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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.

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