Lieberman and the Shifting Center

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On “This Week” Joe Lieberman remarked that he didn’t leave the Democrats, the Democrats left him by moving further left. This is substantively accurate as the Democrats since Bill Clinton have definitely moved from interventionalism towards isolationism and from free-trade towards protectionism. There’s little to indicate that Lieberman has changed many of his positions since 2000 but he’s not exactly welcome in the party anymore.

That said, Ross Douthat of The Atlantic makes a solid point about centrists who get “left behind” during times of political change. He says:

[T]he American “center” moves around a lot (and varies wildly on an issue-by-issue basis), and thus a party that moves leftward or rightward on the hot-button issues of the day can sometimes find a new center that nobody realized was there. This tends to leave the inhabitants of the old middle – the Rockefeller Republicans in the ’70s and ’80s, and perhaps the Lieberman Democrats of today – flummoxed and out-of-step, unable to figure out that just because they’ve always considered themselves “centrists” doesn’t mean the American people will always agree with them.

While Lieberman’s independent victory in Connecticut two years ago indicates he’s not outside the mainstream yet, there is definitely far less room for liberal hawks in today’s political center. I’d say a Republican dove would find more room in the middle.

Centrist is a complicated label because the center shifts so often on so many issues. But the principle of centrism is to NOT shift just because the political winds change. Centrism is about making decisions based on facts and real-world situations rather than partisanship and power games. That, I think, is an excellent method of governance and leadership but it makes for piss-poor politics. Sometimes centrists do indeed represent the aggregate positions of the electorate, sometimes they sit well outside the opinions of voters or are only centrists on issues of no great consequence.

This is why I gave up calling myself a centrist awhile back and generally just go with “independent” nowadays. That’s the label Lieberman now uses too but it’s clear he’s still a little miffed at being left behind by the party that nominated him for the vice presidency just eight years ago. He shouldn’t be all that surprised. Sometimes getting left behind is the cost of eschewing partisanship.