Ideological centrism in the United States comes in two basic forms. You have voters who lean right on economic issues and left on social issues, and voters who lean left on economics and right on social questions. The former variety prevails among elites, the latter among downscale voters. Elite people tend to spend their time among other elite people, which means they see many business types who favor abortion rights and want to cut social spending, and very few pro-life blue collar workers who want to keep Social Security intact at all costs. I never cease to be amazed by the persistence with which so many political journalists think of centrism as automatically equating with social liberalism–fiscal conservatism, rather than the opposite.
The New York Times op-ed page this weekend offered a useful window into this insularity. Joe Nocera, in the course of sensibly arguing that the Republican Party needs a cold electoral shower to snap it out of its ideological trance, defines the problem in this curious way:
In the article, Weisman quoted a number of moderate Republicans lamenting the way the Republican Party is now placing a higher priority on social issues like contraception than on pocketbook issues like jobs and the economy. Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, noted that many Americans, disenchanted by the poisonous state of American politics, have largely opted out, and that “only the most rabid partisans vote.” In other words, the Republican Party has largely been captured by its most extreme flank. Santorum is their standard-bearer.
Nocera here repeats a common trope that the Republican Party has been distracted by social issues. This was true for all of about two weeks, after three-plus years of relentless focus on the economy, the deficit, taxes, and health care.
Nocera actually equates Republican radicalism entirely with social conservatism. But ask yourself: What is this radical social conservative agenda? Well, they want employers to be able to offer health insurance that does not cover contraception, sure. But that’s a mere way station to the larger goal of denying any health care coverage at all to tens of millions of Americans. The GOP has committed itself to a host of radical new economic policy goals that Ronald Reagan never dreamed of. Where are the radical new social goals? (Yes, Republicans still want to overturn Roe v. Wade, but many advanced countries ban abortion; the United States is the only country where basic health care must be earned.)
Santorum may be more genuine about his social conservatism than most Republicans in Washington, but his actual program is no more radical than Romney’s, nor any more radical than the party social agenda has been for three decades. But economically, the party has abandoned Keynesianism, adopted hard money policy, and sworn to roll back seven decades of government. For Nocera to identify social conservatism as the locus of the party’s extremism shows just how unshakeable his assumptions are.
Meanwhile, Frank Bruni’s encomium to Olympia Snowe is likewise revealing. Bruni repeats the major themes of the relentlessly favorable coverage she has received throughout her career, ignoring the possibility that her desire for bipartisan legislation reflects political self-interest, and failing to examine whether her centrist stances make sense from any standpoint. Bruni proceeds to lament the failure of the parties to break free of their interest groups. See if you notice what’s missing here:
Rare is the Democrat of plausible national ambition who tangles in a tough, meaningful way with labor unions or environmentalists, groups that President Obama has been loath to cross. Disappointing them jeopardizes the campaign infantry and financial contributions they provide, and as the sway of interest groups rises, the fealty of politicians to the ones in their corner grows with it.
Rare is the Republican of plausible national ambition who doesn’t kowtow to religious conservatives…
To get a grip on just how wildly wrong this understanding of the landscape is, begin with Bruni’s assertion that Obama has been “loathe to cross” labor or environmentalists. He has infuriated both, repeatedly. Obama angered unions by making no effort to follow through on his promises to reform labor law – Senate Democrats would never have supplied the votes, anyway – and by pushing hard to eliminate tax deductability for high-cost health insurance plans. He angered environmentalists by overruling the recommendations of his Environmental Protection Agency to impose tougher smog standards.
Not only will a Democrat with “national ambitions” cross labor or environmentalists, a Democrat with national ambitions must do so. Business represents a major portion of the party coalition, and Democrats balance off its demands against those of unions and environmentalists, which means that establishing yourself as a part of the party’s mainstream requires siding with business at least occasionally. But business is completely absent from Bruni’s account of interest group pressure, which is incredible. It’s all unions and enviros and social conservatives wrecking the nice, socially liberal pro-business consensus that ought to prevail.
Nocera and Bruni’s columns offer useful examples of when the arguments a writer makes tell you less than the arguments they don’t even bother to make.