Monday, November 05, 2007

What is this thing called centrism?

American progressives flinch at the words "centrism" and "centrist." Seriously, who can blame them? Centrism conjures up images of Liberdems displaying their naked butt cheeks to Fox News "analysts," screaming "THANK YOU SIR MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?!?" Centrism is generally agreed to be a lousy strategy, unless you're one of those lame-ass consultants paid according to how many elections you lose for the Democratic party.

But is it really? Does "centrist" have to be synonymous with "right-wing Bush brown-noser"? Is centrism really the problem? Or is the definition of centrism the problem? Does "Blue Dog" absolutely have to equal "Bush Dog"?

I don't believe so.

Over at the Great Orange Inferno, there's mad respect for moderate and even conservative Democrats like Jim Webb and John Murtha. Webb was a fracking Reagan staffer, remember? But progressive activists respect his tough stance against the Iraq war, his support for the troops, and his pride in his military service. Similarly, John Murtha is a military veteran and seasoned hawk with ties to the Pentagon. Neither is an arch-liberal by any means. But here's what makes them strong Democrats: they fight and rebut the White House frames and talking points.

Democrats should quit squawking about finding the "center." At this point in time, the Democratic party is the centrist party. The Republican party is the party of the reactionary right.

It wasn't always so, of course. Thirty years ago, sensible, level-headed moderates happily found a home in the GOP. They were liberal on social issues and believed in fiscal responsibility. They were rational and sane. They were comfortably, happily centrist. They were great for building bridges between parties. And they had cool names. Jim Jeffords. John Chafee. Olympia Snowe. Only in America can a Republican senator have a rather hippie-ish sounding name.

Heck, 30 years ago I might have been a moderate Republican.

Sadly, the few remaining GOP moderates have become sad, voiceless, anonymous Bush enablers. Really, you think the Democratic leaders in Congress are spineless? What about all these self-proclaimed centrists and traditional conservatives who spent years rubber stamping all kinds of right-wing reactionary bullshit? That sort of party-before-country behavior is the epitome of spinelessness.

Meanwhile, popular, capable centrist Democrats occupy state houses in the Midwest and the Rockies (e.g., Kathleen Sibelius and Janet Napolitano). Sibelius in particular has managed to lure moderate Kansas Republicans into the Democratic fold. The latest Democratic governor, Ohio's Ted Strickland is the latest member of the club.

As governor, he said in an interview in his statehouse office, "we've tried to avoid being overly partisan." As party builder, he said he wants to focus on "what I call the kitchen table issues ... the basic issues that are important to a family's quality of life."

Strickland's first budget passed with only one dissenting vote in the Republican-controlled legislature. It included a property tax cut for seniors and the disabled as well as more money for higher education. It also provided health insurance for children living in families with up to about $62,000 in income - a bipartisan accomplishment that stands in contrast to the veto struggle now unfolding in Washington over the same issue.

Let's see...focusing on issues rather than ideology. Giving seniors a tax cut. Investing in education and health care for kids. Doing the right thing for Ohio's citizens. Sounds like Strickland understands mainstream priorities. Poll results specifically show that most Americans worry about health care and education. What Governor Strickland is doing is hardly radical...unless you live in DC.

Focusing on practical, pragmatic solutions, rather than ideology, is what centrism should be all about. Nobody in Washington seems to realize this anymore--not Republicans and certainly not Congressional Blue Dogs.

Voting for Bush is not a sign of moderation. It's not pragmatism. It's pandering. It's another form of enabling, just as ridiculous and nonsensical as rubber-stamping of the few remaining GOP moderates.

By all means, the Democrats should claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility. Many already have. But it's time to get beyond shopworn think tank frames and consultants' admonishments. This mythical "center" that Democrats have been searching for is exactly where they've been standing all along.