In Congress and in constituencies across the country, last week demonstrated a powerful and welcome trend: After a long eclipse, the people in the political center, the moderates, have regained their voice and are reasserting themselves.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, and increasingly from 2000 onward, American politics was dominated by a notion that Republicans had found the key to mobilizing their voter base on issues of taxes and conservative social beliefs. In response, Democrats went back to their base -- the pro-government constituencies and the liberal interest groups -- to mount a resistance effort.
In the past decade, national elections became largely contests to see which side could turn out more of its committed partisans. The tools of motivation were highly emotional appeals. Persuasion of the undecided became a matter of secondary or minimal importance.
Both sides succeeded -- for a time. In 2004 John Kerry far outran Al Gore's 2000 vote but lost because George Bush improved on his own first run by even larger numbers.
But the cost was that increasing numbers of middle-of-the-road voters felt the choices they were being offered were not what they wanted. And this year that frustrated center has finally rebelled.
The causes of the rebellion are not a mystery. There is a war in Iraq that no one seems to know how to win or how to end. There is a profligacy to federal spending that neither party is willing to stanch. There is inaction on large problems that hurt families, whether it be the cost of home heating or the availability of medical care. And, above all, there is a pervasive sense that partisanship for its own sake rules Washington.
Now that public mood -- which was amply demonstrated in last Tuesday's off-year voting -- has stiffened spines in the Capitol. On Thursday at least 22 House Republican moderates balked at cutting programs for low-income people and at opening portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. They forced the leadership of their party to pull a budget bill endorsed by the president and containing those provisions.
It was the second successful rebellion by the long-scorned Main Street Coalition, which also nudged the Bush administration to reverse itself on encouraging pay at less than prevailing local wages for Hurricane Katrina reconstruction.
One of the rebels, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, told the New York Times, "There is a clear message from the election results all over the country. The American people, by and large as a body politic, are looking for a more centrist approach."
The Republican moderates come mainly from suburban districts, the same kind of districts that supported Bush in 2004 but turned against Republican candidates and causes in last Tuesday's voting. Democrats elected governors in New Jersey and Virginia by sweeping the suburban areas where independent voters place a high value on education and the environment and are socially tolerant.
In California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gained high popularity in his first year in office by identifying himself with all of those causes, he came a cropper by forcing a special election on a very different agenda. He launched a crusade to punish teachers, nurses and other public employees for their "greed," only to see the public endorse their work and tell the governor, in effect, to deal with them, not stiff- arm them. The defeat of all four of Schwarzenegger's initiatives clearly signals that he misread Californians as wanting a partisan conservative regime in Sacramento.
The same message was sent unmistakably by Virginia, a state that has been reliably part of the Republican presidential base. Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore ran a classic version of the last decade's "bring-out-the-base" campaign, promising to fight taxes, crack down on crime, curb abortions, impose the death penalty -- and, as an added fillip, get tough on illegal immigrants.
He got out the base, but lost heavily in the fast-growing suburbs to Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, the Democrat who campaigned on support for schools and balanced growth.
Kaine was helped enormously by the fact that the current governor, Democrat Mark Warner, has steered Virginia from a fiscal mess to economic prosperity while working successfully to get his progressive education program and other initiatives through a Republican legislature.
It was one more proof that the strength of the Democratic Party lies in its governorships -- a lesson that still has not dawned on many of the Washington-fixated consultants and contributors, who continue to delude themselves that their talk-shop congressional leaders should be the national symbols of the party.