Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

When did moderate become a political dirty word?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
April 1, 2012 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT