At first glance, as the 2008 campaign swings into high gear, prospects for the Democratic Party couldn’t seem brighter. The Bush presidency is crashing, and grassroots Democrats are bristling to take on the president in the next round of debates about Iraq and domestic spending. The word “liberalism”—the once-dreaded “L-word”—has even made a comeback, and, if we can trust a recent poll, the political philosophy behind the word has found increasing support among young voters. It feels like the despair of 2004 has passed.

Flush with the sense of having been right all along, activists among the antiwar Left and the “netroots” are ready to barrel ahead and press Democrats to take on the president. And why not? Few Americans support the Iraq war today. But there’s a hitch. The pacifist strains on the Left haven’t become popular. Rather, the war has lost most Americans because it has lost so much—so much money and so many lives. It was the swing voter who mattered in 2006, more than the MoveOn base or its ideas.

So instead of the left-wing Rove-ism recommended by some netroots activists, I’d suggest revisiting the idea of centrism. I know it’s a tough sell. It’s hard to disassociate the term from Joe Lieberman or the Blue Dog Democrats. And most on the left wing of the Democratic Party cringe at the most successful embodiment of centrism-namely, the Clinton presidency. In his recent book about struggles in the Democratic Party, Matt Bai quotes an activist who claims that Clinton “stripped the party of its moral authority and brought the country to the edge of ruin.” Yet Clinton was a two-term Democratic president—the first since FDR—reviled by conservatives, but wildly popular in many sectors of American society.

And so Clinton’s presidency and its legacy cry out for reevaluation. Not merely in order to sort out the past for its own sake, but to help craft a future politics that is grounded in reality. Throughout history progressives have looked back upon presidencies to think through their present-day prospects. What Lincoln stood for mattered to the Progressives in the early twentieth century, just as what FDR stood for during the 1930s mattered to cold-war liberals. Coming to terms with Clinton’s legacy should be our own challenge today.

Let’s clear out the bad stuff first. No one will embrace Clinton’s presidency wholeheartedly. And it’s not just because of the Monica Lewinsky debacle. Clinton suffered a personality crisis that colored his presidency. He was, in John F. Harris’s words, a “person-pleaser,” and as such not always the best leader—especially not when taking his cues from Dick Morris, the political consultant who polled and focus-grouped just about every issue Clinton confronted. Under Morris’s influence, spin and “small bore” politics became closely associated with Clinton’s centrist legacy. This isn’t the type of centrism that needs to be rehabilitated now.

Clinton began both his terms by taking up positions that didn’t seem to promise a politics of compromise. He started his first term with his infamous gays-in-the-military policy, while his second term began in the wake of his veto of partial-birth abortion legislation, positions which no doubt cost him some support in the center. But the general outlook of the Clinton presidency suggested a centrist public philosophy that deserves reconsideration today. The heart of it was developed by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The DLC—which is still around—has few fans among the netroots and antiwar Left, who see it as a gang of political opportunists bent on pushing the party to the right by going to bed with business interests, especially on the issue of free trade. There’s truth in this charge, but it rings a bit hollow when it comes from those with little memory of the McGovern legacy and what it did to the Democratic Party.

The DLC espoused the idea that Americans wanted to balance government activism with the citizen’s obligations. In other words, rights entailed responsibilities. This idea had both intellectual sophistication and popular accessibility. It was not a poll-tested strategy, but an idea rooted in American political thought and carried along by intellectuals like the University of Maryland political theorist (and Commonweal contributor) William Galston, who became Clinton’s domestic-policy adviser.

It also generated numerous policy proposals. There was community policing—a policy that had some success at lowering the crime rate while engaging citizens in public safety. And there was the AmeriCorps program that required young people to do public service in exchange for help toward college tuition. Nor will many forget Clinton’s original dream of “ending welfare as we know it” by pushing people off the rolls while providing job training to the poorest Americans. Alas, his original plan failed and he wound up supporting a bad Republican alternative. But the broad support these DLC-inspired policies garnered showed clearly that Americans wanted government activism balanced with duty.

Perhaps most important was Clinton’s defense of government in the face of rabid Republican attacks during the rise of Newt Gingrich. Clinton felt boxed-in by the Republican ascendancy, but this led him to define his centrism as a fighting faith—an ardent defense of government that hit its rhetorical high point in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when he lashed out against the far Right. “How dare you call yourselves patriots and heroes,” he scolded. “There is nothing patriotic about...pretending that you can love your country but despise your government.” Clinton told Joe Klein that these words were intended just as much for the “House Republicans” as for the militia movement—and he returned to them to rebuke Republicans when they shut down the government by refusing to compromise on the budget. By doing all this, Clinton won support among “moderate” voters. Some chalk up this success to Dick Morris. But it’s important to remember that Clinton came out of Arkansas—a state with a strong Democratic tradition that was trending Republican. Well before he became president, Clinton knew about finicky swing voters mistrustful of government. These Arkansas realities chastened his progressive principles, and this chastening helped him win. Now would seem just the right time to refocus liberal sights on moderate voters—precisely the sort of voters Rove’s strategy lost and Clinton’s won.

The emphasis on “moderate” brings us to two final elements of Clintonian centrism—“triangulation” and the “vital center.” The first term, associated with Dick Morris, simply means pitting the far right against the far left and driving up the middle. The second and more controversial term is one Clinton borrowed from the late liberal historian and activist Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Schlesinger argued that the “vital center” he had written about in 1949 belonged to a bygone era when democracy and totalitarianism faced off against each other. The term could not be hijacked by the “cautious politicians of our own time,” he scolded. Schlesinger contrasted Clinton’s centrism unfavorably with FDR’s success in pushing the center leftward. “The middle of the road is definitely not the vital center—it is the dead center.”

Though Schlesinger may have undervalued the Clinton presidency, his protest makes sense. Centrism perpetually threatens to become mushy and unprincipled, melting into the tactical sleaziness of a Dick Morris. What’s necessary is a liberalism chastened by centrism, a principled stance that nonetheless pays attention to the realities of American politics. The challenge today is, in other words, both to aim at the center and to remake it. That includes restoring a number of urgent issues that the Bush administration has removed from political discussion. We need to put health care back into our national debate. We need to treat global warming as the serious threat it is. We need a foreign policy that balances realism and idealism.

More than a laundry list of policies, though, centrism offers an important attitude. It offers an alternative to the loudest voices on the left today—those voices, so bold and self-assured, that would lead us into the political fray with swords drawn. Politics is “a battlefield,” says Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, creator of the influential liberal blog Daily Kos. “Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter created the world we live in, and for too long, Democrats tried to keep the high ground.” Perhaps. But a principled centrism would ask, At what point does turning politics into war corrupt our civic culture and cut us off from the citizens we have an obligation to reach?

Centrism chastens our liberal dreams as well as our passions. In doing so, it provides a realistic view of how to run campaigns, especially in places where Democrats have had a hard time winning votes. Rooted in both common sense and historical reality, centrism is a deft and robust political vision—perhaps the only one that can work for Democrats in the future.

Kevin Mattson is the author (most recently) of When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (Routledge).
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Published in the 2007-11-09 issue: View Contents
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