David Rothkopf

A roadmap to the center

Mike Barnicle, who is to "Morning Joe" what Uncle Joe was to "Petticoat Junction," today asserted that President Obama’s recent tax deal signified a shift to the center. Since Barnicle also spent considerable time touting his love of the Boston Red Sox, we probably should not be surprised that he is confused about other matters ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Mike Barnicle, who is to "Morning Joe" what Uncle Joe was to "Petticoat Junction," today asserted that President Obama's recent tax deal signified a shift to the center. Since Barnicle also spent considerable time touting his love of the Boston Red Sox, we probably should not be surprised that he is confused about other matters as well. But I couldn't help but wonder when I heard the statement about Obama whether the time had actually come that we needed to start drawing people diagrams to help them find the center.

Perhaps it is due to the way Washington twists and distorts everything. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I started to realize that in the perverse world of U.S. politics, there is not just one center. There are, at least, three.

There is the expedient center. This is the one Barnicle was talking about and the one that makes partisan purists spit. (For more on this, see Keith Olbermann. Lord knows, I can't bear to watch his histrionics any more. But you might find it illuminating or weirdly fascinating, anyway.) The way you find this center is you take the extremes and you split the difference between them. This is the center about which Descartes might say, "I compromise therefore I am."

Mike Barnicle, who is to "Morning Joe" what Uncle Joe was to "Petticoat Junction," today asserted that President Obama’s recent tax deal signified a shift to the center. Since Barnicle also spent considerable time touting his love of the Boston Red Sox, we probably should not be surprised that he is confused about other matters as well. But I couldn’t help but wonder when I heard the statement about Obama whether the time had actually come that we needed to start drawing people diagrams to help them find the center.

Perhaps it is due to the way Washington twists and distorts everything. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I started to realize that in the perverse world of U.S. politics, there is not just one center. There are, at least, three.

There is the expedient center. This is the one Barnicle was talking about and the one that makes partisan purists spit. (For more on this, see Keith Olbermann. Lord knows, I can’t bear to watch his histrionics any more. But you might find it illuminating or weirdly fascinating, anyway.) The way you find this center is you take the extremes and you split the difference between them. This is the center about which Descartes might say, "I compromise therefore I am."

Then, there is the money center (also known as the rich dark chocolaty center or the creamy nougat center or just as the delicious candy center). This is the center where big time donors live. Watch closely and you’ll see plenty of behavior, including likely upcoming White House appointments, that show they are acutely aware they may have alienated this group during the past couple years and they want them back. The money center is, of course, Wall Street and shifting to this center means adopting policies that are calculated to open their wallets come campaign time. These policies tend not to be made on a left-right spectrum but rather on a top-to-bottom scale and they always benefit the top. (Or in the case of the estate tax provisions in the current deal, the tippy tippy top.)

Both of these groups are odious to wingnuts. But neither is truly dangerous to them because from time to time, their interests overlap. However, there is one center they really fear: That’s the principled center.

It’s also known as the independent center. It is not found halfway between left and right but rather off that scale altogether. It is a place where decisions are made free of partisan distortions and special interest emoluments. It is a place where right is what you try to be and not a reflexive, dogma-driven political orientation.

If you want to get a sense of what the independent center looks and sounds like, listen to yesterday’s remarks by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor is controversial but has been, by any measure, highly effective and dependably independent. He understands business. He understands politics. Most importantly, he understands how to get things done. It is a bit of a paradox that a billionaire from Wall Street is the politician in the United States today who may well be the biggest threat to the political establishment. (On the other hand, being beholden to no one makes independents a lot more comfortable. For those who depend on establishments, it is often a luxury they can’t afford.)

As for Obama’s decision, it may be a move to the expedient center or to the money center or both. It is certainly not a move to the independent center. For the United States to layer on another $1 trillion in debt at this juncture is obscene. Were the money to benefit those truly in need or to provide a true stimulus that might restart the economy and later make it easier to pay down existing debt, that might forgive the move. But first of all, we have lived with these tax cuts for a decade and it is the first decade in memory when we are negative on job creation (through good times and bad). Secondly, the provisions for the richest Americans will have zero impact on their spending and are unlikely to do much to stimulate anything except their sense they have the game rigged. Further, not only do they know it is bad for us but they act accordingly. See today’s Financial Times lead story, "US Treasuries hit by biggest sell-off in two years as capital costs soar." The tax deal may fill a few pockets but it is not filling the markets with confidence. Certainly, the deal on raising the amount that can be inherited tax free from $7 million a couple to $10 million was entirely unnecessary.

No, this deal was expedient. It was also yet another case of this administration’s problem ailment: premature capitulation. It may well have been caused in part by the political toughness and hypocrisy of the Republicans (calling for fiscal responsibility and tax cuts for millionaires) or by the desire to play to the base on the left (union support for extending unemployment benefits and for middle class tax cuts). It may therefore be seen as being halfway between political extremes … but its consequence is only to unnecessarily and irresponsibly deepen our debt without any assurance at all that it will stimulate the economy. (Despite new White House claims that without it we risk double dip recession. Where was the White House on this prior to this week?)

If both parties continue to produce legislative and fiscal sausage the way they produced this deal, then there will be many Americans who won’t need a map to find their way to the principled center should a candidate emerge who claims that ground. Mike Bloomberg might well be that candidate and come 2012, especially were he to run on a platform of staying for just one term to maximize his independence, he might offer the United States a long-overdue and welcome timeout from a two-party reality that is both broke and has made us broke.

PS: Ok, well, given this news which broke after I wrote this post, perhaps what I meant to suggest was that someone like Mike Bloomberg should run …

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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