Even a Republican might be willing to concede that, having lost the last two presidential elections, all is not well with the Grand Old Party; and this Republican, certainly, would argue that the field of candidates in 2012 was notably weak.
But it is always dangerous in politics, and perilous in journalism, to assume that the side you don’t approve of has lost its grip on reality, or is “extreme,” which is Alter’s considered judgment of the Republican Party. The same journalistic epithets have been attached to past Republicans — Alter came of age during the Reagan years — and yet they enjoyed electoral success. Did the center not hold in 1984?
Alter is not blind to Obama’s liabilities, and concedes that the president’s strengths — his intelligence, detachment, analytical nature — can be weaknesses as well. No one in his right mind would welcome regular consultation with, say, Harry Reid, but Obama’s aloofness from his party in Congress, his fierce determination to keep his own counsel, has cost him points. And Obama, despite what you might read, is a politician, not purely a man of destiny. He finds himself constrained by facts and events, he is willing to follow rather than lead public sentiment, he travels down paths only as far as he can go.
Alter is caught between admiration for what Obama has achieved and frustration at what he believes Obama might have achieved. In that sense, of course, he is entitled to his opinion, which is nearly indistinguishable from the standard left-wing critique of Obama. But this merely points to the weakness of books such as The Center Holds: They are chronicles of daily politics, told strictly from a partisan standpoint, almost entirely devoid of pertinent detail or historical perspective. You would not guess, for example, that Obama’s principal “enemy,” Mitt Romney, won 47.5 percent of the popular vote in 2012, or that the months-long aftermath of Obama’s victory was consumed with an issue — gun control — that goes unmentioned in The Center Holds.