Historian Gil Troy talks about the promise of centrism in the 2008 presidential election
US News and World Report
By Johannah Cornblatt
Posted July 14, 2008
When historian Gil Troy began writing his latest book, Leading From the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, he feared the American idea of playing to the center was being lost in an age of polarizing, “my way or the highway” politics. But Troy says the United States is now facing a “moderate moment” that he didn’t anticipate. As America lines up to select its next president, Troy calls for a muscular moderate, a leader who can compromise and build bridges while preserving core values. Troy, who comments frequently about the American presidency on television and radio, is a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center. In a recent chat with U.S. News, he discussed his new book and the current presidential race. Excerpts:
You talk in your book about how a successful president needs to unite the American people around a cause, as Abraham Lincoln did with the antislavery movement. Around what cause should the next president unite the American people?
In this election, there are three major issues, at least, that could galvanize society. The first is the fight against terror, the second is the energy issue, and a third could be a sense of American renewal. Here, at the best, we would have John McCain and Barack Obama channeling that Ronald Reagan capacity to make patriotic renewal and economic renewal reinforce each other.
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July 14, 2008 No Comments
Quotation of the week: Thomas Jefferson: “In general, I think it necessary to give as well as take in a government like ours.”
IN SEARCH OF MUSCULAR MODERATES AS LEADERS: We know how candidates get pulled to the left or the right, by both interested partisans and by skeptical journalists on the lookout for pandering. But how do we push for passionate, principled centrists, muscular moderates rooted in core values but understanding the importance in a democracy of building a broad consensus? This Moderometer analyzes whether candidates are playing to the center – not by pandering or flip-flopping but by articulating a compelling centrist message that helps unite America by reminding us all of the many ideals and concerns we have in common.
Issue: McCain on Guantanamo
Take One: His Reaction: On June 12, John McCain was asked to react the Supreme Court decision affirming the basic rights of the detainees at Guantanamo. When first asked to react, before he had a chance to read the decision, McCain responded carefully saying, “It obviously concerned me.” A blog post on National Review Online, asked in fury: “Concerned? Concerned?” Subsequently, after studying the matter and consulting with Senator Lindsey Graham, McCain called the ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.” The bloggers’ attack – as well as the Times reportage – reinforced the narrative of John McCain’s strained relations with the Republican base.
Score: McCain Practically Purple: We should applaud a leader who hesitates before condemning the Supreme Court, who studies an issue before pronouncing on it. We need people praising McCain for his initial restraint and encouraging such behavior.
Take #2: Calling the Decision: “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country”
Score McCain: Raging Red: The next day, after his initial assessment, McCain played to his base, without acknowledging his own previous concerns regarding torture and the need to preserve America’s historic commitment to liberty even while fighting the terrorist scourge.
Issue: Obama on Iraq
On July 3, Obama said: “I am going to do a thorough assessment when I’m there,” anticipating his visit to Iraq. “I’m sure I’ll have more information and continue to refine my policy.”
Republicans pounced, charging Obama with flip-flopping and prompting him to revisit the issue later in the day saying: “Apparently I wasn’t clear enough this morning on my position with respect to the war in Iraq. I have said throughout this campaign that this war was ill-conceived, that it was a strategic blunder and that it needs to come to an end. I have also said that I would be deliberate and careful in how we got out, that we would bring our troops home at a pace of one to two brigades per month and that at that pace we would have our combat troops out in 16 months.”
Score: Obama Practically Purple: We want candidates who are willing to learn about complex issues, who are willing to “refine” their policies while keeping their defining visions.
Take #2: Score Obama: Bleeding Heart Blue: Obama’s second press conference raises questions whether his timetable for removing troops from Iraq will be dictated by the facts on the ground or his political needs, prior commitments, and ideological distaste for the war.
July 12, 2008 No Comments
From an online discussion on The Power Line Forum, July 9-10, 2008
Let’s distinguish between two different questions here. One, is Obama (or McCain) a centrist? What does that mean, is that a good thing? I start from the premise that both of them, in different ways, are more moderate than most of their party colleagues and that for each of them that centrism was a strength. Moreover, I find that moderation not surprising and actually a good thing, because I believe that centrist leadership is the right way to go – it’s both politically wise and constructive. Which is why I call my book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. (I confess, I constructed that sentence in response to the product placement remark).
