The Tyranny of the Centrists

If six months ago you had said that within three weeks of taking office, President Obama would pass a $787 billion stimulus bill with billions of dollars for food stamps and schools, infrastructure and energy modernization, health care and broadband, anyone would have said it would be an extraordinary victory for the president, his party and his ideology. Yet now that it has actually happened, the administration is hardly acting triumphal, while some other people are imagining themselves the true winners.

The Republican minority, calling in from some alternative universe, is convinced that by achieving lockstep opposition to a popular economic-recovery plan pushed by a popular president in a time of economic crisis, they've laid a firm foundation for future electoral gains. For the moment, they seem more delusional than dangerous. But the people we should really worry about are the "centrists," that merry band of legislators who determined the fate of the legislation. It was the centrists -- a group that may have held as many as a dozen senators but was most represented by Democrat Ben Nelson and Republicans Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins (the three GOP members who voted for the bill) who got what they wanted, and what they wanted was for the entire nation to beseech them for their favor. Every time they were photographed, they seemed barely able to contain their glee, one's goofy grin wider than the other's.

So just what does it mean to be a "centrist"? To people who don't care much about politics, it may just seem like centrists are a third team between the right and the left, doing their best to advance their own interests, just as everyone else does. But if you believe political beliefs matter, and that politics is where our competing visions of the world come to fruition or are defeated, then centrism is the most cynical ideology of all, one utterly devoid of substance.

That isn't to say that one has to be a conservative or a progressive to be principled. Libertarians are among the most politically principled people you'll ever encounter, and their views don't line up neatly on the left-right axis that defines much of our politics. But unlike libertarianism -- or conservatism, or progressivism -- centrism defines itself not by fundamental principles or a particular view of the way the world works, but simply by what other people are thinking. The centrist isn't sure what he believes until you tell him what the left and the right believe. Only then does he know where he should put himself.

And that's what we saw during the final negotiations over the stimulus bill. What mattered most to the centrists was not producing a bill that would create the most jobs, do the most to help the economy recover, or give the wisest investments for future growth. What mattered was whether they were in control, whether they had made the administration and Democrats in Congress squirm, whether everyone knew that if the bill was to pass, they would have to be appeased. It was all about them.

So we had Specter proudly writing in The Washington Post of "the high price that moderates have been able to extract for their support of stimulus legislation." We had the country looking hopefully to Ben Nelson, who when interviewed by Rachel Maddow, was barely coherent when asked about the bill whose fate he held in his hands. Nelson babbled nonsensically about "unfunded mandates" and No Child Left Behind when asked why he had favored cutting billions of dollars for school construction out of the bill.

(Looking at Nelson, one couldn't help but think, "Meet the new Breaux, same as the old Breaux." That would be former Louisiana senator John Breaux, who tormented Democrats for years by seemingly always being the Democrat whom Republicans could count on to wax poetic about "bipartisanship" while taking the GOP's side. Breaux's priority was always deal-making -- so long as he was at the center of the deal, and everyone on both sides had to come begging him to join them. "I love a 50-50 tie," he told the Prospect in 2001. Last year, Breaux joined with former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to form the Breaux Lott Leadership Group. Atop the firm's web site in large type is a dictionary definition: "bipartisan: marked by or involving cooperation, agreement, and compromise between two major political parties." It's enough to make you think that they're running some kind of nonprofit devoted to legislative conflict resolution, until you remember that it's a corporate lobbying firm.)

Once the centrists slashed hundreds of billions of dollars of stimulus spending out of the bill, many observers concluded that President Obama would have done better to start negotiating with a much bigger proposal -- say, $1.2 trillion or $1.5 trillion. Then the centrists would have demanded that it be reduced, and he could have complied, in which case he would have ended up with a couple hundred billion dollars more in stimulus than he eventually got.

To believe such a strategy would have failed to produce more stimulus, you'd have to think that the centrists were operating from some firm set of principles that would have led them inevitably to $787 billion, no matter where they started from. But nothing they have done or said suggests that's true.

As The New York Times reported after the deal was reached, "Senator Collins said getting the final number to under $800 billion was more than symbolic; it meant 'a fiscally responsible number,' she said." So how did Collins and the other centrists arrive at their judgment about the non-symbolic symbolism of $800 billion? It isn't as though there is some centrist scripture somewhere that reads, "Yea verily, should there ever be an economic crisis, a stimulus package amounting to more than 5 percent of GDP will be vile in thy sight, but 4.9 percent shall bring glory to The Center."

The truth is that like the rest of us, centrists are very fickle about numbers. Clever marketers have known for a long time that you can make something seem smaller by putting it next to something larger. This is true of cupcakes, and true of dollar figures. Why do infomercials tell you that the regular price on this electric toenail clipper is $50, but today they're offering it for only $29.95? Either the toenail clipper is worth $30 or it isn't; whether you're persuaded to buy one shouldn't have anything to do with a fictitious "regular" price. But of course, it does. And $787 billion only seemed "responsible" because it was less than the $819 billion originally approved by the House and the $838 billion approved by the Senate.

Listen to the endless Washington chatter, and you might think that whether a bill is "bipartisan" is more important than whether it actually accomplishes what it's supposed to do. And you'd think that there is something inherently morally virtuous about being a centrist rather than a believer of the left or right. There isn't, of course, but if there's a silver lining in the continuing power of the Senate centrists, it's that the current state of public opinion and the increased Democratic majorities in Congress have moved the center leftward. So the political fulcrum at which the centrists will inevitably plant themselves is more in the direction of progressive change than it has been in recent years.

But the reality is that the fight over the stimulus bill was relatively brief and bloodless, even as the stakes were so high. If you thought we saw some self-important demands for ring-kissing coming from the centrists on this one, just wait until we get to a real fight, like health-care reform.

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