When historian Gil Troy began writing his latest book, Leading From the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, he feared the American idea of playing to the center was being lost in an age of polarizing, "my way or the highway" politics. But Troy says the United States is now facing a "moderate moment" that he didn't anticipate. As America lines up to select its next president, Troy calls for a muscular moderate, a leader who can compromise and build bridges while preserving core values. Troy, who comments frequently about the American presidency on television and radio, is a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center. In a recent chat with U.S. News, he discussed his new book and the current presidential race. Excerpts:
You talk in your book about how a successful president needs to unite the American people around a cause, as Abraham Lincoln did with the antislavery movement. Around what cause should the next president unite the American people?
In this election, there are three major issues, at least, that could galvanize society. The first is the fight against terror, the second is the energy issue, and a third could be a sense of American renewal. Here, at the best, we would have John McCain and Barack Obama channeling that Ronald Reagan capacity to make patriotic renewal and economic renewal reinforce each other. Are Barack Obama and John McCain moderates?
We currently have two people, two politicians, each of whom are talking about centrism in different ways. But they're both sort of going to the center. Right now, America is kind of facing this moderate moment. The aspiration for more moderation and for more centrism is a repudiation of the red and blue polarization in politics that we've seen. How specifically has Obama played to the center?
To me, it's not surprising that during the primary campaign, Obama talked about Ronald Reagan. Because while obviously in terms of policy they differ, the vision of being able to articulate a unifying theme for Americans is so important for a politician, and I think Reagan did it very effectively. It's a lamentable reflection of the hyperpartisan age in which we live that as soon as "Ronald Reagan" crossed his lips, all of a sudden Obama was deemed to be some kind of conservative sellout who was betraying the Democratic Party. And how has McCain sought a golden mean?
John McCain has approached his centrism in a very different way. I think that he won the Republican nomination by being the Republican who was most famous for deviating from party orthodoxy, the Republican who was most famous for tweaking George W. Bush. He is much more of a maverick centrist. In one of your blog posts, titled "Do We Need a Moderometer to Push for Centrism?" you acknowledge that moderates are frequently too reasonable and passive. In what ways has Obama been too reasonable and passive?
When the Jeremiah Wright issue came up, the kicker for Obama was when he felt sort of personally betrayed. It wasn't the betrayal of national ideals, the disrespect for the victims of 9/11—it wasn't a whole series of things. When it finally got personal, it was time to cut the ties. That was an example of him not acting quickly enough to stop the bleeding, to cauterize the wound. What about McCain?
With McCain, the softness that emerges is sometimes in the mushiness. It's hard to know exactly where he stands, let's say, on the challenge of the economy and what to do about the gas crisis. You write that "It is hard for anyone who loves America, and loves democracy, not to be moved by [Obama's] centrist, inclusive, nationalist vision. Whether he can implement it, of course, is the big question." What specific challenges would Obama face in implementing his vision if elected?
One of the great fears of Barack Obama is that he will emerge as Jimmy Carter II, someone who has lovely thoughts but a little bit too much naiveté. It's one thing for a president to come in on a white horse singing a beautiful song that the voters have embraced. It's another thing to get the Washington insiders to change their policy. Sometimes the more you critique from the outside, the less willing the insiders are to work with you.