile, corporate-friendly policies and conservative-leaning “moral values” are presented as the road to electoral success. Many political pundits say going centrist is not only the right thing—it’s the only way Democrats can win.
The ABC News website the Note, a daily digest of news and political gossip, can be relied upon for the latest in conventional media wisdom. In a May 25 dispatch about the 2006 elections, the Note wrote that Democrats “will be in their hearts for higher taxes, universal health care, a heightened emphasis on civil liberties, and a dramatic and swift reduction of troops from Iraq.” According to the Note, these are unpopular positions the Democrats should keep to themselves until after the election: “The Democrats just have to hope that the American people don’t find out until February.” But if ABC’s own polling is any indication, some of these ideas are solidly mainstream: Popular majorities favor troop reductions in Iraq (5/11-15/06) and universal health coverage (4/6-9/06).
In a media bubble where popular positions are often dismissed as politically dangerous by virtue of their progressive origins, pundits frequently press Democrats to embrace a roster of centrist positions that are actually unpopular. Indeed, as political strategist David Sirota pointed out (Washington Post, 6/11/06), pundit-approved Democrats frequently embrace politically unpopular ideas, from the Iraq War to NAFTA-style trade deals:
Lashing out against the Democratic base is practically a job requirement for the media’s centrist cheerleaders. Seeming barely able to contain his exasperation with progressive Democrats, New York Times Magazine reporter Matt Bai (1/8/06) wrote that their opposition to corporate-driven globalization showed that they “cling to the mythology of the factory age,” and wish to bring about conditions where “the American worker could again live happily in 1950.” In 2004 (10/31/04), Bai left-baited progressive Democrats, charging them with doing “nothing to repudiate the deeply personal attacks launched by the Michael Moores of the world.”
A specialist in this kind of base-bashing is Time columnist Joe Klein. When he devoted his December 26, 2005 column to celebrating politicians who were boldly taking risky-yet-wise positions, just one Democrat made the list—Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.), who won praise for “his criticism of Democratic advocacy groups that opposed the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court in their usual vituperative fashion.”
Weeks earlier, Klein’s contempt for the Democratic Party’s most faithful cohort was on display (10/3/05): “The tendency of some black baby boomers—the civil rights generation—to attempt to make gains by browbeating white people and ignoring the responsibility of the ‘victims’ themselves has been a total loser. By alienating Middle America, they have helped ‘ravage’ the Democratic Party.”
That Democrats do better when they stake out positions unpopular with their base is a familiar media trope. “Democrats have suffered from a politically correct—and rather condescending—unwillingness to speak truth to anger ever since the civil rights movement turned militant after the death of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Klein went on to write. “The party has come to seem craven, weak and untrustworthy in the process.”
Every four years
Ascribing Democratic failings to a surplus of liberalism is a media tradition going back at least to 1984. (See Extra!, 9/92.) Vice President Walter Mondale ran as a moderate that year, as the New York Times reported in a story (7/22/04) headlined, “Democrats’ Platform Shows a Shift From Liberal Positions of 1976 and 1980.”
When Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis ran as a centrist four years later, the press painted him as a contrast to Mondale and other recent Democratic candidates; as the Chicago Tribune editorialized (7/24/88), “Unlike too many of his defeated predecessors, Mike Dukakis devoted neither his campaign nor his convention to buying the love of a jungle of special-interest groups with promises that could mortgage the heart and soul and pocketbook of a prospective administration.”
By the time Bill Clinton was nominated in 1992, the Christian Science Monitor could report (7/17/92), “The platform is not Mondale-Dukakis liberal, but Clinton moderate.”
