Discussion about the mythical political middle ground confuses political affiliation, ideology, and "personality." Pundits jumble being in the "middle" with being a political "moderate" or "independent." In the 2008 election polls, 39 percent of respondents declared themselves Democrats, 32 percent said they were Republicans, and 29 percent opted for the Independent label. However, classifying yourself as Independent isn't the same as standing in the political middle. Independent is a designation that reflects the fact that many voters don't like either the Republican or the Democratic Parties.
The mythical middle is often seen as a point halfway between ideological extremes, with Republican conservatives on the right and Democratic liberals on the left. That's the theory, but for there to be an effective middle ground someone has to define it and both Republicans and Democrats need to occupy it. We last saw this at the beginning of the 111th Congress when three Republican Senators joined with all Democrats to pass the Economic stimulus bill. Since that time, Republicans have shown no inclination to compromise with Dems; rather than move to middle ground they've moved dogmatically to the right. Washington Post columnist David Broder recently observed, "statistically speaking, the center has already disappeared" there is no overlap between the most liberal Republican in the House and the most conservative Democrat when it comes to roll-call votes."
The reason there is no overlap is because on the important issues there is no middle ground. Jobs: Republicans don't believe that government can create jobs; they believe the solution lies in the "free market" stimulated by lower taxes and fewer regulations. Healthcare: Republicans want to repeal the reform passed by the last Congress. Global Climate Change: Republicans don't believe it stems from human activity; they won't support passage of the Cap and Trade legislation almost enacted in the last Congress. Immigration: Republicans don't believe providing in a path to earned citizenship; they want millions of people in the US without proper papers to be shipped back to their country of origin. Abortion: Republicans want to outlaw it and ensure public monies are not used for the procedure. And on and on. Republicans and Democrats are miles apart.
The final reason there is no middle ground is that the two Parties have vastly different personalities. When George Bush ran for President against John Kerry, a pundit quipped that Americans were forced to choose between Attila the Hun and Neville Chamberlain. In recent years, the generic Republican personality has been strong and that of the Democrats weak.
When I was growing up, I often saw an advertisement for the Charles Atlas treatment: "Hey Skinny, yer ribs are showing!" The ad tells the tale of three characters at the beach: an attractive girl, a painfully skinny guy, and a hulking bully. The bully taunts Skinny, kicks sand in his face, and gets his girl. But Mr. Skinny doesn't give up; he uses the Atlas treatment, builds up his muscles, returns to the beach, punches out the bully, and wins back his girl.
The Charles Atlas ad explains the current status of American politics where Democrats take the role of skinny guy, Republicans the burly bully, and average voters the attractive girl in the bikini. After 2008, voters hung out at the beach with skinny Democrats, but in 2010 were taken by tough-acting conservative Republicans. "Real men" prevailed.
In the mid-term elections manhood was a not-so-subtle theme: during the Nevada Senatorial debate, Republican Sharon Angle told Democrat Harry Reid to "man up." An oft-repeated joke was: "How do you tell the difference between Sarah Palin and Barack Obama?" Answer: "She's the one with the balls." Voters decided that Republicans were real men and Democrats were not.
The Charles Atlas ad poses an important existential and political question: "Why does the girl go off with the bully?" The answer is: "Because girls prefer strong men to wimps. Even if the strong men are abusive." In times of crisis, voters prefer politicians who appear strong -" even if they ruin the economy.
Given this political reality, the answer to the Democrat's identity crisis isn't "moving to the middle." That would make President Obama, and Dems in general, look more like wimps.
Democrats need to take the political equivalent of the Charles Atlas treatment. The skinny guy got back the girl by bulking up and taking on the bully. Obama needs to "man up" by returning to core Democratic principles.
You don't need to a brute to be real man. But sometimes you need to defend yourself and your loved ones. Obama needs to stand up to bullying Republicans.