Consider the Radical Center Before Voting


We had a dinner party last night. Over dessert the conversation turned to Presidential politics. Of the eight of us three were committed to Obama, three to Romney and two are still trying to figure it out.

One of our guests brought up a recent David Brooks column, which the guest described as embracing the “radical center”, as a way to look at what we really need. In the column Brooks states:

Moderates start with a political vision, but they get it from history books, not philosophy books. That is, a moderate isn’t ultimately committed to an abstract idea. Instead, she has a deep reverence for the way people live in her country and the animating principle behind that way of life. In America, moderates revere the fact that we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream — committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.

With that idea of a central view not wed to either party’s extreme doctrine, our little focus group grappled with what we could all agree on as the truth about where our country has been and where it should be headed. Here, in part, is where we ended up.

  1. When Obama took office the economy was on the verge of collapse. The subprime real estate collapse had ravaged the whole financial system with spillover into almost every major industry including Detroit. Once can certainly argue that we are still stagnating in terms of growth, jobs and economic equality. But the baseline for judging the current President is the disaster he was handed the day he was sworn in by the prior administration.
  2. If Obama was going to be the great uniter of parties and people, the decision to ram home health care along purely party lines was a huge mistake. It spawned the Tea Party and a massive national backlash. Oddly enough the radical nature of Tea Party activism has worked against the Republican party in terms of Presidential politics as the majority of voters see their extremism as dangerous.
  3. Obama for President the first time by calling out the war in Iraq as justified by weapons of mass destruction that were never found. One could have deduced from this position that as President he would pull back from armed conflict and focus more of our national resources on our own people. That has been far from the truth with the expansion of the war in Afghanistan. Whether we got Bin Ladin or not, no one can claim that the trillion expenditure in the Middle East has been a wild success at the very same time when our nation is falling apart at the seams.
  4. The very tenor of Presidential politics has been a disgrace. Watching Obama and Romney debate is quite literally like watching Kindergartners point fingers at each other over who started a recess fight. “You did it!”  “No you did it!” “Your lying!” “No, You’re lying!”
  5. It’s almost surreal to watch Sandy decimate the eastern seaboard while both candidates try to top each other in who is going to produce more fossil fuels. Global warming anyone?
  6. The idea that the Supreme Court will overturn the major social issues at play in the election is more unlikely than it once was. As was evidenced by Chief Justice Robert’s last minute switch on the health care case, the court is not in the business of creating laws. Sure Roe vs. Wade is a massively important case to both sides. Both to say that voting for Romney means that women will not have choice in the future is not as linear as the scare tactics would indicate.
  7. Immigration isn’t an issue that is going away.  We are rapidly moving towards a minority majority.  That is our history as a country and our greatest strength if we could just embrace it rather than succumb to the hypocritical pressure to characterize the most recent immigrants as subhuman.
  8. The biggest mistake made by the current Supreme Court was to allow unlimited money into politics.


How about we have a grassroots movement that is about dismantling the edifice of a two party system which is corrupted by money, stalled out in narrow ideology, and has proven again and again they can’t get anything done but fight with one another?

My recent reading has only convinced me of the depth of the problem. In the New Yorker I happened upon a profile of Jeff Connaughton, who started out as a staffer for Joe Biden and eventually became a very rich man as a partner in one of the only lobbying firms that had no problem working for either party (as long as the client had money).

I was also struck by the cover article in the New York Times Magazine about the stretch of railroad between New York City and Washington D.C., “Empire of the In Between.” The images are brutal in the deterioration of America. But what struck me was the opening for the piece, which tries to explain the high tech trains compartments that slip by hulking edifices of our economic failures:

The weirdness of this juxtaposition is hardly acknowledged anymore, because we’ve all had a few decades to get used to it. But for most of the 180 or so years of the train line’s existence, the endpoints of this journey — New York and D.C. — were subordinate to the roaring engines of productivity in between. The real value in America was created in Newark’s machine shops and tanneries, Trenton’s rubber and metal plants, Chester’s shipyard, Baltimore’s steel mills. That’s where raw material was turned into valued products by hard-working people who made decent wages even if they didn’t have a lot of education. Generation after generation, and wave after wave of immigrants, found opportunity along the corridor. Washington collected the taxes and made the rules. Wall Street got a small commission for turning the nation’s savings into industrial investment. But nobody would have ever confused either as America’s driving force.

This model was flipped inside out as Wall Street and D.C. became central drivers, not secondary supports, of the nation’s economy. Now, on its route between them, the train passes directly through or near 8 of the 10 richest counties in the United States, but all of this wealth is concentrated near the endpoints of the journey: Manhattan’s satellites in northern New Jersey and the towns where lobbyists and government contractors live in suburban Virginia and Maryland. This is a geographic representation of a telling contradiction. For the past 30-plus years, through Republican and Democratic administrations, there has been much lip service paid to the idea that the era of big government is over. Long live free enterprise. And yet in the case of those areas surrounding the capital, wealth has gravitated to the exact spot where government regulation is created. Why? Because many businesses discovered that renegotiating the terms between government and the private sector can be extraordinarily lucrative. A few remarkable books by professors at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business argue that a primary source of profit for Wall Street over the past 15 to 20 years could be what I call the Acela Strategy: making money by exploiting regulation rather than by creating more effective ways to finance the rest of the economy.

I am a life-long democrat but even I have to admit that while I will never agree with the radical right when it comes to gay marriage they are right when it comes to a government that is wildly out of control.


