The Viral Center

Despite all evidence to the contrary, pundits still claim that Democrats need to move to an undefined center in order to govern.

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Two months ago in the midterm elections, Democrats wrested control of Congress after 12 years of increasingly conservative Republican leadership. Since then, much of the media has stuck to their script of the new breed of “centrist” Democrat, who couldn’t have been elected unless they had moved to the “center.”

But what constitutes the political “center” and who defines its location?

The key concept for the punditocracy as the presidential election season gets underway is “electability.” As the neoliberal pundit Michael Kinsley pointed out during the 2004 Democratic convention coverage, “It’s true enough that this is a moment when the Democrats are called upon to reject extreme liberalism (whatever that might be) and to embrace moderation. But that is only because every moment is such a moment. The opinion that the Democrats need to foreswear ‘McGovernism’ and prove their commitment to moderation is one of the very safest in all of punditry.”

Yet Republicans, Kinsley notes, receive the equivalent of a free ideological pass regardless of the fact that they are led by two men whose political extremism is all but unarguable and has no counterpart among Democratic liberals. “The GOP is rarely threatened with oblivion,” he notes, “if it fails to stage a public festival of contrition.”

Now consider an article in Tuesday’s New York Times, which provides an excellent example of how some print reporters manage to mangle the state of the nation by assuming that Democrats are out of the mainstream of public opinion. In a piece by Robin Toner headlined “Democrats Seek the Middle on Social Issues,” Toner kicks the piece off with this:

“The promise may not outlast their political honeymoon, but Democratic Congressional leaders say they are committed to governing from the center, and not just on bread-and-butter issues like raising the minimum wage or increasing aid for education. They also hope to bring that philosophy to bear on some of the most divisive social issues in politics, like abortion.”

In two sentences, Toner manages to perplex right away. Leave aside the always vexing question of abortion, and the implication that the Republicans, who have been seeking to ban all abortions of late and were defeated in South Dakota, are closer to “the center” than Democrats. Toner suggests that raising the minimum wage and increasing aid for education represent moves to the center, and that they’re issues that both parties in Congress can agree on. In fact, they have long been core Democratic principles. But if they do represent the center, then why didn’t the Republican-controlled Congress ever take heat for not moving on them during the past dozen years?

The fact is, these are progressive politics through and through, and as such, the right-wing-controlled Congress has since 1996 refused to budge on giving low-wage workers an increase in the minimum wage, except as a ploy to entirely do away with estate taxes. The Senate has rejected 11 attempts to raise the minimum wage since 1998. A Pew Research Center poll conducted last April found that a staggering 83 percent of Americans favor raising the minimum wage to the level proposed by Democrats—so where are the calls for Republicans to move to the center?

Journalism like this isn’t anything new. We’ve been seeing stories falsely claiming that Democrats are being forced to carve out a centrist position since before the November midterms. Back in October, CNBC’s Larry Kudlow wrote on his blog that “if the Democrats win control of the House, the old liberal guard will run the important committees. But underneath the rusty, old guard appears to be an increasingly conservative bunch of Democrats.”

This view was cemented immediately after the election when The Washington Post’s Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei wrote that “the Democrats’ victory was built on the back of more centrist candidates seizing Republican-leaning districts, and Pelosi emphasized that she will try to lead without becoming the ideological mirror of Gingrich.”

Not to be rude, but let’s take a moment to look at the data: My colleagues at Media Matters for America have tallied the conservative leanings of television talk shows in an informative study put out last year and found a decided conservative leaning among booked guests as well as regular pundits. When these pundits call for Democrats to move toward the center, what they’re really saying is that they need to become more conservative.

And the problem is hardly relegated to the networks. As Media Matters further elaborated, the wrap up coverage in the days after the election (dominated, again, by conservative pundits) upheld the view that Democrats only won by moving to the center rather than running on a party platform.

On “Larry King Live,” conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham said, “[A]ll these Democrats are running fairly conservative campaigns, while on MSNBC, NBC News Chief White House Correspondent David Gregory claimed that Nancy Pelosi was ‘going to have some right, right-of-center Democrats who are winning in red areas around the country to contend with, as well.’ They may be more supportive of the administration’s point of view.”

On CNN’s “liberal” “American Morning,” co-host Miles O’Brien said that the Democrats have “Nancy Pelosi, very liberal, at the top, and then a lot of conservatives, those so-called ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats, that won here.” And on CBS’ “The Early Show,” Bob Schieffer said that “These Democrats that were elected last night are conservative Democrats.”

A few days after the election, the conservative—or at best, centrist—theme quickly congealed into beltway conventional wisdom, but Paul Waldman, writing in The Boston Globe, injected some reality into the proceedings. He noted that “Democrats didn’t win because they moved to the right or ran conservative candidates. Many of the more conservative Democrats who ran in red states actually ended up losing. Those who won did so by opposing President Bush, questioning the war in Iraq, and carrying the Democratic banner. It was Republicans who were afraid to put their party identification on their lawn signs and in their ads.”

Every Democrat who took a Republican or an open seat in 2006 was more liberal than his or her Republican opponent. Each supported increasing the minimum wage and embryonic stem cell research and opposed the privatization of Social Security. None, insofar as I am aware, argued for Bush’s plan to eliminate the estate tax, and with Joe Lieberman knocked out of the Democratic Party in Connecticut, none took a supportive position of Bush’s war in Iraq or his aggressively militaristic foreign policy.

The president himself trotted out the old accusations of “elitism,” “softness,” and even “pro-terrorism” on the part of his allegedly liberal opponents, but that accusation—repeated ad infinitem by Republican candidates and right-wing cable and radio talk show hosts—failed to draw blood…or even many votes. Democrats, noted liberal activist Robert Borosage in The American Prospect, “had to overcome the Republican advantages in incumbency, gerrymandered districts, money, and mobilization, and to do so in the midst of a wartime presidency. And they did.”

Yet pundits still continue to claim that Democrats need to move to an undefined center in order to govern, while the defeated Republicans need only to become even more conservative. Voters “punished” Republicans “not for pursuing but for forgetting conservatism,” explained the sage George F. Will.

As if…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from to Media Matters. The new URL is

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Eric Alterman

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