It is not easy being a moderate. Despite widespread grumbling that President George W. Bush was too headstrong and polarizing, both John McCain and Barack Obama were scorned this summer whenever they played to the center.
Reporters mocked McCain's "Macarena," sliding right then left, along with Obama's "policy pirouettes." When McCain insisted on reading the Supreme Court's Guantánamo decision before condemning it, conservative bloggers blasted his "tepid" response. Similarly, Obama's musings that by visiting Iraq, he might refine his position angered so many supporters he backpedaled quickly.
As a result, during their respective conventions, both nominees acted more conventional, sounded more partisan, and chose less centrist running mates. Even more disturbing: When the financial crisis hit, ideological adversaries, ranging from the Republican Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson to the Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, cooperated on a bailout plan, while both candidates initially made simplistic, demagogic comments scapegoating Wall Street rather than offering creative, visionary problem-solving proposals.
This descent into partisanship is destructive. America needs muscular moderates—nimble and adaptable but anchored in core values. We need presidents who think first and bluster later, who adjust positions based on often messy facts. Running toward the center to lead from the center is the right thing to do and the shrewd political move to make, especially with the contest so close and the issues so serious. Neither McCain nor Obama is a Johnny-come-lately to centrism—moderation is central to their political identities. Both appeal to independents disgusted by the perpetual fights pitting Fox News cheerleaders against MoveOn.org critics. Like most Americans, both candidates understand that crises in finance, healthcare, energy, immigration, and national security require thoughtful analysis, not shrill attacks, complicated compromises, not partisan sloganeering.Barack Obama first wowed Democrats as a lyrical centrist. The son of a white American and black African, celebrating a purple America, promised to heal the red-blue and black-white divides. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama crossed ideological wires, fusing the normally conservative critique of American cultural excess with liberals' faith in government. In 2006, Obama united five Democrats and three Republicans to raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards. Their bipartisan Fuel Economy Reform Act delighted environmentalists and manufacturers, as the government's tax incentives and flexible standards helped automakers cut fuel consumption.
John McCain is even better known for legislative bridge-building. From leading the "Gang of 14," breaking the logjam over judicial nominations, to spearheading the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, McCain has been one of Washington's most passionate moderates. That track record, plus his reputation as the Republican maverick, propelled his candidacy.
Historically, muscular moderates, not spineless centrists, inhabited the great American center. This moderation is rooted in principle, tempered by practicalities, anchored in nationalism, modified by civility. In the White House, it included George Washington's reason, calling on Americans to rally around their "common cause," Abraham Lincoln's pragmatism, focusing on union, not abolition, to keep the border states in the Union, Theodore Roosevelt's "bully, bully" romantic nationalism to inspire the people, Franklin Roosevelt's visionary, experimental incrementalism to solve the Great Depression, and Harry Truman's workmanlike bipartisanship in the face of the Cold War. On Capitol Hill, Henry Clay's tradition of great compromising inspired the roll-up-your-sleeves horse-trading of Sens. Bob Dole and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose bipartisan "Gang of Seven" saved Social Security in 1983.
Presidents preside most effectively over this diverse country by singing a song of centrism rather than shouting partisan slogans. Using slim majorities to impose radical changes violates the implicit democratic contract between the leader and the people. Great presidents aim for the center, targeting the popular bull's-eye, sometimes after repositioning it.