Clinton, of course—unlike Mondale and Dukakis—won his race for the presidency. This fact has become the central historical underpinning for the move-to-the-center argument, as outlined by former New Republic editor Peter Beinart (New York Times Book Review, 3/26/06):
But were the years after 1988, when the corporate-backed DLC was at the peak of its influence and Bill Clinton was blazing a centrist trail, really the halcyon days of the Democratic Party? In a 2000 Los Angeles Times op-ed column (4/9/00), FAIR founder Jeff Cohen pointed out the problem with that assumption:
As Cohen pointed out, the Clinton years were devastating for just about everyone in the Democratic Party except Bill Clinton—largely because, by cozying up to corporations, the party walked away from its core values and constituencies:
Cohen’s math suggests Clinton’s success, which did the party little good, may have had more to do with his uncommon political gifts than his ideological views. But that view—that the Democrats would do better to move towards the party’s base—is almost unheard in the media. To hear the talking heads tell it, the Clinton lesson is a simple one: Move away from the base and you’ll succeed—at the ballot box and with the press.
Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein praised Clinton’s willingness to stand up to his party’s base (11/29/04), writing that for any president,
On NBC’s Chris Matthews Show, Time’s Joe Klein similarly declared Clinton’s NAFTA support a bold move (4/23/06): “There were times when Bill Clinton, like on NAFTA, he would go into union halls in Michigan and say, ‘I disagree with you on this and here is why. . . .’ That was gutsy.” Matthews concurred: “He was very gutsy on that.”
If only pundits voted, their enthusiasm for these Clinton policies would have meant the Democrats would have gained political power in the Clinton years. As Cohen pointed out, it was just the opposite. But the pundits’ centrist playbook remains the same.
In a New York Times Magazine piece (3/12/06), James Traub predictably suggested that Democrats lost the 2000 election by straying from the centrist trail blazed by Bill Clinton: “In 2000, Al Gore unmoored himself from Clinton’s ‘Third Way’ politics to run a more satisfying race as a populist scourge of Big Oil and Big Health Care and so on and drastically underperformed expectations.”
Traub’s description of Gore’s campaign bears little resemblance to reality. Gore did deliver a populist speech at the 2000 Democratic Convention—which, incidentally, some credited with fueling a significant post-convention increase in his support (Newsday, 9/1/00)—but the balance of Gore’s campaign veered centrist and pro-corporate, not least in his choice of conservative Sen. Joe Lieberman (D.-Conn.) as running mate.
Even the Los Angeles Times’ Brownstein (8/21/00)—another of centrism’s strongest media advocates—wrote at the time that on major policy questions, Gore “almost unfailingly follows the new course [Bill Clinton] set for the party.” Gore won praise from other media centrists when he moved rightward. “The best thing Al Gore did at this convention, he did the week before when he chose Joe Lieberman, because I think Joe Lieberman was the best thing about that convention,” ABC’s Michel Martin said (This Week, 8/20/00). “No question about it,” seconded This Week’s resident liberal panelist George Stephanopoulos. (See FAIR Media Advisory, 12/22/00.)
The 2004 campaign provided another opportunity for journalists to counsel the Democrats to the middle (Extra! Update, 6/04). Howard Fineman explained to Newsweek readers (4/12/04) that anonymous political “wise guys” were insisting that in order to succeed, John Kerry needed to craft “a coherent, centrist vision. . . . There’s room in the middle, wise guys insist.” As Fineman’s unnamed experts saw it, “Kerry can’t occupy the center if he’s defined as a mere liberal.” Fineman’s advice on how to lose the liberal taint? Kerry should “run ads in battleground states reminding voters that he was a prosecutor and that he voted for welfare reform in 1996.”
By April, Kerry had cinched the Democratic nomination, and George W. Bush looked vulnerable. The war was rapidly losing domestic support and a majority—53 percent—told a CNN/Gallup poll (3/28/04) they thought Bush had lied to the American people. That might have seemed to some like a good time for Democrats to accentuate the differences between themselves and their opponents—but not to Time’s Klein. In a column calling for bipartisan cooperation (4/4/04), Klein made a passionate case for Kerry to name Republican Sen. John McCain, who has one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, as his vice presidential running mate.
Klein wasn’t the only one imagining a Democrat/Republican ticket. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (3/27/04) fantasized, “I want to wake up and read that John Kerry just asked John McCain to be his vice president.” Friedman explained that’s the only way to tackle the country’s problems, “with a bipartisan spirit and bipartisan team.”
