Robert Reich has a very thought-provoking op-ed in the NYT today arguing that centrism is dead–and good riddance.

The dismal fifth-place showing by Senator Joseph Lieberman in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday serves as both reminder and motivator to the other Democratic presidential candidates on what it will take to win in November. For so long now, everyone has assumed that recapturing the presidency depends on who triumphs in the battle between liberals and moderates within the party. Such thinking, though, is inherently flawed. The real fight is between those who want only to win back the White House and those who also want to build a new political movement — one that rivals the conservative movement that has given Republicans their dominant position in American politics.

He builds this argument for several paragraphs. He then answers the obvious rejoinder:

Democrats who avoid movement politics point to Bill Clinton’s success in repositioning the party in the center during the 1990’s. Mr. Clinton was (and is) a remarkably gifted politician who accomplished something no Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt had done — getting re-elected. But his effect on the party was to blur rather than to clarify what Democrats stand for. As a result, Mr. Clinton neither started nor sustained anything that might be called a political movement.

This handicapped his administration from the start. In 1994, when battling for his health care proposal, Mr. Clinton had no broad-based political movement behind him. Even though polls showed support among a majority of Americans, it wasn’t enough to overcome the conservative effort on the other side. By contrast, George W. Bush got his tax cuts through Congress, even though Americans were ambivalent about them. President Bush had a political movement behind him that supplied the muscle he needed. *** But because Mr. Clinton was re-elected without any mandate, the nation was confused about what needed to be accomplished and easily distracted by conservative fulminations against a president who lied about sex.

Reich then offers this prescription:

As we head into the next wave of primaries, the Democratic candidates should pay close attention to what Republicans have learned about winning elections. First, it is crucial to build a political movement that will endure after particular electoral contests. Second, in order for a presidency to be effective, it needs a movement that mobilizes Americans behind it. Finally, any political movement derives its durability from the clarity of its convictions. And there’s no better way to clarify convictions than to hone them in political combat.

A fierce battle for the White House may be exactly what the Democrats need to mobilize a movement behind them. It may also be what America needs to restore a two-party system of governance and a clear understanding of the choices we face as a nation.

Not surprisingly, others disagree. Robert Novak argues that the the Democrats have decided not to fall off the Deaniac cliff:

Kerry’s basic policy consists of one new government program after another. Nevertheless, as a war hero, hockey player and hunter, supported by veterans and fire fighters, he projects the Democratic Party’s image into the moderate center. Kerry is also a skilled professional politician, unlikely to commit the blunders of Dean or the Clintonian alternative, Gen. Wesley Clark. Win or lose in November, Kerry saves the Democrats from the disaster that beckoned a month ago.

Michael Barone sees two “movement” candidates in the race: Lieberman and Dean, and notes both are going down in flames. George Will believes the Democrats are “turning serious” after a long flirtation with Dean.

Although Kerry has been almost incoherent about Iraq, he understands the special challenge for Democrats in the world that 9/11 made. Since Vietnam caused the collapse of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in 1968 and produced the nomination of George McGovern in 1972, Democratic presidential fortunes have waxed only as national security concerns waned. Since 1964, Democrats have elected just two presidents: Jimmy Carter in 1976, because of Watergate, and Bill Clinton, elected three years after the Berlin Wall fell, when national security competence had receded as the threshold test of presidential plausibility.

Will is right: no Democrat can get elected under present circumstances if he’s not credible on national security. And Reich’s argument about mobilization is somewhat weakened by that fact that, as someone has pointed out, Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000. A hard-core leftist is almost surely unelectable as president. Still, Reich’s larger point is interesting: a candidate–whether Republican or Democrat–who has a broad vision for the country and a passionately-held political agenda is likely to generate much more excitement than a boring moderate.

All articles via RealClear Politics

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    I’ve never hear Reich make such a coherent argument on anything.

    But that said, it is a losing proposition. Liberals can’t get elected (nationally) calling themselves liberal.

    Simply put, liberalism is not popular. Let’s pretend the left wanted a movement like the conservatives of the last 10 or so years. Can you imagine a national radio show host getting on the air for 3 hours a day trying to convince people the government can spend your money better than you can?

    Or how about getting on the air when millions of small business people are listening and trying to convince them the answer to their problems is more regulation and paperwork? Yeah- That’ll sell.

    I hope the liberals follow Reich’s advice. I hope they proudly proclaim their beliefs. They will be relegated to the ashcan of electoral history in 2 cycles.

  2. James Barber says:

    Simply put, liberalism is not popular. Let’s pretend the left wanted a movement like the conservatives of the last 10 or so years. Can you imagine a national radio show host getting on the air for 3 hours a day trying to convince people the government can spend your money better than you can?

    You just described George W. Bush. Do you realize that?

    IOW, a fiscal liberal can be elected as long as he in the right party; only a social liberal cannot.

  3. Paul says:

    You just described George W. Bush. Do you realize that?

    Bush RAISED taxes? (or argued that we should?)

    If you want to complain he has overspent that is one thing but the topic is “selling” liberalism which is a sale nobody can close.

    But to speak to your point, a “fiscal liberal” is unelectable. Can you list the number of Presidents elected on the promise to raise taxes?

    Here’s a hint… It is a REAL short list.

  4. Right, James B. A social liberal can’t get elected. Like Arnold Schwarzennegger here in CA, and Clinton in the U.S. at large.