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Bill Keller, the former editor of the New York Times turned social commentator, has once again cast himself the great champion of good ol' boringness, an aging journalist-warrior who defends civilized institutions against barbarous onslaughts from Occupy Wall Street, digital pirates, and the Huffington Post, to name a few unsavory elements.
In Monday's column, he stood up for the long-suffering moderate center of American politics. "Centrism is easily mocked and not much fun to defend," he proudly conceded, "White bread, elevator music, No Labels, meh."
Lo how the mighty moderate has fallen. Once hailed as the elector of presidents, the honorable compromiser, the reasonable thinker, the Great American Moderate has been reduced to...sigh...white bread.
But hark! Before we seal them up in plastic and bury them in the freezer, Keller bravely assured us that the moderates live on and will play an important role in the upcoming presidential election. Keller seems to believe that his thesis is contrarian, radical even.
Legions of pundits might beg to differ. The old swing-voter argument, rehashed every election since the 1950s, is so disarmingly intuitive that one hardly needs political experts to make the case. It proceeds as follows: since most liberals inevitably vote for the more liberal candidate, and most conservatives inevitably vote for the more conservative candidate, the only question would seem to be the preferences of independent voters who are neither liberal nor conservative.
Pundits wishing to make the argument seem more scientific usually toss in some poll data to demonstrate that most undecided voters hold views somewhere between left and right, which is more or less a tautology. Keller didn't even go that far. He simply explained to readers what moderate Americans believed, citing no authority other than his own "gut check". Apparently, editing the New York Times makes ones gut an authority on such matters.
Dripping sarcasm, Keller also suggested that Santorum's loss against Romney bolsters his case, as if a bitter, drawn-out win by an establishment candidate with extensive qualifications and a chest full of cash against a no-name underdog with little charisma and wacky views proves that the moderate voter is still king.
On the basis of such incontrovertible evidence, Keller argued that Obama and Romney must move to the center, which is pretty much what every moderate analyst has been arguing for months and what every moderate analyst has argued in election after election for decades.
But more often than not, they've been wrong.
In 1980, Democratic strategists were initially delighted when Ronald Reagan emerged as the frontrunner in the Republican primary, believing that his views were too extreme to defeat Jimmy Carter. Former President Gerald Ford not-so-subtly hinted at his own view of Reagan's chances when he asserted, "A very conservative Republican can't win a national election." We know how that went.
After Bill Clinton's election in 1992, analysts argued that Republicans must moderate to regain the presidency. As one Democratic strategist put it, "They are silencing the more moderate elements in their party and seeking an ideological purity from the right. A marginalized, right-wing Republican Party will be less competitive with Bill Clinton in 1996 than a more inclusive and centrist Republican Party." Two years later, Newt Gingrich's conservative coalition blew the Democrats away, taking control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years.
In 1998, Newt Gingrich's resignation amid Republican losses and a swath of ethics scandals led many to conclude that the party had gone too far to the right. "The emerging cliche seems to be that the Republicans, having lost an unexpected five seats in the House and a couple of statehouses they thought were forever in their camp, will forge a new political message that is pragmatic and much less ideological, a shift in emphasis that will endear the party to moderate voters," wrote a Chicago Tribune political analyst. Gingrich's right-wing successor Tom DeLay easily debunked that prognosis.
By 2004, George W. Bush was using "wedge issues" like a proposed same-sex marriage amendment to run a campaign directed at conservative voters. He lost the moderate vote by nine percentage points, but he won 84 percent of self-described conservatives. A host of hard-line Republican legislators rode his coattails.
When Democrats swept back into Congress in 2008, political analysts declared that the Republicans had lost the center, and strategists encouraged them to follow the "California way" of moderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Republican leaders duly lined up behind the "maverick" John McCain. He lost the election, and Republicans lost even more congressional seats to Democrats.
In the aftermath, moderate Republicans like former New Jersey government Christie Whitman argued, "We're going to have to be more inclusive if we want to be a majority party. It's not as if the Christian conservative base didn't vote." A few months later, the Tea Parties exploded into American politics. In 2010, those Christian conservatives helped right-wing Republicans drive Democrats out of Congress and state capitols across the country.
But what of the Democratic Party? Unlike the GOP, there has been little recent history of successful left-wing political campaigns. Ever since Walter Mondale's disastrous loss to Ronald Reagan, Democrats have been fearful of nominating liberal candidates.
That was not always the case, however. The first half of the 20th century offers numerous examples of successful presidents, senators, and congresspeople whose politics were far left of center. There is no inherent reason why it cannot happen again.
But people like Bill Keller have trouble envisioning such a possibility. Their "gut check" perception of the electorate is fixed and lifeless, as hidebound as their imaginations. They rate candidates' chances based on a checklist of political positions, measuring them against a mythical political center that they interpolate from the extremes.
History demonstrates, however, that the American electorate is far more dynamic than the pundits give them credit for, swaying left to right and back again like currents in a cascade. It is not just a matter of candidates' personality, which the pundits grudgingly acknowledge in their prognoses. Political momentum extends well beyond any one candidate, reaching from the White House all the way down to city councils and school boards, transforming the political environment every few decades.
Americans, it turns out, are open to persuasion. They listen to powerful voices making impassioned arguments. Those passions do not flow from the dull, desiccated, "white bread" middle that Bill Keller has staked out. They come tumbling down from the bluffs at either edge--if only politicians are brave enough to ascend the heights.