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The Irritable Centrists

Currently, suburban centrism is the pivotal force in American politics at both the state and federal levels.


Name

Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan Ehrenhalt is a senior editor at Governing.

Sometimes when I can't make up my mind about an issue, the one thing I don't like is listening to people who are absolutely convinced one way or the other. An hour with an absolutist sends me fleeing across the middle clear to the other side.

Immigration is the best example. I've always considered it an endlessly complex subject on which there are no perfect answers. I think I know which way the country is slowly moving - toward tolerance for existing demographic realities and against the idea of throwing millions of illegal residents out, and I believe I'm headed in that direction myself. But all it takes is a strident argument on either side, demanding mass deportation or denying that illegal immigration is a serious problem, to make me want to leave the table or reach for the off button on the remote control.

Notwithstanding some tough immigration laws that have been enacted in several states this year, the electorate is inching its way toward acceptance of illegal workers - if only because it has no other solution for what to do with them. It is tiptoeing toward tolerance of gay marriage; legalized civil unions, once seen as a radical departure from traditional values, are well on their way to becoming the default conservative position in most American states. Voters are moving toward a consensus that free trade is irrevocable and even freer trade in the coming years is inevitable, no matter how obviously distasteful the consequences for the American workforce might be.

I'm convinced that, deep down, most of the people who will vote in 2008 understand these things. But that doesn't mean they are comfortable with them, or want to discuss them among their friends. And what they especially don't seem to want is an election year dominated by a shrill debate on these subjects conducted from the far ends of the ideological spectrum.

Irritable centrism has shown itself in different guises, all of them consequential, several times in the past several years. It emerged very clearly in the spring of 2004, after the Supreme Court in Massachusetts essentially forced the state to recognize marriages between gay partners. For millions of people with unshakeable convictions on this issue, the decision was either an overdue recognition of an important civil right or a disgraceful repudiation of conventional moral standards. There's little doubt that, in the country as a whole, the opponents of this decision outnumbered those who applauded it. Many believe that it cost John Kerry the 2004 presidential election. If that's true, though, it's not because of what happened at the ideological poles. It's because of what the decision did to the irritable center: It alienated a middle group in the electorate who sensed which way the country was moving on this issue, who had even begun to accept the situation in some measure - but who did not like being reminded of it in an autocratic way by an unelected court.

Just a few months after the 2004 election, irritable centrism reappeared from a different angle in the case of Terri Schiavo, the long-comatose Florida woman in whose case Florida courts had permitted the discontinuance of life support, at the request of her husband. When Congress met in an extraordinary session and voted to supersede the state court - with the blessing of the Bush administration - it provoked an angry and wholly unexpected reaction in the electorate that spread far beyond the ranks of committed right-to-die believers. It provoked outrage from a huge cohort of centrists who understood instinctively that this was a complicated problem with respectable arguments on both sides but didn't want the issue forced on them in what seemed like a strident and heavy-handed way. If one had to choose a moment when the Bush administration began to lose its credibility across the country, it would be March 2005, the time of the Terri Schiavo intervention.

A few weeks ago, there was another event that reminded me about the irritable center. It was the proposal by New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. I would argue that the bloc that ultimately forced Spitzer to reverse himself and withdraw the proposal wasn't the die-hard anti-immigrant faction, although this certainly exists in New York, as everywhere else. The group that mattered was a large faction in the middle who knew which way the country was moving on immigration, wasn't calling for mass deportations, but simply didn't want the issue imposed on them in an especially unsettling way.

There are pockets of irritable centrism in every corner of America, but it has a geographical base: the older middle-class and upper-class suburbs that ring every one of the nation's major cities. They are the pivotal force in American politics right now at both the state and federal levels, they are edgy and easy to offend, and anyone who offends them does it at grave electoral risk.

Recent election returns from these suburban counties tell a pretty dramatic story. One version of it has played out in Northern Virginia, in the area around Washington D.C., where I have lived for the past 30 years. There was a time when Arlington, my home county, was competitive between the two parties, but Republicans had little reason to worry about that because Fairfax County, more than five times larger, was a solid GOP bastion. In the early years of this decade, Fairfax began to work loose from its Republican moorings, but even this was cause for only modest alarm because statewide GOP candidates could still count on the fast-growing outer suburban counties of Loudoun and Prince William.

Those days are over as well. Next month, the Virginia Senate will convene for its regular session, and it will be under Democratic control for the first time in more than a decade. The reason, to oversimplify only a little, is that the bottom fell out of the Republican vote in all of the Northern Virginia suburbs, from close-in Arlington to the farthest corners of Loudoun and Prince William. Fairfax County, still the biggest jurisdiction with more than a million residents, will send a delegation to Richmond with 14 Democrats and three Republicans in the House of Delegates, and eight Democrats and one Republican in the state Senate.

There are rough parallels to that story taking place all over metropolitan America these days. There is, for example, Kansas, still as reliably Republican a state as exists in the country in national elections but one that has elected a Democratic governor, Kathleen G. Sebelius, twice in a row. What's interesting is not so much how she has won but where she has won.

Johnson County, the affluent suburban jurisdiction across the river from Kansas City, Missouri, long represented the soul of Kansas Republicanism. In 1986, in a hard-fought gubernatorial election decided by barely 30,000 votes, Johnson County was reliably Republican. Two decades later, Democrat Sebelius carried Johnson with 62 percent of the vote - well above her percentage in the state as a whole. On the same day Sebelius recorded those surprising figures, Democrat Bill Ritter won a landslide victory for governor in neighboring Colorado in virtually the same manner, overwhelming his opponent in the suburban Denver territory that traditionally made up the core of GOP strength, Jefferson and Arapahoe counties.

One almost has to be blind not to notice what Virginia, Kansas and Colorado have in common: In all three, the Republican Party has become a militant voice of social and religious conservatism, on issues that include immigration, abortion and gay rights but stretch far beyond them. The precincts of affluent suburbia have simply refused to buy this agenda - even at the cost of abandoning deeply felt historical loyalties.

In the aftermath of elections such as these, a great deal has been written to the effect that America's comfortable suburbanites are simply moving left along the political spectrum, abandoning their red loyalties for blue ones. I think that's the wrong way to look at it. I think these big suburban counties are the national capitals of irritable centrism. They are feeling their way toward a different, socially more tolerant brand of politics than the one they have endorsed in the past. They are a long distance from being comfortable with it. But what they react against most strongly is any candidate on either side who turns up the volume on issues they don't particularly want to hear about.

This ought to be as much of a warning to Democrats as it is to Republicans. The irritable centrists of suburbia remain fundamentally conservative, closely tied to business and its values, loyal to the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club (even if they don't go there as often as they once did). It is easy to alienate them from the left, just as it is easy to alienate them from the right. A class-based populist campaign against the predations of corporate America is as unlikely to succeed in Johnson County, Kansas, or Arapahoe County, Colorado, as an unyielding social-right campaign against immigration, abortion or gay marriage.

What seems undeniable is that these suburbs are the places where statewide elections are won these days, whether the prize is a governorship or the presidency of the United States. The suburbs are nervous. They sense where the country is going, but they want to go there at their own pace, and without any militant marching orders. Candidates who understand this will have a crucial advantage, in 2008 and probably for quite a few years after that.


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