An End to Polarization?
For 10 years American politics has been sharply polarized, with just about equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats arrayed angrily against one another. We have come to think of this as a permanent condition. Yet by the next presidential election that may very well change. The reason: The leading candidates for both parties' 2008 nominations are in significant tension with their parties' bases--and, in some cases, outright opposition.
This is most clearly the case on the Republican side. The consistent leaders in 2008 polls are John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani. Of the two, Giuliani is most sharply out of line with the cultural conservatives who have been the dominant force in Republican primaries and provided a large share of the Republican majorities racked up in 2002 and 2004. Giuliani is pro-choice on abortion, opposes the "partial-birth" abortion ban, and opposes a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. McCain's differences with the Republican right are more subtle. He has consistently opposed abortion rights but doesn't seem comfortable talking about the issue. He has taken the lead on campaign finance regulation and on Kyoto-like responses to climate change, in opposition to most of his Republican colleagues. At a critical point in the 2000 campaign, he made a point of denouncing evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
Old Dem, new Dem. As for the Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton is in significant ways out of sync with the Bush-hating left. She voted for the Iraq war resolution and for all the appropriations to fight the war, and she has shown no sign of apologizing for these stands. She spoke approvingly of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council at its most recent meeting--and got attacked in the left-wing blog "Daily Kos" for it. From time to time, she has issued sharp partisan attacks on the Bush administration, but she has been careful to distance herself from Michael Moore- or Cindy Sheehan-type rhetoric. You will not catch her calling George W. Bush a maniac or a war criminal.
Of course, none of these three candidates has his or her party's nomination sewed up. But Clinton has to be regarded as the clear favorite in the Democratic race, and not only because over the past 40 years Democrats have won only when they've nominated candidates whose last names begin with C. And while cultural conservatives clearly had veto power over Republican nominations from 1980 to 2000, it's not clear to me that that's the case anymore. McCain and Giuliani enjoy great respect among Republican primary voters as strong leaders. Both supported George W. Bush wholeheartedly in 2004 and are in great favor with the Bush White House today. Potential opponents more in line with Bush's stands on issues, such as Sens. Bill Frist and George Allen, start off much less well known and have not been as visibly tested as McCain was in Vietnam and Giuliani was on September 11.
Conservative radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, speaking to Republican women in conservative Temecula, Calif., found that most favored Giuliani, despite his stands on cultural issues. When he asked why, one said, "All that doesn't matter if we are attacked. Rudy will keep us safe." Republican blogger Patrick Ruffini's late-August poll of more than 10,000 readers showed Giuliani far in front of the nearest competitor, Allen.
A McCain or a Giuliani nomination has the potential to change the regional alignments that have mostly prevailed since the election of 1996, in both directions. Either would almost certainly run better than George W. Bush in the vast suburban tracts of once marginal states like New Jersey and Illinois. But they might fail to draw the huge turnout of cultural conservatives that Bush did in the nonmetropolitan reaches of states like Ohio and Missouri. The 2004 election was a battle for turnout, which Republicans won: John Kerry's vote was up 16 percent from Al Gore's, while Bush's vote in 2004 was up 23 percent from 2000. If it's not clear whether McCain or Giuliani could duplicate the right-wing turnout for Bush, it's also not clear whether Clinton could duplicate the left-wing turnout in 2004, which was motivated mostly by hatred of Bush. We have gotten into the habit of complaining about our polarized politics. Well, complain now, because it may change soon.
This story appears in the September 5, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.