A Party of One: Clinton and the Democrats
Later this summer, 20,000 members of the Democratic party will assemble in Chicago for their quadrennial political convention. Like all such gatherings, this will be a carefully stage-managed production. Party platforms will be proposed and promptly adopted without dispute. Solemn keynote addresses will be delivered by Democratic sages to a nationwide, prime-time audience. “Spontaneous” demonstrations, meticulously timed, will fill the aisles of Chicago’s United Center. No fewer than 15,000 members of the media will be in attendance to cover the event.
And at the end of the four days, barring the unforeseeable, the Democratic party will, for the second time, nominate William Jefferson Clinton to be its standard bearer in November. Should he win the election and serve out his term, Clinton would become only the sixth President in this century to hold office for eight successive years, joining the distinguished company of Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan. At the moment, he has good grounds for thinking he may accede to that pantheon: he is now in the midst of a remarkable political comeback, one that seemed inconceivable a year ago.
Having suffered through most of his first term with some of the lowest approval ratings in modern presidential history, Bill Clinton now enjoys considerably greater popularity than Bob Dole (or his other Republican rival, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich). The highly divisive events of his first years in office have long passed from memory, and the ongoing Whitewater and Travelgate scandals, whatever may still come of them, have so far failed to energize the emotions of a broad public. In the early stages of this year’s campaign, moreover, Clinton’s team has proved quicker and tougher than its Republican counterparts, and voters have responded accordingly: when asked by NBC in May about a series of “hot-button issues”—federal judges, gasoline taxes, an increase in the minimum wage—they sided consistently with the President.
The President will thus in all likelihood arrive in Chicago as a solid front-runner in the polls, with the reasonable expectation of a post-convention “bounce” to come. For the Democratic party, it seems, happy days are indeed here again. Yet the hoopla to be seen and heard in Chicago will mask another, different fact: despite the revival of Bill Clinton’s political pulse, the Democratic party itself is in a near-comatose state.
Twelve years ago, when Walter Mondale lost no fewer than 49 states to Ronald Reagan, the party was still in reasonably good, if declining, health. A solid 50 percent of voters identified themselves as Democrats in 1984, against only 39 percent who said they were Republicans; the South still had a significant Dixiecrat presence in national politics; 34 states had Democratic governors; and Democrats still commanded the House of Representatives and were poised to retake the Senate two years later. Today, by contrast, a mere 37 percent of voters claim Democratic affiliation; after this fall’s elections, and counting retirements and defections, the political map of the Old Confederacy will have taken on the look of a Republican stronghold; only 17 states have Democratic governors; and with the loss of both chambers in the tidal wave of 1994, Democrats are out of congressional power for the first time in 40 years.
Nor do the numbers tell the whole story. The party is also losing its leaders. Apart from the President himself, few, if any, widely respected figures are on the scene, and fewer still who seem capable of turning around the party’s fortunes. Mario Cuomo, once the Brutus of Democratic conventions, met with a humiliating electoral defeat in New York state in 1994. In the past year, Senators Sam Nunn and Bill Bradley have announced their retirement. Dan Rostenkowski, for more than a decade the most powerful Congressman in Washington, is preparing to serve a sentence in federal prison for misuse of federal funds. Former party chairman Ron Brown, who shrewdly engineered Clinton’s 1992 victory at a national level, died in a plane crash in March.
Amid these political ruins, the President’s resurgence is an anomaly. How it came about, and what it means, is a tale worth telling.
The selection of Chicago as the site for the party’s 1996 convention is itself rich in symbolism—but an odd symbolism indeed for a party trying to put itself together again. For it was in Chicago, 28 years ago, that the party began to rip itself apart. Americans accustomed to national political conventions featuring donkey costumes and hand-painted signs were suddenly and shockingly exposed in the summer of 1968 to the televised image of Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley yelling obscenities at his fellow delegates from the podium, while outside his police force cracked heads in nearby Grant Park. Sent as a “spy,” Patrick J. Buchanan, then a speechwriter for Republican candidate Richard Nixon, observed the violence from his hotel balcony and muttered, “Jesus, we better watch what we say about law and order.”
The violence and disruptions of Chicago were only the most visible indications of a deep crisis within. The New Deal coalition that had sustained Democratic victories since the days of Herbert Hoover was coming to an end. Many of the old players still existed, but the issues had fundamentally changed. As Ronald Radosh traces the story in his new book, Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996,1 a younger and more radical group now viewed the liberal internationalists and labor unionists who formed the bedrock of the party as a veritable ancien régime, at once responsible for the disastrous war in Vietnam and deaf to the demands at home of blacks, “young people,” and the New Left.
Unlike earlier insurgencies within the party, especially the one in the late 1940′s to increase black representation, the uprising in Chicago was inspired less by a desire to influence the party than to take it over. The 10,000 protesters who arrived for the convention included a broad array of white antiwar activists as well as black militants and apostles of the counterculture. The themes of freedom, equality, and nonviolence, hallmarks of the early days of the 60′s civil-rights movement, had been replaced by confrontation and revolution. Radosh quotes the New Left leader Tom Hayden:
We are coming to Chicago to vomit on the “politics of joy” [the campaign slogan of the party's standard bearer, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey]. We are coming to . . . expose the secret decisions, upset the nightclub orgies, and face the Democratic party with its illegitimacy and criminality.
