Polarization pays. For every DailyKos, there’s an O’Reilly Factor; for every Michael Moore, an Ann Coulter; for every Russ Feingold – a liberal populist Senator eyeing the Presidency – there’s a Sam Brownback, an evangelical conservative Senator hoping for the same. Alienation has bolstered both sides, spiking viewer ratings if not voter turnout.
But, devalued as it may seem, centrism is poised for a major comeback in 2008. No matter the results of this year’s midterm elections, the 2008 race for the presidency has the promise of being one for the moderate: Sen. John McCain, recently-dropped-out former Gov. Mark Warner, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Sen. Evan Bayh, among others, have been contemplating bids, and all – even Hillary Clinton – have been targeting the center.
Contrary to the popular belief that polarization sells, these candidates reflect a growing sense in both parties – ignoring the current headlines in the 2006 elections – of the need to grab the center and present themselves as moderates. This may be very good news for a coherent political dialogue on what unites – rather than divides – us. Even though Mark Warner is gone from the scene, having announced last week that he wanted to spend more time with his family, his political career can still be instructive.
When, in 1996, he ran against three-time incumbent Virginia Republican Senator John Warner, the Democratic Warner, making his first bid for public office, won nearly half of the vote in the traditionally conservative state. He tried a different route and was elected governor in 2001, where, governing from the center, he implemented some of the most dramatic changes in Virginia’s history, appealing to both Democrats and Republicans. For liberals, he made the largest investment in K-12 education in state history, expanded access to health care, covering more than 98% of eligible children, and put the Commonwealth on the high-tech map. For conservatives, he reduced the income tax and food tax (while raising the sales tax and cigarette tax), eliminated more than 70 boards or commissions, and sent auditors to perform efficiency reviews on the public schools. And, for taxpayers of both parties, he erased the $6 billion deficit that greeted him on his arrival in the Governor’s mansion. By the time he was done with his term-limited run in 2005, Gov. Warner apparently appealed to the overwhelming majority of Virginians, as his job approval ratings were upwards of 75%, the highest of any Virginia governor since approval ratings began to be measured.
Although he dropped out of the race just last week, Warner’s brief run for president may have set the tone for how the upcoming presidential race will be run, calling for shared sacrifice and a pragmatic, non-ideological response to the most pressing matters of the day. Perhaps it was Warner’s years of experience as an incredibly successful venture capitalist in technology – where he had to anticipate people’s needs and see past the horizon – which led to his understanding that the public would respond to a candidate who urges us to act as one nation, rather than as a fractured society of many interest groups and two irreconcilable political parties.
The 2006 elections, though, would not suggest a centrist approach, even though the Democratic Party recruited pro-life, pro-gun candidates in key races in the hope they would attract the independent voter or draw some votes away from the right. For example, Bob Casey, a career Democratic politician whose father was a popular governor, is challenging the sitting senator in Pennsylvania. That Casey, like his opponent, is a pro-life, anti-abortion candidate does not mean, though, that the race is less polarized; only, perhaps, that Democratic Party leaders value winning over adherence to any particular core ideology.
Will the Party abandon the politics of polarization, as national Republicans seem to be preparing to do as they see the end of the George Bush-Karl Rove era? In recent history, Republicans have reached out to their right-wing base and been just as guilty – if not more so – of the politics of polarization. But with McCain, Giuliani and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney way ahead of the Republican presidential pack, it is a near-certainty the Republicans will nominate a moderate who can appeal to independents in the center and stay away from polarizing rhetoric. What lessons will the Democrats learn, and how will they respond?