I remember when I became totally convinced that Barack Obama was going to be re-elected president of the United States for a second term: it was in January, 2012, and I watched Newt Gingrich try and insult his rival for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney, by calling him “a timid Massachusetts moderate”. Every word in that phrase was meant to be pejorative. And it was this that convinced me the Republicans were definitely going to lose later that year: when moderation becomes a dirty word within a party, it is very likely they are on a losing trajectory. Because voters actually quite like moderation – even when it doesn’t seem that way.
We are witnessing it now within the Corbyn side of the Labour Party – although at the very least, there is some resistance to the word “moderate” being handed over without a fight to the, well, let’s call them the moderates. Although I think this is a war the Corbynites are bound to lose.
The rise of Trump is again one of those things that looks like it is the decline of moderation in American politics writ large. Until, that is, you look at the situation closely and realise it’s much more like the Republican Party in its possible death throes, at least at executive level. The party activists who love Trump, who loathe anything that stinks of “moderation”, are completely out of sync with large swathes of centre-right voters in America. I’m talking now about people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a ticket that included Sarah Palin (one phrase that is ever-so American that I recall from 2008 was, “I just couldn’t pull the trigger for her”), someone who Donald Trump makes look, well, almost moderate (like I say, almost).
In some ways, this is the whole trick of western politics: the party that looks like the sane, sensible ones, in touch with the problems of the day, will usually win. Many on the left of politics will argue things like Bush’s re-election in 2004 seems to go against this – but they are simply grafting their political prejudices onto the situation. In 2004, the big issue in America was security. Bush was able to convince the American public that he could be better trusted than Kerry in this arena. Now, you can turn around and say that seems insane to you for any number of reasons, but in 2004, in the US, Bush seemed like the moderate when it came to the security of the nation, whereas Kerry was painted (unfairly in my opinion) as an appeaser who was going to let the guard of the nation down.
There are what seem at first glance to be exceptions to this rule in Britain. 1945 comes to mind, as does 1979. But Attlee’s Labour was elected to lead the country following a devastating, six-year long war and Thatcher’s Tories after the country had practically ground to a halt under Callaghan’s machinations. But even then, look at the way both of those governments were elected: they painted themselves as a positive force, come to restore sanity to a situation that had got out of hand. Labour of ’45 and the Tories of ’79 were about moderation in their own way too; about painting the radicalism of their visions as a return to normality after a nightmare present/near-past.
To summarise: political leaders should let go of the word “moderate” at their peril. It’s always a mistake.