Move to the center. That's the advice Republicans are getting from quarters friendly and otherwise. It seems to make a certain amount of sense. If opinion is arrayed along a single-dimension, left-to-right spectrum and clustered in the middle in a bell-curve pattern, then a party on the right needs only to move a few steps toward the center or just beyond to convert itself from minority to majority status.
But the world is a lot more complicated than that. Opinion is not arrayed on a single dimension, but flies all over the place in two or three or even four dimensions (which is to say it changes over time). New issues crop up, and old issues appear in a different light. Success in politics often comes not from readjusting one's stand to conform with current opinion, but in redefining what is at stake and reframing issues so that you have majorities on your side.
So I think Republicans today should be less interested in moving toward the center and more interested in running against the center. Here I mean a different "center" -- not a midpoint on an opinion spectrum, but rather the centralized government institutions being created and strengthened every day. This is a center that is taking over functions fulfilled in a decentralized way by private individuals, firms and markets.
This center includes the Treasury, with its $700 billion of TARP funds voted last fall to purchase toxic assets from financial institutions and used instead to quasi-nationalize banks and preserve union benefits for employees and retirees of bankrupt auto companies. It includes the Federal Reserve, which has been vastly increasing the money supply. It includes a federal government whose $787 billion economic stimulus has so far failed to lower the unemployment rate from where the government projected it would be without the stimulus package.
To govern is to choose, as John F. Kennedy said, and those in charge of these new centralized institutions are making choices that inevitably favor some and hurt others. Unsurprisingly, the politically well connected tend to get the favors. Banks forced to take government money are now blocked from paying it back and in the meantime must direct funds where the government wants them to go.
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