And yet what our genius centrists are calling for, in effect, is to hand over even more authority to these least popular and least successful elements of the Obama administration. They are basically telling Mr. Obama that the way to court alienated blue-collar voters is by extolling entrepreneurship and toning down the administration’s occasional anti-Wall Street rhetoric. It is like suggesting someone kick smoking by going from one pack a day to two. ~Thomas Frank
Frank’s column from earlier in the week covers much the same ground as I have in the last ten days since the Masssachusetts Senate election. Whether or not one agrees with his advice, his analysis seems right. Progressives are now discovering again the frustration of being blamed for policies over which they have had little or no influence. Just as conservatives, or at least dissenting conservatives, were arguing for years under Bush, policies of corporatism, imperialism and insolvency did not represent our views, and it was unfair and wrong to associate these things with conservatism properly understood.
Frank is appalled by the return of the Rubinites, and well he might be, and populist conservatives are appalled by the unending grip of the cult of Greenspan-Bernanke on our monetary policy. Centrists are thrilled by both. Almost everything that progressives and populist conservatives reject, albeit for different reasons, is the product of a centrist establishment consensus, which might best be typified by the idea of a “McCain-Lieberman party” and all that this stands for. It may disappoint Scott Brown’s new admirers that it is precisely these two embodiments of self-important, unprincipled, priggish, warmongering centrism that he cites as his contemporary political role models and friends. These are the ones who effectively prevailed on January 19, even though the voters definitely intended something very different.
I am quite willing to grant that the Obama administration has been dominated by so-called centrists, and I agree that it is what these centrists represent that makes so many voters angry and disgusted. It is Obama’s inclusion of centrists in his Cabinet and his White House, and his pursuit of a basically centrist foreign policy as well as watered-down domestic legislation, that keeps him from breaking with his predecessor on issue after issue. It is also this centrism that I suspect many Obama voters thought they were replacing with something else. This was always a mistake, as I tried to say so many times during the campaign, but perhaps it was inevitable.
Ryan Lizza memorably observed that the greatest misconception anyone could have about Obama was that he was a revolutionary. Of course, he is a cautious establishmentarian, and I doubt very much that he could have become President had he been anything more interesting than that. The trouble for Obama may be that everyone expected him to be much more interesting and revolutionary than he was ever going to be. Of course, this suit his partisan opponents just fine, since they had been flinging wild accusations of his radicalism almost from the beginning, but they also misunderstood him. Having portrayed him as a radical, they began to believe their own story, and they actually came to believe that other people believed it as well. Therefore, whenever Obama meets with any political difficulty, they have a ready-made, extremely convenient explanation: he is too radical, too left-wing. It never made much sense, and it makes less sense every day, but it is all they have.
When it turned out that he was going to be a cautious manager and strict adherent of Washington consensus views, this undoubtedly disheartened many supporters. Amusingly, his enemies could not acknowledge what was happening, and so they resorted to portraying the continuation of the dreary centrist status quo as more crazy radicalism. Legions of lazy pundits were ready to accept and repeat this nonsense. Then again, who is there to stop them from doing this?
In a way, Obama had already set the stage for the misinterpretation of the Massachusetts Senate election over a year before it took place. There were many factors at work in the election, but it is hard to deny that the financial crisis solidified Obama’s electoral chances and absolutely ensured Republican defeat. In the wake of the financial crisis, the popular backlash against the bailout, and the general disgust with the central bank, Treasury and all of the authorities who were responsible for overseeing the financial industry and utterly failed, whom did Obama make his Treasury nominee? Tim Geithner, someone who had been at the heart of the entire disaster and who symbolized everything that was wrong with the collusion between government and financial interests.
Proper, centrist conventional wisdom praised the selection. The markets rallied. Obama was already governing “responsibly.” That is, he was hewing to the centrist line. Despite disastrous failures by all these eminently centrist establishment figures, these were the same people called upon in the wake of the disaster to repair the damage. Even Bernanke has survived more or less unscathed, perhaps because there was some recognition that ousting him would change nothing and the Fed would continue to mismanage monetary policy as it has done for decades. Nassim Taleb was constantly pointing out in the fall of ’08 and in early ’09 how the personnel and policies remained fundamentally unchanged after the crisis, none of the right lessons had been learned and all of the problems with the system remained in place, but once the immediate crisis had ended no one was interested in what Taleb had to say anymore.
Despite Frank’s best efforts to make the argument, though, centrism did not die in Massachusetts, because it has not been perceived to be the thing voters were repudiating. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the thing voters were repudiating, but it means that very few in the media and the political class are willing to believe it. Frank cites all of the right data to make his argument, but something I have realized during the last couple of weeks is that no one of consequence is interested in correctly assessing what the public wants. Republicans have their ready-made narrative that they are going to tell to anyone who will listen, and most Democratic politicians seem to be reacting as if they still lived in the mid-’90s or even earlier. They remain terrified of being associated with real liberal convictions. The instinctive impulse to retreat, cower, fall back and give ground to more assertive Republicans has not been beaten out of them yet, and perhaps it never will be.
One thing that is very frustrating about this dynamic is that it greatly aids in the perpetuation of corporatist, militarist centrism as represented by the likes of McCain and Lieberman, and it ensures the perpetual marginalization of any remotely coherent or consistent conservatism. Conservatives effectively pay tribute to a centrist establishment that has nothing but contempt for them and their interests, and so then end up tying themselves to this establishment and defending its interests against left-populists with whom they probably have much more in common.