Monday, February 09, 2009

Damn centrists

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Krugman (with our Quote/Question of the Day):

What do you call someone who eliminates hundreds of thousands of American jobs, deprives millions of adequate health care and nutrition, undermines schools, but offers a $15,000 bonus to affluent people who flip their houses?

A proud centrist. For that is what the senators who ended up calling the tune on the stimulus bill just accomplished.

That's right:

One of the best features of the original plan was aid to cash-strapped state governments, which would have provided a quick boost to the economy while preserving essential services. But the centrists insisted on a $40 billion cut in that spending.

The original plan also included badly needed spending on school construction; $16 billion of that spending was cut. It included aid to the unemployed, especially help in maintaining health care — cut. Food stamps — cut. All in all, more than $80 billion was cut from the plan, with the great bulk of those cuts falling on precisely the measures that would do the most to reduce the depth and pain of this slump.

And yet these centrists are in the middle, and so must be bipartisan (actually, they're just self-partisan, if I may coin a term), and so deserve a disproportionate amount of attention and, ultimately, power.

Seriously, what's so great about centrism? All it means is operating, often without much principle, in that nebulous region between the two parties and working to split the difference -- seemingly without much regard for the merits of either side. And centrists are only taken seriously because there's been such a backlash against partisanship, as if standing up for what you believe in (good partisanship) is somehow deeply wrong and counter-productive, as if partisanship only means putting party before all else (bad partisanship). Sure, as we see now, centrists are the key swing votes in the Senate, and so their votes matter -- they get things done, or they enable things to get done, by offering a third alternative.

But what was the rationale here? Apparently, just to reduce the size of the economic stimulus package enough to appease a few Republicans -- or, really, to appease themselves, because it's not like the Republicans, those who aren't members of the centrist gang, are behind it now. Yes, their contribution was productive, perhaps, but what exactly did it accomplish? A package that was too small already got smaller and what was cut out was essential -- essential to the states, essential to some of the people who most need the help.

There's a lot of blame to go around, but Obama deserves some of it for pushing post-partisanship at a time when what is needed is decisive action. To be fair -- and I've defended Obama on this -- there was certainly something to be said for reaching across the aisle and seeking Republican input and support. If nothing else, a bill with strong Republican support would have looked better. But it has been clear for some time that the Republicans have little to no interest in working with Obama and the Democrats, that they're hiding behind their extremist ideology, and that they're playing this for partisan political purposes (see today's WaPo for more on this). I suspect that Obama knew all along that post-partisanship was a non-starter, but he may have underestimated the extent of Republican unity and opposition -- and, to his credit, he has been fighting back, with strong support in the polls.

In the meantime, though, the centrists continue to wield their inordinate power, cheered along by the media, which love to denounce partisanship even as they magnify it and profit from it. They may be posers who likely wouldn't vote against a larger package, but they have enough clout to hold the bill hostage. And that's hardly what America needs at this moment of crisis.

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