A diary over at dKos got me thinking about what it means to be a moderate, and what has happened to the whole idea of political moderation.

In 1964, five years before I was born, Barry Goldwater made an infamous and damaging comment at the Republican National Convention. He said, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

Lyndon Johnson had a potent retort, “Extremism in the pursuit of the Presidency is an unpardonable vice. Moderation in the affairs of the nation is the highest virtue.”

It’s a growing meme that the re-election of George W. Bush marks the final triumph of Goldwaterism. In many ways, I think this meme is a pile of crap. Goldwater was caricatured by the Democrats during the 1964 campaign, and his legacy has been similarly distorted and co-opted ever since. George Will actually had the temerity to say that Giuliani and Schwarzenegger’s 2004 convention speeches marked the return of ‘Goldwaterism’. George Will is a reliable idiot. Whether the current crop of Republicans owes anything to Goldwater’s political philosophy or not, the debate over moderation is alive and well.

Many of us are nostalgic for the days when moderation in the affairs of state was considered a virtue. We are not predisposed to be radical, intemperate, or overly partisan. And yet, that is exactly how we feel in the current political climate.

We feel marginalized, threatened, condescended to, angry, bitter, and in no mood for reaching for consensus. And we’re right to feel this way.

And that got me thinking about what it means to be a ‘moderate’. What does ‘moderate’ mean in a political context?

‘Moderate’ should mean that you believe in the two party system, that you think sanity lies near the center of both parties, and that the ideal government involves a broad cross-party center that does most of the work of building consensus, making compromises, and hammering out the details of legislation.

But we’ve lost that cross-party consensus, and while Iraq is not the only issue the blew it up, it was the biggest factor. In fact, longtime moderates like Biden and Kerry were swept up in the meat-grinder that destroyed moderation, and the validity of moderation. Once they realized that we were going to war in Iraq, they did the time-honored thing that moderates do. They tried to make the best of it. They tried to reach out to the UN, they tried to get Colin Powell to moderate and modulate the alienating rhetoric coming out of the White House and Pentagon. They tried to be patriots, in their own way. They were not rewarded.

The Bush administration ignored all the helpful advice that came from moderates in Congress, the State Department, the CIA, the salons of Washington and New York, and the pen of Tom Friedman. And the effect of this alienation was to destroy any consensus, or any middle, about what the ‘War on Terror’ means, why is should be fought, how it should be fought, or even whether it should be fought.

The fact that Iraq has been a complete disaster has had the effect of discrediting any moderates on the left who attempted to work on the ‘project’. And now, in return for their ill-fated cooperation on the biggest foreign policy initiative in two generations, they have been paid back with a list of nominees for our most important national security posts that most Democrats think should be in jail. Look at the list: Negroponte, Rice, Bolton, Chertoff, Gonzales, and Goss.

When a man like Dick Lugar tries to ram home a man like John Bolton, you know that there is no longer any room in the Republican Party for independent thought. They want to crush their opponents, humiliate them, irritate them…

Whatever Goldwater’s faults, this does not strike me as his legacy. His legacy, ironically, is that it is now we, on the left, that see no virtue in moderation. We see only resistance. We do not see ourselves as extremists, but our rhetoric is extreme. It is extreme because there is no longer any viable moderate center to appeal to.

Moderation is dead…for the time being. And Goldwater’s caricature is now the caricature of the left.

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