HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 10, 2008
From Liberty Street

Obfuscation

John Turner


At any given point in political evolution certain senseless words come to the fore and are repeated incessantly. The two that assail us most fiercely at the moment are "bipartisan" and "center." Do people have any meaning in mind when they use them? Or do they just seem to sound nice?

Through the accidents of a fairly chaotic career I have spent quite a bit of time among both extreme left-wing groups and fanatic right-wingers. About the only thing they had in common was that they both considered themselves to be firmly centrist. It didn't matter where along the political spectrum they stood, they were always convinced that there was as large a portion the population on one side of them as on the other. About the only effect I've discovered from the notion of there being a "center" is rampant delusion.

We now hear a large chorus chanting that Barack Obama must govern from the center. If he doesn't his administration will be a complete disaster. Forget about intelligence, forget about what works, dismiss out of mind what the people actually need and govern from the center. Then you'll be all right.

Where is this center that Obama is to govern from? How is he to find it? What does he do if it moves? Must he change all his policies then and move with it? Is there nothing to be done in politics but to stick yourself in the center and stay there no matter what?

This strikes me as a policy of idiocy. One is advised to push aside one's beliefs and values and glue oneself to a set of attitudes that might transmogrify overnight. One is required to profess loyalty to a strategy that could lead to proposals he has never imagined. And what's the reason for this? Pure political opportunism and nothing else.

Even if one were that cynical, he would find it hard to reap the benefits of his determination because he would always be unsure where the center was. Everybody would tell him something different. Imagine setting Barney Frank's center alongside the center of Sean Hannity. Would there be any overlap at all?

I suppose a politician could try to resort to polls, but if he did he would need to remember that the shift of a single word in a polling question could drive the center leagues from where it was before.

Along with calls to govern from the center come demands that one must pursue bipartisan policies. If all this means is that an office holder should listen to anyone, regardless of his political tag, who seems to have thoughtful things to say about a problem,  it's nothing but a bromide. It's obviously a course to be followed. But people who insist on bipartisanship seem to have something else in mind. Trouble is, it's extremely hard to know what it is.

The implication in advocacy for bipartisanship is based on a false hypothesis. Simple-minded people think that whenever there are two major parties in a nation, each must have something to be said for it. That's not always true. It's less true right now than it has been over most of American history. When even David Brooks can say of the Republicans, ""Now it's just a circular firing squad, with everybody attacking each other, and no coherent belief system, no leaders" -- and keep in mind, this is his own party he's talking about -- how is one supposed to practice bipartisanship and not fall into stupidity?

What is the bipartisan plan for energy use and production? What is the bipartisan plan for health care? What is the bipartisan plan for dealing with the rest of the world? These questions can't be answered because there are no such plans.

If Obama should discover competent people who for God-only -knows what reason have designated themselves Republicans, then, of course, he should make use of them.  And if he's forced to accept flawed measures in order to get anything done at all, then he should do that too and pronounce them to be necessary compromises. But calling such measures bipartisan, when they are simply what they are, adds nothing to their utility.

A statesman in a democracy should say what he wants to accomplish, explain why he wants to accomplish it, and invite anyone, regardless of past behavior, to help him get it done. Forget about centrism and bipartisanship. Claiming to be cozy with either can only weaken a president's position.


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