10/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Moving to the Radical Center

In the final weeks, presidential campaigns typically move to the political center to win independent swing voters, but the process is complicated by the fact that there are two distinct centers in American politics. As the New Republic's John Judis has noted, there is the "moderate middle," occupied by fiscally conservative and socially liberal upscale white voters; and the "radical center," consisting of the mirror opposite -- white working class voters who are economically liberal, culturally conservative and tough on national security.

It is now clear that both candidates for president believe the election boils down to who can win the radical center. If the moderate middle, with its wealth, funds political campaigns, the radical center, with its numbers, decides them.

In their most important decisions to date -- whom to pick for vice president -- Barack Obama and John McCain both chose candidates likely to appeal to white working class voters, Scranton-born Joe Biden and "hockey mom" Sarah Palin. Yes, Biden shores up Obama's foreign policy credentials and adds greater experience to the ticket; and Palin appeals to white women and to the Republican base. But Biden's and Palin's populist profiles and convention speeches were aimed directly at radical center voters who have been the linchpin of every successful campaign, Republican or Democratic, in the past 40 years. Representing half the voting population, non-college educated white voters have shifted back and forth, mostly to the Republicans (as Nixon's "silent majority," Reagan Democrats, and Gingrich's angry white men), but sometimes toward the Democrats (voting for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Congressional Democrats in 2006).

Obama and Biden would seem to have the upper hand, given the miserable state of the economy, their economically populist program, and McCain's remarkably out-of-touch comments. (Most working class voters know how many houses they own.) McCain and Palin, however, have recent history on their side, as cultural populism has routinely trumped economic populism. According to political analyst Ruy Teixeira, Al Gore lost the noncollege educated white vote by 17 points in 2000 and John Kerry by 23 points in 2004. While the military used to be full of Democrats and the Ivy League full of Republicans, notes Georgetown University's Anthony Carnevale, now the reverse is true.

Traditionally, Republicans have appealed to radical center voters by arguing that Democrats are cultural elitists, weak on national security, and favor minorities. The first two arguments were front and center at the Republican convention; while the latter was held in reserve.

In her acceptance speech, Sarah Palin attacked the elite media and revived Obama's comments at a San Francisco fundraiser that working class voters are "bitter" and "cling" to religion and guns. As a state-school graduate and small town resident, with a husband who is a union member and snowmobiler, Palin's critique had far more bite than similar arguments made by McCain (and, before that, Hillary Clinton). On national security, Mike Huckabee hit Obama hard for his willingness to sit down and talk with America's enemies, claiming McCain wants to hunt down fanatics while Obama wants to give them "a place setting at the table."

Of course, Obama knows these vulnerabilities and has moved to the center on both cultural issues and national defense. In recent weeks, he endorsed a Supreme Court decision on gun control; supported the death penalty for child rapists; donned a flag pin; backed restrictions on late term abortions, voted for wire tapping and began emphasizing the need to increase troops in Afghanistan. Significantly, Obama has not similarly pivoted to the right on bread and butter economic issues where he is already in sync with the radical center: calling for a middle class tax cut, supporting labor unions, improving public schools and providing broader access to health care.

But waiting in the wings is the issue of race. At the convention, Republicans made no overt racial appeals, perhaps because American voters, to their credit, are now turned off by racist tactics. But it seems only a matter of time before conservatives will target Obama's Achilles heel -- his support for affirmative action. The issue isn't salient now, but with anti-racial preference initiatives slated to be on the November ballot in Nebraska and Colorado, affirmative action could play the role that welfare, crime and busing did in earlier elections.

Democratic support for racial preferences has always been unpopular, but for Obama, affirmative action fuses vulnerabilities raised by the two most combustible moments of the primary campaign -- his longtime association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his apparent condescension toward bitter low income whites. The idea behind affirmative action - that whites owe a debt the blacks for the history of, and ongoing reality of, racial discrimination - is unpopular with whites, particularly in tough economic times, and may remind them of precisely the type of angry black militancy that Obama said marked Wright's generation, not his. Likewise, if Obama accuses McCain of racism or divisiveness for raising the issue of affirmative action, he could reignite the same class divisions inspired by his remarks to San Francisco donors. While affirmative action has strong support from elites, including the business community and higher education leaders, voter initiatives in California, Washington and Michigan have revealed powerful opposition from rank and file white voters who see racial preferences, not attempts to abolish them, as divisive. Suggestions that their embrace of colorblindness is unenlightened will only worsen Obama's predicament.

Thus far, Obama has sent conflicting signals on affirmative action, saying, on the one hand, that his own privileged daughters do not deserve a preference in college admissions, yet strongly opposing McCain's decision to back a ballot measure to ban racial preferences. To win working class voters, Obama must make clear that he will not play racial favorites, and empathizes with the struggle of all working class people. The best way to do that is to forthrightly declare, as he has hinted, that he favors shifting the basis of affirmative action from race to class. The move would not only be good defense; it would amplify the Obama campaign's most powerful theme: of moving beyond old divisions to bring the country together.

But would shifting to the radical center on national security, culture and affirmative action look inconsistent and simply affirm the stereotype that liberals don't stand for anything? Not at all. For years, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman ran and governed as "tough liberals" -- strong on national security, supportive of civil rights (but never racial preferences) and champions of economic mobility -- and often won decisive electoral victories.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Barack Obama and Joe Biden could knit together a radical centrist agenda around a simple and coherent theme: the need to promote greater economic and political democracy. This profound commitment to democracy was central to the thinking of one of America's last great "tough liberals," teacher union leader Albert Shanker, who strongly supported public education and trade unions while also fiercely opposing dictatorships abroad and racial preferences at home.

At Shanker's memorial service in 1997, Bill Clinton noted, "Al Shanker would say something on one day that would delight liberals and infuriate conservatives. The next day, he would make conservatives ecstatic and the liberals would be infuriated." But during his lifetime, Shanker emphasized the common democratic thread of his positions. To Shanker, trade unions were not just economic interest groups but were critical institutions in a democracy -- giving workers a democratic voice in the workplace and in the Congress. Likewise, public schools were more than places to train future employees to compete internationally; they were institutions that taught democratic citizenship and helped bind children from vastly different backgrounds together to teach them what it means to be an American. The centrality of democracy, however, also drove Shanker to be a strong internationalist and defense hawk who believed America should project its values abroad and be the world's leading voice against dictatorships on the left and right. And he believed that it was essential that a liberal democracy have a single standard for individuals of all races and that affirmative action should be open to low income people irrespective of race.

As the polls tighten with the McCain-Palin ticket pushing the mantra of "reform," it will become all the more important for Obama and Biden to distinguish the type of "change" each campaign offers. Were Obama and Biden to tie their various policy proposals to the theme of promoting economic and political democracy, they could blunt Republican efforts to paint Democrats as elitists who look down upon radical centrist voters. They could also sharpen the debate, making clear that McCain and Palin's hostility to organized labor and support for private school vouchers were not just wrong but undermine American democracy. Most importantly, a coherent democratic theme would give Obama and Biden a great and noble vision to implement once elected.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy.