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Two Parties Fleeing the Center

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By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Among the presidential candidates, Bushism is under siege. So is Clintonism. And there is no reason to celebrate the downfall of either.

The immigration debate is a reminder to the memory-impaired that President Bush ran and won in 2000 as "a different kind of Republican" -- meaning the kind that isn't libertarian or nativist. Bush was orthodox on tax cuts and moral values. But from the earliest days of the nomination contest, he set out policies -- a federal role in improving education, humane immigration reform, Medicare prescription drug coverage -- that borrowed more from Roman Catholic social thought than from Friedrich Hayek.

Bush's first major policy address of the campaign, which I helped prepare, talked of seeking the "common good," asserted "solidarity" with the poor and declared that "the American government is not the enemy of the American people." Ed Crane of the libertarian Cato Institute complained that the speech epitomized "Bill Clinton's impact on the American polity."

The criticism was insightful. Clinton had run and won in 1992 in much the same way, calling himself "a different kind of Democrat" and reaching out to middle-ground voters early in the primaries when his image as a candidate was still plastic. Will Marshall, one of the main theorists behind Clintonism, recalls that "every time we were down in the polls, and Clinton talked about 'ending welfare as we know it,' he would rebound." Clinton supported the death penalty, promoted global trade and signaled centrism on national security. All these were intended as early contrasts to Mario Cuomo's liberal fundamentalism.

Today, in both parties, fundamentalism is again the fashion; authenticity is the prime directive. Talk-radio conservatism assaults the most obviously Catholic elements of Bushism -- a role for government in compassion and a welcoming attitude toward immigrants. "Purity" is defined as the empathy of Tom DeLay and the racial sensitivity of Tom Tancredo.

Authenticity on the bitter blogs of the left means a revolt against the centrist, Democratic establishment -- a ritual patricide to establish the ascendancy of the politically hungry and uncompromised. On trade and globalization, Clintonism is the enemy. On foreign policy, "blame America first" has become "blame America exclusively."

Republican and Democratic candidates have generally avoided the most extreme expressions of these movements but seem content to drift in their currents. Few have offered policy proposals that reach toward the middle by challenging the orthodoxy of their party. Mitt Romney has distanced himself from his own innovative Massachusetts health-care reform -- fearful that his hidden virtues of creativity and bipartisanship might be exposed in public. Barack Obama is a teller of uncomfortable truths as a stylistic matter, but he has yet to take stands that defy liberal fundamentalism in the way Bill Clinton did. None of the main candidates for president, including one named Clinton, is attempting to win office in the same way that the last two two-term presidents won office.

There are reasons for this shift. Unlike 2000, Republicans are struggling with an unpopular war that has resulted in an unpopular incumbent president; merely rallying the base seems a large enough task. Unlike 1992, Democrats are reacting to what they believe is a massive Republican failure, not the massive Democratic failure of the Mondale/Dukakis exile; there is little appetite for the politics of introspection and self-correction.

All this may be part of a natural political cycle that alternates consolidation and reform. But this does not change the fact that something is being lost. The centrism of 1992 and 2000 eventually yielded welfare reform, education reform and prescription drugs for millions of seniors. Similar bipartisan efforts are objectively necessary to extend health insurance coverage and to stabilize our entitlement systems. The early stages of the presidential season offer few reasons for hope on that agenda.

The abandonment of Bushism and Clintonism is also leaving many Americans ideologically homeless: Catholics who regard themselves as pro-life, pro-immigrant and pro-poor; young evangelicals more exercised by millions dying of AIDS in Africa than by the continued existence of the Education Department; liberals who do not find their liberalism inconsistent with national strength or opposition to Islamic radicalism, the most illiberal force on Earth. All this alienation may, in a saner time, be the basis of a movement that mitigates polarization instead of glorying in it.

In the meantime, we are left with an odd spectacle: a field of strong, accomplished candidates who seldom say anything that isn't entirely predictable. Instead, they cheerfully reconfirm destructive stereotypes of their parties that Bush and Clinton labored mightily to change.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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