Move to the Center When the Center is Right


Refuting Fred Barnes is like shooting fish in a barrel, but in the course of doing so Brendan Nyhan raises a more broadly applicable issue—after Democrats lose seats in the midterms, Barack Obama is sure to be urged to “move to the center” to win re-election, but there’s little reason to think doing so would help him very much. The precedent of Bill Clinton’s post-1994 repositioning comes up time and again, but Clinton’s re-election can easily be explained in terms of the economic fundamentals.

I want to lay this marker down before the midterm not to bash the idea of moving to the center as such—I have centrist views on some issues—but simply because the world would be a much better place if Washington had a better understanding of the fact that trying to do a good job is actually a really good political strategy. What a President really needs to do to get re-elected is to preside over economic growth. Beyond that, you can do what you want, so you may as well try to do the right thing. It’s true that a handful of issues pit short-term macroeconomic performance against some longer-term issue, but this is generally quite rare.