Which Way to Win?
As we head toward Election Day 2006, political analysts are focusing on a few dozen tossup races that will determine whether the Democrats take the House and Senate. But there's a larger, overarching battle this year between two visions of America: testing whether it's a country defined by its political center or one defined by its political extremes.
This assessment of America's meta-politics is distilled in "The Way to Win," a new book by two of the media's best political observers, Mark Halperin of ABC News and John F. Harris of The Post. They see two basic strategic ideas at work in today's politics: the "synthesizer" approach of former president Bill Clinton, and the "clarifier" tactics of President Bush and his political guru, Karl Rove. Here's the way Halperin and Harris describe the two styles:
"Clinton Politics is the politics of the center. It holds that Americans for the most part, with the exception of irate groups at the edges, are less interested in ideology than in practical solutions to basic problems. People would prefer politics to be polite, civil, and compromise-minded."
"Bush Politics is the politics of the base," the authors continue. "A successful leader will stand forthrightly on one side of a grand argument. Then he or she will win that argument by sharpening the differences and rallying his most intense supporters to his side."
People from the Old Media, like me, instinctively prefer a centrist style of civilized debate. Of course we do, say Halperin and Harris. We are the gatekeepers of the old order. The shrill voices of the New Media -- the bloggers and talk-radio hosts and other partisan megaphones that Halperin and Harris describe as the "Freak Show" -- don't just threaten our beloved center. They might eventually put us out of business.
So what's working this campaign season? As I read this year's races, the centrist approach seems to be making something of a comeback. I base that judgment on a sampling of several dozen campaign ads that have been gathered by washingtonpost.com (available at http:/
Take Rep. Harold Ford, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee. He's running even with Republican Bob Corker in part by holding the middle ground as a "values" Democrat. One ad shows him in church, with this endearingly honest opening line: "I started church the old-fashioned way: I was forced to." Corker's ads, out of the Rove playbook, take a sharper line, summed up in one spot with the phrase: "Who's he kidding?" Despite the attack ads, Ford is running far better than expected.
In Missouri, the Republican incumbent, Sen. Jim Talent, seems to be trying to find the center as well. One ad touts his nonpartisanship: "Most people don't care if you're Red or Blue, Republican or Democrat," says the ad, which boasts of legislation Talent has co-sponsored with Democratic colleagues such as Ron Wyden, Chris Dodd and Chuck Schumer.
Talent's move to the center is countered by his opponent, Claire McCaskill, who has highlighted Talent's opposition to stem cell research in poignant ads featuring Missourians with medical problems who might be helped by such research.
In Montana, Democrat Jon
Tester is running ahead of Republican Sen. Conrad Burns by presenting himself as the ultimate regular guy, a lumpy ex-farmer with a bad haircut. One of his spots, "Creating a Buzz," actually celebrates his crew cut. In Maryland, meanwhile, Republican Senate challenger Michael Steele may have the ultimate mindless, warm-and-fuzzy pitch, in which he rebuts a fake newspaper story, "Steele Hates Puppies," by holding a cute little mutt and saying: "For the record, I love puppies."
The great synthesizer himself, Bill Clinton, was out campaigning this week for Deval Patrick, a member of the Clinton Justice Department who is running for governor of Massachusetts. "Everyone knows that, somehow, the wheel has run off of our national discourse and our common life," Clinton said Monday. "And people don't want us to shout at each other any more. They want to be talked to, reasoned with, lifted up."
Is Clinton right about the country? Are Democrats doing well in this campaign season because Americans want to find their way back to the civilized center? Or are they profiting from the Democratic base's rage at George W. Bush? That's the troubling question that lingers after reading Halperin and Harris's book: If the Democrats win next month, will they be the heirs of Clinton's vision of politics or of Rove's? Are we heading for unity or even sharper division?