Centrism vs. Bad Orthodoxy vs. Good Orthodoxy

Beltway fixtures are auguring defeat for the too-orthodox:

The leaders of the Republican coalition know Romney will lose. But some would rather remain in control of a party that loses than lose control of a party that wins. Others haven’t yet suffered the agony of defeat, and so are not yet emotionally ready for the trauma of transformation. Others still simply don’t know which way to turn. And so the burden of change will be thrust on primary voters over the next few weeks. Romney is a decent man with some good fiscal and economic policies. But in this race, he has run like a manager, not an entrepreneur. His triumph this month would mean a Democratic victory in November. — David Brooks

Hillary Clinton is surely no Howard Dean. Furthermore, Michael Dukakis finished third in Iowa in 1988 and went on to be nominated (on the Republican side, both Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 got the nomination after losing Iowa). But an Obama victory in Iowa could be fatal for Clinton. It is believed in Democratic circles that Mark Penn, as the advocate of triangulation, would be the scapegoat, with Bill Clinton leading the trashing of the strategy that helped make him president. — Bob Novak

I’ve already gotten myself into defining-terms problems by using both ‘centrist’ and ‘orthodox’ as loaded words, but there does seem to be something final to the notion that a Romney/Clinton race (as opposed to, say, a Giuliani/Clinton race) would be a crushing Establishmentarian title match with all the shrill claims to decency and responsibility and counterclaims to the opponent’s inherent indecency and irresponsibility that come with it. But what’s the alternative — Obama/McCain? Arguably, a Democrat who’s getting inaccurate media criticism for running to the right of the most polarizing candidate in the field, plus a Republican who’s getting accurate media praise for running to the left of the supposed orthodox conservative, doesn’t necessarily equal a less centrist race. Indeed, in most significant ways I can think of without listing, Obama and McCain would fight a more conciliatory, more overlapping, more dignified, more unitarian race.

So possibly horror number one is that Establishment orthodoxy and centrism no longer mean the same thing; horror number two, following this dark tale, would be that neither Establishment orthodoxy nor centrism are viable political ideologies; horror three, that despite their inviability, competing forces in Washington (the party machines and the business machines, basically) refuse to abandon them, forcing both into an election that everybody knows was supposed to be about what to do after eight cumulative years of their exhaustion and failure.

But did the exhaustion and failure come about because of something mechanically wrong with ‘the system’? Or did it fail because of the character of its participants? And, if so, what would we expect, while we’re dreaming, from a race between the two most underperforming Establishment candidates in the field — Thompson vs. Biden? I, for one, would love a Thompson/Biden race. Two old, rich, supremely confident white guys who’d be dinosaurs if they didn’t wear their money so well. I’ll admit to you all right now that, simply on the merits of their political positions, I’d support Thompson as a Republican and Biden as a Democrat. And that’s really the primo factoid here — that the two guys who’d make for the most truly orthodox — as opposed to centrist — race conceivable also strike me as being most generally sane and tolerable when it comes to the way they’re running for President, and what that says about the way they’d be President.

Doesn’t this suggest something warped about our vision of orthodoxy? I submit there was nothing necessarily inevitable about the colossal failure of orthodox bipartisanship post-Lewinsky. We didn’t have to agree on the wrong policies — in Iraq, in health care, in education, and elsewhere. Individual political actors decided to go along. That reflects certain systemic pressures, but perhaps the only way to restore orthodoxy as something that’s not hopeless — and if it is, we’ll be locked in a permanent desperate optimism fix centered around sugarplum visions of abstract ‘change’ — is to hold orthodox politicians to personal account for letting system inertia do the work they won’t do.

I’ll add that I’m having an extraordinarily difficult time issuing endorsements as promised. I’ll try to get them out before the Iowa results, but I can’t make any promises. It’s not the who, but the why — as it should be, but, at least in my case, and probably for many others, that presents problems that haven’t come up in our active political lives. Yee-hah.

Crossposted at Postmodern Conservative.