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Are Centrists More Electable?

Written on Tuesday, November 29, 2011 by

John McCain

It used to be common for people to urge us to learn “the lessons of history.” But history gets much less attention these days and, if there are any lessons that we are offered, they are more likely to be the lessons from current polls or the lessons of political correctness.

Even among those who still invoke the lessons of history, some read those lessons very differently from others.

Talk show host Michael Medved, for example, apparently thinks the Republicans need a centrist presidential candidate in 2012. He said, “Most political battles are won by seizing the center.” Moreover, he added: “Anyone who believes otherwise ignores the electoral experience of the last 50 years.”

But just when did Ronald Reagan, with his two landslide election victories, “seize the center”? For that matter, when did Franklin D. Roosevelt, with a record four consecutive presidential election victories, “seize the center”?

There have been a long string of Republican presidential candidates who seized the center — and lost elections. Thomas E. Dewey, for example, seized the center against Harry Truman in 1948. Even though Truman was so unpopular at the outset that the “New Republic” magazine urged him not to run, and polls consistently had Dewey ahead, Truman clearly stood for something — and for months he battled for what he stood for.

That turned out to be enough to beat Dewey, who simply stood in the center.

It is very doubtful that most of the people who voted for Harry Truman agreed with him on all the things he stood for. But they knew he stood for something, and they agreed with enough of it to put him back in the White House.

It is equally doubtful that most of the people who voted for Ronald Reagan in his two landslide victories agreed with all his positions. But they agreed with enough of them to put him in the White House to replace Jimmy Carter, who stood in the center, even if it was only a center of confusion.

President Gerald Ford, after narrowly beating off a rare challenge by Ronald Reagan to a sitting president of his own party, seized the center in the general election — and lost to an initially almost totally unknown governor from Georgia.

President George H.W. Bush, after initially winning election by coming across as another Ronald Reagan, with his “Read my lips, no new taxes” speech, turned “kinder and gentler” — to everyone except the taxpayers — once he was in office. In other ways as well, he seized the center. And lost to another unknown governor.

More recently, we have seen two more Republican candidates who seized the center — Senators Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008 — go down to defeat, McCain at the hands of a man that most people had never even heard of, just three years earlier.

Michael Medved, however, reads history differently.

To him, Barry Goldwater got clobbered in the 1964 elections because of his strong conservatism. But did his opponent, Lyndon Johnson, seize the center? Johnson was at least as far to the left as Goldwater was to the right. And Goldwater scared the daylights out of people with the way he expressed himself, especially on foreign policy, where he came across as reckless.

On a personal note, I wrote a two-line verse that year, titled “The Goldwater Administration:”

Fifteen minutes of laissez-faire,

While the Russian missiles are in the air.

Senator Goldwater was not crazy enough to start a nuclear war. But the way he talked sometimes made it seem as if he were. Ronald Reagan would later be elected and re-elected taking positions essentially the same as those on which Barry Goldwater lost big time. Reagan was simply a lot better at articulating his beliefs.

Michael Medved uses the 2008 defeat of Tea Party candidates for the Senate, in three states where Democrats were vulnerable, as another argument against those who do not court the center. But these were candidates whose political ineptness was the problem, not conservatism.

Candidates should certainly reach out to a broad electorate. But the question is whether they reach out by promoting their own principles to others or by trying to be all things to all people.

To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His website is


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  • El Lobo Solo

    I say centerists are not more electable becuase as portrayed by the media, “today’s Left is tommarrow’s center”.

    Placating academia & the media is not going to buy us votes.
    In 2008, independents & so called mods got everything they wanted in John McCain but chose symbolism over substance.

    • Bree

      El Lobo Solo, you are brilliant! Symbolism over substance, very little of both if you ask me.

    • El Lobo Solo

      “More matter & less art”.

      NOW thats what we need in our leaders today.

    • Captain PJ

      Unfortunately, no one gets elected president of these United States without the majority support of Independents. This is a fact. And another fact is that Independents overwhelmingly prefer a candidate like Romney over candidates like Bachmann, Gingrich, or Santorum, etc.

