12/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Democrats: Don't Move to the Center; Define It

"The only thing you'll find in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos...Voters want someone to kick ass on their behalf." When the sagacious Lone Star populist, Jim Hightower, made this observation in 1990, it was as if he was anticipating Nancy Pelosi's recent call for President-Elect Barack Obama to "govern from the middle."

At the dawn of the Reagan era, Republicans painted those yellow stripes on the road's far right shoulder. And the marshmallow moderates of the Democratic Party have been navigating by it ever since, being careful not to veer to the left.

The Machiavellian lexicographers of the GOP, such as Frank Luntz, have redefined what were once regarded as mainstream American values. The nation's foundational moral principles have not always (or even often) been honored in the realpolitik of governing. But until the current era of nearly uninterrupted conservative rule, these values were the moral yardstick by which the action of politicians and governments were measured. Nowadays, calls to honor such principles are met with various denunciations that reflect conservative framing.

So, the ethic of fairness that underlies progressive taxation is now eclipsed by accusations of "socialism." That purple mountain majesty stuff? Just the sentimental whining of tree hugging dirt worshippers who oppose "property rights." Are you bothered by torture as official state policy? You're a "terrorist sympathizer."

Presidents no longer commit impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors, or defy the principle of checks and balances; they merely exercise the prerogatives of the "unitary executive." If you're a candidate who expresses a preference for diplomacy over military force and imperial occupation, you'd better prepare to fend off assertions that you're a "defeatocrat" and a "cut and runner."

According to the latest edition of the Republican dictionary of politically correct thought, speaking well and with a command of the facts renders you an "elitist." Advocating the teaching of science in schools is "religious intolerance." Equality under the law means "special rights for minorities." Government help to middle class citizens is an attack on "personal responsibility." Corporate bailouts, on the other hand, are heroic "financial rescue plans." As I pointed out in my first contribution to the Huffington Post, all these conservative frames are subsumed under a once-honorable adjective, which Republicans have succeeded in transforming into a profanity: "liberal."

As it now stands, this perspective is the "center." Barack Obama and the Democratic Party have a stark choice. They can cravenly hew to this well-worn path, and continue to think, speak, and act through Republican metaphors. To do so would doom plans for even the most transformative of new programs to the sort of misguided, short sighted, and banal "pragmatism" favored by corporate media pundits. Settling for the half measures of Clintonian incrementalism would demoralize the freshly inspired and newly expanded Democratic constituency. Hope would quickly devolve into despair; the GOP would see a midterm resurgence in 2010 (as it did in 1994); and the Obama administration would become just another minor chapter in the history of Democratic Party cowardice.

Alternatively, Democrats can reject their traditional role as docile collaborators of right wing propagandists, and use the profound moral authority granted them by a deliriously excited electorate. If they define progressive Democratic policies in their own terms, and put their moral arguments up front, they can claim linguistic custody of the center. New political initiatives will require a new rhetoric, one that conveys progressive values in an emotionally compelling way and leaves no one guessing what change means.