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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Centrist” Villains

The discussion of Jonathan Chait’s fine article on the structural impediments in Congress to progressive policy achievements is continuing around the blogosphere, and today the Nation‘s blog The Notion weighs in with a finger pointed squarely at Democratic “centrists and moderates who are doing their best to distance themselves from Barack Obama because he is too progressive.” A post by Eyal Press takes Chait’s description of Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad’s negative reactions to features of the Obama budget as a general indication–and self-indictment–of the intentions of these “centrists and moderates.”
Specifically, notes Press, Conrad has complained about the overall deficit numbers in Obama’s budget, a proposed llimitation on tax deductions for high earners, and a proposed cap on the amount any one producer can receive in agricultural subsidies.
Are these views by Conrad really typical of “centrist and moderate” opinion? That’s debatable. While undoubtedly a “deficit hawk,” Conrad has never been a member of any “centrist” bloc in the Senate that I’m aware of, and he hasn’t joined the 16-member group recently formed by Evan Bayh that has attracted so much attention. Positions on ag subsidy limits tend to break along regional as opposed to ideological lines, and there are plenty of “centrists” who favor more radical changes in ag subsidies than those being proposed by Obama. The issue of deduction limits on high earners has gotten less attention than the larger proposal in Obama’s budget to roll back the Bush Era tax cuts for the wealthy, and again, such paragons of “moderate” Democratic opinion as the Progressive Policy Institute have supported this rollback for many years. (PPI, BTW, has also avidly supported cap-and-trade legislation for more than a decade, and has praised Obama’s approach to health care reform as a vindication of the “centrist” approach).
After this questionable identification of an entire segment of the Democratic Party with Kent Conrad, Press goes on to make this rather abrasive if familiar assertion:

The centrists who practice this hypocrisy do not lack an ideology, which most dictionaries define as a doctrine that guides the beliefs of a group or individual. Their ideology is simply “we’re between the parties” – regardless of what’s good for the country, regardless of whether it will help solve the problems we face. The one extremely useful purpose this ideology serves is to protect them from future attacks for being too liberal.

This is undoubtedly true of some Democrats who call themselves “centrists,” and of some that don’t embrace the label. More importantly, in the context of what Chait was talking about in his article, there are all kinds of people in Congress, of varying ideological self-identifications and across party lines, who have been known to subordinate to some degree or another loyalty to their party’s leadership or president to the concerns of home-state or home-district interests, campaign contributors, or simply the winds of public opinion . Those with committee seniority or who are in a position to swing close floor votes have often used their leverage for less than highly principled reasons of national interest, particularly in the anarchic Senate.
It’s certainly essential for progressives to keep pressure on all Democrats in Congress to support what Barack Obama is trying to accomplish. But the obstacles to his success aren’t simply explained by ideology (or the lack thereof), and don’t emanate from some neatly identified group of “centrists” who can be universally denounced as unprincipled sellouts. The folks at The Nation would rightly deplore loose accusations of “extremism” or disloyalty aimed at those self-identified progressives who, for example, are attacking the president’s financial sector strategy–not because they are trying to thwart Barack Obama but because they sincerely fear that it’s going to fail and thwart his broader agenda. We should all be open to the possibility of sincere differences of opinion within the Democratic Party that don’t involve disloyalty or selfishness or corruption, and let the behavior of Democrats in Congress when votes are cast, not poorly defined ideological labels, determine the heroes or villains.

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