The Center Moves Left?

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Greg Sargent responds to Brooks:

...maybe what we’re seeing here is more of the Obama team’s efforts to redefine the moderate center. What Obama advisers are saying is that they’re undoing the radicalism of the Bush years. Yes, the Obama team is attempting an expansion of government activism not seen since Lyndon Johnson. But they’re redefining this type of government action as not radical at all, as the sensible and even moderate course, given the circumstances. And they’re saying this because that’s really how they see it.

And here's the point I think is worth reiterating. Much of the reaction on the right and center-right to Obama's budget has been a recourse to abstract principles. There's nothing wrong with such principles - low taxes, balanced budgets, small and limited government. I share them. But no self-respecting conservative would ever defend such principles without considering the full context in which we now find ourselves.

To give a blindingly obvious example: to treat the stimulus package as just another expansion of government, a reckless lurch to the left, as Fox News has done, is absurd. As unemployment spikes, stocks crash, and deflation looms on the horizon, deficit spending means something else. It's a pragmatic, not a liberal decision.

Now look at some less clear-cut contexts. The last thirty years have seen historically low tax rates for the successful. But they have also seen a sharp, globalization-fed increase in inequality.

If your goal is to keep a polity in one piece during an economic crisis, raising some taxes on those who have had a relatively low-tax couple of decades, is again pragmatically defensible. If I thought Obama's goal was to redistribute for the sake of it, I'd be appalled. But that isn't what he's said and it isn't what he believes. Ditto cap-and-trade. I don't think it's the best way to tackle climate change, but I do see it as a legitimate, practical response to climate change - not some expansion of government for its own sake. It's also a real, if flawed, attempt to wean us off oil after a decade in which we learned the hard way what oil-fueled fanaticism can do to us. Again: this is about reacting to changes in the world. It seems to me to be within the conservative mindset to adjust to practical necessity and a changing world.

This is true even of healthcare. Even private sector enthusiasts like yours truly can see there's a resilient problem here - of costs soaring, of de facto universal coverage without any of the economies of scale that a more coherent universal coverage would allow, of unaccountable private agencies rationing irrationally and unaccountably. I don't think it's radical or super-liberal to ask how we can tackle these questions - or to accept that the past couple of decades have not proven the superiority of the status quo.

I'm not sure what the answers to all these questions are. But I am sure that a good faith effort to tackle them is what we need. We have a new president who's a liberal but open to suggestion and debate. I don't believe going on and on about what a big liberal he is, and how we're all about to turn into France, moves this debate constructively along. If the right wants to return as something more than a populist gabfest on radio and cable, we'd better join that debate. And even have a few constructive ideas.

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