The poverty of centrism

Paul Krugman and EJ Dionne agree that too much centrism is what ails the United States. What the country needs is fewer moderates and more people ready to stand firm on principle come what may. (Actually Dionne draws a distinction that eludes me between moderation and centrism–they are not just different but opposed–but let that pass.)

Lacking a Nobel prize, I find this theory odd. If only centrists would come over to the left and deplore Republicans more vigorously, all would be well? Right now, I would be willing to help out–but would this do much to reduce the House Republican majority? If centrist commentators only joined Krugman’s anti-Republican crusade, the country would see its mistake and put things right at the next election? It’s flattering, but surely we feeble soggy centrists have nothing to offer that would improve on the quality of the arguments already put forward by writers such as Krugman, Dionne, and many others. Surely they are refuting conservatism as effectively as anybody can.

House Republicans are dictating US fiscal policy not because centrists have given them a pass, but because voters have given them a majority. This is something that progressives tend not to mention, despite propounding the theory that “elections have consequences” for two years after 2008, and using that theory to justify, for instance, passing a health-care reform that the country was not sure it wanted. In Krugman’s view, of course, 2010 only confirms that more than half the country is evil or stupid. But in that case, what would centrists achieve by taking up arms with progressives? It won’t help. If Krugman is right, the idiots out there just don’t get it. We centrists might as well carry on saying what we think.

Yes, but what do we think? Our views are so pliable! Krugman and Dionne both see a “cult of balance” (Krugman’s term), a witless or unprincipled system of triangulation. It’s all about splitting the difference, so the further to the right the Republicans go, the further to the right we rootless centrists get pulled. Either we don’t see it (stupid) or we do and don’t care (evil). Honestly, some of us are as bad as the voters.

I expect there are some such pliable centrists. None springs instantly to mind. Commentators such as David Brooks, for instance, have attacked the GOP’s extremism in the fiscal debate. So have I, by the way. And I think I have supported the Bowles-Simpson approach to long-term debt control throughout–dare I say, even before Bowles-Simpson. The centre I support hasn’t moved, so far as I know. The response of many Democrats, led by Krugman, to Bowles-Simpson was that it should be uncompromisingly opposed on the theory that if you give them an inch they will take a yard. Raise the retirement age slightly over a period of decades, and before you know it we will be feeding seniors cat-food. Progressives need to position themselves further to the left in order to cancel out the rightward shift of the Republicans. Principled liberalism in action!

Yes, Republican intransigence and irresponsibility have brought the country to the brink of default. There, I said it (again). But let me give Democrats a word of advice. Stop calling the spending cuts you have finally agreed to “concessions”. Medium-term spending restraint is the right policy. You should be proposing it willingly, on its merits, not having it beaten out of you. And here’s a bonus: that way, when it happens, as it will because the country wants it, it will not look so much like defeat.

You are absolutely right that higher taxes are needed as well. The Republicans are dead wrong about this. (I did it again.) But the idea that higher taxes are good in themselves–a victory you need in order to justify yielding ground on spending–is the dumbest kind of politics. Repeat after me: spending cuts are bad, but necessary; higher taxes are bad, but necessary. Otherwise, the idiots out there are never going to buy it.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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