      Romney doesn’t need the support of any editorial board of some New Hampshire Newspaper to win a general election…he needs Independents. And he’s got them…and more of them than Obama. Why do you think the Team Obama is going after Romney and not the other candidates?

    • MilitaryPatriot

      We don’t need a flip flopper. Romney is a flip flopper. He use to be a democrat and now he is a conservative right. You vote for him, you are replacing Obama with a water downed version of Obama. He is for the Health Care Plan, as well as other Obama take overs. You voters are going to make the same mistake AGAIN. Haven’t you noticed that the left, from the very beginning has been pushing Romney?

  • fliteking

    American needs LESS Centrists.

    • El Lobo Solo

      Centerists are as wobbly as a skunk walking down the center line of the road at night.

      Don’t laugh, it really happened. Had to bike home one night after work due to auto breakdown. Dark night, I saw the white line of the road moving!!!
      Got closer, it was the white strip of a skunk.
      Steered a wide path.
      PHEW !!!

    • MilitaryPatriot

      Love that. Got to watch those white lines at night. I will remember that next time I am on my iron horse at night. Good one.

    • Captain PJ

      I agree with everyone’s sentiments regarding Centrists. But we must come to the realization that we are in the minority. So is the far left in the minority. We, however, are making stronger gains than the left–the Tea Party movement is a perfect example of this. Although conservative Americans may outnumber far-left Americans, we are no comparison the the Centrists or Moderates. They are the majority…so right now all we can do is continue to argue our positions and hopefully more will come over to our way of thinking.

    • El Lobo Solo

      I still mostly remain undecided with the GOP line up still wide open. But we the people will have to decide soon & get solidly behind who ever the nominee is.
      All should be aware that the Trolls of the opposition party will be interjecting confusion when the opportunity arises.

      “Screw your courage to the sticking post”

    • MrInterpid

      There is an old saying here in Texas.
      There are only two things in the center of the road: White stripes and dead armadillos.

  • Gas Passer

    Centrists are flip floppers.

    • Bree

      Yes they are… All of them!!

    • El Lobo Solo

      They want to be close to the center so they can switch sides easier.
      As the wind blows.

    • Bree

      Good one El Lobo Solo! Lol I want to be on your team.

  • sergio

    Center is 0,nothing, if you are in center you are in nowhere,on the fence,that is not a position,that is what de Dems want the Reps be in center for,simple?

  • tod

    Dr.Ron Paul doesn’t flip flop Bree.

    • John Doe

      Dr. Ron Paul also isn’t a centrist.

  • Stan Lee

    When the call goes out for a “centrist” picture someone who tries being all things to everybody.
    The GOP made the mistake of running “centrist” John McCain,but it could have backed someone more dynamic. McCain was as motivating as watching grass grow.
    We (Republicans) must field a scrappy candidate who will attack Obama and the Democrats, not wait for Obama’s attack which will definitely come.

  • big papa

    If you drive down the middle of a two way road your just going to get nailed in the front and Rear.

  • Randolph Phillips

    Mr. Sowell makes very good points. And anyone who listens to most of those who argue for a “centrist” really argue either for the status quo, or for what the media refers to as “centrist”, which is not centrist at all, but rather definiably left of the middle of public opinion.

    Right now, I don’t think the public by and large have much use for the status quo.

  • Syl

    There is NO center anymore. It’s become a battle between Right and Wrong. Centrists are simply deal-makers with the devil.

    • El Lobo Solo

      Never get in a card game if the Devil is the dealer.

    • Bree

      Brillant El Lobo Solo, just brillant! Love it!

  • Xavier Pattonson


  • GiveAwayJimmie

    When one begins at the CENTER—how does one compromise on any position with the left—you don’t—they win.

  • MrInterpid

    Way to go Mr. Sowell. I read medveds article and wanted to puke immediately. Any body in this country who hasn’t made up their mind left or right is a moron that shouldn’t be allowed to vote anyhow. Independent my A@@. This country is to the right of center on almost everything. The left just keeps lying and cheating their way into office.