The Art of Winning the Middle

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Forget "Honest" Abe Lincoln –- or the get-tough policies of Ronald Reagan –- the art of winning American elections today is all about pleasing all of the people all of the time (or at least pretending that you can). Call it the "radical center," the "New Middle" or the "Third Way," this is the mushy political space in which New Democrat meets Compassionate Conservative. Of course, if you’re of more cynical mien, you may be tempted to call it plain old sophistry. But there’s no denying that electronic-age politicians such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have mastered the art of appearing to be all things to all men.

And it's not just in the United States. Dissembling may have long been among the crucial skills of politicians everywhere, but now –- like blue jeans, rock 'n' roll and "Baywatch" –- taking the politics out of politics has become another popular American export.

Of course, if candidates are not going to risk annoying anyone by spelling out their policy commitments, they still have to sell themselves to the voters. This involves finding ways of generating good feelings about the candidate, pretty much in the same way that successful ad makers hawk their products less on the basis of their specific virtues than on the associations they invoke. And in the same way that ad makers look for those patterns of positive association that will turn their product into a market leader, so do campaign makers look to package their candidate in associations familiar to the voters while avoiding policy specifics.

In order to help pin down these policy-averse politicians populating the worldwide muddle of the middle, TIME Daily has developed six non-mutually exclusive archetypes to which every middle-grounder worth his or her salt will strive to conform –- and then matched them with some of the politicians practicing the centrist art today.


The White Knights

The White Knight knows you hate politicians, and that you’ve got good reason to. They trade on your sense that the nation needs rescuing by a hero untainted by the stain of politics-as-usual –- think Joan of Arc meets "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." The quintessential White Knight is the "Man on the White Horse," who quits a successful military career (or professional sports or show business, in less compelling versions) for politics. The White Knight’s secret is to always appear unlike "the rest of them," forced by patriotic duty to enter politics and save the nation from itself. Even functionaries who’ve served most of their adult lives in the political establishment are prone to reinvent themselves as folksy outsiders when candidacy calls. Think Liddy Dole.


The Inheritors

Just as the sins of the fathers aren’t visited on their sons, there’s no sound reason for assuming that the progeny of great leaders will make great leaders themselves. But the Inheritors benefit from a considerable nostalgia –- maybe a secret longing for a monarchy? –- which gives political brats an electoral advantage that goes well beyond name recognition. Consider the dynastic allure of surnames such as Kennedy, Bush and Gandhi. (Of course it helps when the candidate can be at once Inheritor and White Knight, a political neophyte with an epic last name, such as India's Sonia Gandhi.)


The Healers

The nation has forgotten its core values and is tearing itself apart; the Healer wants your help (or at least your vote) to put together that which politics has rent asunder. By definition, the Healer eschews traditional political debate, instead probing the seams of religious and patriotic sentiment for a message that will deliver the electoral mother lode. Throw a stick in New Hampshire in February and you’ll hit at least five would-be Healers. Ross Perot is a failed Healer. As Bill Clinton proved, the true art of playing the Healer is convincing voters that you feel their pain.


The Crowd-Pleaser

Crowd-Pleasers have the unique ability to score positive numbers in the polls without actually declaring either candidacy or policies –- rather like George W. Bush in the early part of 1999. Crowd-Pleasers try to mimic Ronald Reagan’s knack for making people feel good about him without ever really being able to articulate why (although unlike today’s wussy centrists, of course, Reagan actually took firm and controversial policy stands). Of course, media plays a critical role in generating those feelings. But it wouldn’t be possible without some basic charisma. They’re not sure why they do, but voters instinctively trust a Crowd-Pleaser. More important, in the absence of clear political positions, they fantasize that the Crowd-Pleaser is the personification of all their political desires. As in the old Bob Dylan movie character, Alias Anything You Like.


The Thinker

Bill Clinton may be the exception that proves the rule that a Thinker can’t be a Crowd-Pleaser. Policy wonks generally don’t set pulses racing, and tend to diagnose, rather than feel, your pain. But those not blessed with the charisma of the Crowd-Pleaser or the Healer can work a different seam of political frustration –- the perceived need for new thinking to break traditional ideological molds. Voters know the old models aren’t working, so a candidate such as Bill Bradley who can appear to be a deep thinker unburdened by partisan baggage has a kind of White Knight appeal to the more serious voter. The Thinker is the cerebral voter’s Healer.


The Difference-Splitter

Thinkers are inevitably Difference-Splitters, but Difference-Splitters needn’t be Thinkers. After all, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to pick out the most popular policies of both ends of the political spectrum while avoiding those dimensions that might annoy voters. His experience leading the Senate made Bob Dole the consummate Difference-Splitter, but he failed to package that skill correctly. The challenge is to find compelling new slogans for the age-old political art of compromise. To catch fire, Difference-Splitters need to put words like "New" in front of "Democrat" and "Compassionate" in front of "Conservative" and then get everyone humming their tune.

–-George W. Bush, Texas Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate
Inheritor, Healer, Crowd-Pleaser, Thinker, Difference-Splitter

–-Liddy Dole, Republican Presidential Candidate
Inheritor, White Knight, Healer, Crowd-Pleaser, Difference-Splitter

–-John McCain, U.S. Senator and Republican Presidential Candidate
White Knight, Healer, Thinker, Difference-Splitter

–-Al Gore, Vice President and Democratic Presidential Candidate
Inheritor, Thinker, Difference-Splitter, Would-Be Healer

–-Bill Bradley, Former U.S. Senator and Democratic Presidential Candidate
White Knight, Thinker, Difference-Splitter, Healer

–-Ehud Barak, Prime Minister-Elect of Israel
White Knight, Inheritor, Thinker, Healer, Difference-Splitter

–-Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesian Presidential Candidate
Inheritor, White Knight, Healer

–-Sonia Gandhi, Widow of Rajiv Gandhi and Candidate for Prime Minister
Inheritor, White Knight, Healer

-Thabo Mbeki, South African President
Inheritor, Thinker, Crowd-Pleaser

–-Tony Blair, British Prime Minister
White Knight, Thinker, Crowd-Pleaser, Difference-Splitter

–-Gerhard Schroeder, German Chancellor
White Knight, Thinker, Crowd-Pleaser, Difference-Splitter