Left, right, and center; progressive, liberal, and conservative; all terms that I’ve been more or less familiar with throughout most of my adult life time of nearly 60 years.
My earliest memories of liberal and progressive date from the presidential elections of 1940 and 1944 when my father was actively promoting President Roosevelt’s conservative opponents Wendell Willkie and Tom Dewey. In my father’s eyes, and in the eyes of his first 8 and then 12 year old second son Roosevelt’s New Deal was a wrong left turn in the history of our country.
It seems to me now that presidential elections, at least the ones that I have experienced, have nearly always been won by democrats or republicans who most effectively positioned themselves in the center, in the mainstream of the electorate.
In most every instance the winners hadn’t allowed themselves to be captured by the single designation liberal or conservative. I think of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H Bush, and Bill Clinton.
The conservatives Tom Dewey and Barry Goldwater, and the liberals, Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis all lost badly.
There was only one exception to this rule, the election of 1980, when the conservative Ronald Reagan handily beat the centrist Jimmy Carter. Perhaps this was because Carter’s politics were not well understood by the electorate.
Now we’re over one month into the presidential election of 2008, and the candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, are both trying to take the center, to position themselves in regard to the issues in ways that don’t permit liberal or conservative pigeon holing. Neither one wants to be a failed liberal or conservative candidate.
Their moving aggressively to the center ought to have been expected. It shouldn’t have surprised. But that is not what happened. On the one hand Obama has, to say the least, riled his supporters on the left, the ones who were most with him at the start of his campaign.
On the other hand, McCain has not gained by his moves the support of the conservatives in his party on the right, the very ones who were loudly against his candidacy to begin with and who have not yet in large numbers come out in his support.
But that’s alright. The battle between them is right where it should be, right there in the center. McCain has wisely pushed the hotest button conservative issues, abortion, same sex marriage, and I’m sure if he could, gun control and immigration, back onto the states.
McCain has even made a not unreasonable claim for his candidacy as being closest to that of the 26th. president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was both a progressive and a conservative, and McCain would be the same. Progressive in his views on immigration and government help for those who need help, and conservative on defense and economic issues.
Only in regard to his age will it be hard for him to push the Roosevelt comparison. Teddy Roosevelt at age 42 was the youngest president to assume the office. McCain at 72 would be the oldest. In regard to life experiences they are an entire generation apart.
Obama is most often compared to John Kennedy and Abe Lincoln. The three of them were or would be among the youngest presidents, but even more than their respective ages they are close in the way they seemed to burst upon the political scene, the way they took the country by their strength of character and by their eloquence.
They were not ordinary politicians. Liberal and conservative were not sufficient or appropriate designations. In each case something else was needed in order to understand their exceptional qualities.
We don’t yet know whether Obama will, if elected, be compared favorably to Lincoln and Kennedy. But he definitely holds out that possibility.
Ultimately this election is interesting because it cannot be reduced to the left vs the right, the liberal vs. the conservative. McCain and Obama, for very different reasons, both seem to understand that. Whoever occupies the most ground in the country’s political center will win. At the moment it seems to be a toss-up.