The Tired Old “Both Sides Getting More Extreme” Meme

In my recent book and elsewhere, I’ve noted that the meta-narrative Republicans were promoting–and much of the MSM was echoing–during the 2014 midterms was that the Great Big Moderate Adults of the GOP had gotten the crazy extremist Tea People under control, and were ready to govern in a serious way that Serious People could appreciate. An important sub-narrative to the completely phony Republican Shift to the Center was that Democrats were moving to the left so fast that they’d probably start singing the Internationale at party events before long.

A lot of people who don’t completely buy the GOP Shift to the Center are happy to promote the false equivalency classic of Everybody’s Polarizing at Exactly the Same Pace. But there’s one species of observers who are deeply invested in the Democratic Lurch to the Left meme: Republican “moderates” who spend a fair amount of time criticizing their zany brethren and need an excuse to reassume the Party Yoke when elections come around.

Peter Wehner is one such person, and so he pens the classic so’s-your-old-man-and-actually-maybe-your-old-man’s-worse op-ed for the New York Times. Ignoring the fact that most actual lefty Democrats think Barack Obama is too much like Bill Clinton, Wehner’s case almost entirely depends on contrasting the noble centrist Big Dog (who, of course, conservatives denounced as a godless socialist when he was actually in office) with the left-bent Obama.

And it’s a really terrible argument. Exhibit one for Wehner involves Clinton’s support for three-strikes-and-you’re-out and 100,000 cops, as though they are the same thing, with Eric Holder’s de-incarceration commitment. Keep up, Pete: Clinton, along with two-thirds of the Republican presidential field, has called for a reversal of “mass incarceration” policies. It’s not an ideological move in either direction so much as a rare and belated bipartisan recognition of what does and doesn’t work.

Exhibit two is welfare reform, and aside from ignoring everything Clinton did on low-income economic policy other than signing the 1996 welfare law, Wehner blandly accepts the race-drenched lie–and he’s smart enough to know that it is indeed widely interpreted to be a lie–from the 2012 Romney campaign that Obama has “loosened welfare-to-work requirements.” Then he tries to pivot to a contrast of Clinton’s shutdown of the “welfare entitlement” with Obama’s creation of a health care entitlement–without noting that Clinton had a health care proposal that was distinctly more “liberal” than Obama’s. Pretty big omission, I’d say.

It gets worse. Wehner suggests that unlike Clinton Obama wants to boost taxes on the wealthy, which conveniently ignores Clinton’s first budget. Speaking of the budget, Obama’s fiscal record is contrasted with Clinton’s without noting that Obama inherited not only a huge deficit but the worst economy since the 1930s. Wehner makes a fact-free assertion that Obama isn’t as friendly towards U.S. allies as Clinton was. And in a telling maneuver, he suddenly shifts the contrast from Clinton-versus-Obama to Clinton-versus-Clinton in mentioning the dispute over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, where HRC has been “non-committal.” Well, the crazy lefty Barack Obama hasn’t been “non-committal,” has he? Yes, a majority of congressional Democrats oppose him on TPP. But a majority of congressional Democrats also opposed Clinton on NAFTA and GATT, and denied him “fast-track” trade negotiating authority. Plus ca change….

Nonetheless, Wehner stumbles on to his pre-fab conclusion:

The Democratic Party is now a pre-Bill Clinton party, the result of Mr. Obama’s own ideological predilections and the coalition he has built.

In the very next breath he acknowledges that on the one issue where the Democratic Party really has “moved to the left,” same-sex marriage, the country has moved with it (and the “pre-Bill Clinton” Democratic Party had to move as well). And then he leaps to the circular argument that Republicans must be better representing the “center” of public opinion, because they’re doing so well in midterms!

Well, Pete, guess you have to take the position that makes it possible for you to spend so much time calling out the crazy people of your party. But the facts are not friendly to your argument.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.