Splitting a baby is actually a bad thing.

“I think that often where I am is just in the middle. The middle is often the commonsensical place to be. The notion that one side is right and one side is wrong is generally, as one finds in life, not the case.”

--political commentator Cokie Roberts

Roberts has a great point. The sensible position usually does lie halfway between two extremes. Just look at history. In the 1960s, the country was split between extremists who wanted to deny civil rights to African Americans, and extremists who insisted on completely equal rights everywhere. The dispute caused so much strife and anger because no sensible moderates could be found to stake out the middle ground between these equally radical positions--say, desegregating some institutions but not others, or letting black people vote in every other election.

Or consider the nasty contretemps between Galileo and the Catholic Church. Both sides staked out such unyielding positions on whether the Sun revolved around the Earth or vice versa. A lot of vitriol could have been avoided if each party had agreed to the simple proposition that the two bodies revolve around each other.

OK, so maybe Roberts doesn’t have a great point. But she does have an extremely seductive point. The notion that you can determine a sensible position simply by stopping halfway between the Democratic and Republican stances is one of the enduring fallacies of public life. There are few more sought-after labels in American politics than “moderate” or “centrist.” They signify an independent thinker, unbound by ideological or partisan dogma.

And, to be sure, ideology and partisanship can corrupt your judgment. A classic example is the debate over global warming. Scientific evidence shows very strongly that carbon-
dioxide emissions are raising global temperatures. Yet, because this fact implies the need for some government action to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions, many conservatives persist in disbelieving it. Likewise, many liberals dismissed evidence that conditions in Iraq improved toward the end of the Bush administration.

But taking the middle ground between the two parties is not a way of liberating
yourself from dogma. It’s simply a way of lashing your own judgment to the prevailing sentiments of the moment. Fifty years ago, the notion that the federal government should cover the cost of health care for all senior citizens was too liberal for even many mainstream Democrats to swallow. These days, even right-wing Republicans embrace it. Meanwhile, universal health care may be a liberal idea now, but, if enacted, it would quickly become uncontroversial. If it fails, it would remain a utopian fantasy, spurned by centrists. To define the middle as the sensible position is to believe that what’s sensible can change dramatically with the political winds.

A huge proportion of self-styled “centrist” thought simply boils down to surrendering one’s own capacity to make normative judgments about politics and public policy. This tic has been on display throughout the health care debate. Key moderate Democrats have deemed their primary criterion for health care reform to be securing the support of Chuck Grassley, the putatively moderate Republican senator. Meanwhile, Grassley has announced that he won’t support reform unless most Republicans in the Senate agree with him. Grassley has explicitly said that the lack of sufficient GOP support would cause him to abandon a bill that even he, Chuck Grassley, deemed acceptable.

Thus, by the transitive property, key Democrats have hitched their own support for health care to the whims of a large bloc of Republicans who lack any formal or informal criteria of their own. Picture the old Thomas Nast cartoon “ ’Twas Him,” with Boss Tweed and his cronies standing in a circle, each avoiding responsibility by pointing a finger at the man next to him.

Of course, the centrists portray their behavior not as unprincipled buck-
passing but as an elevated form of civic virtue. “Something as big and important
as health care legislation,” Grassley has opined, echoing a view that has been repeated by numerous worthies, “should have broad-based support.” (I’d argue that 60 Democratic senators, representing 64 percent of the population, count as “broad-based.”) Now Grassley is saying that he favors “incremental” reform. But, if it’s not going to be big anymore, then why must it be bipartisan?

Ted Kennedy’s death has spurred a large number of encomiums to the virtues of compromise and deal-making. But this confuses the necessity of compromise with the desirability of compromise. “Half a loaf is better than none” is a good argument to make to liberals who might be disappointed with an imperfect final deal. It’s not a good argument on behalf of centrists who are themselves forcing liberals to take half a loaf. Senator Kent Conrad spent months insisting liberals should abandon a public option because it couldn’t pass. Finally, he admitted that he, too, opposed it.

The fetishization of compromise often overlooks whether such a compromise makes any inherent sense. Not all issues lend themselves to compromise. Joe Lieberman recently piped up that he prefers to take minor steps on health care--such as banning insurance company discrimination against those with preexisting conditions--and forego covering the uninsured.

But, if you forbid insurance companies from discriminating against the sick without bringing healthy people into the risk pool, then healthy people would have no reason to buy insurance. They could just wait until they get sick and take out a policy, and the insurance companies would have to sell them one. Rates would skyrocket, and the whole system would become unaffordable. Some say we should build a bridge across a river. Others say we shouldn’t. Joe Lieberman wants to build a bridge halfway across.

Lieberman explained his rationale by reaching for a historical analogy. “I think great changes in our country often have come in steps,” he said a couple of weeks ago. “The civil rights movement occurred--changes occurred in steps.” Actually, almost all of the civil rights movement’s progress happened in one big bang, after decades of stagnation. It also required the Senate to put the needs of the country ahead of its own customs by circumventing the committee that had traditionally bottled up civil rights legislation. There is a lesson here for the present day, though not the one Senate centrists seem to have absorbed.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor for The New Republic.