David Ignatius is the latest pundit to discern exciting new trends from off-off-year elections in which no power changed hands. Looking at results from Viginia and New York City, Ignatius sees “the rise of the center.” “All of a sudden,” he writes, “the center doesn’t look quite so lonely or inhospitable.”
In reality, the center has never been lonely or inhospitable on general election day, especially in state and local races. By re-electing Bloomberg, New York selected a pragmatic centrist mayor for the fourth consecutive time. In Virginia, Tim Kaine basically aped Mark Warner’s centrist campaign of 2001. Indeed, states all over the country have consistently tended to elect can-do non-ideologues, including George W. Bush twice in Texas (recall the endorsements he received from Democrats in that state).
Things have not been radically different in presidential politics. Even in 2004, which Ignatius seems to regard as the nadir of centrism, John Kerry attempted to migrate to the center by discarding his essentially pacifist approach to foreign policy and attempting, albeit incoherently, to split the difference on Iraq. And President Bush ran, as he had in 2000, as a compassionate conservative on domestic issues. Ignatius is simply wrong when he asserts that Bush has always focused on his “base” rather than the center. How does Ignatius explain Bush’s alliance with Ted Kennedy on education or with the AARP on prescription drugs? How does he explain Bush’s support for certain forms of race-based preferences. Perhaps Ignatius has in mind Bush’s foreign policy. But that policy had the support of both Bush’s base and the center when it was formulated, and would have retained that support had either WMD been found in Iraq or the insurgency been less enduring.
The problem for fans of centrism has always been what occurs in the presidential primaries, when the base tends to have a dominant role, not what occurs on election day. Ignatius points to nothing in Tuesday’s results that suggests this dynamic will change.
ANOTHER THOUGHT: Isn’t Arnold trying to govern from the center in California? Things didn’t go well for him on Tuesday.