Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

When did moderate become a political dirty word?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Sun April 1, 2012
Two of Mitt Romney's rivals in the presidential campaign have tarred him as
Two of Mitt Romney's rivals in the presidential campaign have tarred him as "moderate." Bob Greene asks: Why is that so bad?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Politicians have been tossing around the word "moderate" like it's an insult
  • He says GOP rivals deride Mitt Romney as a "mushy" Massachusetts moderate
  • But word connotes balance, care, evenhandedness, Greene says
  • He says Americans are pretty centrist and the word will survive 2012 beating

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- For months now, platoons of politicians have been filling the air with words.

But today, if only for a few minutes, can we forget about the politicians and express our sympathy for one of the words?

It's such an amiable word: a word that is friendly and easygoing and nonconfrontational, a word that would never want to get dragged into a fight like this.

Yet it is there anyway, caught between practiced brawlers.

The word?

"Moderate."

If you have found yourself paying attention to the presidential campaign that is going to be with us until November, you have heard the word. Repeatedly.

Two of the candidates in the Republican primaries -- Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum -- have used the word regularly to assail one of their opponents, Mitt Romney.

"Massachusetts moderate," Gingrich has said of Romney, over and over, with unmistakable derision.

Santorum has called Romney a "mushy moderate," and has said that delegates at an open Republican convention "are not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor."

Now, Romney and Santorum and Gingrich are all experienced politicians. They know what they're doing, and they can duke this out among themselves. The purpose of today's column is not to discuss which of them would make a better president, or whether Barack Obama is a better president than any one of them would be. We'll find out about that soon enough.

But just how exactly did "moderate" become a political dirty word?

It doesn't sting -- you wouldn't think anyone would consider it a killshot. If one politician calls another a left-winger, or a right-winger, or a communist, or a fascist, or a radical ... now those are words meant to provoke.

But to use "moderate" as a weapon?

Is this really supposed to rile up the American people? Are voters supposed to say: "I don't want that guy anywhere near the White House. He's a moderate!"

To most people's way of thinking, "moderation" has always meant balance, carefulness, calm deliberation, evenhandedness, dispassion, impartiality, judiciousness. It is traditionally a conscientious objector in the universe of bellicose language.

Moderate weather is lovely weather. How are we best advised to eat and drink? In moderation. "Moderation," in the world of words, is the common-sense good buddy, walking the straight and narrow.

It has ever been thus, down through history. "Out of moderation a pure happiness springs," said the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. "Moderation in people who are contented comes from that calm that good fortune lends to their spirit," said the French author Francois de La Rochefoucauld. "Keep a mid course between two extremes," said the Roman poet Ovid. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, may or may not have said the actual words that are often attributed to him -- "Moderation in all things" -- but he unquestionably believed in the principle.

So what's going on here? In search of an answer, I turned not to Ovid or Aristotle, but to Cal Thomas, the conservative columnist and commentator whose love of language is as passionate as his interest in politics.

Thomas is resolute in his conservative beliefs, but he has always shown a willingness to at least listen to the other side. He and liberal Bob Beckel write a regular column for USA Today called "Common Ground," where they seek to find precisely that: a meeting place where ideas helpful to America may be worked out.

So, Cal: What exactly does "moderate" mean as it is being used in the present political free-for-all?

"In today's vernacular," Thomas said, " 'moderate' has come to mean that you have no fixed principles, that everything can be negotiated away because all that matters is 'the deal.' "

He continued:

" 'Moderate' has also come to mean liberal on taxation, regulation and the social issues."

We were conducting our conversation by e-mail, so I couldn't see his face as he typed the next sentence. But, knowing his long understanding of politics and the people who practice it, I have a feeling he was smiling. Of "moderate," he wrote:

"It is a label that means whatever the person applying it wants it to mean."

In the current context, he's probably right. But will it work? Come the general election, will Americans band together and slam the door in the face of that dreaded quality, moderation?

It would seem doubtful. This is a pretty centrist country. The one other time that moderation was referred to with such disapproval on the national political stage was in 1964, when Barry Goldwater, the Republican standard-bearer for president, famously said, in accepting the nomination:

"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

What Goldwater was trying to get across was that one must fight for one's principles. He was echoing the words and stances of ancient Rome's Marcus Tullius Cicero and also of early America's Thomas Paine, who said: "Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice."

It was a distinction largely lost on the electorate. Goldwater was never able to recover from the controversy over that speech, and Lyndon Johnson -- whose strategists used Goldwater's words to hammer the thought into voters' minds that someone who spoke well of extremism might be an extremist -- won in a landslide.

But this isn't about landslides or squeakers. It's about that mild-mannered little word that has suddenly found itself turned into an epithet.

When the dust of 2012 has cleared, and the election is over, that word -- wounded, staggering, wondering just what in tarnation happened to it -- will do its best to go on with its life.

It may even allow itself to get angry.

Moderately.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT