I’ve written here before about “the centrist dodge,” the rhetorical magic act regularly employed by commentators who mostly agree with Dems on major issues, but need to obscure this fact in order to maintain their pose as floating above the partisan fray.

There are various ways of accomplishing this. You can call for a third party, even though the positions you want that third party to adopt are broadly held by Dems. You can pretend that Obama and Dems haven’t proposed the things they have, in fact, proposed.

Then there’s a third trick: Claim that you speak for swing voters, and that whatever the truth about GOP extremism these days, those voters (whatever their positions on actual issues) may well be equally turned off by the aggressive populist tone of Obama and Dems.

Case in point: Bill Keller’s big Op ed piece today. He manages to acknowledge that Mitt Romney has lurched far to the right during the GOP primary, while simultaneously claiming that the real Romney is more “ideologically attuned” than Obama is to the “middle.” How do we know this? That recent Third Way poll is all we need! Obama’s new populist tone will thrill the “orthodox left” but will inevitably prove too “partisan” for the aforementioned “middle”:

In the Democratic Party, a battle for Obama’s teleprompter is now under way between the moderates and the more orthodox left. The president sometimes, as in his last two State of the Union addresses, plays the even-keel, presidential pragmatist, sounding themes of balance and opportunity. Then sometimes lately he sounds more as if he’s trying out for the role of Robin Hood.

The problem isn’t that the Buffett Rule is necessarily a bad idea. It isn’t that “social Darwinism” is a slander on Republicans. (Heck, it may be the only Darwinism Romney believes in.) The problem is that when Obama thrusts these populist themes to the center of his narrative, he sounds a little desperate. The candidate who ran on hope — promising to transcend bickering and get things done — is in danger of sounding like the candidate of partisan insurgency. Just as Romney was unconvincing as a right-wing scourge, Obama, a man lofty in his visions but realistic in his governance, feels inauthentic playing a plutocrat-bashing firebrand. The role the middle really wants him to play, I think, is president.

I don’t know how to gauge whether swing voters want Obama to play the role of “plutocrat-bashing firebrand,” since that’s a pretty overheated description of what Obama is actually doing. I do know, however, that many polls have actually tried to measure where Americans stand on the positions Obama has taken, and the overall critique of inequality and the tax code he has offered, while playing the ”plutocrat-bashing firebrand” role Keller finds so distasteful.

The polling can be found in Keller’s own paper. A recent New York Times poll found that 52 percent of Americans, and 55 percent of independents, think capital gains and dividends should be taxed at the same rate as ordinary income. It also found that 55 percent of Americans, including 58 percent of independents, think the wealthy pay less than their fair share in taxes. In other words, the “middle” agrees that the tax system is unfair.

Indeed, a recent Post poll found that a majority (52-37) sees the unfairness of the economic system as a bigger problem in this country than overregulation, a regular Romney target. Independents agree, 50-39; moderates, 57-36. That’s a bit surprising, given that Romney is supposedly more attuned than Obama to the “middle.” Meanwhile, moderates and independents support raising taxes on the rich in poll after poll after poll after poll after poll.

It’s unclear why all that polling from major news orgs is far less relevant than a single advocacy poll by Third Way to someone who is purporting to speak for millions and millions of swing voters.