Now, the second set of questions, is Obama repositioning – and is that a good thing. Well here too we’re seeing two things. One, a bit of a corrective after some of the absurdities of the primary battle. Note, for example, the ridiculous scapegoating both Obama and Hillary Clinton were guilty of with NAFTA… Second, we’re also seeing the “Oh, boy phenomenon,” where Obama says, “wow, this is real, I might actually become president, so sloppy sloganeering during the campaign about Iraq might actually lead to dead Americans (or Iraqis) – pretty sobering. I think that’s a good thing, no? Don’t we want a president who can adjust a bit to changing circumstances?
Well, for starters, to be technical, he hasn’t yet been nominated, but I know what you mean. George McGovern would certainly give Obama a run for his money in a leftist sweepstakes, and if you examine his ideology, rather than his track record in 1976, Jimmy Carter, too. So historically, there’s much to be debate there. More pressing, I think Obama is a hologram. I certainly see his liberal voting record in the Senate, and the leftist academic milieu that nurtured him intellectually, socially, culturally and politically. At the same time, when you read Audacity of Hope, when you watch his great 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, not only a lyrical centrist emerges – but actually, a smart, post-Reaganite Democrat. In Audacity, Obama accepts major parts of the traditionally-oriented, family-values conservative cultural critique of America. He also sees some limitations on government – that shows a more conservative side than, say, John Kerry, ever displayed. But Obama also believes that government can intervene constructively, and his agenda is very much a progressive one. So, in all, he’s more complex than the centrist or leftist caricature suggests. But I believe that if enough moderates voices push him, his inner centrist will come out – for the good of the country.
There has been much debate over labeling Obama. Is he a “Lefty”?? Is he a “Moderate”? He claims he is “complicated,” but what does that really mean??
I believe that Obama — or McCain, or whoever becomes our next POTUS —- MUST remain in the middle. As I argue in my latest book, “Leading From the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” America’s greatest presidents were maestros of moderation, who understood that the trick to effective leadership in a democracy is finding the middle, or creating a new middle.
Americans have a tradition of muscular moderation, and if we don’t figure out how to push our candidates towards the centre, rather than to the poles, we are going to deeply regret it.
July 10, 2008 No Comments
Troy Kids Promote Leading from the Center, Take 2
July 9, 2008 No Comments
Newsday, July 6, 2008
BY GIL TROY | Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University. His new book is “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.”
The Democrats’ dilemma, namely how to blast President George W. Bush without being accused of bashing America, prompted Sen. Barack Obama to affirm his patriotism in Independence, Mo., last week. Obama correctly insisted that “no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism,” and patriots sometimes have a duty to dissent. But he avoided connecting patriotism to the idea of American nationalism, which is the very concept explaining why we need countries at all.
Discussions about patriotism, meaning love of country, frequently degenerate into absurd competitions to prove who loves his country more, or accusations that one candidate does not love the country enough. We end up focusing on whether candidates wear lapel pins, place their hands on their chests when singing the national anthem, or sing it on key. The conversation about nationalism goes deeper, about the very reason for organizing smaller communities into larger countries and into the vision of just what kind of nation we want to be.
Unfortunately, the great crimes of the 20th century made nationalism a dirty word to many. Defined by disasters like Bosnia’s brutality and Nazism’s horrors, the concept became linked with parochialism, xenophobia, prejudice, extremism, militarism and mass murder. It became trendy to celebrate the European Union as the “post-national” wave of the future. This ignores how Germanic Germans remain, how French the French still are. In fact, nationalism remains the world’s central organizing principle, with 192 nation-states in the United Nations.
Nationalism has unleashed great cruelty. But it has fueled many modern miracles, including America’s great liberal democratic experiment. Without appeals to the national conscience, without a strong sense of a national purpose, Americans might not have stayed united, settled the West, won world wars, explored space, mass-produced prosperity, spread essential rights or created the Internet, which, remember, was invented as a tool for national defense.
When Abraham Lincoln invoked “the mystic chords of memory,” he reminded Americans of the appealing ideals that united them as one nation. When Ronald Reagan saluted John Winthrop’s “shining city upon the hill,” he, too, summoned a mythic national past to push the country toward a better future. At its best, nationalism gets people dreaming and working together and behaving better than they might if they were just thinking selfishly or too locally.
Every day, Americans fulfill national ideals, living, and often quoting, the enduring phrases from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Americans enjoy a deep commitment to human life, unprecedented amounts of liberty and massive opportunities for the pursuit of happiness.
