The Centrist Fallacy

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A few things to know about Washington. The press loves centrists. Any self-styled moderate who bucks their party is sure to get good play and generally centrists aren't shy about letting you know it. So it's worth noting the important story by Molly Hooper in the Hill on Wednesday night. All kinds of moderates are having all kinds of meetings over health care. Will it lead to anything? Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. This time my guess is not.

In the Spring of 2004, the so-called "Gang of 14" made a huge different. Self-styled moderate senators met and prevented the use of the "nuclear option."--a decision to deny the filibuster to Democrats who had been using it to block Bush nominees to the appellate courts. Democrats had blocked any number of nominees, including that of Miguel Estrada who, I should note, represented me and Time Inc. in its appellate brief to the Supreme Court in the CIA leak case. After seeing 10 Bush nominees go down, then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott threatened the "nuclear option." He was prevented by seven Democratic and seven Republican Senators who vowed not to filibuster Bush nominees (except in extreme circumstances) and not to give Lott the votes for the "nuclear option." The center held.

This time, I don't see it happening. If universal health care passes--and I don't think it will--it'll be because of raw, Democratic muscle not because of some bipartisan lovefest. The dilemmas over the current plans can't be easily ameliorated with negotiation and compromise. Either you're for what it takes to get to universal care--a lot of money, some kind of cost control--or you're not. That's not going to be easily smoothed over in bipartisan lunches when the Democrats have decades of pent up desire for health care built up and Republicans still have an allergic aversion to government intervention in the marketplace and more spending that isn't tax cuts. That said, the centrists are always worth watching and given the press corps love of them, we'll get plenty of chances.  

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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