Kerry, of course, disappointed Klein and Friedman and put a Democrat on the party’s ticket. And in the aftermath of the 2004 election, media centrists once again rushed to blame the results on Democratic progressivism. Appearing on NBC’s Today (11/3/04), Newsweek’s Fineman explained that the big lesson of 2004 was that Democrats were not far enough right on social issues to compete politically. “The exit polls showed, however accurate or inaccurate they were in other respects, that the No. 1 issue on people’s minds was the preservation of moral values,” said Fineman. “George Bush beat John Kerry by eight-to-one in that category.”
Fineman exaggerated Bush’s lead among “moral values” voters—it was 80 percent to 18, or closer to 4 to 1. And Kerry had a similar lead on the next-most-cited issue, “jobs and the economy”—called the most important issue by 20 percent of voters, vs. 22 percent for “moral values.” Other polls also suggested that Democrats’ morality problem was not the defining issue for the public that it was for the press corps. A CBS/New York Times poll taken before the election (7/11-15/04) found that Democrats were one percentage point ahead on the question of “moral values.”
But after the election, the storyline that Democrats lost because they were insufficiently “moral” was set in stone. In October 2005, the New York Times’ Bai claimed (10/2/05) that “all but the most obstinate liberals now realize that traditional values matter to American voters more than they thought. Gradually over the past couple of decades, the Democratic Party has ceded issues of faith and morality to the Republicans.”
Ron Brownstein (L. A. Times, 11/4/04) cited unnamed Democrats making this point immediately after the election. “To many Democratic analysts,” wrote Brownstein, the message of 2004 was that “the party will find it virtually impossible to reach a presidential or congressional majority without regaining at least some ground with socially conservative voters.” The only Democratic analyst quoted by name was the Democratic Leadership Council’s Al From, who affirmed, “We’ve got to close the cultural gap.”
The centrist future
If history is any guide, this year’s midterm elections will likely be framed as a test to see how close—or far—Democrats are from the political center. As Nina Easton of the Boston Globe wrote (3/17/06), “Democratic centrists who look at the voter math worry about candidates who court the left, fearing that their party will turn off too many swing voters to be able to beat Republicans in a general election.”
An article by Time’s Klein (6/12/06) posed the question, “Can the Democrats Handle a Heretic?”—referring to former Reagan official Jim Webb’s running as a Democrat in Virginia for the U.S. Senate. Lamenting that Webb must navigate the “litmus-test land mines” of the Democratic Party, Klein wrote that the campaign “will help determine whether Democrats have the expansive soul to become a majority party once more.”
The same tendencies occur during discussions of the 2008 race for the White House. When Chris Matthews asked the panel of political reporters on his NBC talkshow (4/23/06) who might challenge Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) on the Democratic ticket in 2008, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell named former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, saying, “I think he’s got a good grasp on a centrist position.”
Newsweek’s Howard Fineman used a column last year (6/1/05) to tout Warner’s presidential prospects. As Fineman explained, Warner was a centrist Southern governor who’d “managed to avoid the label ‘liberal,’” and is well-connected to funding sources. “He’s got a base,” wrote Fineman, referring to “the high-tech investment community nationwide.”
One of the most consistent proponents of the win-in-the-center strategy is Washington Post columnist David Broder, who reiterated the theme in a March 2, 2006 piece. Suggesting that there was a “special burden” on presidential candidates in 2008 to run to the middle, he wondered whether prospective candidate Hillary Clinton was up to the challenge: “Is there anything in her record that speaks to the hunger for consensus?” The Tampa Tribune (2/25/06) all but begged Clinton not to run, editorializing that she was “not the person to help define a party that needs to convince voters it can govern from the vital center.”
Such commentary may seem silly. From her industry-friendly healthcare plan (Extra!, 1-2/94) to her support for the Iraq War and her campaigns against flag-burning and violent video games, it’s hard to think of anything in Clinton’s political career that doesn’t reflect a “hunger for consensus.”
But that just shows the value to the media of the concept of centrism. As demonstrated by Mondale and Dukakis—media-approved centrists who only became liberals in defeat—the label can mean anything that pundits want it to mean.
Research assistance by Christopher Famighetti.