Thomas Jefferson’s five-word affirmation in the Declaration of Independence - that all men are created equal - has become impressively more inclusive over time. Since 1776, the phrase has empowered African-Americans, women, the poor and immigrants, inviting them to enjoy more and more of America’s goodies.
Nationalism focuses on “we the people,” not just the “I”; nationalism is about each nation’s romance with the land and myths about the past. Mining group pride and common goals can elevate not denigrate, include not exclude.
Lincoln’s cautious but egalitarian nationalism helped Northerners evolve beyond their initial racism to make the fight for union a fight against black slavery. Theodore Roosevelt’s romantic, upbeat patriotism helped industrializing Americans create a communal counterbalance to business power and sing a collective song of American altruism. Franklin Roosevelt’s can-do, optimistic communalism reassured and mobilized Americans during the dark days of the Depression, then inspired Americans to share their Four Freedoms with the rest of the world.
The American revolutionaries we honor on July 4 were reluctant revolutionaries - they did not want to reject England, the mother country. But, by defending themselves, they became ardent nationalists. On this 232nd anniversary of their great leap of faith, we can demonstrate our patriotism and champion its connection to our pride in our nationalism. Patriotism is about “my country, right or wrong”; nationalism about how my country goes about righting wrongs and forging a common good.
In this presidential campaign, we should seek a worthy successor to our tradition of inspirational nationalists. Let’s make this presidential campaign about competing centrist visions for modern American nationalism - acknowledging its strengths and potential to do good in the world - rather than engaging in a petty debate maligning either candidate’s patriotism.
July 6, 2008 No Comments
Arianna Huffington’s slam on centrism - “Memo to Obama: Moving to the Middle is for Losers” — proves that the struggle for the soul of Barack Obama continues. Moderate voices must stand tall and strong against the partisans pulling him to the left. Obama’s meteoric rise to national prominence — and his victory in the Democratic primaries — resulted from the lyrical centrism of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Without that message of unity, moderation, centrism, civility, and sanity, Obama would be just another junior senator. If Obama forgets the origins of his brief career and lurches left, he risks returning to his Senate seat in the fall of 2008, behind even Hillary Rodham Clinton in the pecking order.
Huffington’s post on this issue rests on a false choice between principled extremism and centrist pandering. Huffington caricatures “tacking to the center” as “watering down th[e] brand,” playing to the “fence sitters,” and “dilut[ing]” Obama’s “own positioning.” Huffington fails to understand that being a moderate does not necessarily mean being a pushover. Obama’s vision of new politics, which she chides him for abandoning, is rooted in a traditional push for the center, with a renewed, optimistic vision for today.
Obama’s centrism is part of a great American political tradition. America’s greatest presidents were maestros of moderation, who understood that the trick to effective leadership in a democracy is finding the middle, or creating a new middle. George Washington viewed his role as more of a referee than a crusader. He preached repeatedly to his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, about finding common ground. Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time in office, negotiating, compromising, cajoling, and conniving to keep the badly divided North united against the South. That is why he emphasized fighting to keep the Union together rather than liberating the slaves, despite his personal dislike of slavery. Theodore Roosevelt, although temperamentally immoderate, proved to be an adept arbitrator, ending the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, and even earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic skills in resolving the Russo-Japanese war. Franklin Roosevelt, though often denounced as a radical, in fact tacked carefully between the extremes of the radical left and the complacent right, inching America toward a modified welfare state.
All these presidents succeeded because they understood that they had to play to the middle. Part of the reason why so many Americans are so angry with the current administration comes from George W. Bush’s disdain for the center. By not reaching out sufficiently, Bush has left many Americans alienated from his policies –and from America’s democracy.
Democracy is ultimately a fragile flower. Presidents – and presidential candidates – have to tend it carefully, remembering that the consent we who are governed grant is implied, and rests on a collective act of good will. Great presidents tap into a broad, mainstream strain of American nationalism that keeps this nation of now over 300 million people united and, on the whole, even-tempered.
Arianna Huffington also erred in claiming that previous Democratic nominees stumbled when they shifted to the center. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton did not lose because they were too centrist; they lost because each lacked an effective message – and allowed their opponents to define them. Huffington also conveniently overlooks the only Democrat to win a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton, who repeatedly played to the center, and triumphed.
