Monday, December 31, 2007
Methinks They Doth Protesteth Too Much
Wow. This little conference out in Oklahoma has sure brought out the heavy artillery. Steve Benen calls it "a solution in search of a problem", David Kurtz writes it off as "another round of holding hands and singing the praises of bipartisan unity", Steve Clemons says that it's (probably) "a waste of time and a fuzzy distraction", and Matthew Yglesias goes for the jugular with the ole "(X+Y)/2 percent of GDP".
They all point out that for now, the meeting (and Bloomberg's testing of the presidential waters) amount to empty platitudes about bi-partisanship with no substantial policy prescriptions. And in that, none of them are wrong, even if criticizing politicians for empty platitudes doesn't seem like the most challenging of pursuits. But it says a lot that, of them all, Steve Clemons comes closest to being right when he calls for more rebels and dissidents in one paragraph, and is willing to settle for pragmatism and realism in another.
The problem is the rhetoric that the meeting's organizers have chosen, which recycles the very same errors I saw made by Francois Bayrou, the French centrist candidate for president who came from out of nowhere last spring to almost pull off what would have been a stunning first round upset. What kept him from actually succeeding was that at the height of his surge in the polls, he suddenly shifted from effective attacks on both the left and right to the language of bi-partisanship. Even worse, he began insisting that he was neither left nor right, without ever formulating just what he was. Unfortunately, claiming you're neither left nor right means you're neutered, as a psychoanalyst aquaintance pointed out in a conversation at the time, and you need a pair (or at least the temperamental equivalent if you're a woman) to win elections.
There's a difference between bi-partisanship and independent on the one hand, and redefining what we now think of as the middle into an autonomous political force on the other. The calculus for such a force being viable as a party depends on two things: 1) whether moderate Republicans decide that they have more policy priorities in common with moderate Dems than they do with the rabid base of the fraying GOP coalition; and, 2) whether moderate Dems decide that it's a more promising longterm political proposition than the status quo.
Of course, a lot depends on circumstances. Should Obama win the Democratic nomination, the question is moot and this meeting isn't even remembered as a blip on the radar. Should he lose, however, and should Bloomberg be motivated by more than just presidential ambitions, the two of them, with Hagel, represent the kinds of personalities that could redefine the American political landscape in the same way that Ronald Reagan did.