In the 1980s and 90s, Washington Post columnist E.J.Dionne, Jr. was a sensible centrist; a man who took conservatives seriously and often tried to comprehend what they were saying without animosity. In 1991, he wrote a book titled Why Americans Hate Politics. In 1996, just about the time Bill Clinton was set to run for his second term, Dionne was author of a book defending the “progressive” agenda, titled They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era. I reviewed the book for Commentary, and you can find an abstract of what I said here. (Unless you pay for it, the review is behind their firewall.)
Dionne had been, I argued, trying to find a “new middle ground” between contemporary liberalism and conservatism. To renew liberalism, he understood in the 1980s, liberalism had to rescue itself from irrelevance by learning “the many lessons that conservatism has to teach about the value of tradition, value, and community.” Of course he defended big government and a large public sector, but he had a great aversion to the political correctness of that era: multiculturalism, radical feminism and other “anti-democratic impulses,” as he called them. That is why, in an earlier book, he sought to save liberalism from itself.
By the eve of the Clinton second term, he and other former liberals ditched the term and began to call themselves “progressives,” a term they hoped would separate themselves from the fringe elements that used it. He hoped that Gingrich era Republicans would collapse, and that his Clinton third-way progressives would use government to “temper markets and enhance individual opportunities.” He did not envision the disaster Clinton experienced when his attempt to redesign health-care totally led to a great political setback and to a major defeat in the 1994 mid-term congressional elections.
And now here we are in 2010, when our most recent mid-term elections have led the Obama White House to suffer its major political defeat, one created by its social-democratic big government agenda and its insistence on ramming through a health-care bill that is one of the most unpopular and loathed programs by the majority of the American populace. Now, as in the1990s, the Democratic Party and its think-tanks are still, as I wrote in 1996, “locked into positions very far from what Dionne’s Anxious Middle could plausibly be said to want.”
So what does Dionne call for today? Writing in the WP, Dionne argues that he supports the fight of the so-called New Label “movement,” (1000 people in a university auditorium a movement hardly makes) in its effort “to be repulsed by the replacement of real argument with a vicious brand of name-calling.” Dionne is upset that Barack Obama “is attacked simultaneously as an ‘extreme liberal liar’ and a ‘Nazi,” which he says reveals “a sick irrationality at work in our discourse.”
As Peter Wehner points out today at “Contentions,” when George W. Bush was called during his presidency a “liar,” a man who “betrayed his country,” a president who “lied us into war,” a leader who “told lie after lie after lie,” all comments said by the likes of Al Gore, Harry Reid and Sen. Edward Kennedy, “Dionne, in an amazing feat of self-control, held his outrage in abeyance.” For some strange reason Dionne does not address, either those remarks were among the many he never heard, or he did not find them objectionable once he had heard them.
Of course, Dionne writes that he is still “devoted to moderation.” But the reason the kind of moderation he purports to like does not exist is exclusively because of the conservatives, since he claims that “the American right is much farther from anything that can fairly be described as ‘the center’ than is the left.”
Where does this man live? Of course we know that already. The answer is in the heart of the Beltway- among his “progressive” friends and allies, all of whom see only enemies on the right, and only friends on the left. Sure, Dionne claims- falsely and without evidence- that “there is no far left to speak of anymore.” One can only make such a claim, however, by pretending not to know anything about the far left milieu in which our President grew up to maturity and political activity. Perhaps that is why Stanley Kurtz’s important book Radical-in-Chief has all but completely been ignored virtually everywhere—in every mainstream publication and even by most conservative publications. If Dionne bothered to read and learn from it, I would argue that he would find the documented material in its pages evidence he could not ignore.
He must also ignore the effect of leftist groups and think tanks like International Answer, Code Pink, J-Street, MoveOn.Org; The Center for American Progress (oh yes, I’m sure E.J. would argue they are center moderate, and not leftist — I disagree), Institute for Policy Studies, Democratic Socialists of America, ACORN, SEIU, etc. etc. All of these and many more are active, organized, and at times quite effective. It’s simply easier for him to assert that there is no left.
Next he argues that even the groups that are left now reject state ownership of the means of production, accept markets, and even do not challenge inequalities of wealth and income. I don’t know who he is referring to, but I could pull out of a hat the many leftist groups that in fact, do exactly challenge inequalities of wealth and income as unacceptable, and favor redistribution of wealth through stealth means and via programs they advance through the Democratic Party’s allied institutions. No wonder the Left hates Glenn Beck so much; he manages to often accurately pinpoint just those groups and shows videos of their spokesmen — like Van Jones — arguing for precisely that.
