Stalking The Radical Middle

Frank Luntz is staring at a dozen average americans. Half of them are in their 20s. Half ar nearing retirement age. They are the sort of people you see in the mall and never give a second glance--pleasant, unexceptional, profoundly middle class. which is just what Luntz, a Republican pollster, is looking for. He--and his client, the Coalition for Change (an unholy alliance of the Business Roundatable, Ross Perot's United We Stand and other groups)--wants to see if average Americans, young and old, can come to any agreement on how to balance the federal budget. And so he asks them, "Can you describe your feelings about the federal budget deficit in one or two words?"

You bet they can. Suddenly they morph from mild-mannered suburbanities to a half-crazed citizen rabble looking for the nearest available Bastille. They spit out their answers: "disgusting," "pathetic," "outrageous," "a joke," "revolting," and-an older man, laid off by a chemical company after 28 years: "It won't change."

"Why won't it change?" Luntz asks.

Hoots and tirades. Hoots about the nature of the political beast-the special interests, the pork-barrel projects; someone mentions the scuzzy, corrupt Washington revealed in the Packwood diaries. Tirades about the way money is spent-on foreign aid, on welfare, on the folks who buy T-bones with food stamps. The overall effect is explosive, a gale-force afterblast. During a break, I say to Luntz: "They're pretty angry."

"They're way beyond angry," he says. "They're hopeless. That's the big change and the big danger: they've lost hope." Indeed, when Luntz asks them if they feel angry or hopeless about the mess in Washington, most choose the latter. One man elaborates: "I don't really care anymore if they balance the budget. Why waste time on it? They aren't going to." No one disputes that. Luntz doesn't ask them their party affiliations. A few identify themselves as Republicans, others as Democrats-but those are minor details, not nearly so important as their generational interests (the argument about cutting Medicare gets pretty stark), not nearly so important as their frustration with both parties, and with the system.

That frustration is the central fact of the coming election season. It has been building, steadily, for a quarter century, but seems to have reached critical mass in the 1990s. The disgust is ecumenical, bipartisan. It wasn't alleviated when an incumbent Republican president was tossed from office in 1992. It hasn't been alleviated by tossing out an incumbent Democratic Congress in 1994. "If anything, the new Republican Congress has lost altitude with the public faster this year than Clinton did in 1993," says Gordon Black, coauthor of "The Politics of American Discontent." "Huge numbers of people are alienated, maybe as much as two thirds of the public. They're angry that government spending is out of control, that public policy is bought and sold by insiders, and nothing they can do will change it."

Colin Powell has called these people the "sensible center," as in: "The time may be at hand for a third major party to emerge [from] the sensible center of the American political spectrum." And that, of course, is the question of the moment: whether the most venerable institutions of American politics after the founding documents-the parties them-selves-are about to be challenged by an infuriated middle class. If that's the case, Powell's "sensible" formulation may prove tame. This guerrilla force is a radical middle, not a sensible center: anger has been gentrified and made respectable. The radical middle includes all the screechers and malcontents of years past--those who protested politics as usual by voting for everyone from George Wallace to John Anderson--but it's also grown to include your mild-mannered pediatrician, the florist on Main Street and Madonna's personal trainer (perhaps). It is closer in spirit to Ross Perot than to David Gergen. It doesn't merely split the difference between Democrats and Republicans; it has a distinct, coherent political agenda. And it constitutes what may prove to be the pivotal slice of the presidential electorate. Andrew Kohut, who polls for the Times-Mirror newspapers, says that nearly a quarter of the public now says it will vote for any third-party presidential candidate over a Republican or Democrat (more than 60 percent, in other polls, say they're at least interested in having another choice). "The ranks of the politically homeless are growing," says Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute. "They've become the most significant force in American politics."

Some of the frustration is unrealistic, whiny--the empty anguish of an affluent society demanding perpetual gratification. A lot of it is a consequence of real economic fears in a fibrillating global economy. A lot of the longing is for a hero, a leader-like Colin Powell-who will serve as national patriarch and make an uncertain time seem safer. A lot of the anger is misinformed: the budget can't be balanced simply by cutting foreign aid and welfare; the federal government subsidizes a fair amount of folly, but it's a relatively efficient processing center-collecting taxes from some citizens and sending checks to others (mostly senior citizens and, now, bondholders). Bill Clinton can argue, with some justification, that when real changes are made-reductions in the deficit and the size of the government-no one notices.

