A little sympathy, please, for John McCain and Barack Obama.
Now is the time for them to be accused of the dread sin of "running to the center."
Now is the time for the related flurry of stories about that nasty habit: the flip-flop.
The talk shows and blogs buzz with such accusations. The traditional press dutifully echoes and dissects.
A deep structure of American political discourse is at work. Witness the power of a core narrative. No candidate, no matter how fresh of face or rich in credentials, can escape.
This narrative is illogical, but that only tightens its grip.
It goes like this:
Moderation equals weakness, a deficit of courage and principle. Compromise is for cowards. The middle is muddle, the land of Milquetoasts, the house of waffles, flip-flop beach. To find vigor, rigor, passion and principle, look to the margins. The spectrum's right and left edges are the land of the genuine, the home of the brave.
So any politician who moves - excuse me, "runs" - to the center must, the thinking goes, be motivated by craven expedience. It couldn't possibly be conviction or common sense.
This is counterfactual craziness, but so ingrained that we barely notice our mental straitjacket. Partisan activists adore this narrative. It flatters them, enhances their clout beyond what their exhausted ideas deserve.
Hence the current howls of betrayal from the lefty "netroots" that Obama is "just another flip-flopping politician." Hence the grumbling by conservatives whenever McCain tries to reclaim some of his old "maverick" ground.
It's harder to see why the working press, inclined to dislike ideologues, so slavishly enforces this goofy narrative.
To explain, a little arithmetic and a dash of geometry.
Some numbers: In a recent poll, a plurality of Americans (43 percent) called themselves
; 35 percent
; 19 percent
So, to govern with a stable majority, a politician
work from the center. Yet the narrative slams as an unprincipled panderer anyone who takes this sensible approach.
Now, the geometry. Our sense of politics is ruled by a metaphor: Political views are seen as falling neatly along a line going from left to right.
Think for a second of how this shapes our perceptions: Lines are defined by their endpoints. All other points are measured by their distance from the poles; they are lesser places, way stations.
Now imagine that our ruling metaphor for politics were instead a circle. A circle is defined by its center. Think how that image might alter our take on centrist views.
What is a centrist? Someone who prefers fruitful compromise to endless argument, who sees how illogic riddles the doctrinaire stances of left and right. Someone who doesn't just split the difference, but plucks ideas that make sense from both sides, then mixes in fresh insights to create something new.
Obama is mostly a centrist, impatient with partisan shibboleths. McCain can be impulsively moderate when an issue catches his eye.
To win the primaries, each had to trim and to pretend a bit. McCain, with the longer public record, had to be more obvious about it. He benefited, though, from another assumption of the narrative: Republicans are presumed to be "steadfast"; it's those weak-kneed Dems who flip-flop.
Obama clearly (in my view, regrettably) flip-flopped on electronic surveillance. Yet on many points where some now cry betrayal - Iraq, black parenting, church and state - he's merely restating the centrist positions that fueled his remarkable rise. (His erstwhile fans on the left seem never to have gotten past his sleek styling to check out what really makes him run.)
The focus on flip-flops is especially curious this year. After all, we're picking a replacement for a president widely blasted for his stubborn refusal to change policy in the face of uncongenial facts.
So why does the press still enforce the stale "flip-flop to the center" narrative? Tom Rosenstiel thinks a lot about such issues for the Project for Excellence in Journalism. He cited several factors:
"When the press witnesses a change [in rhetoric] it seeks to reflect that in its work." The "compromise is spineless" trope has been pushed hard on the right since Newt Gingrich; later, the antiwar left trumpeted it.
The alternative media - talk shows, then blogs - have adopted the partisans' stance of perpetual outrage. Traditional media, panicked by loss of audience, now seek to mimic their "pungent" tone.
Journalists have come to see their job as exposing the relentless phoniness of modern politics. The flip-flop story fits that theme nicely.
So that's the ruling reflex. Never mind that some "flip-flops" are nothing of the kind. Never mind that some second thoughts land the candidate in a more sensible place. Never mind that flexibility amid changed circumstances is a key skill of the effective leader. Never mind that compromise has fathered far more solutions than rigidity.
Just tote up the "flip-flops," mock the move to the center, and call it tough analysis.
"It's a bit like," Rosenstiel says, "denouncing soccer players as freaks because they have big muscles in their legs."
God save the republic.