Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- It is a very conventional bit of political wisdom that successful presidential candidates appeal to their base in the primaries and sidle toward the center in the general election. In fact, neither of the last two presidents won in this fashion.

In the Democratic wilderness years following Mondale and Dukakis, Gov. Bill Clinton labored for the ideological renovation of his party, emphasizing education reform and job training, economic growth and expanded trade, reform to make welfare "a second chance, not a way of life," law and order, and mainstream moral values. From 1990 to 1991, Clinton was the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) -- the institution most closely identified with pro-business, Democratic centrism.

Many Democrats resisted this makeover, preferring the orange shag and avocado appliances of unreconstructed liberalism. Jesse Jackson, at one point, dismissed the DLC as "Democrats for the Leisure Class." Sen. Howard Metzenbaum founded the Coalition for Democratic Values to spark a fundamentalist, Democratic counterreformation.

In 1998, another reform-minded Southerner, George W. Bush, was re-elected governor of Texas with 68 percent of the vote on a platform of "compassionate conservatism" -- at the same time Gingrich-Armey, government-shutdown Republicanism was taking a national beating. Bush was the most prominent Republican advocate of education reform that benefited minority children, inclusive immigration policies and community and faith-based answers to social problems such as addiction and homelessness.

In his first policy address as a presidential candidate, Bush attacked the notion that "if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved -- an approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than 'Leave us alone.'" One conservative publicly complained the speech could have been written by someone "moonlighting for Hillary Rodham Clinton." Having had something to do with Bush's speech, I believed that only this kind of early, ideological shock treatment could shift a durable Republican image of heartlessness.

Whatever you think of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both earned a reputation for centrism by taking difficult political stands during (and before) the nomination process. While remaining orthodox on many key issues, each candidate contributed a new intellectual theory to his party. And they forced Democratic and Republican ideologues to swallow a horse pill of centrism in the cause of victory.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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