But people do notice the big picture. They have seen Democrats, and then Republicans, promise "revolutions" and not deliver. They saw that Clinton, who raised hopes by pretending to run as something new, succumb to his party's congressional leaders and special interests as soon as he came to power. A week after the election, Clinton had dinner in Little Rock with the Ancient Elders of the Congress--now gone and happily forgotten, trashed in the election of 1994-and immediately abandoned his agenda for political reform. "Clinton provided zero leadership on campaign-finance reform," says Ann McBride of Common Cause. And then, amazingly, the GOP revolutionaries of 1994 made the exact same mistake. "They defeated term limits. They have business lobbyists writing environmental legislation," says Gordon Black. "That sort of thing drives people up a wall." In a recent poll, 49 percent of the American people said the federal government was controlled by lobbyists and special interests; 25 percent figured the congressional Republicans were in charge; 6 percent said the president was.

Much of this is classic Ross Perot, who remains the founding father and crazy aunt of the radical middle. He still pulls middle-teens in presidential test runs, long after George Bush failed to disrupt his daughter's wedding. His issues--especially budget-balancing and political reform--remain at the top of the radical-middle agenda. But Perot has been joined by other, more substantial figures who are beginning to drift outside the traditional party structures--people like Bill Bradley, Paul Tsongas and Colin Powell (who's saying he might well run as a Republican, but has also said he doesn't feel comfortable in either party). And Perot's issues are only the most accessible tip of what is becoming a significant intellectual movement, nothing less than an attempt to replace the traditional notions of liberalism and conservatism.

"This isn't about finding the middle of the road," says Al From, whose Democratic Leadership Council has launched a nonpartisan "Third Way" project. "It's about building a new road." And while much of the action does seem to be coming from moderate Democrats-who need a new idea, having lost the last philosophical argument-there are surprising rumblings from thoughtful Republicans as well. "When the Democrats propose the bureaucratic status quo, our answer has to be something better than Social Darwinism," says Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, considered an arch-conservative in the past. "We can't just walk away from these social problems. At some point we have to figure out what to do next." And so, in the midst of last week's welfare-reform debate, Coats made a modest proposal: why not take some of the federal money routinely squandered by local welfare bureaucracies and give it to charitable agencies that do the same sort of work? Democrats and Republicans applauded. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it "the most compelling and thoughtful [speech] . . . I've heard in 19 years on the floor debating this subject."

The coats amendment didn't even come to a vote, but it is a leading indicator--a tiny part of a big idea whose time is coming. It'll never be anyone's bumper sticker; it isn't going to be a "hot button" issue in 1996. But then, the era of "hot buttons" and "wedges"--inflammatory irrelevancies designed to seduce voters--may be coming to an end. A public inflamed against politicians is less likely to be inflamed by them. And while a third party may not emerge in 1996 (especially if Powell turns out to be a Republican), American politics seems ready to be transformed. Certainly, candidates who hope to stalk the radical middle will have to address matters of political substance and style. Beneath the fury and the ferment, there seem to be four common principles on the agenda:

"This is No. 1, the most important issue out there," Bradley says. "You can't change anything until you deal with the money in politics." Yeah, but it's a tough one to explain-- and even though every politician in the world says he's in favor of it, nothing ever happens. But something may soon (no thanks to Clinton or Gingrich). "It's really different out there now," says McBride of Common Cause. "The public is engaged. There's a very good bipartisan bill in the Senate, and an identical bill is coming in the House." The "identical" part is very important. Campaign-finance-reform bills passed the House and Senate in 1998. Different bills. Somehow, Tom Foley and George Mitchell couldn't summon the energy to get the same bill through both. And Bill Clinton was too busy losing health-care reform to bother.

There is an abiding belief, even among some who are fanatic about this issue, that money reform is essentially impossible. Interests will always find a way to massage politicians. True enough, but it still wouldn't hurt to close the current "soft money" loophole, which lets political parties (as opposed to individual candidates) shake down fat cats for unlimited sums. And it might be nice if politicians couldn't accept "gifts"- dinners, drinks, vacation extravaganzas-- from lobbyists. The Senate bill also imposes spending limits, crushes political-action committees (PACs) and offers reduced-cost TV time. Of course, a true radical-middle candidate for president would make an extra effort to distance himself from the sleaze. He might run as Jerry Brown did in 1992: no contributions of more than $100. He might say no to 30-second spots, to negative advertising of any sort; he might challenge his opponents to do the same. (And if he has the moral authority of a Colin Powell, he might even get away with it.)

