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Is There Any Way Republicans Can Convince the Country That They Are Moderates?

In the war of words over Barack Obama’s presidency, one important asset for conservatives has been the ability to identify at least a few self-styled “centrists” to periodically support the standard Republican claim that Obama is a dangerous leftist who is recklessly expanding the federal government beyond any past precedent or reasonable expectation. Unsurprisingly, after the president’s recent jobs speech and his deficit reduction proposal, we are at a moment when conservatives are eagerly harvesting expressions of “centrist” dismay to complement claims that Obama has lurched dangerously to the left by promoting new fiscal stimulus measures and reviving demands for a partial rollback of Bush-era tax cuts for the very wealthy.

The GOP has found more than a few willing exemplars. David Brooks, that pillar of reasonable moderation who last made news deploring the radicalism of today’s conservative movement, has now returned to the GOP fold, anguished as he is that Obama has abandoned the “centrist Clinton approach” in favor of a Ted Kennedy-style liberalism. Nicely reinforcing this meme, Clinton family pollster and strategist Mark Penn has set off shock waves in the commentariat in accusing Obama of un-Clintonian “class warfare” by virtue of his championship of upper-income tax rates close to those that prevailed during the actual Clinton administration (which both Obama and Hillary Clinton pledged to restore in 2008). Mainstream journalist Ken Walsh of U.S. News closed the desired feedback loop by citing Penn, oil-and-gas industry serf Mary Landrieu, and her desperate red-state colleague Ben Nelson as representing a “centrist Democrat” revolt against Obama’s lurch to the left. It’s pretty meager evidence, to be sure, but it’s all bankable intellectual capital for a Republican Party trying to disguise its own militant conservative ideological trend as a modest reaction to Democratic overreach. 

But the ongoing conservative effort to “seize the political center”—not by occupying it with any centrist policy positions or willingness to compromise, but simply by asserting that Obama is the true radical—is being complicated by a parallel development: the insistence of hard-core Tea Party conservatives that the GOP object to every progressive policy initiative since the early days of the New Deal. 

From the very beginning of the Obama presidency, there has been a barely acknowledged tension between these two conservative approaches to defining the enemy. According to one narrative, the fine, honorable old Democratic Party has been captured by quasi-Marxist America-haters led by the bicoastal misfits Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank, and the Saul Alinskly/ William Ayers disciple in the White House. Certainly, this sort of argument has a fine pedigree in conservative circles, dating back at least to Ronald Reagan, who often described himself as a New Deal Democrat whose party left him behind when it lurched to the far left. And this funhouse mirror view of a Democratic Party gone suddenly and terribly wrong is made especially vivid any time a Clintonista like Mark Penn can be recruited to make the case that Obama is something new and frightening in American politics.

But the competing Tea Party/“constitutional conservative” view is that Obama is no better or worse than the socialist scoundrels who preceded him, and that the GOP must offer not just some return to the policies of a few years ago or even a few decades ago, but to a prelapsarian golden age when “job creators” walked tall and free and Washington minded its own, very limited business.

This more radical conservative vision has been embraced at one time or another by three of the four remaining viable Republican candidates for president—Perry, Bachmann, and Paul. It offers the White House a big, fat target in its frantic efforts to make this a comparative campaign rather than a referendum on the status quo. But aside from helping the incumbent define his challengers in an invidious way, it also affects the GOP’s ability to define Obama as a departure from familiar political norms. How many centrist validators like David Brooks will Rick Perry be able to attract if he can’t bring himself to repudiate the clear view expressed in Fed Up! that the abominations of the Obama administration are just another step down the road to serfdom first plotted by FDR? How many Clintonistas like Penn and Doug Schoen or Fox Democrats like Pat Caddell will be able to bring themselves to stop attacking today’s Democratic Party as an aberration from its proud past, and start attacking their own heritage and their own former bosses? Can Ed Koch, one of the heroes of the Republican victory in the recent special congressional election in New York, really keep asking the children of the New Deal to “send Obama a message” if it means saying Hoover was right and FDR was wrong? How, in short, how can Republicans seize the center if they treat the last 75 years of bipartisan policies as a monstrous perversion of American ideals?

Conservatives had better enjoy this period of supreme strategic flexibility, when they can simultaneously benefit from expressions of centrist dismay over Obama’s supposed hyper-liberalism while firing up the base with lurid fantasies of a return to the nineteenth century. For the sake of message discipline, they will eventually need to choose a clear and consistent image of Obama, and of themselves, and a presidential candidate who can convincingly convey both.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.