The Inconvenient Truth About Presidential Elections

It's that time again. With the primaries mere months away, those of us who twitch uncontrollably at the mention of the 2000 or 2004 elections must face the grim reality that the halcyon days of tuning out the presidential debates are pretty much over.

Come to think of it, who can blame us for feeling a bit dismayed? Despite seven long years and an independent investigation that found Al Gore's recount would still have handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush, some people remain unswervingly focused on the proposition that no presidential race should suffer from a National Shrillness Deficit.

But the Netroots are hardly alone in their determination to ratchet up the hyperbole. Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani may appear to have emerged as their party's front runners, but being the lead dog doesn't insulate a candidate from criticism. On the contrary, being out front subjects a candidate to enormous pressures from the squeaky wheels of each party; the most vocal and motivated minority with the most extreme views. But how important are these pressures really, and how seriously should they be taken?

In the thick of the battle it's easy to get caught up in overheated campaign rhetoric, but the last two presidential elections have shown the majority of American voters to be far more centrist and pragmatic than most pundits and polls might lead us to believe. For Hillary Clinton, the hot button issue is undoubtedly the war in Iraq. Clinton has faced vehement criticism from the antiwar left for her cautious refusal to promise a rapid withdrawal from the Middle East. Given the direction of most polls, one might logically expect her firm stance on Iraq to hurt her with the largely antiwar democratic base. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. According to the <a href="LA Times,

Gayle Moore, an Iowa nurse, wants U.S. troops 'out, out, out' of Iraq as soon as possible. Darleen McCarthy of South Carolina fears that Iraq is turning into 'another Vietnam'."

But when these two Democrats vote in January to help decide their party's 2008 presidential nominee, neither plans to support the self-styled antiwar candidates. Instead, they are siding with the one top contender who voted to authorize the invasion and has refused to apologize for that -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"It's just a gut feeling," said Moore, 53, a mother of five. "It's her experience."

A new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of voters in key early primary states reveals that Moore and McCarthy are hardly alone. They represent a paradox of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination: Although a plurality of Democratic voters considers the Iraq war to be the most pressing issue facing the candidates, the more hawkish Clinton has found a sweet spot in the debate.

Many of those voters who want an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops support her candidacy and consider her best able to end the war, as do many who back a more gradual drawdown.

"It's just the way Hillary Clinton handles herself," said McCarthy, 55, who lives near Myrtle Beach. "She says what she wants, and I think she'll let the American people know exactly what's going on."

The findings help explain why the New York senator has built a strong lead over Democratic rivals who have made their opposition to the war the centerpiece of their campaigns -- and who have laid out more-detailed plans for quicker troop reductions.

Likewise, though news stories and op-eds have hyped tales of Republican voters who plan to stay home unless a 'real conservative' is nominated in 2008, the GOP front runners - Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney - appear to be anything but social conservatives. And as Jeff Jacoby points out, Giuliani and Romney may not be all that ideologically conservative either:

Giuliani not only led the fight to kill the line-item veto, he ardently opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement and just as ardently supported the wretched McCain-Feingold law. Both men used to be known as liberal Republicans - in fact, Giuliani ran for mayor in 1993 with the endorsement of New York's Liberal Party.

In short, neither man has been a model of conservative ideological purity. And neither is going to become one by belligerently trying to outdo the other in the rhetoric department.

So what explains their success? The inconvenient truth about presidential elections may well be that ideological purists are no longer electable in America. Despite deeply revisionist angst over George W. Bush's 'betrayal' of the Republican base, Michael Gerson, Bush's speech writer (who ought to know) points out that Bush never actually ran as a conservative. Gerson offers a review of history that outrages the conventional wisdom:

The immigration debate is a reminder to the memory-impaired that President Bush ran and won in 2000 as "a different kind of Republican" -- meaning the kind that isn't libertarian or nativist. Bush was orthodox on tax cuts and moral values. But from the earliest days of the nomination contest, he set out policies -- a federal role in improving education, humane immigration reform, Medicare prescription drug coverage -- that borrowed more from Roman Catholic social thought than from Friedrich Hayek.

Bush's first major policy address of the campaign, which I helped prepare, talked of seeking the "common good," asserted "solidarity" with the poor and declared that "the American government is not the enemy of the American people." Ed Crane of the libertarian Cato Institute complained that the speech epitomized "Bill Clinton's impact on the American polity."

The criticism was insightful. Clinton had run and won in 1992 in much the same way, calling himself "a different kind of Democrat" and reaching out to middle-ground voters early in the primaries when his image as a candidate was still plastic. Will Marshall, one of the main theorists behind Clintonism, recalls that "every time we were down in the polls, and Clinton talked about 'ending welfare as we know it,' he would rebound." Clinton supported the death penalty, promoted global trade and signaled centrism on national security. All these were intended as early contrasts to Mario Cuomo's liberal fundamentalism.

This is not a popular view in either party, but it is not necessarily an incorrect one. It is an interesting, if perhaps not a comforting thought to ideologues in both parties that neither Bush nor Clinton was an ideological purist. Neither, for that matter, was the iconic Ronald Reagan so beloved of the "Bush the Betrayer" wing of the Republican party, which famously forgets that Reagan was not only a Great Communicator but a great compromiser; a pragmatist who favored immigration amnesty and compromised on Medicare and Social Security despite his innate belief in cutting government spending. People tend to forget that during his tenure Reagan was roundly criticized by conservatives for not being conservative enough. It was only in retrospect that his greatness was fully appreciated by his own party.

During the past eight years of bitter partisan division, the level of distrust and rancor has at times approached the theatrical; but in the hue and cry of partisan politics we all too often forget that, like most observable natural phenomena, political beliefs are most likely normally distributed. This means that while most of the heat and noise comes from the 16% of voters at either extreme of the Bell curve, the vast majority of registered voters live in the center. While the majority may not spend most of their time agitating, many of them still turn out and vote. This explains why the results on Election Day are so often less extreme than exit polls or the headlines screaming at us from the front pages of our newspapers often suggest. Joe and Jane Six-Pack, whether liberal or conservative, have both feet firmly on the ground.

They are also aware of the vast difference between what candidates promise on the campaign trail and what they must often do once they get into office. Perhaps this is why, in the end, the most important single issue to most voters is character rather than a candidate's position on the war on terror, abortion, or No Child Left Behind. Voting, more often than not, is a decision made as much with the gut as the brain. Pundits and election watchers trying to game the election by analyzing candidates' positions on the issues or watching polls would do better to look at a simple question: which candidate comes across as more trustworthy?

That person will be the next president of the United States.

Cassandra blogs at Villainous Company.