Utopian Leftists and Veruca Salt Centrists
Election Day is here. Bring out the pundits ready to explain why things are going to go so badly for the Democrats (I’m not immune). In the Financial Times today Clive Crook, who’s great on policy but suffers from a version of the pundit’s fallacy whenever political strategy comes up, brings us another column faulting Obama for his lack of centrism (another example here). He gets some big things right – he notices that the economy is mainly to blame – but then Crook makes an odd argument (emphasis mine).
My own preferred theories emphasise the economy – which the administration has handled tolerably well in appallingly difficult circumstances – combined with serial political miscalculation. Mr Obama often settled for untidy centrist compromises (on the stimulus, on healthcare), thus disappointing the left; but without ever championing those compromises, causing moderates to wonder where he would stop, given the chance to go further. Offending both segments was an avoidable mistake.
Partly, then, this election is about disaffection in the centre – and the effort to tell Mr Obama, “Enough.” But if this is correct, and the polls turn out to be true, one should pay special tribute to the role the left has played in its own downfall. It did not have to be this way.
In any event, suppose that the Democratic base had not been sulking. Suppose it saw, for example, that persisting with a historic healthcare reform was politically challenging in the middle of an economic crash. Suppose it granted that radically overhauling a health system – some 20 per cent of the US economy – that many Americans rather like was a lot to take on. Suppose it was impressed that Mr Obama did it anyway, and was ready to go further.
Supposing those hopelessly implausible things, Mr Obama’s midterm strategy could have been different. Sure of the loyalty of the base, he could have addressed himself to the anxious middle, defended his policies as centrist compromises (which they were), and told the country (as he did in 2008) that its concerns were his concerns. In this alternative universe, he would have had his base and at least a shot at bringing the centre back.
Here we have Crook arguing that President Obama enacted “centrist compromises” not the policies the “whining utopian left” wanted. He then imagines that if only the Democratic base had not complained at all and just automatically remained loyal, Obama would have been free to direct his message to the center. I actually agree that the base, whatever their real grievances, should vote to reelect Democrats, but why does Crook imagine that leftists should be unquestioningly loyal while centrists get to act like Veruca Salt – they get all centrist policies but still feel entitled to complain and stomp off? Why doesn’t he “suppose” a scenario where the center “had not been sulking?” Crook is arguing that the left must shut up and support the President despite not getting what they wanted while centrists are free to complain and vote the Democrats out because Obama didn’t coddle them enough even though he delivered them “centrist compromises.”
I come at this as someone who generally favors centrist policies. Yes, I’ve criticized Obama for being “too timid”, as Crook claims liberals say (btw, is this a “whining utopian” leftist?). But the left shouldn’t be expected to always just fall into lock step out of loyalty but the center not. Isn’t the idea to champion as loudly and strongly the policies you want – if you’re always “loyal” what is the incentive for politicians to ever deliver? Remember politics should be about policy goals not political ones.
Also, he just fails to provide any data to back up his argument. I’m positive lots of centrist sounding Democrats are going to lose their seats. In fact, they’re probably the most vulnerable in this election (that’s for structural reasons not tonal ones). The data seems to show that most races are decided for structural reasons – notice how the US House and Lower House in States seat changes track each other.
So to recap: Veruca Salt centrist Clive Crook believes centrists got centrist policies, but not enough centrist messaging (although I think that’s even disputable) while whining utopian leftists settled for compromised policies, but got all the messaging. Who’s place would you rather be in? He sees nothing wrong with the centrists and blames the left for Democrats’ predicament. Got it.