Americans' one political desire: centrism

New polls show the public leans toward a manager more than than a bigthinker.

American presidential politics is awash in centrism, and one explanation is that the public's keeping it there.

Not wanting to upset the nation's prosperity, Americans aren't demanding much. They don't want big change. They don't want big government solutions. In fact, they're not even sure what they do want.

"There's no great desire for government to do much, and there's no demand percolating from the bottom for grand changes," says independent pollster John Zogby.

Unusually, Mr. Zogby says, he hasn't even been able to identify the top campaign 2000 issues, because Americans' priorities - in the absence of overriding concerns - fluctuate according to the big news story of the moment.

What all of this indicates, say analysts, is that the public is looking for a presidential leader who will take only small to moderate steps toward a better future, rather than risky big ones. It is inclined toward a kind of Bill Clinton - the consummate centrist - minus the scandal.

"What we're electing now, more than in the past, are managers," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll in California.

The two leading presidential candidates - Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore - belong to this class of managers, says Mr. DiCamillo. So do local and state officials such as California Gov. Gray Davis (D), who's as "dead center" as they come, DiCamillo says. He goes so far as to say that the "blah candidate" is what's in vogue.

But what about the issues?

Two people alarmed by this centrist pull are authors James MacGregor Burns and Georgia Sorenson, who have written a new book on the perils of Mr. Clinton's moderate governing style.

They see plenty of problems crying out for something more than an incremental approach - education reform, for instance, requires much more than just the 100,000 new teachers the president seeks. Plus, there's still a crisis in health care, the problem of the income gap, and environmental issues, they argue.

Granted, the country appears content - there's no great war or depression, and an opposition Congress hardly makes it possible to turn big ideas into law.

"But our point is that what should be done is to raise the flag, whether it's a Republican or Democratic flag, and admit that not much progress is being made, and to keep the great ideals alive," says Mr. Burns. He says those ideals can just as easily involve the private or nonprofit sectors as they can the government.

A great president, Burns contends, is someone who leads and educates the country toward a transformation, even if it might not be aware that it needs it.

He points to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan as leaders who brought the country through transforming change - whether it was trust-busting, the New Deal, or winning a cold war.

Additionally, Burns is concerned about the pace at which the rest of the world is changing. "While government is moving along at these incremental steps, life is moving fast," especially in high-tech, he says.

Moderation's attractions

But it's hard to fight the pull of moderation, and that's where the country appears to be now, say other analysts.

Proof of America's centrism can be found in Clinton's "remarkable" high job-approval ratings of 55 to 56 percent, says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

He also sees it in a new poll by his organization. In it he found, for the first time in the 12-year history of the survey, the emergence of a new group of moderate Republicans; the staying power of New Democrats (centrists who first surfaced with Clinton); and a political typography in which Independents make up close to 40 percent of the electorate.

"What's grown most over the past 12 years are people who often vote against their own party," says Mr. Kohut.

Public-opinion experts say that Americans steered toward the middle after the government's failed big idea of the Vietnam War. In the Clinton administration, that trend solidified with the rejection of the president's health-care reform, as well as of the Republican Revolution waged by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

But not all observers see American moderation as the result of a satisfied public with few demands on its leaders.

Benjamin Barber, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says that, in fact, Americans want much more on issues such as gun control, health care, and campaign finance than politicians are giving them.

He points to the rising star of Democrat Bill Bradley, who is waging a campaign based on "big ideas." Mr. Bradley, for instance, advocates a $650 billion health plan to cover 39 million uninsured Americans.

Additionally, Mr. Barber argues, Americans' concerns and desire for change are difficult to pinpoint because the public itself is anxious and uncertain about a new era of globalization and technology. These issues are so new and complex, the public isn't sure what to do about them. It requires political leadership, Barber argues, to forge the way.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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