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The Carletonian

When Moderation Gets It Wrong

<r the last two years, in rhetoric and action, Washington has been strangely complacent in the face of crisis. The country has faced a stubbornly high unemployment rate, and a significantly worse underemployment rate, yet the government’s responses have suggested we are facing nothing of such magnitude. From an economic policy standpoint, much of this, I believe, is because of the obsession of more moderate politicians with being moderate for the sake of being moderate. Moderates on both sides of the aisle have acted like being a moderate means simply being in the middle of everything, rather than it being an approach that means acknowledging good arguments on both sides when they are made, not assuming that just because both sides have passionate arguments they must both be legitimate.

The stimulus was a good example of where moderation got it wrong. In particular, critics of the plan have been fond of pointing out the stimulus’ failure. They write that Americans, in the face of a “failed stimulus” and anemic economic growth, are getting ready to vote out Democrats because liberal policy has objectively failed. Yet, much of the reason the economy has not recovered is precisely because Democrats have not been allowed to do enough. People criticize the stimulus because the unemployment rate is still high, but this point distracts from reality. The truth is that the stimulus created the jobs it was supposed to. The problem is that the amount of jobs wasn’t enough; the economy was worse off than everybody thought.

Or was it? What has been revealing is the knowledge that the White House’s economic team, led by Christina Romer, wanted a stimulus of 1.3-1.4 trillion dollars, but that the political team, knowing they would need to woo congressional moderates, decided to lower the price tag. Centrists, in trying to balance the “government is good” and “government is bad” sides of the political system decided to do on paper what would seem to be the logical and moderate thing, which would be to pick a price tag right in the middle, so it doesn’t satisfy either side. The problem is that this is exactly where centrism and moderation doesn’t work. I consider myself a moderate and a pragmatist by most measures, but too often people become obsessed with moderation for the sake of moderation and do not take context into account at all. Moderates did this with the stimulus, and since the whole point of expansionary fiscal policy in a recession (a.k.a. Keynesianism) is that you CAN’T be moderate—it’s either all or nothing—the moderation was disastrous. You either believe counter-cyclical fiscal policy can boost the economy in a recession or you do not. And if you do, then you need to spend big, not moderately, because if you buy into Keynesianism at all, then you know that under-spending can be incredibly damaging and overspending cannot. With the stimulus, you either believe that approach can work or you believe it can’t, and if you believe it can, then you need to go the whole way. Moderates in congress didn’t get this and we’re paying the price now.
A real moderate says that some problems need government, and some do not. But since the right has made government inherently bad, the middle has ended up being a real hurdle to solving big crises, and not a needed voice of reason in a noisy debate. That means that in crises that do call for government action, the necessary action gets watered down. We don’t solve the problems like we could, and should. The “starving the beast” crowd on the right ends up looking vindicated, even though the real reason we’re in this situation is because government hasn’t done enough.

Part of this problem arose with President Obama’s obsession with bipartisan voting, not just ideology. During his campaign he promised to support good ideas, regardless of partisan orientation. As President, he has done this, but when he has seen initial congressional support being strictly partisan, he’s watered down his plans. This speaks to part of the liberal frustration with Obama. People like that he is willing to acknowledge when conservatives have a good point, but when he has formulated a plan after doing so, they expect him to fight for it. The common defense is that he has simply been an effective pragmatist, and while I buy the argument in many cases, it falls flat when one examines the beginning of his presidency.

An important distinction it seems he hasn’t made, and most moderates don’t seem to understand, is the difference between partisanship and confrontation. The problem is that the opportunity to take advantage of this distinction is rare. Obama had it at the beginning of his term and Bush II had it after 9/11. Because so much of the country supported and trusted him, Obama really did have the opportunity to come out firing, and the point is that it didn’t have to be the type of confrontational rhetoric that pins Republicans against Democrats. Rather, it could have been the type that frames those against his policies as against economic recovery, and his supporters as for economic recovery. He had the ability to unite a large majority of Americans in support of his plans, if he had fought for them. Americans trusted his judgment enough that just at the beginning, he really did have the ability to make good economic policy good political policy as well. His supporters are frustrated with him not so much because his policy preferences have not been “liberal” enough, but that it seems he has not even fought consistently for the policy preferences he does have.

-David Heifetz is a Carletonian columnist

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