Revolt of the Middle

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

If you were to prepare a list of the top 10 stories you will never, ever read in a newspaper, one of them would surely include a sentence beginning: "Thousands of angry, screaming moderates took to the streets yesterday demanding . . ."

You can finish that sentence however you would like. The accepted view in politics is that moderates don't get angry, don't scream and don't demonstrate. Politics these days is said to be dominated by ideological enthusiasts. Moderates are thought of as people who sit on the sidelines and decide which batch of true believers they can most easily live with.

But something important has happened since President Bush's inauguration. America's moderates may not be screaming, but they're in revolt. Many who reluctantly supported the president and the Republicans in 2004 are turning away. The party's agenda on Social Security, judges and the Terri Schiavo case is out of touch with where moderate voters stand. Worse for Bush and his party, most moderates have a practical, problem-solving view of government and think these issues are far less important than shoring up a shaky economy and improving living standards.

The moderates have rebelled before. This period in American politics is beginning to take on the contours of the years leading up to the 1992 election. That's when Ross Perot led an uprising of the angry middle and Bill Clinton waged war on the "brain-dead politics of both parties." Bush's decision to read the 2004 election as a broad mandate for whatever policies he chose to put forward now looks like a major mistake. In fact, Bush won narrowly in 2004, and he won almost entirely because just enough middle-of-the-road voters decided they trusted him more than they did John Kerry to deal with terrorism.

The latest poll to bring home this message was released late last week by the Democracy Corps, a Democratic consortium led by pollster Stan Greenberg and consultant James Carville. Greenberg and Carville are not triumphalist. They are careful to note that "Democrats are not yet integral to the narrative" of American politics and that the decline in the Republicans' public image "is not accompanied by image gains for the Democrats." Democrats still have a lot of work to do.

But one finding deserves more attention than it has received: The "biggest drops" in the Republicans' standing, the pollsters noted, "have come from people who do not identify with a party," with "those who describe themselves as ideologically moderate" and with "mainline Protestants," that is, Protestants outside the ranks of the evangelical and fundamentalist churches. These are classic middle-of-the-road groups.

When they were asked how they would vote if a congressional election were held now, Democrats led by 43 percent to 25 percent among independents, and by 57 percent to 31 percent among moderates. In 2004, according to the network exit polls, Kerry beat Bush by only one point among independents and by nine points among moderates.

And in an amusing but revealing question, the pollsters asked how Americans would vote in a contest between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush if the Constitution were changed to allow them to run in 2008. Clinton beat Bush, 53 percent to 43 percent -- a rather decisive judgment on our two most recent political legacies. While Carville, the Clinton loyalist, no doubt liked this result, there's no evidence that the question or the poll itself was skewed.

In light of the revolt of the center, Senate Republican leader Bill Frist sent exactly the wrong signal at the worst possible time by speaking over the weekend to a group of Christian conservatives who see Senate filibusters of judicial nominees as blocking "people of faith" from the courts. The fight over judges is, for pragmatic voters, a distraction from issues that matter. And moderates are uneasy with the pressure some Republicans have sought to bring on judges by way of moving court decisions in a conservative direction. The president, in the meantime, cannot seem to persuade middle-of-the-road Americans that Social Security needs far-reaching changes -- or even that Social Security's troubles constitute one of the most important problems facing the country.

All this, in turn, explains why Republican charges that Democrats are "obstructionist" have not worked. As long as moderate voters believe that Democrats are blocking measures that are immoderate, middle-of-the-roaders will welcome, or at least tolerate, a fair bit of obstruction.

That's why we may soon see a shift in the GOP's approach: Shrewd Republican strategists aren't saying much publicly, but they are seeing some of the same things that Greenberg and Carville are seeing. And those smart Republicans are very worried.

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