Where is this "center" nearly everyone in America wants to stand on, at least by the accounting of the commentators and political pros striving to figure out the next two years?
Is it over there -- this center -- where Barack Obama has his feet planted? The jobs center, the investment and competitiveness center? The center marked by "common ground" where we all meet, have a beer or a Slurpee, and bury our hatchets for the sake of "tomorrow"?
The president's re-election agenda -- and that of his new advisers -- seems to point that direction, and one can easily enough see why. The old agenda, the agenda of more and more and more government, worked until the voters took the votes away from some of the main implementers of said agenda. Obama's task for the next two years is to beckon his countrymen toward a new and, as he will constantly assure us, higher ground where all work and earn and save together.
The myth of the center is going to be big stuff in 2011 -- and possibly into 2012 -- the reason being that the center, as defined by those who say they occupy it, is the place where cooperation and sweet reason reign. Who's against cooperation?
It depends on why we're being asked to cooperate and on what we hope to achieve by accepting the invitation. It's possible to cooperate in behalf of the expansion of human freedom; it's possible to cooperate in behalf of freedom's extinction. You have to pick and choose. "Beware of centrists bearing gifts" is a vital watchword for this election season.
A lot of rhetorical footwork takes place at moments such as this one, with presidents and politicians positioning themselves linguistically to reach the widest possible audience -- widely viewed as clustering around the center. The idea is that's where the votes are. It's a facile argument all the same. Votes often do cluster around the center. So, occasionally, do ideas -- too often the wrong kind of ideas, bland, tepid, half-formed, indecisive, neither one thing nor the other, resembling the ideas and behaviors of the Laodiceans as characterized in Revelation: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot." At least you'd know what to expect next and how the results might turn out.
The aphorism concerning politics as the art of the possible is a real-world take on the general inevitability of compromise in the shaping of legislation. When two sides hammer at each other persistently enough, there tends to occur a receding on both sides from first principles. Better to get something done than nothing, right? "Better to get it done right" happens to be the right answer -- one that conservatives failed to utter with sufficient persistence during the health care debate (such as it was) of 2009-10.
The idea isn't to find the exact middle ground. The idea is to define the main idea -- more or less regulation, more or less spending -- in such a way that it prevails in the end, as did ObamaCare, for all the administration's ungainly efforts to explain why we were supposed to do things its way.
The opening of the new Congress provides Republicans with an interesting opportunity, namely, to take a few fundamental principles, among them human freedom, and explain -- not worrying about being called "right-wing" or just "nuts" -- why those principles should prevail.
To go into such a discussion expecting to shed half your principles for the sake of being patted on the head by the media and referred to as "reasonable" or "responsible" defeats a central purpose of politics, namely, to demonstrate the worth and desirability of idea A over idea B.
The president whose 100th birthday we mark on Feb. 6 -- Ronald Reagan -- knew the limits imposed by practical politics. He had goals nonetheless. His idea was to march as far toward those goals as possible -- to pause, if he had to, but then to keep going and then to know when he arrived.
It's one of many reasons a largely grateful electorate marks his 100th birthday.