Recently on her MSNBC program Rachel Maddow examined President Obama’s move to the middle and revealed how his reclaiming of the American political center is actually a movement to the left. To Maddow the Obama strategy is, “Once you‘ve got everybody agreeing to that sort of a general principle, you can then make proposals that are actually liberal and it won‘t upset anyone.”
Here is the video:
First Rachel Maddow explained how the center of American politics has drifted to the right over the last 50 years, “The story of modern American politics writ large is the story of your father‘s and your grandfather‘s Republican Party now being way to the left of today‘s leftiest liberals. If Dwight Eisenhower were running for office today, he would have to run, I‘m guessing as an independent, and not as some Joe Lieberman, in between the parties, independent. He‘d be a Bernie Sanders independent.”
Later Maddow added that even Ronald Reagan would not pass today’s Republican purity test, “On the right, the process that has dragged the political center to the point where Dwight Eisenhower would be denounced as a socialist now, Ronald Reagan wouldn‘t even pass a Republican purity test, he‘d be the guy they excluded from the debates for being a wingnut, that process is still very much intact. On the right, things are working sort of the way they always have, if not faster.”
She discussed the history of Democrats chasing the political center, “Historically, the process of a Democrat trying to find the center in politics has seen Democrats chasing the center as it moves to the right. The thing that‘s different about the left and the right in this country is that there isn‘t an equal and opposite force on the left that‘s anything like the conservative movement on the right. The conservative movement exists outside the Republican Party, and it serves to constantly pull the Republican Party further to the right.”
The MSNBC host talked about the two ways that Democratic presidents can earn high approval ratings, “There are two ways to claim the 92 percent instant approval rating of sounding like the man in the center. One way is the Clintonian way—to let your policies just drift right because the Republicans drifted right, too. But there‘s another way. A way we heard about last night. It is to claim the center, to claim the political spoils you get for sounding like you‘re in the center, that 92 percent CBS rating, right, but to put the center back vaguely somewhere where center actually is.”
She highlighted how Obama stayed centrist in the SOTU but moved America to the left, “Once you‘ve got everybody agreeing to that sort of a general principle, you can then make proposals that are actually liberal and it won‘t upset anyone. And I don‘t—I don‘t just mean like sort of vaguely liberal-sounding proposals, I mean like Eisenhower liberal. Like the president‘s case last night for national investment to have a high-speed broadband access all across the country, to have 98 percent of the country connected to broadband within the next five years.”
Maddow contrasted the Clinton way of moving to the center with the Obama method, “If you want to know where the sweet spot is in American politics, where you can get mom and apple pie-style approval ratings, there‘s two ways to do it. One, if the country feels like we are threatened by somebody else. That will bring us together like nothing else. The other way, is to sound like you are the reasonable center. That you have risen above the fray and you are the one who makes sense between the extremes. That is how Bill Clinton came back after his own shellacking in the 1994 midterms, and then he coasted to re-election in 1996.”
She concluded, “When he sprinted to the center, though, he sprinted to where Republicans and the conservatives had put the center. He moved his whole policy agenda to the right and thereby let the Republicans and the conservatives go even further right in order to keep the tension on, in order to keep pulling things to the conservative side. What we learned last night about this president and how he is doing it differently is that he is very happy to reap the political rewards that come with positioning yourself in the center. But he‘s also putting the center back where he wants it. He‘s sort of stopping the country‘s rightward drift.”
When the Bush tax cut compromise was announced, many on the left immediately had a flashback to the rightward bolt that Bill Clinton made after the 1994 midterms, but what we are seeing is that Obama is doing something different. He is redefining the political middle, not as the middle right, but middle left. It is a very subtle shift, but in terms of policy it is a substantial difference. Obama will work with Republicans on things like trade deals, the tax code, and malpractice reform, but they aren’t going to touch any program that is popular with the political middle.
By staking out a middle left by using the language of centrism to defend liberal programs, the President is transforming into a reasonable centrist with a progressive slant.As we have seen already, Republicans have no idea how to attack this position. Bill Clinton went much further to the right than Obama will, but he drove the Republicans up the wall, with his unifying language of the middle. By defending spending on education, and energy, along with protecting Social Security and Medicare, Obama is redefining the political middle.
The President has the advantage of defending programs like Social Security and Medicare that beloved by the American people, and by keeping his goals general and agreeable. Obama doesn’t give the Republicans much to attack while he is able to lay out his vision for the future. What progressives don’t understand is that America loves the political middle. This nation will never support an openly far left or right president. President Obama has found America’s political sweet spot, but unlike Bill Clinton he is not content just to win reelection.
Obama is doing something no Democrat has been able to do for decades. He is taking back the middle, and if successful this accomplishment will impact American politics for years to come.