Meanwhile, a quarter-century covering national politics has convinced me that the more pervasive force shaping coverage of Washington and elections is what might be thought of as centrist bias, flowing from reporters and sources alike. It is a headwind for Warren, Sanders, the “squad” on Capitol Hill, even for Trump. This bias is marked by an instinctual suspicion of anything suggesting ideological zealotry, an admiration for difference-splitting, a conviction that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it usually is.
A confession: I’ve got it. A pretty strong bout, actually.
Here’s the main reason it might be wrong: The most consequential history is usually not driven by the center.
As Bill Clinton began his second term, before the eruption of the sex scandal, he spoke frequently of his desire to be a national unifier, and, quoting Scripture, a “repairer of the breach.”
One skeptic was the great 20th century historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who knew and liked Clinton, but was deeply wary of middle-of-the-road politics. “Great presidents,” he told me, “are unifiers mostly in retrospect.”
In their own times, he noted, they divide the country over large questions—slavery, civil rights, the proper role of government versus the private sector—and only later “unite the country at a new level of understanding.”
There is usually historical context to even the most startling developments, if one climbs above the smoke of the nonstop Washington fire to see it.
As an illustration, let the mind go to an equivalent moment in the 1980 campaign. There was an equivalent cadre of Republican operatives and amplifiers in the news media stewing that the GOP might have a death wish—that beating Jimmy Carter should be simple if the party would nominate a sensible voice from the center like John Connally, Howard Baker or George H.W. Bush but instead might blow it by nominating a conservative zealot like Ronald Reagan.
The political and policy consequences of Reagan’s challenge to the centrist assumptions of that era still echo (with increasing faintness) four decades later.