The centrist Kadima Party’s victory on Tuesday sent shock waves through Israeli politics by relegating the conservative Likud to fifth place in the Knesset, down from winning 38 seats in 2003 to just 11 this week. It was a dramatic display of the electoral strength of the center.
But the results of the Israeli election should reverberate on this side of the Atlantic as well, because it exposed the degree to which conservative parties depend upon their more centrist leaders and supporters to get elected. The same fault lines that erupted in Israel still exist uneasily within American politics in general and the Republican Party in particular. Left unresolved, these tensions could have realigning effects in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Some social conservatives have grown over-confident with the control of government they have enjoyed since the election of President Bush. Even with precipitous drops of the President and Republican Party in the polls, many of the influential elite are resistant to a genuinely big-tent vision of the party led by a centrist. This is evident in their dismissal of either Mayor Giuliani or Senator McCain as a presidential candidate in 2008. Many Beltway insiders reject their prospects, despite their commanding lead in the polls, preferring instead to create a more socially conservative candidate from the current single digits. They would rather opt for ideological purity than broad popularity. As Likud recently found, this path can lead to electoral disaster.
At the end of the day what voters want in both Israel and America can be summed up in two words: solutions and security. High-pitch partisan battles between special interests increasingly alienate them.
In recent decades, Israeli voters have moved back and forth between Labor and Likud. Not coincidentally, two of the recent Labor prime ministers, Yitzak Rabin and Ehud Barak, were both also generals, solidifying their security credentials against the stereotypes of naivete and weakness usually associated with the left.
The political genius of Prime Minister Sharon was to recognize the underlying constancy between this superficially contradictory trend. He took what appeared to be a bold gamble by separating himself from the Likud party he had helped form three decades before to create a new centrist party that could lead a stable majority.
To Mr. Sharon, this was not a matter of ideology but strategic freedom. Free from the influence of the far-right members of Likud who threatened him with a no-confidence vote, he was able to move Israel in the direction he thought best: unilateral disengagement and a two state solution.
Having won the second Intifada, Mr. Sharon had a unique credibility that counterbalanced many of the milquetoast associations that have held back centrists in the past. No one questioned Sharon’s moral toughness, strength, or military experience. This was in turn transferred to acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Kadima coalition. Mr. Sharon’s gamble not only paid off, it has – for the time being, at least – realigned Israeli politics.
It is a cliche to say that political parties require both wings to fly, but that is especially true for the Republican Party today. In a poll released the day of the Israeli elections, Gallup found that Democrats have gained a narrow edge in party identification, reversing a trend toward Republicans that has existed since the attacks of September 11th. The poll shows that independent identified voters now make up 34% of the electorate, with Democrats at 33% and Republicans at 32%. Winning over this plurality of independent voters is essential to victory in the next elections.
The good news for the GOP is that the Democrats have been unable to pick up significant support from disaffected Republicans. Liberal party leaders like Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi don’t easily gain the confidence of centrist voters looking for an alternative to Tom DeLay.
But the bad news for conservatives is that on matters ranging from policy to perception, centrists are alienated from the current Republican path. A Harris poll from the summer of 2005 quantified this, showing that even one quarter of Republicans believe that the “religious right has too much power in Washington” and that “extreme conservatives have too much influence in the Republican Party.”
In this environment, it is clear that Republicans depend on more centrist leaders and supporters to get elected. Congressional leaders of the moderate Republican Main Street Coalition such as Illinois’ Mark Kirk and New Hampshire’s Charles Bass have been trumpeting a centrist “suburban strategy” to appeal to independent-minded swing voters who care more about seeing solutions on issues ranging from crime, education, the environment, and health care than they do about riding divisive wedge-issues to narrow victories. This is one substantive way to re-center the Republicans in advance of the 2006 mid-term elections.
But when it comes to winning in the White House again in 2008, re-centering the Republican Party will require bold symbolism as well as policy substance. Like Mr. Sharon, Messrs. Giuliani and McCain convey a core strength that is counter to the muddled split-the-difference stereotypes that have held back some centrist candidates in the past. Both men are pragmatic leaders with the charisma of common sense. Both are classic fiscal conservatives. And both are unwavering hawks in the war on terror. This is entirely consistent with the strong centrism that led Kadima to such a convincing victory this week, while the conservatives remaining in Likud are left scratching their heads and looking for relevance.
Our two-party presidential system is not set up to produce the kind of overnight creation of a successful centrist party that was possible in the Israeli parliamentary system. But for the party that wants to win elections, the lesson is the same – the strength is in the center.