The Radical Center Returns

Every once in awhile, radical centrism makes a trendy return to American political discourse.

From the presidential campaign of Ross Perot, to the lackluster launch of the vapid “No Labels” campaign, to the equally yawn-worthy “Reformocon” movement, the romantic ideal of Americans putting aside their differences and coming together to develop real, pragmatic solutions to the country’s biggest problems enchants the commentariat class.

These panegyrics to moderation usually emerge after congressional congestion gets in the way of ambitious legislation. When Congress fails to, say, overhaul the health care system or simplify the tax code, certain pundits, paying tribute to the cordiality of yesteryear, will scribble out sanctimonious essays on the fading spirit of civic togetherness.

The newest attempt comes via two well-known operatives: Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution and Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol. The perfect encapsulations of their respective political parties, the esteemed duo has come together to form “A New Center,” an organization dedicated to defending what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called the “vital center.”

The New Center was launched in the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning electoral victory. And after eight months of languid legislative progress on Capitol Hill, Kristol and Galston have released a policy manifesto of proposals that aim to “re-center America.”

What brave, bold ideas do these two Washington eminences think will help restore our fraying national fabric?

The list is surprisingly intriguing. They propose a number of practical initiatives: Simplifying the tax code and reinvesting the proceeds into infrastructure development; boosting wages for low-skilled workers; cracking down on China’s intellectual property theft; curbing the power of tech giants like Google and Facebook; reforming our immigration system to encourage more high-skilled immigrants.

There are no grand schemes, like nationalizing industry. But that’s the point. These propositions appeal to the mushy middle. Common sense in presentation, easy in execution, attractive across the board -– only the fringes would find fault with these modest suggestions.

There’s also the freshness factor. The list eschews vacuous bullet points candidates are fond of putting on their websites. Typical Republican proposals like tax cuts for high earners are noticeably absent. There’s scant mention of race or sexual orientation. As Damon Linker points out, the “list is impressive in its willingness to break from both parties' settled habits.”

So why not drop what you’re doing and sign up to be a full-fledged member of “The New Center”?

The answer’s easy. This new center already exists. It currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

President Trump has, at one time or another, endorsed the Galston-Kristol plan. During the campaign, the Manhattan developer emphasized the need to repair and restore our ailing infrastructure. As president, he’s ordered an investigation into China’s intellectual thievery. He has endorsed an immigration bill authored by senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue that favors high-skilled, English-speaking immigrants. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon openly mulled having Facebook and Google regulated like public utilities.

Trump was the choice of voters who rejected the shopworn platforms of our major parties. He openly defied Republican orthodoxy, voicing support for taxing the rich, expanding government health care, establishing domestic trade protection, and pulling back on international commitments.

In recent weeks, President Trump has pivoted away from the narrow vision of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and has embraced working with Democrats. As hurricanes ravaged the southern U.S., and the country quickly approached its debt limit, Trump wasted little time in cutting a deal with “Chuck and Nancy.” He took the quick and easily path: relief funding for the rebuilding effort in Houston in exchange for a short-term debt ceiling lift.

No brinkmanship or loud, partisan speeches were necessary. If you want a rebuke of ideological stubbornness, it doesn’t get more moderate than a Republican president ditching his own party and openly siding with Democratic leadership.

So why aren’t Galston and Kristol hailing our radically middling chief? Why must they endlessly assail him?

In a word, that old sin pride. As D.C. kingmakers, the Trump presidency is an existential threat to their occupation. The president lacks an ideology. For Washington power rankers, this is frustrating. He’s never fit the mold of a prefab politician. His billfold’s empty of the Washington currency of respectability, and he doesn’t seem to care. His edges are rough, his language is coarse, his public persona is wild and lecherous.

Trump saw the road to the White House occupied on both sides with influencers, power-brokers, glad-handers, name-droppers, sycophants, and status salesmen. Rather than schmooze and wheedle his way through, he took a detour to the back door, bypassing the gatekeepers. In doing so, he forever earned the distrust of the Potomac Praetorian Guard.

Self-styled centrists like Kristol and Galston aren’t interested in shoring up the center; their goal is the perpetuation of the status quo. No matter the side, they want their ring kissed by presidential aspirants. Policy is secondary–power is the first objective.

Donald Trump is the center par excellence of American politics. On a Venn diagram, he occupies equal space with Republicans and Democrats. He’s a real-life outsider who owes his party nothing, and lacks a gut hatred of the other side.

Yet the respectable center still hates him. It isn’t hard to see why once you understand the true mechanics of Washington.


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