Political centrism is in the air these days. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, under fire from Likud for the withdrawal from Gaza, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, defeated in his bid to remain as leader of Labor, have joined forces to form a new centrist party. Suddenly, the long-forgotten center in Israeli politics boasts the two biggest names in the country, and Labor and Likud have lost their duopoly.
In the United States, Republican senators are frustrating the White House by fighting extreme conservative policies. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the first Jewish candidate nominated for a national major-party presidential ticket, has been aligning himself closely with the Bush administration on the Iraq War to the consternation of his fellow Democrats. If John McCain's attempts to get on the good side of the Bush administration (by, among other things, criticizing Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) fail to win him the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, one could imagine that he and Lieberman might run as a centrist third-party ticket.
Even here in California, centrism is back in fashion. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, crushed in his special election, has outraged his Republican allies by choosing a Democratic activist as chief of staff. Suddenly, Democrats (including many Jews) may find themselves back on the radar of the governor's office.
Something is happening that is making purple a viable color again, after years of red and blue. Triangulation, Bill Clinton's strategy for navigating between right and left, may be back in style, at least for a while. Republican consultant Dan Schnur even suggested in a Los Angeles Times column that Schwarzenegger should run for re-election in 2006 as an independent.
Centrism seems to have its moment in the sun when there is a problem to be solved that the main parties cannot address and when one or more of the leading parties is rife with extremism. H. Ross Perot's moment of glory came in 1992, when he made an issue out of the federal budget deficit. Theodore Roosevelt emerged in 1912 when his successor, President William Howard Taft, moved the Republican Party far to the right of where Roosevelt had led it during his presidency.
While Jewish voters have a close affinity for the Democratic Party, centrism has a special appeal for them. Extremism in either party is always a threat to Jews; moderation is usually a safer environment for the Jewish community.
When the Democrats pull to the left, and Republicans offer moderation, Jews are tempted. That's why Republican moderates have often done well with Jewish voters. When the Republicans pull to the right, Jewish voters cling even more closely to the Democrats. That's why the rightist Bush administration has been such a dismal failure with Jewish voters.
So in a year when some Democrats are increasingly antiwar in ways that might make Jews concerned about Israel's security, and when Republicans conservatives are inventing a phony "War on Christmas" with anti-Semitic overtones, centrism might spell temporary relief.
In Israel, the issue that cannot be resolved in the two-party system is peace with the Palestinians. Undercut by Yasser Arafat's deviousness, Labor long ago lost the credibility to negotiate peace.
Arafat's refusal to accept the deal that he was offered by Labor at Oslo ensured that only the right could make peace, preferably Sharon. But Sharon could not bring Likud along with him. And so the centrist solution in Israel is essentially a personalistic politics of Sharon, eventually in alliance with Labor after the next election.
Compared to that alliance, the moderate Schwarzenegger and his moderate chief of staff are hardly an odd couple at all.
Even though centrism seems to be the preferred choice of most voters, there are nearly insurmountable obstacles to long-term centrist politics. While the voters don't care that much about politics, those who keep politics running have a passion for the enterprise. And party politics will eventually prevail again.
The success of third-party politics usually contains the seeds of its own demise. Theodore Roosevelt's progressivism became the mantra of Woodrow Wilson's Democratic Party. Once Perot put the deficit on the agenda, Clinton drove it home for a Democratic victory.
If Sharon and Peres can conclude a peace deal that really works, then normal party politics can resume in Israel with the biggest issue taken off the table. Whichever party then harnesses the forces of the center will build a majority.
A period of centrism, even if brief, can be a useful tonic for the political system. With three forces in the battle, the main parties have to improve their own games. They have to reexamine whether their positions have become ossified. They have to compete for unaffiliated voters and not just their bases.
The result is usually a new type of majority coalition. But history suggests that it will be one of the main parties, not an ad hoc centrist coalition, that creates that new coalition.
The ruling Republican majority in American politics is in serious trouble. If Democrats can find a way to maintain their unity in opposition and head off a centrist movement by creating a new center-left coalition, they will be highly successful. And the response of the Jewish community to their efforts will be the canary in the mine that tells whether it is likely to work.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at California State University Fullerton.
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