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After months of politicians stumping, reporters speculating, and citizens looking stupefied, the voting in America's elaborate presidential selection ritual is finally beginning. With the Iowa caucuses on January 3, the American people, rather than the pundits, will start designating front-runners. In nominating one Democrat and one Republican to run for president over the next few months, Americans have a great opportunity to repudiate the last two decades' polarizing, red-state-versus-blue-state rhetoric. It is time for American politics to return to the center.
Even though party primaries usually push candidates to partisan extremes, many of today's leading candidates are remarkably moderate. Among Democrats, Senator Barack Obama has flourished by singing a song of centrism. "The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats," Obama said in his now-famous 2004 Democratic National Convention address. "But â€¦ [w]e worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states." "I grew up in a middle-class family in the middle of America," Senator Hillary Clinton declared, less lyrically, in January 2007, suggesting she was born to be balanced. Senator Clinton's carefully parsed health reform plan and her nuanced stance supporting the Iraq war's goals while criticizing its execution, define her campaign as a mission to the middle.
Similarly, the leading Republicans throughout much of 2007 have been surprisingly centrist. For months, pollsters designated New York's former mayor Rudolph Giuliani the most popular Republican, despite being a pro-abortion moderate from the capital of American liberalism. As a popular governor of the state often called "the People's Republic of Massachusetts," or "Taxachusetts," Mitt Romney developed a reputation as a moderate, while boasting about his skills negotiating for "three-quarters of a loaf." And Senator John McCain has gained fame as an iconoclast, challenging his party's orthodoxies.
PREDICTABLY, ideologues and partisan bloggers from both extremes have condemned these candidates as flip-floppers, wimps, sell-outs. And all these candidacies could crash and burn. But in watching the election unfold, how these moderates fare will gage America's mood and direction following George W. Bush's divisive presidency.
President Bush's my-way-or-the-highway leadership style has scarred the US. Talk pitting cosmopolitan, progressive blue states against traditional, provincial red states began during the Clinton years. But the ugly debate over the Iraq war dangerously escalated the level of anger and anguish. Left-wing bloggers have compared Bush to Adolf Hitler; right-wing bloggers have branded Iraqi war critics traitors. Connecticut's Senator Joseph Lieberman, a leading moderate, recently complained: "There is something profoundly wrong when opposition to the war in Iraq seems to inspire greater passion than opposition to Islamist extremism." Other moderates note that championing civil liberties is patriotic, not un-American.
These moderates understand that democracies function best by gracious consensus not grudging coercion. Effective leaders build coalitions, forge compromises, and articulate big-tent visions that most citizens can accept. Unanimity is impossible. Intense debate is acceptable. But the good leader tries to enlist as many supporters as possible, rather than the bare minimum necessary to implement a particular policy. This is the golden path that Maimonides praised, the enlightened civility George Washington embodied, the broad nationalist unity that helped America thrive in the nineteenth century while winning two world wars and the Cold War in the twentieth century.
True, the United States endured a Civil War in the 1860s and the traumas of what some call the 1960s' "Black rebellion." But those divisive moments produced leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy who healed the nation's wounds - and forged inspiring new nationalist visions. Today, Americans need to stop fighting each other to combat dangerous threats including Islamist terrorism, Iranian nuclear saber-rattling, environmental degradation, and economic dislocation.
OF COURSE, seeking the center does not guarantee success. Spineless centrists are no better than headstrong extremists. For all his triangulating, Bill Clinton, did not push health care reform or improved race relations with the same zeal he displayed in keeping power during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. As a result, his eight-year roller-coaster presidency left the country cranky and edgy.
Healthy democracies need a broad consensus and mass buy-in politically, culturally, ideologically. Israelis can attest to the difficulty of running a country with sharp divisions and passionate disagreements about the society's core values. Israel's harsh political debates, perennially-fractured Knesset, and huge gap separating secular liberal North Tel Aviv from conservative religious settlements, indicate deep political dysfunction. The Israeli rabbinate's heavy-handed all-or-nothing approach, combined with many non-Orthodox Israeli Jews' laziness in seeking creative centrist Judaism, signify a disturbing cultural divide. A country must be united by more than the need to survive.
At the same time, Ehud Olmert and his Kadima Party offer a cautionary tale about spineless centrists lacking vision or bottom lines. Bill Clinton-style triangulating, and Olmert-style inertia cannot substitute for core principles, guiding values, and bold but inclusive consensus-building. America's great heroes, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, were muscular moderates. These centered, principled but pragmatic leaders understood the importance of selling their centrist visions to as many citizens as possible.
Elections, like new years, are moments of renewal. Sometimes elections lead to positive changes - sometimes to disasters. As America's decision-making begins, why not dream of - and demand - an election crowning moderate leaders committed to building a constructive center rooted in core values. We need nimble but anchored muscular moderates leading America - and Israel too.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His next book, to be published this spring by Basic Books, is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.