Moving Forward Through the Center

Centrists in America may feel squeezed between the extremes, but in allied countries around the world centrists are making comebacks, winning elections with the wind at their back.

Last month’s Israeli elections provided the most dramatic example, as the centrist party called Kadima – or “Forward” – formed by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rose to a resounding victory just months after its creation.

Under the leadership of acting Prime Minister and former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, Kadima rocked all previous political assumptions by offering voters an alternative between the conservative Likud and liberal Labour parties. Kadima successfully painted its polarized opposition as unruly collections of selfish special interests while directly addressing voters’ desire for bipartisan solutions without sacrificing national security.

Interestingly, by far the most serious electoral damage was done to the hard-line conservatives in Likud who had opposed Ariel Sharon’s plans for unilateral disengagement and the two-state solution. Likud found themselves unceremoniously dumped by Israeli voters, falling from a 38 seat win in 2003 to a distant fifth place in this election, winning just 11 seats under the direction of Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Kadima is not the only recent example of centrism driving political realignments.

In America’s closest neighbor to the north, newly-elected Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party found its way back to power not by simply preaching to the conservative choir but by reaching out toward the center.

Stephen Harper had to combat a reputation of being a stiff conservative from the Western Providences. But with his youthful style, combined with increasingly centrist substance, Harper was able to lead the conservatives back from the wilderness by highlighting his more libertarian instincts — dropping opposition to abortion from the party platform and supporting civil unions – with a basic belief in the virtues of environmentalism.

This softened his image and bunted the Liberal parties’ previously successful accusations that Harper represented a far-right social conservative agenda. Now in office, Harper has already begun pursuing tax-cuts and anti-corruption measures that show the decisiveness of the center.

Most recently, in Italy, the modest centrist technocrat and former Prime Minister Prodi formed a center-left coalition to defeat the ethically murky enthusiasms of billionaire Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s long-standing right-of-center government.

All around the world, from regions’ as disparate as Israel, Canada and Italy, the lesson is clear: If a political party wants to regain power, its best move is not to place any logical base but to reach out and reestablish its connections to the center of the electorate.

Certainly, in Britain – America’s closest ally in the war on terror – Prime Minister Tony Blair conclusively proved this formulation back in 1997 when he led the Labour Party back from a 20-year drought of power.

Previously, left wing labor leaders consistently put up figures such as Neil Kinnock and defended the party’s stated commitment to socialism. Taking a hint from Bill Clinton, Tony Blair took the left wing labor party on directly and rechristened his party New Labor, following a centrist path directly to 10 Downing Street.

Labour went from being marginalized to dominating the political landscape in Britain, making Blair the first Prime Minister in recent history to fend off three separate conservative party leaders in quick succession — the uncharismatic conservatives William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. In all three cases, these men were championed by the ideological party faithful but they failed to ignite excitement in the center of the British electorate.

Even with Tony Blair approaching the end of his time in office, his influence still dominates British politics. And because politics follows the lines of physics — with every action creating an equal and opposite reaction — a new young centrist leader has now stepped up to reinvigorate the Conservative Party.

The rise of 39-year-old David Cameron has led to a stunning revival of the conservative party in the polls, albeit years in advance of the next election. Cameron has made it his mission to revive the Tories by reaching out to the center in both style and substance. He counteracts stale old conservative stereotypes, describing himself as a “modern compassionate conservative" who is “fed up with the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster.”

Cameron discusses Tory approaches to social justice, campaigning under the slogan “we’re all in this together” all while buoyed by the energy and comparative cultural cool which comes from youth. Almost overnight, polls show that the Tory’s political fortunes have shifted against Tony Blair’s expected successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.

Ah, you say, it’s great that centrist political leaders are rising abroad, but why should it matter to Americans?

Because we are living in a time of great political transition — in the five years between 2003 and 2008, the world will see a changing of the guard of every major head of state — from the Vatican to the Middle East to the Western World.

In such a time of great change, the clear trend in recent western elections against ideological polarization and toward the vital center is reason to believe in a more unified western front that moves civilization not left or right, but forward.

At the same time, it would be unwise for right-wing conservatives to ignore these elections’ obvious lessons. Divide and conquer strategies may win narrow victories, but only for a time, before they eventually inspire a broader backlash.

Rather than playing to the margins, aim for a clear majority. To truly realign an electorate, it takes reaching out and winning over new converts. It takes tapping into the fundamental strength of the center.

John P. Avlon is a columnist and associate editor for the New York Sun, former chief speechwriter for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, and author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics (Random House, 2004). For more about John Avlon, visit his web site, Independent