This was Perot's great contribution in 1992-neither Clinton nor Bush would've mentioned the deficit without him-and now everyone seems in favor of eliminating it. Sort of. A word should be said here about the Radical Middle "Lite" Agenda: the balanced-budget amendment and term limits. Both are gimmicks, but politicians stalking the center will probably worship at the shrine in 1996: they're very popular. Powell has endorsed the balanced-budget amendment-but in a rather creative way. He said it would mean higher taxes "in about five years" since Congress won't have the discipline to make the necessary cuts.

Which is why Bill Bradley is right: the budget won't he balanced until money power is limited. The Cato Institute has estimated that $85 billion-roughly half the deficit-will he spent on "corporate welfare" in fiscal 1995 alone. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have said a peep about this, preferring to argue over fiscal hiccups like federal funding of the arts. A true radical-middling candidate would put everything (even social security) on the table. He might even unfurl Bruce Babbitt's famous, hopeless 1988 campaign banner: "Vote Babbitt: Universal Means Testing for All Entitlements."

Colin Powell did a revolutionary thing last week, his first as an official noncandidate. In about two minutes flat, he gave Barbara Walters his positions on each of the hottest social issues. For abortion, reluctantly. For affirmative action, mildly. For gun control (while owning a bunch of guns). For capital punishment . . . And you know what? The sky didn't fall. His popularity survived (NEWSWEEK'S new poll). That's because the very prominence of these issues is a mirage, a symptom of the disease that needs to be cured: special-interest fanaticism. The real social crisis is more amorphous. When asked what troubled them most, 62 percent of Christian Coalition members cited a sense of "general moral decline" (only 10 percent cited abortion).

This is one area where the radical middle really is moderate. The dueling certainties of the Religious Right and Lifestyle Left seem equally arrogant--and somewhat off the point, which is the restoration of all sorts of civility: civil order (in the streets), civil society (volunteer and charitable organizations), civil discourse (in Hollywood and Washington).

This is the toughest to describe. It is what replaces the government we have now. "Systems of any kind tend to degrade over time," Jim Pinkerton, a former Bush domestic-policy aide, writes in a new book titled-aptly-"What Comes Next." Pinker-ton argues that the "Bureaucratic Operating System" of the industrial age needs to be replaced. And, in fact, there are dozens of different efforts underway-most of them small ideas, like the Coats amendment-to chip away at the old system and attempt something more flexible. The Democratic Party, which runs the Bureaucratic Operating System, has opposed most of them. The Republican Party, skeptical about any sort of public activism, opposes them, too. Republicans and Democrats haggle endlessly over whether government should do this or that, but they spend very little time worrying about how things are done- and how may well be the most important question of the new era. Much of the radical middle's anger is over how government operates: the bureaucratic flunky who hollers "Next" at the unemployment office, the blindly inflexible environmental inspector, the welfare caseworker more concerned with paperwork than with saving lives.

Clinton has attempted to "reinvent" government. But that's not enough: government needs to he replaced. It needs to be privatized and voucherized. It needs to replace social-service bureaucrats, as Coats suggests, by subsidizing the inspired and the altruistic. It may also mean a more rigorous form of national service, in which young people replace existing government employees rather than "supplementing" them. The goal is to get as many people as possible actively involved in governing themselves and caring for each other, if only for brief periods of their lives.

This is important because, at its heart, the fury of the radical middle seems to be an Information Age disorder, the product of our tendency to stew alone-staring into computer screens at work, blobbing in front of the television at home. People tend to be less angry when they have to interact with each other. At least, that's what Frank Luntz finds in his focus groups. Last week, for example, the youngsters and oldsters were gradually embarrassed-by the mere fact of their proximity- into compromise. The oldsters said they'd pay more for Medicare for their grandchildren's sake; the youngsters admitted they might have to pay more to keep their grandparents healthy.

Then Luntz asked them if there were any politicians they trusted to lead them out of the Washington morass, and it was back to hoots and tirades. What about Colin Powell? "Is he a politician?" someone asked. One word to describe him, Luntz asked. "Soldier." "Soldier." "Military," "Honor." "Greed."

Greed? "Yeah, well," a young man said. "He made all this money writing a book and making speeches." How many would support him for president, Luntz asked. Not a single hand. Not one. "What does he stand for?" an older woman asked. The radical middle won't give its heart easily in 1996, it seems. Unless it is handled carefully, respectfully, it may not give its heart at all.