The Atlantic | March 2006
ARIEL SHARON could boast of as daring a military and political career as anybody since Andrew Jackson, but he saved his biggest surprise for late in the game. The champion of the Right conquered the Israeli center. In doing so, he transformed Israeli politics. More than that, he showed the way toward transforming America’s.
Long before he became prime minister, Sharon was a founding father of both the Israeli settlement movement and the hawkish Likud Party. Yet it was Sharon who turned against his political base and his party to withdraw Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip last year. The public rewarded him with one of the highest approval ratings ever accorded a second-term Israeli prime minister, but Likud’s hard-line core remained bitterly unreconciled. And so in November Sharon, having run over his party but not won it over, abandoned it to form a new party, Kadima (“Forward”).
“With Sharon’s new party,” Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The New Republic shortly after Sharon bolted Likud, “Israel’s centrist majority has finally found a political home.” Until Kadima, Halevi noted, not one of the many parties in the Knesset represented centrist Israelis. Tectonic pressures had been building up in the Israeli center for years. When Sharon finally released them, they caused an upheaval: a new party, a new political landscape, and the marginalization of partisan extremists who not long ago had seemed impregnable.
Sharon was felled by a major stroke in January, leaving Kadima, and the rest of Israeli politics, atilt in midair. Still, his late-game maneuver deserves Americans’ notice, because Israel is not the only democracy where a neglected center is restive. The United States has no majority party. Republicans and Democrats are at rough parity, each commanding about a third of the country, each captive of a partisan base that is well to the electorate’s right or left. Neither party can govern except in coalition with independent voters, most of them moderates and many of them dismayed. By the end of last year, polls showed, independents had lost confidence in President Bush and his party. But unhappiness with Republicans did not translate into enthusiasm for Democrats. Independents rated both parties unfavorably. The center believed it had nowhere to go.
In a democracy, tectonic pressures can only build so long before making themselves felt. The question is whether adjustment comes in the form of a shock, as in Israel, or in smaller rumbles, as happened recently in Germany. There, in elections last September, voters refused to give either major party a majority, forcing the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats into an uneasy coalition.
THE AMERICAN equivalent of a coalition government is divided control in Washington. Political handicappers say it is possible that the Republicans may lose one or both chambers of Congress this fall. That would drag Washington’s policies toward the center and probably make independents happier. What it would not do is create a political home for moderates or a popular majority for either party—just a tug-of-war between extremes.
Sharon pointed toward an alternative—as does Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese prime minister, who is in some respects even more daring than Sharon, if that’s possible. His Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, has governed Japan for all but a few months of the past five decades; the Japanese public has long been tired of its rule but has seen no credible alternative. Capitalizing on the public’s disenchantment, Koizumi won leadership of the party and the country in 2001 by saying he would “change the LDP to change Japan.”
For a while he appeared to settle for sloganeering, but when the old guard of his party sought to block his most ambitious economic reform (a privatization of Japan’s postal savings system, which serves as a slush fund for special interests), Koizumi did the unthinkable. He called a snap election last September, announced it would be a referendum on his reform plan, and proceeded to campaign against his own party, going as far as to recruit candidates, known as “assassins,” to challenge LDP dinosaurs in their own districts. Imagine President Bush recruiting congressional candidates to run against Republican grandees and you get some notion of Koizumi’s audacity.
Not only did the assassins knock off many of Koizumi’s adversaries; the voters gave the LDP its largest parliamentary majority since 1986. The LDP’s main rival, the Democratic Party of Japan, had in fact proposed reforms bigger than Koizumi’s, but was trounced. Koizumi had captured the center, positioning himself and—against its will—his party as the happy medium between too little reform and too much. Koizumi’s personal popularity attained unheard-of levels. “He is so popular,” reported The Economist, “that when he was found to have served Mimolette cheese, a pricey French import, to a colleague in his office, Japan’s biggest online shop sold out of the stuff.”
Even the most boneheaded of U.S. partisans might wonder if there is something to be learned from Sharon and Koizumi. When the political center is empty, a bold politician can achieve spectacular results by filling it, even—no, especially—if he throttles his own partisan base to do so.
Can a base-breaking, center- stealing strategy succeed here? Not easily. In 2000, Senator John McCain ran against the party establishment for the Republican presidential nomination, and lost. He might hazard an insurgent candidacy again in 2008, but then again he might not. Even for a figure as popular and charismatic as McCain, the gantlet of primaries poses a formidable challenge to any candidate who bucks the partisans.
In Israel and Japan, Sharon and Koizumi betrayed their bases only after they were firmly ensconced as premiers and party leaders. If Bush, as sitting president, were to turn against his party’s right, the political effect would be electrifying. But Bush, though neither an ideologue nor an extremist, is a partisan’s partisan. He believes the lesson of his father’s defeat in 1992 is “Dance with the one who brung you.” Though he has proved willing—more willing than is generally acknowledged—to make excursions off the reservation by day (campaign-finance reform, the Medicare prescription drug entitlement, immigration), he is careful to come home every night to his partisan bedfellows.
So perhaps the ground will not shake until some far-future president breaks with his (or her!) party base. Perhaps we will muddle through with two immoderate minority parties sharing Washington and annoying the country.
Perhaps. Still, there are at least two reasons to think that base- breaking might happen here, and sooner than many people imagine. One is the immense potential payoff: whichever party finds and holds the political center, and does so while retaining the more moderate portion of its traditional base, will be the country’s majority party, possibly for years to come. Doubters are referred to Tony Blair, 10 Downing Street, London.
The second reason? Simply this: for a major politician to demolish his own party base seems unimaginable right now in the United States, but it also seemed unimaginable in Israel and Japan—until it happened. America may or may not find a demolition man, but it is ripe for one.