The center strikes back

Election 2013 showed the perils of straying beyond the 'Mighty Middle'

Chris Christie
(Image credit: (Kena Betancur/Getty Images) )

A mere month ago, it seemed as if America's political center was on life support, and maybe even dead.

Not anymore. Today, the center is striking back.

How did it happen? First, we saw a parade of polls showing the Republican Party and the Tea Party suffering devastating hits due to last month's 16-day Republican-engineered government shutdown, which Standard & Poor's estimated cost the economy $24 billion. As the shutdown dragged on, and it became clear that Tea Party House Republicans really might let the U.S. default on its debt to seize what they could not win in elections, business-oriented donors began balking, threatening to withhold donations unless the shutdown stopped.

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Then last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the center-right Republican detested by Tea Partiers and conservative talk show hosts for his willingness to work with Democrats, was re-elected in a rout in which he made huge inroads among traditional Democratic groups, and won independent and moderate voters. In Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe defeated unabashed Tea Partier Ken Cuccinelli (but not with the whopping margin that most pundits and pre-election polls had predicted). In Alabama, the GOP's business wing successfully beat back the Tea Party in Bradley Byrne's victory over Tea Partier Dean Young.

The significance? There is indeed a middle in American politics. And politicians and political parties who stray way beyond it do so at their own peril.

An NBC News/Esquire poll last month gave a glimpse of "the new middle." The poll found that 51 percent of Americans are in the center: "Yes, the center is mostly white (78 percent), but so is most of the American voting public (72 percent) — and the center is changing. Already it contains a fifth of African-American voters, one in two Latino voters, and half the women in America. The center is roomy, or in other words, welcoming." These are groups Tea Partiers are alienating.

The new American center has a socially progressive streak, supporting gay marriage (64 percent), the right to an abortion for any reason within the first trimester (63 percent), and legalized marijuana (52 percent). Women, workers, and the marginal would also benefit if the center had its way, supporting paid sick leave (62 percent), paid maternity leave (70 percent), tax-subsidized child care to help women return to work (57 percent), and a federal minimum wage hike to no less than $10 per hour (67 percent). But the center leans rightward on the environment, capital punishment, and diversity programs. [NBC News]

How is this playing out in the GOP's approach to upcoming elections? Politico reports: "Senate Republicans are spoiling for a fight this primary season as they try to take back control of the party from conservative activists. The strategy: Prop up the most electable candidates — even if they are more moderate than ones demanded by Tea Party activists — and punish those who get in their way."

Look for the media to extensively cover Christie since he's now a symbol of the center's attempted comeback. But, as The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart points out, if Christie tries to move the GOP more toward the middle, it won't be easy.

Because the Republican brand is so much worse now, Christie will have to distance himself from it more dramatically than Bush did to win over Hispanics, young people, and to a lesser extent women. But he also will need to rack up huge margins from the Republican base, a group with whom he lacks Bush's tight bond... In 2000, it was much easier for Bush to keep the GOP's right-wing base happy while still winking at swing voters. Christie has neither of those advantages. He lacks Bush's strong emotional connection with the Republican base, and compared with 2000, that base is far less willing to defer to pragmatic elites. [The Daily Beast]

The bottom line? Even the mega-gallons of ideological tea poured into America's political system in recent years have not made the middle completely mushy. There are signs that the "Mighty Middle" is (for now, at least) back.

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