06/28/2005 03:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Lost Center

To paraphrase William Shakespeare, “Now is the summer of our discontent.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the latest Zogby International poll (conducted June 20-22) which finds George W. Bush at the lowest ebb of his presidency. The president’s job approval rating stands at an abysmal 44 percent. The disapproval is across the board: nearly two-thirds of all respondents dislike Bush’s handling of the Iraq War, jobs and the economy, education, the environment, and Social Security and Medicare. Moreover, on Bush’s two signature issues–the war on terror and taxes–his performance has wandered into negative territory: 50 percent disapprove of his management of terrorism; 62 percent dislike his tax policies.

In many ways, this season of discontent resembles 1992, when voters turned on another President Bush. That year, 69 percent said the country was “worse off” under the forty-first president’s economic stewardship than it had been during the Reagan years. But the more apt comparison may not be 1992, but the period immediately following World War Two. Back then, the returning veterans rejected ideological dreamers and wanted a strong dose of realism in their leaders. The veterans who entered politics -- best represented by John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, both of whom won House seats in 1946 -- were moderate and pragmatic. Nixon, for example, ran on a platform of “practical liberalism” as the “antidote [for] New Deal idealism.” Both men captured the “Vital Center,” a phrase coined by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. to describe the emergence of an era where winners extolled their management skills and downplayed any ideological predilections. The late CBS News commentator Eric Severeid once described Nixon and Kennedy as sharp, ambitious, opportunistic, but devoid of strong convictions -- unlike the young men of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal who “dreamt beautiful and foolish dreams about the perfectibility of man, cheered Roosevelt, and adored the poor.”

The present disillusionment is ushering in another new era of political realism. The seeds were sown in 2004, when moderates and independents voted for John F. Kerry over George W. Bush. Moderates backed Kerry by a margin of 54 percent to 45 percent, while independents voted for the Democratic candidate by a much smaller but still significant 49 percent to 48 percent margin. While Bush won–thanks to overwhelming GOP support (93 percent) and strong backing from white evangelicals (78 percent)–his poor showing among moderates and independents was a sure sign of trouble ahead. And the troubles have come. Today, only a third of independents and moderates would back Bush in a rerun of the 2004 presidential election. Iraq is a primary source of their discontent: 70 percent of moderates and 68 percent of independents dislike Bush’s handling of the war, and 63 percent of both groups say the war was not worth the cost in American lives.

But the political center’s disenchantment with Bush is not confined to Iraq. On issue after issue, moderate and independent discontent exceeds the national figures. For example, while 61 percent of all Americans disapprove of Bush’s handling of Iraq, among independents and moderates, those figures rise to 68 percent and 70 percent respectively. Similarly, when asked about foreign policy, 61 percent of all respondents disapprove. But 73 percent of independents and 70 percent of moderates dislike the president’s foreign policy management. Likewise on jobs and the economy, Social Security and Medicare, education, the environment, and taxes, large majorities of independents and moderates disagree with Bush. In each case, the political center’s discontent is higher than the national average. Even when asked about Bush’s handling of the war on terror, most moderates and independents disapprove (see Table 1). No wonder 57 percent of independents and 60 percent of moderates think the country is headed in the wrong direction, as compared to 53 percent of all respondents. What this data makes clear is that Arthur Schelesinger’s Vital Center has morphed into the Lost Center.

Table 1: The Lost Center and George W. Bush.

Moderate Response // Independent Response // Nationwide Response

Percentage giving George W. Bush either a fair or poor rating on his overall job performance
66 // 67 // 56
Percentage giving George W. Bush either a fair or poor rating on education
79 // 74 // 63
Percentage giving George W. Bush either a fair or poor rating on handling Iraq
70 // 68 // 61
Percentage giving George W. Bush either a fair or poor rating on foreign policy
70 // 73 // 61
Percentage giving George W. Bush either a fair or poor rating on the environment
74 // 72 // 65
Percentage giving George W. Bush either a fair or poor rating on jobs and the economy
73 // 74 // 65
Percentage giving George W. Bush either a fair or poor rating on taxes
69 // 68 // 62
Percentage giving George W. Bush either a fair or poor rating on Social Security and Medicare
75 // 78 // 69
Percentage Giving George W. Bush either a fair or poor rating on foreign policy
70 // 73 // 61
Percentage giving George W. Bush a fair or poor rating on the war on terrorism
54 // 56 // 50
Percentage of respondents saying they are proud to have George W. Bush as their president
44 // 44 // 51
Percentage saying the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction
60 // 57 // 53

Source: Zogby International, poll, June 20-22, 2005.

The Republican-controlled Congress is held in equally low regard by the Lost Center. While Congress earns a 70 percent a nationwide disapproval rating, among independents and moderates, that figure rises to 78 percent and 75 percent respectively. The implications for Republican office seekers in 2006 are ominous: one-third of all respondents would vote for GOP congressional candidates; but fewer than one-in-five independents and moderates are willing to do so (see Table 2). The turning away of independents and moderates from an ideologically-minded Republican president and Congress has undoubtedly been fueled by the Terry Schiavo case, the nasty fight over federal court appointments, and the bitter contest over John Bolton’s nomination to be U.N. ambassador. Add a contentious Supreme Court nomination to this issue mix, and today’s discontent could become a full-scale moderate revolt.

Table 2: The Republican Congress and the Lost Center.

Moderate Response // Independent Response // Nationwide Response

Percentage giving Congress either a fair or poor job performance rating
75 // 78 // 70
Percentage that would vote for a Republican congressional candidate in 2006
18 // 16 // 33

Source: Zogby International, poll, June 20-22, 2005.

For the moment, independents and moderates represent the Lost Center. But today’s Lost Center might be on the precipice of wielding far more political power. If so, watch for Bill Nelson and Bob Casey to prevail over Katherine Harris and Rick Santorum in the Florida and Pennsylvania U.S. Senate contests. What would characterize these Democratic victories in bellwether states is the repudiation of ideology and partisanship in favor of pragmatic moderation. Hillary Clinton has taken notice. On abortion and defense issues, Mrs. Clinton has cast herself as a pragmatist and rejected the ideological entreaties of her fellow Democrats. Those efforts have paid off in New York State, where Senator Clinton is headed toward an easy reelection victory. But nationally, this Zogby International poll shows her losing in a hypothetical 2008 presidential contest to Mr. Moderate himself, John McCain, by 19 points. Among moderates and independents, the Arizona senator’s margin increases to 22 points and 35 points respectively (see Table 3).

Table 3: McCain vs. Clinton, 2008 (in percentages).

Moderate // Independent // Overall

McCain 54 // 59 // 54
Clinton 32 // 24 // 35

Source: Zogby International, poll, June 20-22, 2005.

George W. Bush has lost the center. He may prevail in Congress and at the polls, but only by keeping the Republican faithful in line and mobilizing the party’s base on Election Day. But that strategy means the president must woo voters who are ideologically, not pragmatically, minded. While this strategy may give Democrats some comfort in the short-term, the Lost Center’s longing for pragmatism means that successful candidates from either party must reject both the “happy talk” from the Bush administration and the “just say no” opposition from the Democrats. Practical programs that promise real results are what these voters desire. Thus far, the Lost Center finds both parties wanting. But if it can find pragmatic candidates and a party that speaks for them, it has the power to transform American politics in much the same way that the Vital Center once did.

[ed. note: this piece is co-authored by John Kenneth White, professor of Politics at The Catholic University of America.]