All the major news outlets and the whole blogosphere are buzzing with discussions of whether the country is center-right or center-left. Liberals like to point out that the center-right claim originates from conservative sources, while conservatives are busy burying the word "mandate" under as many columns as they can print. Left and right both hurl the phrase "govern from the center" at one another in a particularly hostile game of catch. Feeling threatened, apparently the right has decided now is the time to make threats.
Of course, it makes a mockery of language to say that the country is either center-right or center-left: the center is the center. If the country as a whole leans to the right or the left, the center moves. But the underlying question remains valid: Would it be a mistake to use the opportunities afforded by the new Democratic majority to pass decidedly liberal reforms and re-regulate the economy?
There is a crucial piece of context that this line of inquiry neglects: the reason Democrats were able to win such an impressive victory last Tuesday is that for the past eight years Republicans have not been governing from the center. Years ago, during Bush's first term, I complained to Ken Jacobs that the early 2000's reminded me of what he once described as the "nasty, overstuffed, airless, American fifties," because it felt so conservative. "Conservative?" he said. "Make no mistake: these guys are radicals."
Indeed. In fact, they were perceived to be so radical that the country elected one of the most liberal members of the Senate after having been warned repeatedly that he was a tax-loving, baby-hating, bank-crushing, terror-condoning socialist sent by God, Hugo Chavez and the Islamic Fascists to foment the end-times. (Or was it just a lack of coherent narrative that derailed McCain's campaign?)
And it isn't over. Bush is using his lame-duck period to continue to expand the war on terror and aggressively and perhaps irreversibly deregulate everything from environmental protections to labor laws. Having run fresh out of political capital, he's behaving like the proverbial teen with the credit card.
It would be nearly impossible for an Obama administration not to govern from the center. The reason? Bush and his ilk have dragged the country, kicking and screaming, so far to the right that it will take years just to get us back to the 50 yard line. That's good news for Democrats. Now all they have to do is make sure everyone knows it. However untrue, the perception that the country is moving to the left (as opposed to re-centering) could still be a problem come 2010 and 2012.
But for now, all of that is beside the point. The mandate Tuesday's vote established is not to move right or left; it's to fix this mess. If the Democrats do, it'll be a long time coming before Republicans can reclaim Washington.
Images: Presidential Election Cartograms created by Mark Newman. Top: 2004; Bottom: 2008.