David Brooks: "This campaign was about which party could reach out from its base & occupy that centrist ground. Democrats now control the middle."
There are two major political parties in America, but there are at least three major political tendencies. The first is orthodox liberalism, a belief in using government to maximize equality. The second is free-market conservatism, the belief in limiting government to maximize freedom.
But there is a third tendency, which floats between. It is for using limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility. This tendency began with Alexander Hamilton, who created a vibrant national economy so more people could rise and succeed. It matured with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War Republicans, who created the Land Grant College Act and the Homestead Act to give people the tools to pursue their ambitions. It continued with Theodore Roosevelt, who busted the trusts to give more Americans a square deal.
Members of this tradition have one foot in the conservatism of Edmund Burke. They understand how little we know or can know and how much we should rely on tradition, prudence and habit. They have an awareness of sin, of the importance of traditional virtues and stable institutions. They understand that we are not free-floating individuals but are embedded in thick social organisms.
But members of this tradition also have a foot in the landscape of America, and share its optimism and its Lincolnian faith in personal transformation. Hamilton didn’t seek wealth for its own sake, but as a way to enhance the country’s greatness and serve the unique cause America represents in the world.
Members of this tradition are Americanized Burkeans, or to put it another way, progressive conservatives.
This tendency thrived in American life for a century and a half, but it went into hibernation during the 20th century because it sat crossways to that era’s great debate — the one between socialism and its enemies. But many of us hoped this Hamilton-to-Bull Moose tradition would be reborn in John McCain’s campaign.
McCain shares the progressive conservative instinct. He has shown his sympathy with the striving immigrant and his disgust with the colluding corporatist. He has an untiring reform impulse and a devotion to national service and American exceptionalism.
His campaign seemed the perfect vehicle to explain how this old approach applied to a new century with new problems — a century with widening inequality, declining human capital, a fraying social contract, rising entitlement debt, corporate authoritarian regimes abroad and soft corporatist collusion at home.
In modernizing this old tradition, some of us hoped McCain would take sides in the debate now dividing the G.O.P. Some Republicans believe the G.O.P. went astray by abandoning its tax-cutting, anti-government principles. They want a return to Reagan (or at least the Reagan of their imaginations). But others want to modernize and widen the party and adapt it to new challenges. Some of us hoped that by reforming his party, which has grown so unpopular, McCain could prove that he could reform the country.
But McCain never took sides in this debate and never articulated a governing philosophy, Hamiltonian or any other. In Sunday’s issue of The Times Magazine, Robert Draper describes the shifts in tactics that consumed the McCain campaign. The tactics varied promiscuously, but they were all about how to present McCain, not about how to describe the state of country or the needs of the voter. It was all biography, which was necessary, but it did not clearly point to a new direction for the party or the country.
The Hamiltonian-Bull Moose tendency is the great, moderate strain in American politics. In some sense this whole campaign was a contest to see which party could reach out from its base and occupy that centrist ground. The Democratic Party did that. Senior Democrats like Robert Rubin, Larry Summers and Jason Furman actually created something called The Hamilton Project to lay out a Hamiltonian approach for our day.
McCain and Republicans stayed within their lines. There was a lot of talk about earmarks. There was a good health care plan that was never fully explained. And there was Sarah Palin, who represents the old resentments and the narrow appeal of conventional Republicanism.
As a result, Democrats now control the middle. Self-declared moderates now favor Obama by 59 to 30, according to the New York Times/CBS News poll. Suburban voters favor Obama 50 to 39. Voters over all give him a 21 point lead when it comes to better handling the economy and a 14 point lead on tax policy, according to the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.
McCain would be an outstanding president. In government, he has almost always had an instinct for the right cause. He has become an experienced legislative craftsman. He is stalwart against the country’s foes and cooperative with its friends. But he never escaped the straitjacket of a party that is ailing and a conservatism that is behind the times. And that’s what makes the final weeks of this campaign so unspeakably sad.