It's said American voters aren't yet paying attention to the 2000 elections, that they're fat and happy, rooted solidly in a status quo political center. Take the view put forth recently in a special section of the The Wall Street Journal.
The lead article states the current boilerplate regarding the race for Congress: "... the 2000 election will be a test of whether Republicans have further undone the damage to the party that was wrought under former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, after the party took over Congress in 1995 for the first time in 40 years... The 'Republican Revolution' targeted Medicare, education (and the) environment ... in the quest for tax cuts and a balanced budget, and the government shut down when Mr. Clinton and his party wouldn't go along. But the Democrats won, as independent voters and women, in particular, were alienated from the GOP"
Say what? Won what? The Republicans have carried Congress for the past three elections, including 1998, in which their House candidates got 51 percent of the vote.
And why have Republicans allegedly failed? WSJ pollster Robert Teeter has an answer: "From about 1980 to 1995, Republicans had the support of their base and most of the middle of America ... and Democrats were seen as extremists. But new GOP leadership reversed that: The Republicans became the extremists."
So: When Democrats were extremists they controlled the people's House. Now Republicans are extremists and they control the people's House. Is Teeter saying that Americans vote for extremists? (No.)
In another article, Teeter and moderate Democrat Peter Hart (WSJ polling partners) explain why the presidential election is all about "leadership" from "the center." Says Hart: "The true delineating factor in the presidential election seems to be much more about being a strong leader."
Says Teeter: "We (Americans) vote for the candidate we like." Says Hart: This (election) will be played in the middle of the electorate, not among the fringes."
Well, yes. Voters want strong leadership, but they tend to like leaders with whom they agree. Almost 30 years ago I co-authored "The Real Majority" with Richard M. Scammon in which we underscored that American elections are decided in the center of the political spectrum. But, we stressed that it was "a moving center," with substantive content. If, as a crime wave rose, voters began thinking that so-called "law and order" issues were becoming paramount, then that view would be incorporated into the swing constituency in "the center."
Has the American center moved? The WSJ poll did do a standard ideological screen. The results: conservative, 35 percent; moderate, 29 percent; liberals, 26 percent. These data are reported on the Journal's proprietary website, but were not published in the newspaper, which merrily paints a picture of politics without ideology.
Leadership for what? Voters are not content-free. The safest thing you can say today, and since the 1960s, is that the electorate is most easily defined as a negative: Not liberal.
Yet, the two Democratic presidential primary contestants, both historically moderate liberals, are playing "Lefter Than Thou," the famous Democratic special-interest primary game. Vice President Albert Gore has come out for allowing public gayness in the military; he's against experimental educational vouchers and taunts Bradley because he voted for such experiments; he keeps re-affirming his pro-preference affirmative action position; Donna Brazille, described in the Washington Post as "Gore's campaign manager and a former acolyte of Jesse Jackson," proclaims that "the four pillars of the Democratic Party are African Americans, labor, women, and what I call other ethnic minorities." Her other "emerging constituencies" are gays, the disabled and environmentalists.
Ever wonder why some Democrats like me still think the party has a default mode that is reflexively liberal?
Bradley plays the same lefter game, but it's harder to see all the gears moving, as his campaign stresses "authenticity," which may be authentic. Happily, Gore has forced him to reiterate his approval of vouchers, a position supported by most conservatives and a growing number of low-income Democrats.
Curious and unexpected: As both Democratic candidates run toward the left, the two Republican front-runners, Gov. George W. Bush and Sen John McCain, run toward the center.
The Journal stresses Hart-Teeter findings that education is the most important issue, and that Democrats rate highly on the issue. But other polls have shown "decline of moral values" as No. 1, with Republicans rated highly. Might these two issues, education and moral decline, be linked in the public mind? After all, those who most fear "moral values decline" are most concerned about their children. Who go to school. Too often with too little discipline, value-free and non-judgmental, delivering a feel-good mantra of self-esteem.
Such voters, and many others across the spectrum, are moving toward the moving center. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Values Matter Most" and is the host of the weekly public television program "Think Tank." Send comments to him via e-mail: Watmail@aol.com.)