The Lost Middle

It might be tough for a Republican closely associated with the Bush administration to win the presidency.

According to a Gallup Poll, the most admired women in America as of December 2004 were Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and TV host Oprah Winfrey. The two women had an interesting, and possibly politically significant, encounter at the International Emmy Awards ceremony on November 21.

"I hope you do us the privilege of running for office," Winfrey said as she introduced Clinton at the New York City ceremony. Then after a burst of applause, Winfrey added, "president of the United States." Was that an endorsement? It's not clear. But Oprah Winfrey has a huge following, particularly among women. When Oprah endorses a book, it instantly becomes a best-seller. What would happen if she were to endorse a politician?

Right now, Clinton is the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. The front-runner for the Republican nomination is Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

What would a Clinton-McCain contest look like? A Gallup poll taken in October for USA Today and CNN pitted the two front-runners against each other. The result: Among likely voters, McCain led Clinton by 10 points, 53 percent to 43 percent. The reason? Men. They favored McCain by 23 points. Women were evenly divided, giving Clinton and McCain 48 percent each. Maybe an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey could make a difference. If she were to rally women for Hillary Clinton, the hypothetical race could become a lot tighter.

Some Republicans are trying to get Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to run for president. Rice ranked fourth, behind Laura Bush, in the list of most-admired women. What would a Rice-Clinton race look like? Gallup found Clinton running 9 points ahead, 53 percent to 44 percent. The reason? Women. They preferred the Democrat by 16 points. Men couldn't make up their minds: 49 percent were for Clinton, 48 percent for Rice.

When American voters select a national leader, they think of themselves as choosing a commander-in-chief. That's because the U.S. Constitution designates the president as commander-in-chief of the nation's military forces. Still, you can't say that military experience is an unwritten requirement for becoming president. Bill Clinton had no military experience, and George W. Bush's was limited.

But those men first won the presidency during "the interwar period," between the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the beginning of the war on terrorism in 2001. For those 10 years, national security just about vanished from the nation's agenda. In 1999, President Clinton called that decade "an extraordinary moment when there is no overriding threat to our security." In June 2001, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger published a book asking, Does America Need a Foreign Policy?

Now, of course, national security looms much larger. That change would appear to create a problem for female presidential candidates, because of sexual stereotyping and because fewer women have had military experience. Sen. Clinton has made an effort to compensate by becoming the first New York senator to serve on the Armed Services Committee and the only senator to sit on the Transformation Advisory Group to the Pentagon Joint Forces Command. Still, when it comes to national security experience, it's hard to beat a former White House national security adviser and a current secretary of State.

Nevertheless, the Gallup Poll suggests that Rice would lose to Clinton. Rice bears the burden of being closely identified with Bush and his policies, particularly the Iraq war. Supporting the war appears to be less of a problem for McCain. After all, he is not a member of the Bush administration. Although McCain has supported the war, he has also been an independent voice. "There is an undeniable sense that things are slipping," McCain said in a speech about Iraq last month. "More violence on the ground, declining [U.S.] domestic support for the war.... We need to make several significant policy changes."

How much of a burden has Bush become? The October USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll asked: "Suppose there was an election for president this year. If George W. Bush were running for re-election, in general, would you be more likely to vote for Bush or for the Democratic Party's candidate for president?" The generic Democrat beat Bush by 15 points, 55 percent to 40 percent. That's a bigger margin than Clinton over Rice (9 points) or McCain over Clinton (10 points). In fact, Bush lost to the generic Democrat by double-digit margins among both men and women.

Bush has lost the middle in American politics. Among self-described independents and moderates, "the Democrat" defeated Bush by 2-to-1: 66 percent to 29 percent among moderates, 61 percent to 31 percent among independents. Rice's showing reflects Bush's weak standing with the middle. Moderates preferred Clinton to Rice by 24 points. Independents favored Clinton by 11 points.

McCain does not share that weakness. Against Hillary Clinton, the senator from Arizona ran just as strongly as Rice among Republicans and conservatives. But McCain had greater appeal than Rice among moderates and independents. He led Clinton by 15 points in both groups. The middle still matters in American politics. Right now, a Republican closely associated with the Bush administration has trouble holding the middle against Hillary Clinton.