Rise of the Center

By David Ignatius
Friday, November 11, 2005

With Tuesday's elections, you could sense a small shift in the polarities that have been tugging Republicans and Democrats toward their bases. All of a sudden the center doesn't look quite so lonely or inhospitable. In fact, it may be regaining its status as the commanding heights of American politics.

That's the message I take from the victories of moderate Democrat Timothy Kaine in red-state Virginia and moderate Republican Michael Bloomberg in blue-state New York City. These are isolated events and can be explained in part by local factors, but there's evidence that they're part of a larger trend: The American public may finally be getting fed up with partisan politics, enough so that it will reward politicians who refuse to play that game and instead campaign from the middle. In that sense, Tuesday's results may have been a harbinger for the emerging governing majority I like to call the "party of performance."

Here's a prediction: The important political battles of the next several years will be over which party commands this high ground of the center -- and offers solutions to the problems that worry the country. Right now neither Republicans nor Democrats can lay coherent claim to being that party of performance. They are both still captives of the old conventional wisdom that the route to victory passes through the base -- the true believers on the right and left wings who are the activists in both parties. That logic works until the big majority in the middle finally says: Enough!

I think we're nearing that "mad as hell" moment. President Bush's approval ratings keep hitting new lows because of public anger over Iraq, gas prices, the economy and the ethics mess in Washington. An average of polls posted yesterday by the Web site RealClearPolitics.com showed Bush's composite approval rating at just 38.4 percent.

The Post's Dan Balz gathered comments from politicians on both sides of the aisle that clarified the message of Tuesday's elections. Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Virginia Republican, argued that the GOP's appease-the-base strategy was "just blowing up" in the suburbs of Northern Virginia that he represents. "You play to your rural base, you pay a price," he said.

You can't win without capturing the moderate center, stressed Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is a potential leader of the Democratic wing of the party of performance. He explained to Balz: "You've got to appeal to the moderate voters. Swing voters do not respond well to partisanship and to negative campaigning. What they're really looking for are people with integrity and people trying to solve their problems."

If my imaginary party of performance held a convention this week, its most likely nominee for president would be Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. Over the past few years, he has been the most visible example of a politician who has tried to swim against the tide of partisanship.

"I think the pendulum has swung as far as it's going to, and it will now swing back," McCain told me last week. The reason for the shift, argues McCain, is survival instinct. Candidates know the public is fed up with divisive politics. "They want to see us unify. They don't want to see us fighting. They don't like the bitter partisanship," he insisted.

McCain cited the bipartisan "Gang of 14," which agreed last summer to foreswear judicial filibusters except in "extraordinary circumstances." "Every member of that group is happy, because our constituents have reacted so positively," McCain explained. "They're saying, 'Hey, here's someone doing something about our problems.' " He cited a series of other groups that are now meeting in the Senate to try to work across the aisle on issues such as immigration, military procurement and lobbying reform.

Is the public so eager for results that it will accept bipartisan solutions that actually require some sacrifices? McCain thinks so. He argues that if Republicans and Democrats could begin to work together on runaway health care costs and other entitlement programs, "Most Americans would say, 'Good work.' " I wish I were that sanguine: I still fear that this is a country that demands solutions -- so long as someone else pays for them. But that's what the 2008 presidential campaign should be about: forging a coalition for shared sacrifice and political revival.

Where is President Bush in this shifting political landscape? The unfortunate reality for the White House is that it may not matter much. Bush has never seemed interested in trying to shape a new political center, focusing instead on his conservative base. Now that process is beginning to animate both parties, while the president broods over his troubles.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company