What Is This “Centrism?”

by Brien Jackson

Ross Douthat on the scourge of centrism:

In this world, centrist Senators exist to take politics as usual – whether it’s tax cuts in Republican eras, or spending splurges in Democratic ones – and make it ever so slightly more fiscally responsible. So if the GOP wants, say, $500 billion in tax cuts, the country clearly needs $400 billion in tax cuts – but not a penny more! And if the Democrats want $900 billion in stimulus, then the best possible policy outcome must be … $800 billion in stimulus! To read this Arlen Specter op-ed, justifying both the stimulus package and the cuts the “gang of moderates” have attempted to impose, is to encounter a mind incapable of thinking about policy in any terms save these: Take what the party in power wants, subtract as much money as you can without infuriating them, vote yes, and declare victory.

Now fiscal responsibility is generally a good thing, and so a centrism mindlessly focused on tweaking legislation away from deficit spending has its uses. But what Nelson, Collins, Specter and Co. have done isn’t a new kind of politics. It’s the definition of politics as usual. And in this particular case, there’s a reasonable argument that it’s actively pernicious – that if you can’t shrink the stimulus package much more substantially than the centrists have done, you shouldn’t shrink it at all. There’s a case to be made for a stimulus that’s radically different than the one we have now; there’s a case to be made for a stimulus that’s like the one we have now, but a great deal smaller and more targeted; and there’s a case to be made for a stimulus that’s absolutely gargantuan. But thanks to the centrists, we’re getting the cheapskate version of the gargantuan version: They’ve done absolutely nothing to widen the terms of debate about what should go into the bill, and they’ve shaved off just enough money to reduce its effectiveness if Paul Krugman is right – but not nearly enough to make it fiscally prudent if the stimulus skeptics are right. 

I agree with much of that on the merits, which begs the question; what, exactly, are the “centrists” in the center of? This is what I’m having the most trouble understanding about the Senate’s version of the bill; they cut things like aid to states and food stamps that most economists, left and right, agreed were worthy projects that would be quite effective in favor of things like tax credits for buying a house and an AMT patch that nearly everyone agrees will have very little efficacy. Which I suppose you can craft an argument for if you want, but the Collins-Nelson axis didn’t do that, so much as they simply declared themselves “the middle.” But what exactly they’re in the middle of isn’t clear, in so much as they cut out a lot of things there was little to no disagreement about.

I think this is about as good of an example you can get of one essential truth; Broderist “centrism” as an ideology in and of itself, and worse, it’s a completely vapid one with no concern for policy whatsoever. At the very least the right-wingers are making a policy argument of sorts. The Broderists are just making the ridiculous assertion that “the answer,” by definition, must be something in between the GOP and Democrats. It’s politics as parenting, where everything is a matter of getting the children to share the sandbox. Except, in this case, the kids have decided to play together, and the parents decided to force them to take turns playing by themselves for no reason, other than the belief that the kids can not, by definition, figure out the best course of action on their own so whatever they come up with must need to be corrected somehow.

And it’s going to kill us.

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