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The Centrists Strike Back

THE DAILY REFORMER (NEW YORK, UNITED STATES)

“It’s killing us,” Congressman Vicente Gonzalez told his compatriots last week on an all-hands call, it being “defund police,” “open borders,” and “socialism.” 

“I had to fight to explain all that,” Gonzalez said, in comments first uncovered by the New York Times. Gonzalez’s story is a microcosm of the last election— Democratic failure to win Texas, and Democratic dip with minorities, chiefly Hispanics. It’s becoming more and more a refrain on the left: that 2020 was a successful decapitation strike — the removal of Donald Trump from office — but it was little else. 

“Discord over blue wave’s crash,” blares the Los Angeles Times on Monday morning.  

Yet, if buzzkill reigns among progressives, paranoia pervades the Trumpist right. The news Monday of a second apparent vaccine — this one, from Moderna, even more effective than the one rolled out by Pfizer last week — is unlikely to set this set’s minds at ease. The nationalist right saw Trump as bulwark against an undaunted age of internet censorship, transgenderism, you name it. For his fans, that absolutely everything, suddenly went wrong for President Trump is likely to sting for years.

In essentially eight months, a Coronavirus came from China, conspicuously some might say— the focus of Trump’s foreign policy. The lockdowns he initially championed, when collided with the latest national outrage over the police, helped lead to political shock troops, in the form of protests, in the streets. They demanded his removal; voters made it happen. And now, counterfactuals about the timing of the vaccine announcements — to say nothing of the ongoing, factional concern about alleged voter irregularities — are likely to contribute further to the stormy mood on the right. 

So, smiling are the centrists.

After four years of discussion of would-be, celebrity politicians in the mold of Trump — from the imagined campaign of Dwayne “The Rock” to the all-too-real 2020 effort of Kanye West — the year ended with the triumph of the old man of the game, Joe Biden, a creature of Washington. Trump won in 2016 by pillorying his party’s consensus. Biden won in 2020 by emphasizing how little he ever deviated from it. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may be backing Trump’s right to legally challenge the election, but he’s plainly moving forward without him. McConnell has already milked the heterodox Republican Trump for serious, Reaganite tax reform and court-shaping legacies. McConnell was chipper the day after the election, hailing his party’s better-than-expected performance with minorities, suburbanites, women and the college-educated. Come February, he will be the leader of the party, and if the GOP holds the Senate, de facto the most powerful Republican in Washington, amidst divided government.  

House leadership races, as recently as a few years ago, used to be close-run, highly ideological affairs. It was the place of “revolution.” Conservatives forced John Boehner from the Speaker’s office; Nancy Pelosi was routinely, if vaingloriously challenged. But now the pendulum has seemingly swung the other way. Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy are expected to easily remain on top of the heap in member voting this week. It was only in 2015 that McCarthy was forced from the Speaker’s race; the hardliners smelled a squish. And it was only three weeks ago, before the election results, that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez refused to commit to backing Pelosi. Expect her to vote quietly “yes” this week. 

McCarthy says the election results were a “mandate against socialism” and he guarantees a House GOP majority in 2022. Maybe he’s on to something. The year of pandemic, which was supposed to demonstrate the need for collective action, delivered referendum results that were the stuff of a libertarian fever dream. There was near-total drug decriminalization in Oregon and further liberalization in New Jersey, the District of Columbia, and elsewhere. Lyft and Uber won in California. Dead-ender affirmative action did not. Perhaps only in Florida, where voters dispensed with a miserly minimum wage, was the invisible hand slapped down.

Yet, the current, apparent snapback from radicalism may only be the eye of the storm. Time will tell if this is only a temporary triumph of the “2015ers,” as liberal activist Matthew Stoller calls them, that is, those pining for the time before the age of Trump. The 45th president was no hallucination, nor was the tandem rise of Bernie Sanders. And the trouble with the centrism of the before times was maybe it wasn’t all that moderate. Free trade absolutism, ambivalence toward the nation’s industrial heartland, naivete toward China, the forever war in Afghanistan, the idea of cyberspace as panacea, to name a few precepts, are no longer so modish. 

If the center, indeed, is going to hold, its proponents will have to shift their weight.  

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