For Democrats to win in 2008 — and for America to heal and to prosper – Barack Obama needs to find his centrist voice, showing that he can bring a new tone to American politics, as well as creative, broad-based solutions to some of the pressing problems the country faces. Obama has to make sure that the Republicans do not cast him as the next George McGovern. The young Illinois Senator could learn a lot from the pantheon of democratic heroes who understood how to have core principles but also the broad centrist vision necessary to keep this country united.
July 3, 2008 No Comments
A concept so simple, even children can understand it?
June 29, 2008 No Comments
Despite both presumptive nominees’ rhetoric about center-seeking, if moderates do not figure out how to push from the center for centrist leadership, this campaign will degenerate into another divisive slugfest. We are all well aware of the gravitational physics of American politics, how partisans from the left and the right pull their respective candidates to the base, and how difficult it is to resist the lure of going negative, at a certain point in the campaign. The challenge for moderates is to reinforce candidates when they play to the center – and chide them, reporters, bloggers and other players when they play to the extremes.
Consider the current argument about terrorism. In a recent interview with Jake Tapper of ABC News, Barack Obama made it clear how passionately he feels about civil liberties. He argued that just as the original attackers of the World Trade Center from 1993 were brought to justice within the boundaries of the Constitution, so, too, could future terrorists be fought legally but effectively. This comment allowed Republicans to pounce on him for his “September 10” mentality, for treating terrorism as a domestic law enforcement issue, rather than an external military threat.
With everyone playing their roles, with the media and the campaigns treating the campaigns as polar opposites, reverse images of each other, Barack Obama was caricatured as strong on civil liberties, John McCain as tough on terror. Following that polarizing logic, if Obama was pro-Civil Liberties, McCain was caricatured as being “con”; and if McCain was anti-terror, Obama was caricatured as “pro.” Of course, Obama is not in favor of terrorism and McCain has distinguished himself – as a former prisoner of war – by speaking out against torture and for civil liberties. Both candidates have to work hard not to get stereotyped and to limit the battlefield on which they fight.
What if Obama gave a speech about what George W. Bush has done right in the fight against terror. Obama could start with a strong repudiation of Islamism and terrorism, detail the Treasury interdiction efforts that slowed the flow of cash to Al Qaeda, and specify other areas of passionate agreement with Bush and the Republicans. He could then talk about where Bush and the Republicans have fallen short, but with much more credibility as a tough-on-terror Democrat. Similarly, McCain should give a strong address about the importance of civil liberties and Constitutional processes in wartime – then detail where he would limit liberties and for whom, showing where he would deviate from the Administration’s approach and from the Democrats’ views.
Frequently, when we think about centrism we think about triangulating, about compromising core principles to create some kind of neutered policy. Campaigns should be about disagreements, about passionate fights over competing principles and policy prescriptions. But the candidates should be careful to emphasize the core values they and all Americans share in common not just their clashes regarding vision and tactics.
June 24, 2008 No Comments
It is not easy being a moderate. I have been shamelessly shilling for my book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents since launching it last Monday. Correction: I have been constructively engaging in discourse about my latest historical monograph. Sitting in my office in Washington, DC at the Bipartisan Policy Center, I have been traveling across America, doing one of these satellite radio tours.
While ricocheting virtually from North to South, I discovered – or, to be more accurate – rediscovered – that in today’s partisan universe, even centrism and attempts at non-partisanship can be highly politicized.
- “Ah, you say you’re for centrism,” said a talk radio host in Detroit, “do you think a true centrist would be willing to be an appeaser and talk to dictators who hate America?” Of course, I had no idea which candidate he might be talking about……
- For balance – both geographical and political – a talk radio host from across the aisle in Georgia said: “McCain may talk about centrism but aren’t all Republican policies about greed and selfishness.” Hmm, not sure who he was favoring either…
But my two favorite comments were actually non-partisan comments in defense of partisanship, Dmitri and Bob, right in Washington, DC, introduced my WTOP interview by saying:
“If you want to say a word that sucks the air out of the room – say moderate - -it’s so boring, it just gets people yawning….”
And, more crudely, one radio host asked:
“if you hang out in the middle of the road, doncha just end up as road kill?”
This slam reminded of the Texas populist Jim Hightower’s 1997 polemic against his fellow Democrat Bill Clinton’s centrism entitled: There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadilloes.