Next, Dionne goes on to exaggerate and distort the message presented regularly by responsible conservatives I have often cited, like those who write for publications such as The Claremont Review of Books and The National Interest, and which include writers in particular like Yuval Levin, William Voegeli, Jim Manzi, Vince Cannato and scores of others. The conservatives I know who write for these publications on issues such as the budget, health care, the housing crisis and other serious problems do not want to get rid of Social Security, attack the entire New Deal welfare state edifice, and abolish the income tax. Instead of discussing the kind of serious thinking they and others engage in, Dionne attacks a group of straw men who supposedly favor extreme positions that even Ronald Reagan didn’t take.
That too is the old trick: Having bitterly attacked Reagan as an extremist and fascist when he was President (I have heard that from podiums from liberals more than a few times) they suddenly invoke his name as a responsible conservative so different from those who are active today. As for ObamaCare, Dionne does the same thing. Rather than address himself to the kind of criticisms that serious conservatives have made, he simply says it is a “middle-of-the road Republican” program from 15 years ago which is now somehow condemned “as radical.” Really? Please produce that health care program, E.J.
What Dionne really favors is a center-left and pro-Democratic agenda. He, like other liberals, progressives or whatever name these social-democrats prefer to use to describe themselves come up with, does not seem to realize that the United States is a center-right nation, and not a center-left one. That is why he prefers to call conservatives part of an “extreme right” and wants to “broker an alliance between the center and the left.” He even writes this after our country’s voters have seen fit to give the Republican Party a major victory in the midterm election. As Wehner notes, “Americans, by a greater than 2-to-1 margin, self-identify as conservative rather than liberal.”
By ignoring that fact especially, what E.J. Dionne has done is to show that he lives in an illusory world, in which he thinks that he and other social-democrats and socialists (let us use the more appropriate name for them rather than Dionne’s preferred “progressive” label) represent the real voice of the American people, rather than the one that has just spoken out so clearly. And as Wehner adds, Dionne actually supports Nancy Pelosi, a woman so extreme that she gets an 8 percent favorability rating among independents, and a 61 percent unfavorable one! Can Dionne really seriously maintain that Pelosi is a centrist moderate?
As for the recent No Labels event, Dionne acknowledges that “the few Republicans present were admirable people driven from their party by the right wing.” Sure, why else would Dionne call any Republican admirable? So he concludes that moderation only exists “on the center-left and among Democrats.” Since we have seen, and the country believes, that the left and the Democrats are anything but moderate, Dionne reveals that No Labels is a bogus movement — a confab of liberals pretending to be anything but what they are, in order to convince some gullible types to give them a hearing.
And I’m tired of everyone and his brother citing David Frum — a man I respect and consider a friend, although I differ with him on some questions and agree with him on others — as the only conservative every liberal and radical cites regularly as proof that every other conservative is an extremist. Dionne writes that Frum “was too quick to raise questions about Sarah Palin’s qualifications and dares to think that Republicans need to get serious about problems such as health care.”
Yes they do. And at the recent Restoration Weekend panel on conservatism, which you can watch or read here, I strongly came out against Sarah Palin’s candidacy, arguing that rather than gaining a chance to present conservative positions on the issues, she herself would become the issue. I argued that she could not win, and that it would be a disaster for her to become the Republican Party’s candidate. No one booed. I was treated respectfully, and aside from one member of the audience who came up to scold me and yell at me when the panel was over, I received many comments from those attending indicating support for my position. Indeed, one prominent conservative told me that he would not and could not vote for her if she became the nominee, even if it meant Obama might win. And this event was held at what many people consider a gathering sponsored by a hard-line “extremist” conservative group. So, E.J., David Frum is not the only one making that argument, and it is, actually, not so controversial.
So, the truth is that few will follow E.J.Dionne, Jr. in his call for a new group that will attack only conservatives — as he puts it, by reminding “us of how extreme the right has come” — and that will now seek to “help broker an alliance between the center and the left.” Who should we align with — the likes of the MSNBC crew Lawrence O’Donnell, who says that he is a socialist, (unlike Dionne) Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann? Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid? Is that what he seriously believes?
The fact is that, as Wehner correctly concludes, the only extremist is Dionne himself, a left-winger trying to pass himself off as a moderate man of the center. That is why the No Labels movement does not only look dead, despite Frum’s claim to the contrary, it is dead upon arrival. And for good reason!