End to Political Polarization?

Michael Barone thinks the days of the 50-50 nation may soon be behind us owing to the rise of comparatively moderate candidates for the 2008 presidential race.

“An end to political polarization?” (U.S. News, Sept. 5)

or 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. […] 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.

Of course, from an ideological perspective, Bill Clinton was much less polarizing than most of his recent predecessors to the Democratic nomination. That did not prevent the rise of the polarization phenomenon.

I wonder, too, how much Democrats and moderates will like McCain and Giuliani once MoveOn.org and the rest of the leftist attack machine kicks into gear? People seem to forget not only that McCain lost in the 2000 primaries but that much of the reason for his good showing was Democratic cross-over votes once it was clear Al Gore was cruising to the nomination.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    And isn’t that odd?

    I dunno about you guys, but I recall competition being a GOOD thing. Including, in the area of political ideas.

    Isn’t it odd how the only time we hear how bad ‘political polarization’ is, is when liberals are losing elections?

  2. Anderson says:

    McCain’s only appeal to liberals is that (1) he’s given the White House some grief about torturing prisoners, and (2) he seems not to have his head up his a**. But he’s quite conservative.

  3. McGehee says:

    (2) he seems not to have his head up his a**.

    That ain’t the way it looks from over here. 😉

    If one looks at it honestly, the only thing McCain has going for him from the liberals’ point of view is that he criticizes Republicans more than he does Democrats.

    As for him being “quite conservative,” I suppose if one defines “quite conservative” as “to the right of Lincoln Chafee.” But then, I don’t think even Chafee mouths off at conservatives as much as McCain does.

  4. Bachbone says:

    Mr. Barone is a pro, so his crystal ball is likely clearer than mine, but I don’t see the left cleaning up its act until completely defeated. (As Carville has said, “This is wah!”)

    As for St. Hillary’s move toward the center, it wouldn’t last a month were she elected. We know she pulled Slick Willie’s strings, and look what he did when elected.

    Beyond his being a RINO who craves attention, I don’t have the foggiest idea what McCain would do if elected. But I certainly do not care for his act to date.

  5. Anderson says:

    McG, he does mouth off at conservatives a lot, but I meant his actual stance on most issues. McCain just has mouthing off at colleagues as a character trait.