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Monday, November 09, 2009

Fareed Zakaria: The Center Has the Cards

Fareed Zakaria in Washington Post:

The bottom line on last week's elections: The Republicans did well. Yes, these were a grab-bag collection of races with local particularities and low turnout. But notice that independents, who had shunned the GOP over the past few years, voted for Republican candidates in large numbers. And the overall results are consistent with a surprising trend across the Western world -- the rise of the right.

Imagine you had been told five years ago that a huge economic crisis would erupt, prominently featuring irresponsible financiers, and that governments would come to the rescue of firms and families. You probably would have predicted that, politically, the right (the party of bankers) would do badly and the left (the party of bureaucrats) would do well. But you would have been wrong.

It's not just the Republicans who are coming out ahead. In late September a conservative coalition swept into power in Germany. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy's party has considerable public support. In Britain, conservatives are poised to win their first national election in 17 years. Even in Denmark and Sweden, where social democrats usually win, the right is in power. Across continental Europe, only one major country, Spain, has a left-wing ruling party.

Part of the reason is that despite the economic turmoil, this is not a systemic crisis of capitalism. Few people seriously believe the answer to our troubles is a turn to socialism. But it is worth looking at the conservative parties that are thriving. Britain's Tory leader, David Cameron, calls himself a progressive conservative. Sarkozy argues passionately for tight regulation of the financial industry, with pay caps on executive bonuses and more. Angela Merkel staunchly defends the German social market system. In Europe, the right is firmly at the center.

The United States has always been one step to the right of Europe, but even here the center held. The Republicans who won did so by emphasizing mainstream issues and traditional GOP criticisms of Obama -- on spending and taxes. They did not espouse radical economic ideas or highlight their conservatism on social issues. When they did, it alienated voters, as in Upstate New York.

The post-Cold War political landscape was best mapped out by two politicians early in the 1990s. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair saw that the collapse of communism created a new reality. The dramatic left-right divide had given way to a mushier middle, with people converging on the idea of a market-based economy but with a substantial safety net. The electorate wanted not ideological clarion calls but competence. Clinton persuaded Americans to trust Democrats as stewards of public finances by empowering smart technocrats such as Robert Rubin rather than left-wing politicians.

Barack Obama's handling of the financial crisis has mostly been marked by such intelligent centrism. He eschewed calls from the left to nationalize banks, ignored criticism from scholars that the stimulus was too small and has largely avoided business bashing. In all these areas, the left wing of his party is dissatisfied, but the right has been defanged.

On health care, however, the story looks different. There are two great health-care crises in America -- one involving coverage, the other involving cost. The Democratic plan appears likely to tackle the first but not the second. This is bad economics and bad politics: The crisis of cost affects 85 percent of Americans, while the crisis of coverage affects about 15 percent. Obama's message to the country appears to be, We have a dysfunctional health-care system with out-of-control costs, and let's add 45 million people to it.

Americans see a health-care bill that has been produced by the old Democratic machine rather than the new Democratic technocrats -- more Lyndon Johnson than Larry Summers. It might be the only way to get a law passed, and it might please the party's base, but it will dismay independents. If costs skyrocket over the next few years, the Democrats will have squandered a hard-won reputation for economic competence.

When Clinton and Blair moved their parties to the center in the 1990s, conservatives were initially paralyzed, then responded by shifting even farther right to distinguish themselves from the opposition. In Europe the left has similarly been paralyzed or drifted toward radicalism. Things are still in flux here. But over the next few years, if the Republican Party moves decisively to the center, Obama would face the most serious challenge of his presidency.

(for any comments you should eMail Mr. Zakaria at comments@fareedzakaria.com)

Zoon Politikon)



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