The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s no such thing as ‘the center’

Over at the New York Times, Jonathan Martin has a front-page story titled, "Some Democrats Look to Push Party Away From Center." The examples he gives are Elizabeth Warren looking to lower the interest rate on federally subsidized student loans, Elizabeth Warren trying to restore Glass-Steagall's separation between investment and commercial banking, and opposition from "the left" looking to tamp down Obama's efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare as part of a budget deal.

This is a good example of the way the concept of "the center" has been completely hollowed out.

What unites the policies Martin names is that they're really, really popular. I don't think Warren's proposal to tie the interest rate on student loans to the interest rate the Federal Reserve offers banks makes a ton of sense, but then, "makes a ton of sense" isn't the point of that policy. The point of that policy is that it's really popular to say that the federal government shouldn't charge higher interest rates to students than they charge to banks. It's in "the center" of public opinion, you might say.

The same goes for Warren's proposal to bring back Glass-Steagall. Regulating the banks is really popular. Even breaking up the big banks is popular. Warren's proposal -- which is also supported by Sen. John McCain -- is aimed at taking advantage of that popularity. As New York magazine's Kevin Roose wrote of the bill, it's not legislation that would've prevented the last financial crisis. Rather, it's legislation meant to show that "on issues involving Wall Street, the center isn't where you think it is."

That leaves cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Along with raising taxes on the wealthy, making cuts to the social safety net is perhaps the most frequently polled policy question, and every poll comes back the same way: Cutting Social Security and Medicare is really, really unpopular. According to a recent Pew poll, 87 percent of those surveyed want to see spending on Social Security either increased or held steady, and 72 percent feel the same way about Medicare.

Martin's article doesn't define "the center." But it's not the center of public opinion. It's more a reference to an amorphous Washington consensus. Insofar as that concept ever made sense, the idea was that it's the legislative center, the zone of compromise where things can actually get done. But even that concept has begun to break down in recent years, as that Washington center -- what you might call the "Simpson-Bowles center" -- no longer holds any weight in Congress.

When you're judging policy, "good" and "bad" are descriptions that make sense. So are "popular" and "unpopular," and "likely to pass" and "no chance." But "the center"? It's time to retire that one, or at least come up with a more rigorous definition of what we mean when we use it.