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No Middle Ground

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The 2006 elections are over and the punditocracy has ruled: The Center is the New Place to Be trumpets TIME magazine. The Middle Muscles In writes David Brooks in the NEW YORK TIMES. It's a classic example of the mainstream media totally missing the point: there was no middle ground in the mid-term elections. There was a reality check.

When voters went to the polls on November 7th, they had only two choices: support a candidate who embraced the failed policies of the Bush Administration-the "stupid" vote. Or, vote for someone who wanted to go in a different direction-the "pragmatic" vote. There was no middle-of-the-road position on the important issues. You were either for sanity or against it.

For most voters, the key election issue was Iraq. It's hard to define a "conservative," "moderate," and "liberal" position on Iraq. For most voters, regardless of Party or professed ideology, there was a stark choice: support the Administration-"stay the course"-or admit the obvious, Bush has lost the war in Iraq and we need to do something more intelligent than "keep on keeping on."

Some pundits claim to discern a conservative position on Iraq, "stay the course," and a liberal position, "cut and run." For these observers, the middle position is anything else. This is misleading, as: very few Democrats-you can count them on the fingers of one hand-advocate immediate withdrawal from Iraq, pulling all of our troops out of the Middle East. There were only two positions on Iraq expressed in the mid-term election: One was the irrational position, held by the Administration and most Republicans: The U.S. still has a chance for victory and the President knows what he is doing. Then there was the realist position, held by everyone else: The Administration lost the war in Iraq and the President not only doesn't have a plan, he doesn't know how to prepare one.

On November 7th, voters saw Iraq as binary: Pretend the war isn't lost or admit the obvious and vote for change. There was no middle ground. Voters, for whom the key issue was Iraq, overwhelmingly supported the Democratic candidate.

On the other hand, if the voter saw the key issue as terrorism, they tended to support the Republican candidate. Even in Pennsylvania, where Bob Casey Jr. defeated Rick Santorum by 17 percent, 51 percent of voters broke for Santorum if their issue was terrorism. Yet, once again, this was not an ideological difference: voters who saw the main issue as terrorism expressed support for President Bush-believing "he kept us safe"-and, therefore, his Republican allies. This was the classic stupid vote, as they discounted reports that the war in Iraq has made us less safe. Again, there was no middle position on terrorism: one either believed Bush has done a good job or ridiculed those who did.

For many voters, the determining issue was "the economy." Again, views on the economy were bipolar. If you were a rock-ribbed Republican, you felt the economy was "getting better." Everyone else believed the economy has "gotten worse." There was no middle ground: late October Gallup polls found that only 4 percent believed Bush's economy was about the same.

In certain parts of the country, Immigration was the key issue. The crux of this issue came down to how the 11 million resident, undocumented immigrants should be handled. One side, tending to be Republicans, believed they should be arrested and sent "home." The other side supported some sort of earned citizenship plan. There was no middle ground.

Even on social issues, which supposedly define "liberal," "conservative," and "middle of the road," it is difficult to discern a middle position. Take "Gay Marriage:" It's a classic binary decision; one either thinks that gays have the right to marry or one disagrees. There's no middle ground on "stem cell research" either. Or the teaching of evolution. Only on the issue of abortion is it possible to discern a middle ground, and that's debatable. A November 7th exit poll found that 53 percent of voters believed "a woman should have the choice of a legal abortion with the advice of her doctor," another 22 percent restricted this to "cases of rape, incest, and her health." 15 percent added the caveat "a woman should only be able to have an abortion if her life is at grave risk." Only 8 percent opined abortion "should be illegal." Where's the middle ground when a majority of voters say a woman should have the right of choice?

In the 2006 mid-term elections voters didn't move towards the middle. The election results weren't a shift towards "moderation." There was a groundswell towards pragmatism. Voters correctly identified Bush policies as stupid and destructive. They wanted a change, not an ideology. The TIME post-election headline should have read: "Reality is the New Place to Be."
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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