This particular myth is a whopper. It is both pervasive and profoundly wrong. Although this myth is one of my pet-peeves, I will endeavor to treat it in the most dispassionate manner possible.
So called centrist Senate Democrats, such as Bayh, Landrieu and Nelson (both of them), are moderates.
Tune into any news broadcast, turn on any of the Sunday talking head shows, or read any major newspaper and you will see talk of “centrist Senate Democrats.” According to Merriam Webster, moderate means, “professing or characterized by political or social beliefs that are not extreme.” In common parlance we might say that a moderate is someone who is relatively even keeled.
In the realm of public policy, a moderate would be someone who uses their rational faculties, as opposed to ideological beliefs, to determine appropriate policy outcomes. My argument is that so-called centrist Senate Democrats evidence a very strong ideological belief system, one that leads them to support, or oppose, any given policy based upon those beliefs rather than objective reason. Further, that their particular ideological system is center-right to conservative, depending on particular member.
It is only by some curious historical happenstance that these “centrists” are even registered Democrats. For some, that reason rests in historical patterns of voter registration in their particular region. In other words, they became voters prior to, or shortly after, it became permissible for Southerners to be Republicans. For the others the causes could be as simple as family party loyalty (Bayh), to the prevailing political party at the time of voter registration, to what they perceived as the best party for advancing their political careers.
I would argue that many, if not most, of these “centrists” hold very little of what would be considered core Democratic principles. * Most “centrists” supported the invasion of Iraq; supported the Bush tax cuts; supported the regime of systemic abuse of the Constitution and international law (torture, wiretapping, etc.); opposed, in some measure, the Stimulus; oppose, in some measure, health care reform; oppose card check. The list is quite a bit longer than this and most readers will know the contours of my argument.
In a less insane era for the GOP these “centrists” would have been Republicans. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
Where this myth causes the most damage is in its framing of issues. If these right of center people are tagged as “centrists” or “moderates”, then the political dialogue is shifted towards the right. In so doing, views that are genuinely moderate are regarded as liberal and those that are liberal get shunted off the stage or (worse?) get the label of Far Left.
As an example, recall Marc Ambinder’s comment in August that the public option was a fetish of the Far Left (he and I tweeted about it, but I can’t find his original). Now, regardless of one’s views about the subject, the public option not only enjoyed overwhelming support from Democrats, but from independents as well. If we accept Ambinder’s proposition, all Democrats as well as most independents are Far Left. I’m quite sure that is not what he meant. He was speaking in Beltway conventional wisdom talk, which accepts the premise of Lincoln, Bayh and their cadre as reasonable moderates whose views represent some magical middle path between the extremes.
If we can dispel this horrible myth, we can have a much more robust and intellectually honest debate about politics and policy. It serves no larger purpose to miscategorize any politicians revealed, as opposed to proffered, ideology. The only end that it does promote is to circumscribe political debate within the narrow confines of center right to right. While conservative partisans might view this as a desirable end, it is not an objectively good one.
* I am willing to give credence to the argument that, in fact, these folks have no actual ideological principles. That the explanation for their behavior, voting and otherwise, is simple corporate whoredom.