The voters said they were sick of hard-eyed conservatives and bleeding-heart liberals. Why can’t politicians be reasonable, they cried. So politicians this year rushed by the dozens to the moderate middle. Boring, the voters said. Wake us when it’s over.
And so the politicians, desperate for attention, began attacking each other.
Nasty, the voters said. Why can’t politicians just be reasonable?
That, in short, is how this fall’s campaigns have come to be seen by many Americans as both dreary and offensive. All because everyone tried to be, well, reasonable.
Voters get excited if you’re enthusiastically for something or adamantly against something else, explained Gerald Post, director of George Washington University’s political psychology program. “The very word ‘moderation’ suggests a lack of passion in actions and feelings.”
Or, as liberal Texas commentator Jim Hightower once scornfully said of political moderation: “There ain’t nothin’ in the middle of the road except yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”
Far from the Republican rhetoric of revolution in 1994, the campaigns for both Democrats and Republicans seem focused this year on “kitchen-table” issues: tax credits for college tuition and job training, family and medical leave, and school improvements. According to one campaign slogan: “It’s the paycheck, stupid.”
As distinctions have blurred, moderation on issues has sparked another ugly trend - slugfests featuring personal-attack advertising, which turns off still more voters.
“The campaigns are so dirty and nasty that you just stop paying attention,” said Janice Wurn, a member of an artists’ co-op in Seattle, an area where GOP conservatives are fighting to hold onto their seats. “You have to go a long way to find out where these people stand on the real issues.”
Just about every congressional campaign is using a lot of attack ads, and that is likely to hurt turnout, said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. “It creates this choice between bad and awful. And people don’t want to make that choice. So they stay home.”
Add to all of that a stable economy and a lopsided presidential race, and there is a good chance that many voters may not show up just to elect moderates to Congress.
That worries Democratic candidate Dick Swett, who is leading in his race for the New Hampshire Senate. It has been a challenge, he said, to rouse voters when his main message is that the country should not move too far, too fast.
“Electing centrists to Congress does not mean you have a Congress full of vanilla, white-bread robots,” he said.
In 1994, the Republicans’ trumpeting of a balanced budget, welfare overhaul, regulatory reform and family values stirred enough voters so that they won control of Congress for the first time in decades.
Today, even many of the most fevered GOP freshmen have backed away from earlier promises to continue the GOP “revolution,” which voters decided went too far when the government was shut down twice during the budget battle. GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole’s big idea - a 15 percent cut in income tax rates - fell flat.
“Candidates aren’t sure exactly what voters are thinking, and who they are blaming. Or, if they are blaming anyone,” said Candice Nelson, director of the American University’s Institute of Campaign Management. “The best thing to do is to say: Just look at me as a candidate who will be your voice in Congress.”
The most overused word of the campaign season is “independent.”
Democrats, though eager to grab onto any Clinton coattails, still do not mention him in ads and promise voters they will hold the line against the kind of big-government ideas the president once promoted.
Most Republicans now describe themselves as “common-sense conservatives.” Freshmen Reps. Phil English from Pennsylvania and Frank Cremeans from Ohio have run ads touting Clinton’s praise for their support on issues like minimum wage.
The country might be at a point where big changes are undesirable, said Karlyn Bowman, a political analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Maybe Clinton has defined a new role for government,” she said, “a kind of small-issue platform that won’t precipitate big battles.”
Congressional candidates, however, have taunted each other with the strongest curse of the season: “extremist.” Their opponents, they say, will turn out to be as conservative as House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia or as liberal as Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Meanwhile, Democratic TV ads have morphed so many GOP candidates into Gingrich’s face that Wisconsin Rep. Scott Klug ran an ad saying: “If people tell you that I’m Newt Gingrich, you tell them they got the wrong picture.”
It is often difficult to categorize the attacks as either personal or issue-oriented, said Gans. “It’s oversimplification, it’s distortion, but it’s an attack on the candidate’s record or stand on an issue.”
Yet there is a certain irony, said Bowman, that “the campaigns are much more negative, while the candidates are trying to sound more centrist and positive.”