Image: Foreign Policy Blog

About Tom Matlack

Thomas Matlack is a venture capitalist.


  1. wellokaythen says:

    I’m curious to hear the Presidential model that Obama is being compared to. Who is this ideal president who never let party interests get in the way of his presidency? There has never existed such an animal. That’s a shame, but it’s not like Obama is especially divisive. Most candidates claim to be unifiers and claim to be above partisan bickering, but no one ever really is. I’m the one who wants what is best for the country, but my opponent is just being political. A lot of us Americans want to imagine that our politicians are not politicians, and then we get mad and disillusioned when they act like…politicians. It’s like a dysfunctional, abusive relationship — “maybe it will be different this time”….

  2. wellokaythen says:

    I totally sympathize. I like to think of myself as a sensible moderate who’s above partisanship, though I sometimes fail at it.

    But, Americans have been calling for politics to rise about partisanship ever since the days of George Washington, who warned when he left office that we should never allow political parties to form. (They had already formed by that point.) There is something about the two-party system that’s just embedded in American political culture. Politics in the nineteenth century were brutally partisan, in ways we in 2012 can hardly imagine. In fact, nowadays the country has an unprecedented number of nonpartisan voters. Voters are in some ways much less committed to political parties than they have ever been. We are still a two-party system, but in some ways not as much as we used to be.

    This reminds me of the complaint every four years about how outdated the electoral college system is. It’s inefficient, it’s corrupted, it’s out of touch with reality, someone ought to do something about it, and then another four years go by. Then, after four years, we all rediscover what’s wrong with it. Political commentators have been complaining about the electoral college for about 200 years as well. So far? No end in sight.

  3. Henry Clarke says:


    I agree with a lot of the points that you made. I also understand the motivation behind seeking common ground with your Republican friends and acquaintances. However, I just can’t bring myself to “make peace” with the Republicans in the same way.

    I study public finance, and can never forget the debt ceiling debacle in the summer of 2011. That was so unbelievably dangerous that it’s hard to believe that it took place without causing irreparable civil conflict. We almost brought the global economy crashing down in the midst of a deep slump all because of the superstitions of a bunch of right wing extremists who don’t know the first thing about economics or finance. Sadly, those extremists are called the Republican congress and they threatened to destroy the economy, putting not only their own fellow citizens, but nearly everyone in the world at risk. The American Treasury bond is the backbone of the financial system. Without it, the system would not function.

    It’s only been a little over a year since they did that. I am blown away every day by the calm and reasonable manner with which Obama has moved on from that extraordinary event. How are you supposed to react when one of your two political parties threatens to blow up the country? The uncertainty caused by that event caused lasting damage, shaving a percentage point off subsequent GDP growth by some estimates. How much better would the jobs situation be right now if they hadn’t done that?

    Maybe a few years from now I will be able to start considering the idea of “reconciliation” with these people. But considering the magnitude of what they nearly did, probably not.

  4. Nick, mostly says:

    Point #2 is incorrect on the history. The Tea Party was motivated by the bailouts, sparked by Santelli’s rant which fed into a general sense on the right that people were mooching off the system. Their real coming out party was on Tax Day, fueled by a Glenn Beck rally. Is our memory really so short that we’ve forgotten this genesis?
    As it has later been discovered, the Tea Party has not proven to be the fiscally conservative center-right party they claimed to be, but rather a rebranding of far-right culture war idealogues. On nearly every issue they are to the right of the Republican Party, including social issues. They also are more likely to believe Obama is a Crypto-Muslim or was not born in the US than Republicans on the whole.

    • AnonymousDog says:

      How do you really know what individual Tea Partiers believe? There has been a constant effort on the part of some on the left to brand the Tea Partiers as “extremists” as a way of pre-emptively de-legitimizing them and their viewpoint, without any real supporting evidence. It’s the leftwing equivalent of birtherism.

      • Henry Clarke says:

        Four words and an acronym:

        Debt ceiling, summer 2011, wtf.

      • Nick, mostly says:

        I never said anything about “individual Tea Partiers.” As a group, however, they exhibit the attitudes I describe. I’m sure there are some Tea Partiers who are pro-choice, believe that there should be a separation of church and state, and believe Obama is a Christian who was born in the Hawaii.

        You can claim it’s the equivalent of “birtherism” but unlike the completely unfounded beliefs of birthers, beliefs that run counter to all available evidence, we have actual surveys of people that tell us what they believe and what party they affiliate with.

  5. Tom Matlack says:


    I am totally with you pouring all that money into the wars in the Middle East. But unfortunately that has been both Republicans and Democrats at this point. I don’t think there is much of any difference between Romney and Obama on foreign policy. During that debate it was like the great agreeing society. Which made me want to puke.

    • The horrible part about starting wars, is any president who tries to end one is considered “weak on ________” (enter issue of the day here.) It took Nixon, a firm McCarthyite, to shut down the Viet Nam war and to reach out to China diplomatically.
      Furthermore, Obama said several times during the final debate that it was time for nation building at home and every time he said it on the CNN split screen, the male undeclared voters’ approval spiked dramatically. Romney seemed more concerned that we don’t have enough people deployed. (God help us all.) Independent voters skew toward a more isolationist foreign policy as do many Tea Party folks on the Libertarian side. Between them and the rest of us who are sick to death of these wars, we should be able to pull the plug and bring our troops home. And yet the wars remain a back burner issue. Why?

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