Rising Radical Center

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

HANCOCK, Mich. -- President Bush's six-year effort to create an enduring Republican majority based on a right-leaning coalition is on the verge of collapse. The way he tried to create it could have the unintended consequence of opening the way for an alternative majority.

This incipient Democratic alliance, while tilting slightly leftward, would plant its foundations firmly in the middle of the road, because its success depends on overwhelming support from moderate voters. That's why a Democratic victory in November -- defined as taking one or both houses of Congress -- would have effects far beyond a single election year.

The Democrats' dependence on moderate voters and moderate candidates belies Republican claims that a Democratic victory would bring radically liberal politics to Washington. In fact, the first imperative of Democratic congressional leaders, if their party is successful, will be finding policies, ideas and rhetoric to allow the party's progressives and moderates to get along and govern effectively together.

The strategy pursued by Bush and Karl Rove has frightened most of the political center into the arms of Democrats. Bush and Rove sought victory by building large turnouts among conservatives and cajoling just enough moderates the Republicans' way. But this approach created what may prove to be a fatal political disconnect: Adventurous policies designed to create enthusiasm on the right turned off a large number of less ideological voters.

The Democrats' lead in the polls can be thus explained by two factors: the energy of a passionate phalanx of voters desperate to use this election to rebuke Bush, and the disenchantment of moderates fed up with the failures of Bush's governing style and ideology, notably in Iraq.

A survey this month for National Public Radio in the 48 most-contested House districts makes clear that anti-Bush energy is this election's driving force. While only 22 percent of those surveyed by Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner strongly approved of Bush's performance in office, 44 percent strongly disapproved. This points to a huge enthusiasm deficit for the Republicans.

But the survey also showed that the Democrats' 51 to 40 percent lead in these competitive districts came not just from liberals but also from self-described moderates, who favored the Democrats by 59 percent to 34 percent. There are twice as many moderates as liberals in these key districts, so moderates are the linchpin of Democratic chances.

If a Democratic majority depends on moderate voters, it also depends on the victory of moderate candidates. In five of the seven races likely to decide control of the Senate, Democrats have nominated candidates who simply cannot be seen as conventional liberals.

That is certainly true of Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, Jon Tester in Montana, James Webb in Virginia and Claire McCaskill in Missouri. In Pennsylvania, Democrat Robert Casey is moderate or even moderately conservative on many social issues. In House races in more conservative states, Democrats have gone out of their way to find middle-of-the-road candidates.

But Democratic moderation this year carries a sharp edge of economic populism, and a consensus is already developing around health care, energy and corporate accountability. In one his advertisements, Montana's Tester marries fiscal conservatism with an anti-corporate appeal by promising to "stand up to oil company giveaways, no-bid contracts to Halliburton and billions in pork, including bridges to nowhere, all saddling our kids with more and more debt."

One of the Democrats' more conservative House challengers, Heath Shuler in North Carolina, declares that "it's not right when big insurance companies write health care laws and millions can't afford to see a doctor." In Michigan's 8th Congressional District, challenger Jim Marcinkowski's attacks on incumbent Republican Mike Rogers's ties to the energy and health care industries are a key part of his campaign. And Democrats of all stripes have become increasingly pointed in criticizing the president's Iraq policies.

There has long been talk about the rise of a "radical center," made up of voters essentially moderate in their philosophical leanings but radical in their disaffection with the status quo. This looks to be the year of the radical center. If it is, the Democrats will win. And if they win, their task will be to meet the aspirations of a diverse group of dissatisfied and disappointed Americans. Not an easy chore, but one that certainly beats being in the opposition.


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