What the country yearns for is moderation. What we hear about is the political center. But centrism has become the enemy of moderation.
Moderation in politics is about balance. It means believing in a vibrant and innovative private sector and a government substantial enough to do what the private sector doesn't and to enforce sensible rules for economic competition. It means incentives for success, help for those making their way up, and security for the sick, the aging, the poor, the unlucky. It means equilibrium between our love of individualism and our desire for community. This, in turn, means that reducing the budget deficit can't rely only on cutting programs. Yes, taxes need to go up.
All the polls I have ever seen peg the vast majority of Americans as moderate by this definition.
Centrism is something altogether different. It's not a philosophy. It's a position based on calculation. It doesn't start with fixed principles. It measures where everyone else stands on some political spectrum at a given moment and then frantically adjusts.
Because centrism is reactive, you never really know what a centrist believes. Centrists are constantly packing their bags and chasing off to find a new location as the political conversation veers one way or another.
Right now, this sort of centrism is enabling our irrational, dangerous, and decidedly immoderate debt-ceiling conversation. Pushed by the Tea Party, Republicans have created an unprecedented situation by tying an increase in the debt ceiling, once a routine matter, to sharp cuts in spending. And their most conservative members have blocked any new tax revenues to cut the deficit.
Worse, the Right would junk majoritarian democracy altogether through misnamed "balanced budget" amendments that would not permit any tax increases without a two-thirds vote of Congress. This would lock in today's historically low tax levies on the wealthy by immunizing them from any foreseeable election result.
Yet the center's devotees, in politics and in the media, fear saying outright that by any past standards -- or by the standards of any other democracy -- the views of this new right wing are very, very extreme and entirely impractical. Centrists worry that saying this might make them look "leftist" or "partisan."
Instead, the center bends. It concocts deficit plans that include too little new tax revenue. It accepts cuts in programs that would have seemed radical and draconian even a couple of years ago. It pretends this crisis is caused equally by conservatives and liberals when it is perfectly clear that there would be no crisis at all if the Right hadn't glommed onto the debt ceiling as the (totally inappropriate) vehicle for its antigovernment dreams.
It's time for moderates to abandon centrism and stop shifting with the prevailing winds. They need to state plainly what they're for, stand their ground, and pull the argument their way. Yes, they would risk looking to "the left" of where the center is now -- but only because conservatives have pulled it so far their way.
On the debt ceiling itself, I still find it hard to imagine that Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell will allow the country to go over the cliff. They should shelve debt-ceiling fights for the rest of President Barack Obama's term because there are better ways to argue about taxes and spending. If they flinch from taking on the Tea Party, even more trouble faces us.
But when this ends, it's Obama who'll need a reset. At heart, he's a moderate who likes balance. Yet Americans have lost track of what he's really for. Occasionally you wonder if he's lost track himself. He needs to remind us, and perhaps himself, why he wants to be our president. He could give four or five big speeches -- preferably at community colleges in states facing economic trouble -- laying out a clear, detailed and, yes, inspirational plan for what the country needs to do to regain its standing and its confidence. And then he has to fight relentlessly to take the debate away from those who think government's only job is to diminish itself.
His advisers are said to be obsessed with the political center, but this leads to a reactive politics that won't motivate the hope crowd that elected Obama in the first place. Neither will it alter a discourse whose terms were set during most of this debt fight by the right. There's nothing wrong with moderation that immoderate doses of conviction and courage won't cure.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).