Internal communications reviewed by The Daily Beast show that early this year the group No Labels, a centrist advocacy organization, contemplated a plan to kneecap Pelosi’s political standing. In one exchange, a top official with the group even laid out the pros and cons of turning the California Democrat into a “bogeyman.” …“We were trying to figure out, assuming we got a positive result [in the Lipinski race], which we did, what would be the comms strategy afterwards,” said the source. “Nancy Jacobson’s immediate answer was, ‘I want to make Pelosi the bogeyman.’ She wanted to make it all about Nancy Pelosi and how she was going after incumbent Dems. None of that was true.”
Jacobson also happens to be married to former Clinton pollster Mark Penn, who spends his time these days acting as a Fox News Democrat (i.e., a Democrat who appears on Fox News for the purpose of bashing Democrats) and writing op-eds attacking special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. The Democratic chair of No Labels is Rep. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.); according to the Intercept, Gottheimer has worked for Penn in no fewer than four different jobs dating back to when he was Penn’s assistant in the Clinton White House.
Though Penn’s actual role in No Labels is a matter of some dispute, as a nominal Democrat apparently determined to help the GOP whenever he can, he is an exemplar of the kind of cynical politics the group seems to embody.
But that’s a characteristic of centrism more broadly, since it can fairly be characterized as an ideology free of its own ideas. Centrism only exists in relation to the right and the left; if both of them moved in one direction, centrists would have to move as well. Unlike, say, a libertarian, a centrist has no fixed ideas; it’s not until you tell him what the right and left believe that he can tell you where he stands.
And in Congress, centrist Democrats in particular often seem to see as their purpose as less solving problems than making sure the solutions aren’t too progressive. You may recall how when the Affordable Care Act was being debated, centrist senators such as Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson seemed to luxuriate in having everyone beg for their vote, and would only release it once they acquired enough concessions to infuriate liberals. Lieberman in particular was centrist to the core; a few years before he had advocated letting people over 55 buy in to Medicare, but when he realized liberals liked the idea, he said that if it were included in the ACA he’d join the Republican filibuster and kill the entire bill.
That kind of thing is why being a centrist is different from being a moderate. A moderate may agree with liberals at some times and with conservatives at others; a centrist is more committed to the fantasy that our problems have easy solutions if we’ll just put aside our party labels and get together to “solve problems.” But the idea that there are non-ideological solutions to our problems, solutions everyone will embrace if only they can throw off their team colors, is just wrong. Not in every case, but in most of them. When we decide how our economy should work or how our health-care system should be set up or whether we should pollute the air and water, we have to make not just practical judgments but value judgments too.
And there’s a reason why liberals like me find centrists far more exasperating than conservatives do. Not only does the centrist position usually seem to be four parts conservatism to one part liberalism (look at the No Labels policy agenda if you doubt), but centrists take Republicans at their word when they’re plainly operating in bad faith. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a centrist organization whose goals usually just happen to dovetail with the Republican desire to cut entitlement spending, once gave Paul Ryan an award for his commitment to fiscal responsibility, despite his regular advocacy for deficit-increasing tax cuts for the wealthy. It was the budgetary equivalent of Henry Kissinger getting the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2016, No Labels thanked Donald Trump (along with a few other candidates) for taking its Problem Solvers Promise and proving how committed he was to solving problems.
So why is it that a bunch of centrists would be eager to depose Pelosi? Is she insufficiently problem-solvey? When she was speaker, she passed an unusually large number of bills through the House in areas such as health care, Wall Street abuses and climate change. Furthermore, No Labels hasn’t gone after intensely partisan Republican leaders such as Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Why might that be?
Maybe Pelosi is too effective. Maybe an ineffectual Congress is exactly what the centrists want, because then they can say that centrism is the only way out of the gridlock. I can’t say for sure, but I can say that Democrats certainly have no problems that the “problem solvers” can solve for them.