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In Praise of Extremism

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No Labels has since been joined by two other bipartisan campaigns, both with prominent liberal supporters and both poised to damage Obama in 2012. One is the brainchild of Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, which, in a perhaps unintended bit of cultural synergy, is also the signature sponsor of Morning Joe. Schultz took a full-page ad in the Times this month to nationalize his crusade, first announced in a mass e-mail to his employees, for a moratorium on campaign contributions to protest “irresponsibility among elected officials” who “have put partisan agendas before the people’s agenda.” Exactly which “people” he means isn’t clear—presumably those who share his own largely Democratic orthodoxy—but his scheme was promptly embraced by Times columnists (not Krugman!) and by No Labels, which recruited him for a national teleconference. Schultz boasts of being “overwhelmed” with support and of recruiting some 100 CEOs to sign his no-giving pledge. USA Today, digging deeper, discovered that most of those 100 executives had given less than $5,000 or nothing at all to politicians in recent years. Somewhere the Koch brothers, pouring millions into the tea-party coffers to further the agenda of their own “people,” are laughing at this decaffeinated exercise in unilateral political disarmament.

The other new bipartisan scheme is a web-based campaign, Americans Elect, promoted by Thomas L. Friedman, ­McKinnon, and Douglas Schoen, a Bill Clinton and Bloomberg pollster with a sideline of using Murdoch outlets to berate Obama for not sufficiently emulating Clinton and Bloomberg. Americans Elect has collected more than 1.8 million signatures to put a third-party presidential candidate on the ballot in six states (so far) next year. If there are any candidates on the organization’s wish list, they are secret, as are some of its donors—though Friedman has written that its “swank offices” were “financed with some serious hedge-fund money.” As he sees it, this patriotic start-up could do “what Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music” by ending the two-party duopoly. And what would be Friedman’s third-party platform? His domestic bullet points include a short-term stimulus, Simpson-Bowles deficit cuts, a gasoline tax for government-supported scientific research, and a carbon tax to finance new infrastructure and clean-power innovation. That’s an agenda to delight attendees at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Morning Joe devotees, Bloomberg fanciers, and, for that matter, Barack Obama. It would draw only a fraction of those independent voters identified by Pew and no Republicans except for the one percent that likes Jon Huntsman, a No Labels “high-five” honoree whose presidential campaign, dedicated to bipartisan civility, is in a race to the bottom of the polls with Rick Santorum’s.

If Americans Elect gains traction, virtually every vote it receives will be at the Democrats’ expense. The Democrats, and Obama, may well deserve it. But does the country? We are at a genuine juncture that cannot be adjudicated over a Starbucks latte while easy-listening music soothes in the background. A radical movement controls one of the two parties. That party is so far right that when Ron Paul, now polling third among the GOP contenders, told a debate audience this month that “9/11 came about because there was too much government,” not a single one of his opponents dared object. Like it or not, Obama is the sole alternative to this crowd in 2012.

In a best-case scenario for him, the GOP will spurn Perry for Romney. It’s a given in Washington, of course, that Romney is the tougher opponent for Obama because he appeals to “moderate” and “independent” voters. The Beltway hands making this case are usually the same suspects who caution Obama to stick to the “vital center.” As Michael Gerson, the Bush 43 speechwriter turned columnist, put it last week, Romney is the GOP’s “safe choice” because he represents the “reassuring center.”

Gerson argues that Romney’s “prospects are better than his current polling” and likens him to Thomas Dewey without a hint of irony. A more accurate assessment comes from another conservative writer, Jonah Goldberg, who compares the inauthentic Romney to an alligator or a shark, animals “that just seem fake when you see them in real life.” Obama should only be so lucky as to run against a robotic leveraged-buyout tycoon whose Massachusetts health-care reforms resemble his own and whose religion vexes orthodox Christians in the GOP base.

For Obama to pull it out against a slick conservative populist like Perry—or some yet-undeclared Perry alternative who could still emerge to usurp him among the tea-party troops—he cannot revert to his usual ways. Yet as recently as Labor Day, the White House was sending the message, as the Times reported, that it would “rebrand the president as a pragmatic problem solver prepared to set aside ideology.” Rebrand? That is the Obama brand. Surely someone at even this White House must recognize that it is in danger of being recalled by voters because the country’s problems have not been solved.


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