Why progressives should forget the middle ground.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 26 2007 7:53 AM

Progressives, To Arms!

Forget about Bush—and the middle ground.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Here's a thought for progressives: Bush isn't the problem. And the next president should not try to be the anti-Bush.

No, I haven't lost my mind. I'm not saying that we should look kindly on the Worst President Ever; we'll all breathe a sigh of relief when he leaves office 405 days, 2 hours, and 46 minutes from now. (Yes, a friend gave me one of those Bush countdown clocks.) Nor am I suggesting that we should forgive and forget; I very much hope that the next president will open the records and let the full story of the Bush era's outrages be told.

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But Bush will soon be gone. What progressives should be focused on now is taking on the political movement that brought Bush to power. In short, what we need right now isn't Bush bashing—what we need is partisanship.

OK, before I get there, a word about terms—specifically, liberal vs. progressive. Everyone seems to have their own definitions; mine involves the distinction between values and action. If you think every American should be guaranteed health insurance, you're a liberal; if you're trying to make universal health care happen, you're a progressive.

And here's the thing: Progressives have an opportunity, because American public opinion has become a lot more liberal.

Not everyone understands that. In fact, the reaction of the news media to the first clear electoral manifestation of America's new liberalism—the Democratic sweep in last year's congressional elections—was almost comical in its denial.

Thus, in 1994, Time celebrated the Republican victory in the midterm elections by putting a herd of charging elephants on its cover. But its response to the Democratic victory of 2006—a victory in which House Democrats achieved a larger majority, both in seats and in the popular vote, than the Republicans ever did in their 12-year reign—was a pair of overlapping red and blue circles, with the headline "The center is the place to be."

Oh, and the guests on Meet the Press the Sunday after the Democratic sweep were, you guessed it, Joe Lieberman and John McCain.

More seriously, many pundits have attributed last year's Republican defeat to Iraq, with the implication that once the war has receded as an issue, the right will reassert its natural political advantage—in spite of polls that show a large Democratic advantage on just about every domestic issue.

In a way, it's understandable that many political analysts are finding it hard to grasp how much things have changed. After all, not long ago it was conventional wisdom among the chattering classes that America had entered an era of long-term Republican—and conservative—dominance. I have a whole shelf of books with titles like One Party Country and Building Red America, all of them explaining why movement conservatism—the interlocking set of institutions, ranging from the Heritage Foundation to Fox News, that make up the modern American right—is invincible.

And it's true that even now, polls suggest that Americans are about twice as likely to identify themselves as conservatives as they are to identify themselves as liberals.

But if you look at peoples' views on actual issues, as opposed to labels, the electorate's growing liberalism is unmistakable. Don't take my word for it; look at the massive report Pew released earlier this year on trends in "political attitudes and core values." Pew found "increased public support for the social safety net, signs of growing public concern about income inequality, and a diminished appetite for assertive national security policies." Meanwhile, nothing's the matter with Kansas: People are ever less inclined to support conservative views on moral values—and have become dramatically more liberal on racial issues.

And it's not just opinion polls: Last year, the newly liberal mindset of the electorate was reflected in actual votes, too. Yes, some of the Democrats newly elected last year were relatively conservative. But others, including James Webb of Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, have staked out strikingly progressive positions on economic issues.

The question, however, is whether Democrats will take advantage of America's new liberalism. To do that, they have to be ready to forcefully make the case that progressive goals are right and conservatives are wrong. They also need to be ready to fight some very nasty political battles.

And that's where the continuing focus of many people on Bush, rather than the movement he represents, has become a problem.

A year ago, Michael Tomasky wrote a perceptive piece titled "Obama the anti-Bush," in which he described Barack Obama's appeal: After the bitter partisanship of the Bush years, Tomasky argued, voters are attracted to "someone who speaks of his frustration with our polarized politics and his fervent desire to transcend the red-blue divide." People in the news media, in particular, long for an end to the polarization and partisanship of the Bush years—a fact that probably explains the highly favorable coverage Obama has received.

But any attempt to change America's direction, to implement a real progressive agenda, will necessarily be highly polarizing. Proposals for universal health care, in particular, are sure to face a firestorm of partisan opposition. And fundamental change can't be accomplished by a politician who shuns partisanship.

I like to remind people who long for bipartisanship that FDR's drive to create Social Security was as divisive as Bush's attempt to dismantle it. And we got Social Security because FDR wasn't afraid of division. In his great Madison Square Garden speech, he declared of the forces of "organized money": "Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred."

So, here's my worry: Democrats, with the encouragement of people in the news media who seek bipartisanship for its own sake, may fall into the trap of trying to be anti-Bushes—of trying to transcend partisanship, seeking some middle ground between the parties.

That middle ground doesn't exist—and if Democrats try to find it, they'll squander a huge opportunity. Right now, the stars are aligned for a major change in America's direction. If the Democrats play nice, that opportunity may soon be gone.

Paul Krugman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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