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Jewish World Review Feb. 25, 2000 /19 Adar I, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Voters want centrist in White House -- PEOPLE DON'T LIKE or trust President Clinton personally, but they clearly support his policies and want them to continue, posing significant challenges for those who want to succeed him -- Republicans especially. Clinton's personal approval ratings hang in the low 40s in most polls, but his overall job approvals are in the low 60s, his ratings on the economy are at 70 percent and most voters think the country is headed in the right direction.

Clinton's own pollster, Mark Penn, released a poll two weeks ago showing that a candidate who runs as a centrist in the Clinton tradition can trounce a candidate perceived as being either on the left or on the right.

The poll was conducted for the Democratic Leadership Council, which claimed the survey is evidence of the emergence of a new "vital center" ideology during the Clinton years that the public wants to perpetuate. Penn's poll did not ask questions about specific candidates or factor in Clinton's personal characteristics or those of other candidates, but the poll compared the appeal of various combinations of ideological positions the candidates might take.

A Democratic candidate perceived to be centrist on economics and the size of government and liberal on social issues would beat a down-the-line conservative Republican by 53 percent to 28 percent, according to Penn.

A Republican who's centrist on economic and social issues, but conservative on the size of government, could beat a Democratic liberal by around 10 points, according to Penn.

But in the real world, neither Texas Gov. George W. Bush, R, nor Arizona Sen. John McCain, R, is socially centrist by Penn's definition.

Both Republican candidates favor a ban on abortion, oppose hate-crime legislation to protect gays and resist gun control -- a lethal combination, according to Penn.

Penn says that as voters -- especially independents and young people -- look at the political agenda, the most important factor in determining their preference is resistance to a right-wing social agenda.

A Democrat who's perceived as centrist on social issues trounces a Republican who's centrist on economics, trade and the size of government, but right-wing on social issues, 64 percent to 28 percent. Naturally, the questions arise -- will the Democratic nominee be perceived as a centrist or a liberal? And can the GOP nominee represent himself as a moderate?

Republicans naturally will try to define either Vice President Al Gore or former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., as left-wing and -- to some extent -- the shoe fits.

Both candidates favor abortion more or less without restriction, whereas many polls show significant support for requiring parental consent before minors can have the procedure.

Neither Gore nor Bradley espouses the centrist position once enunciated by Clinton -- but only marginally put into practice -- that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare."

On gay rights, Penn's poll indicates that huge majorities -- 64 percent of all voters, including 62 percent of Republicans -- adopt the centrist position that homosexuality is "a private matter, not a matter for society to either accept or discourage."

But Gore and Bradley are close to the liberal position that government should "accept homosexuality," opposing as they do the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Gore also may be vulnerable for saying -- and never really unsaying -- that he would impose a litmus test requiring candidates for top military posts to support his policy of allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces.

On economics, Gore and McCain are adopting the popular centrist position -- favored by 52 percent in the Penn poll -- that the budget surplus should be used to pay down the national debt and secure Social Security.

Bradley supports the liberal position, favored by only 29 percent, that the surplus should be spent on health care and other social programs. Bush's major tax cut is supported by only 16 percent, including only 24 percent of Republicans.

Gore has moved left on trade -- and away from Clinton -- by assuring the AFL-CIO that he would rewrite the U.S. agreement on normal trade relations status for China if Congress rejects Clinton's proposed pact. And on entitlements, Gore does not agree with the centrist -- and popular -- position that citizens should be allowed to invest some of their own Social Security funds in the stock market. He also opposes market-based Medicare reform.

So Gore or Bradley could be characterized as liberals, but there is some indication that this is not as fatal a brand as it once was.

As Fred Barnes noted in the Weekly Standard last week, "The country has moved left," with 60 percent of voters in a Gallup poll saying Clinton's policies should be continued or replaced by more liberal ones, while only 33 percent called for more conservative policies.

If the country wants a centrist but will tolerate a liberal, that's bad news for Republicans, particularly if Democrats can tag them as right-wing.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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02/08/00: Bush must retool his entire campaign
01/27/00: Could Gore beat Bush as Truman beat Dewey?
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12/21/99: Bush improves, everyone panders
12/16/99: Prospects improve for campaign reform
12/14/99: Riots raise free trade as 2000 issue
12/10/99: Gore won GOP 'debate' in N.H.
12/07/99: Election pits Bush cuts vs. Medicare boost
12/03/99: Can race be a constructive issue in 2000?
11/19/99: White House race may be best in decades
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11/11/99: Will TV stop profiteering from politics?
11/09/99: Is GOP isolationist, or just partisan?
11/04/99: Gore, Bradley Run Opposite Races On Style, Substance
11/01/99: GOP, Clinton could reach deal swiftly
10/27/99: Bush to fight 'culture wars' -- positively
10/21/99: Porter, Mack: heroes on medical research
10/19/99: Gore scores among party big shots, but polls go South
10/14/99: Bush critiques could help GOP Congress
10/12/99: Congress can save health care from ruin
10/07/99: Will gun-control cause the GOP to shoot itself in the foot?
10/05/99: Gore moves: Desperate but necessary
10/01/99: Fox, Armstrong make case for NIH
09/28/99: Dems' race brightens Bush's chances
09/23/99: East Timor deflates `Clinton Doctrine'
09/21/99: Buchanan v. Bush? Yeah right
09/17/99: Candidates turn attention to poverty
09/15/99: Bush's education problem
09/09/99: Budget makes 2000 an `issues' election
09/07/99:Airport rage increases, with good reason
09/02/99: U.S. future up for grabs in 2000
08/31/99: U.S. Capitol needs visitor's center -- soon
08/24/99: Will 2000 be the year of the foreign crisis?
08/19/99: Neither party has upper hand for '99
08/17/99: Ford gets freedom medal one month early
08/12/99: There's time to catch Bush, say Gore aides
08/10/99: Rudy, Hillary try much-needed makeovers
08/09/99: GOP must launch new probe of Chinagate
08/02/99: Pols blow fiscal smoke on budget surplus
08/02/99: One campaign reform should pass: disclosure
07/27/99: Gore leads Bush in policy proposals

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