Is there something cyclical, but nevertheless extraordinary, happening in American politics these days? Are we moving from a period of partisan confrontation and division, to one that values consensus and seeks more unity among our public figures?
Otherwise, how can we account for the unusual persistence with which moderates like Rudy Guiliani and Senator John McCain are holding their large leads in the Republican primary electorate? Or, the surprising surge of perceived-moderate Senator Barack Obama into second place in the Democratic field?
The conservative right is trailing ignominiously in the polls for the Republican nomination, while Hillary is tied with the combined vote share of Obama and Edwards in the Democratic field. Never mind that the Republican voters don't realize how liberal McCain and Guiliani really are, or how left-wing Obama's voting record all two years of it indicates he might be. The fact is, that moderates in both parties seem to doing very well.
In 2005 and early 2006, it seemed that the partisan divisions would continue and exacerbate. The right was energized by the debates over gay marriage and illegal immigration, and the left licked its chops after beating Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman in the Democratic primary. But Lieberman ended up winning, anti-immigration zealots like J.D. Hayworth lost, and moderate Democrats won most of the House seats that switched parties in 2006. The center showed new energy.
American politics, of course, alternates between periods of division and consensus. Because our democracy works, we explore new political issues and challenges through polarizing debate (such as would never happen in Japan, for example). After the debate has raged for a while, we come to a national consensus embracing the best of each side and move on (unlike Italy or France).
A brief review of the past thirty years tells the story of this oscillation, usually clear only in retrospect. Because of Vietnam, partisanship and division reigned supreme in the 70s and early 80s, and consensus figures like the late President Gerald Ford lost out while polarizing politicians like Nixon, McGovern and Reagan emerged to lead their parties. But by the mid 80s, we had returned to consensus, seeking a formula for smaller government with a safety net offered by Reagan as he ran for re-election in 1984.
The recession of 1991 shattered that consensus, and we opted for the left with Clinton in 1992, and the right with Gingrich in 1994. But after the debate had raged through government shutdowns, we ultimately settled back into consensus, as Clinton worked with the Republican Congress to balance the budget and pass welfare reform. That consensus was torn apart by the Lewinsky scandal and the post-2000 election recount battles. As, a result, partisan divisions ruled the political scene. The terror attacks of September 11 brought us together again, but the Iraqi invasion broke the consensus as the left and the right pursued their respective conspiracy theories.
Could it be that, after listening to the debate over homeland security and Iraq for the past five years, America has come to a consensus a new incarnation of triangulation and wants its politicians to get on with enacting it?
The elements of this possible "coming-together" are clearly etched in the polls: less partisanship, wiretapping to thwart terrorism but with civil liberties protections, aggressive questioning of terror suspects but no torture, continued international presence in Afghanistan but a gradual withdrawal from Iraq, a move away from oil dependency, serious action on global warming, a more liberal attitude toward illegal immigrants already here, but with tightened border security to stop new arrivals, and strong action to stop North Korea and Iran from becoming nuclear powers.
Barack Obama may not be the man to embody this new consensus, but Americans seem to think he is. Listening to his speeches but not to his voting record, his surge against Hillary Clinton clearly exploits the perception that the New York Senator is the epitome of partisanship while Obama transcends it.
Can Obama pull it off? With only a two year Senate record to defend, he is largely devoid of partisan baggage and may be ideally positioned to move to the center and become the triangulation candidate embracing the new consensus.
Can McCain pull it off? It might be that his brand of centrism social conservate, populist, and strong on defense may appeal to newly pragmatic Republicans licking their wounds from 2006.
It may be that as we enter the New Year, we are entering a new era of moderation after five years of raging debate. Let's hope so.