So where is this center, anyway?

This week’s Economist (not yet on-line) has as one of its lead articles an ardent plea for President Barack Obama to respond to the past week’s special-election Senate defeat by moving to the center. Or, actually, it says the centre, but I am pretty sure these are the same place. The problem is, I can’t tell where this place might be.

The focus of the article is, of course, principally on the health-care reform bill (though a wide range of policies is mentioned). But if the notion of a centrist course in policy reform is to mean anything, I fail to see how the health bills thus far can be meaningfully anything but centrist. Policy reform that consists mainly of compensating (one might say “buying off”) incumbent interests–e.g. increasing the market for insurance policies and medical services–for various new restrictions imposed upon them (e.g. addressing the “pre-existing conditions” problem) is a centrist course.

If a policy reform were ideologically of the left (or, for that matter, the right), it would entail not compensating incumbent interests, but rolling them. Ideologically drive reform implies making incumbent interests pay the costs of new benefits distributed to the constituents of the governing party (or more broadly). Manifestly, this is not what Obama or his party has even attempted to do.

So, it simply is not clear where this center to which The Economist wants Obama to move is located. It would seem to look a lot like the status quo. And therein lies the rub: one can’t be an agent of “change” at the same time as one governs from the “center”–except perhaps in the most incremental fashion. Yet it is not clear that even incrementalism could command any support from the now marginally expanded veto block in the Senate. This contradiction seems lost on those proffering “centripetal” advice to a president who is evidently deeply beleaguered now that his party holds a mere 59% of the seats in the Senate.

3 thoughts on “So where is this center, anyway?

  1. The weird part of centripetalism, of which I have to suggest the president himself is sometimes guilty, is that is a completely ineffective electoral and legislative strategy. I think it means that you should seek the position of the median voter, but ignores what the median voter actually wants in favour of what the Republicans want or what the economic interests that own the media want. Perhaps ‘media voter’ would be a better expression. As Krugman said when the stimulus bill was passed:

    What do you call someone who eliminates hundreds of thousands of American jobs, deprives millions of adequate health care and nutrition, undermines schools, but offers a $15,000 bonus to affluent people who flip their houses?

    A proud centrist. For that is what the senators who ended up calling the tune on the stimulus bill just accomplished.

    What concessions have the Republicans made in the present Congress in return for the centripetal push? Allegedly centrist senators like Liebermann and Blanche Lincoln do not seem to enjoy massive popular support in their states for their centripetal shenanigans.

    Kevin Rudd, who is about as leftwing as Chinggiz Khan was pacifist, went for a considerably larger stimulus package in comparative terms because thats what the evidence called for. As it did in the US. The opposition screeched about it and continues to screech about it. But we did not go into recession and job growth is fairly good here. And Rudd’s electoral standing is just a tad higher(pdf) than Obama’s.

  2. To corporate media, a centrist is someone who is carrying the water for corporate interests, but who believes the earth was created more than 6,000-10,000 years ago. I find it amazing how even progressive activists will call people with that description “centrists”, aping the language of corporate media.

    Centrist, in an honest world, would be defined by polling at the very least, and if that was done, we’d be amazed that Dennis Kucinich would end up closer to the center than most of these jerks, at least on economic matters. A majority of Americans say they would like to be in a union and think unions are good. A clear majority support a robust public option (a Medicare for all in fact) in most public polls. Most polls show trade treaties are seen as bad by polled persons with regard to workers and the environment. Most support an increased minimum wage. I could go on, but your point is an important one.

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