This, of course, is the problem. We need to remember that there is a rich, vigorous tradition of muscular moderation in America, of dynamic leaders who sought the center out of strength not weakness, seeking to unite the country not just rile the partisans. Both Barack Obama and John McCain, in different ways, have said they want to lead from the center. Unless we figure out how to give them positive reinforcement for that constructive centrism, unless we push for moderation, we will see yet another round of red versus blue divisive politics.
June 23, 2008 No Comments
As we transition from the primary campaign to the general election, there is a struggle for the souls of both presumptive nominees. Both Barack Obama and John McCain came to national prominence as centrists. Obama seized the lyrical center – Reagan style with a multicultural twist – thanks to his 2004 Democratic National Convention Speech, and McCain won the Republican nomination because he was the Republican candidate most independent of his party leader, George W. Bush. Nevertheless, partisans from both extremes are insisting that their respective candidates run away from the center. Many liberals, especially in the blogosphere, claim that Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton repudiated Democratic centrism; conservatives keep warning McCain to shore up his base. Amid this struggle, where are the passionate moderates, the people who believe in a principled center, both as the shrewd place to be – and the right place to be?
Unfortunately, the gravitational physics of American politics, especially during election time, tends to polarize. Our culture and our politics reward the loudmouths, the partisans, the controversy-generators, rather than the bridge-builders, the centrists, the peacemakers. And, in fairness, moderates are frequently too reasonable, too passive. It is easy to see the forces pulling the candidates to particular extremes; where are the forces pushing toward the center?
Note, for example, the New York Times coverage regarding John McCain’s reaction to last week’s Supreme Court decision regarding the detainees at Guantanamo. When first asked to react, before he had a chance to read the decision, McCain responded carefully saying, “It obviously concerned me.” A blog post on National Review Online, the Times reported, asked in fury: “Concerned? Concerned?” Subsequently, after studying the matter and consulting with Senator Lindsey Graham, McCain called the ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”
The bloggers’ attack – as well as the Times reportage – reinforced the narrative of John McCain’s strained relations with the Republican base. But shouldn’t we applaud a leader who hesitates before condemning the Supreme Court, who studies an issue before pronouncing on it? Don’t we need people praising McCain for his initial restraint and encouraging such behavior?
Just as partisans monitor candidates for their ideological purity, we need a moderometer to keep track of a candidate’s centrism both substantively and tactically. This barometer assessing the two nominees’ moderation should focus on various statements they make over the next five months, illustrating whether they shift left, right, or center, while also assessing their behavior, the tone they set. This way, centrists can have some push-back, can make their play for the middle. In the case of McCain’s reaction to the Supreme Court decision, the moderometer would stand level – and reward the candidate for his patience and temperance.
By contrast, the moderometer could teeter tracking another controversy from this week. Republicans pounced on Barack Obama’s comments to ABC’s Jake Tapper pointing to the investigation of the first World Trade Center bombing as a model for fighting terror. “Once again we have seen that Senator Obama is a perfect manifestation of a Sept. 10 mindset,” McCain’s adviser on national security, Randy Scheunemann snapped – shifting the McCain moderometer rightward as Obama’s shifted leftward for treating terror as a law enforcement matter rather than a military and foreign policy challenge. However, Obama’s clever response was well balanced, showing his commitment to fighting terror, as he said: “These are the same guys who helped to engineer the distraction of the war in Iraq at a time when we could’ve pinned down the people who actually committed 9/11.”
The call for moderation is not a call for pallid namby-pamby candidates no more different from each other than tweedle dee is from tweedle dum (to recycle a criticism William Allen White used against Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in 1912). Ideally, Barack Obama’s moderometer will dip slightly left, and McCain’s will dip slightly right. But a gradual incline just enough to emphasize differences and articulate them is not a steep angle that further divides the country.
The two moderates should narrow the battlefield – showing where they agree and then slugging it out where they disagree. But it would be a mistake – and represent a lost opportunity – if the rhetoric of the campaign starts setting up the two as polar opposites of each other, reverse images, with one personifying strength and virtue, the other weakness and wrongheadedness. The United States faces serious challenges at home and abroad. Neither candidate is perfect but both are patriots committing to solving those problems. For once, if we push them toward the center, maybe we can have a campaign that fights about substantive differences without character assassination or caricature. Such a campaign will help the winner do what needs to be done – lead from the center, uniting as much of the country as possible in a concerted attempt to solve the serious problems afflicting us today.
June 19, 2008 No Comments