Inside the hall, Humphrey managed easily to defeat the splintered forces represented by delegates for Eugene J. McCarthy and the murdered Robert F Kennedy. But the wounds to the party went deep. William Safire, another Nixon “spy” who witnessed the chaos in Chicago, later wrote that the worst thing that could happen next would be for the losers in 1968 to end up as the winners four years later. But that, of course, is precisely what happened.
The critical shift can be traced in part to the institution of new delegate rules, put in place after the 1968 convention. Drawn up by a committee chaired by George McGovern, the new rules imposed strict guidelines on representation by race, sex, and age in each state delegation. This, in Radosh’s words, was “the Left’s revenge for the 1968 riots,” and it geared the party demographically toward the activists.
As Radosh notes, the new rules, ostensibly designed to open the party and make it more representative, actually made it almost comically un-representative both of the Democrats and of the country. At the national convention in Miami in 1972, for example, not a single farmer sat in the Iowa delegation, nor was there anyone from that state over the age of sixty-five. Among New York’s numerous delegates, only three representatives of organized labor were to be found. Nearly 40 percent of all delegates to Miami had done postgraduate work, compared with just 4 percent of the U.S. population. The full implications of the changes would become visible when McGovern forces from Illinois successfully unseated the delegation headed by Richard Daley, on the grounds that it had not met the racial and sexual quotas mandated by the new rules.
George McGovern, the man nominated by the Democrats in 1972, ran for the presidency on a platform of isolationism abroad, economic redistribution at home, and a more permissive social attitude. The mix may have pleased the new alignment of Democratic delegates, but it bombed with voters: Nixon won by a stunning 61 to 38 percent of the popular ballot. Yet, strangely, the party seemed to draw few lessons from the rejection of McGovern and McGovernism. Nor did it even have the wit to see, in the breakaway candidacy of Governor George Wallace of Alabama, a growing populist resentment of the Democrats for having abandoned (in Wallace’s words) “the man who pays his taxes and works for a living and holds the country together.” Instead, the party continued on a path that would further alienate traditional Democratic voters.
What sustained the party in the following years was Congress. Indeed, even as the 1968 and 1972 elections dealt body blows to the Democrats’ presidential wing, their congressional wing remained intact and even grew stronger. In the 1974 midterm elections, thanks to Watergate and the subsequent resignation of President Nixon, the fortunes of congressional Republicans collapsed. Their place was taken by a freshman group of 75 mostly leftist liberals whose victory sealed a Democratic grip on the House that had already lasted for twenty consecutive years and would last for another twenty. Only, these were not the same Democrats.
Nineteen-seventy-four saw another significant development as well, this one procedural in nature. The new crop of Democrats, no longer content to sit quietly while the old bulls cut deals and kept tight control of decision-making, took advantage of changes in House rules governing committee assignments and promptly ousted some of the most powerful chairmen. This was accompanied by an unprecedented swelling of the House subcommittee system: soon there were 172 separate committees, each chaired by a Democratic member with little allegiance to the once-dominant chairs. As the old seniority system faded, and the staffs of younger Congressmen expanded, a new Democratic power center was born.
This new regime soon found ways to accrue even greater influence. Increasingly distrustful of the Republican White House, Congress had already begun to give itself expanded oversight of the executive branch. Thus, in 1973, the War Powers Resolution was passed, requiring the President to seek congressional authority for placing U.S. troops in a combat area for more than three months. Soon, Congress would enlarge its supervision of foreign policy through widely publicized hearings on covert operations by the CIA.
In 1974, following a budget showdown with President Nixon, Congress won a concession that would dramatically alter its relationship with the White House. That year, Nixon wanted to cap federal spending at $250 billion. When Congress refused to comply, he in turn refused to sign twelve spending bills it had sent him, and impounded the funds. In retaliation for what it viewed as an outrageous abuse of executive power, Congress proceeded to pass the Budget Reform Act of 1974, which not only prevented the President from impounding money it had appropriated but also created a new agency under its own control: the Congressional Budget Office.
Suddenly Congress—or, to be more precise, the Democratic majority in Congress—had an entirely new arsenal at its disposal. No longer dependent, as it had been for decades, on the budget figures and projections sent over by the White House, it could rely on its own handpicked staff of economists and analysts to challenge whatever programs or policies the President might propose. Utilizing these alternative economic forecasts, it was then free to declare a President’s budget dead on arrival and proceed to create one of its own. By means of another 1970′s innovation, the Office of Technology Assessment, the Democratic majority could also challenge the integrity of Department of Defense programs, insist on more costly or expansive regulations and oversight, or justify cuts in defense spending and/or greater spending on social programs of its choosing.
In short, according to then-New York Times correspondent Hedrick Smith, the post-1974 Congress had “armed itself to lay siege to the executive branch.” Its surge of assertiveness would prove decisive in shaping not only the post-Mc-Govern party but the entire face of public policy. Whereas in the past the Democrats had worked their political will through a carefully balanced coalition of diverse constituencies to whom they were ultimately answerable and by whom they were ultimately disciplined, the new Democrats exerted their authority through committee hearings, regulations, and appropriations bills. By means of this thorough reshaping of the constitutional order, they were able to forge American priorities to a degree unseen since the early days of the New Deal—and, astonishingly, they were able to do it without having the White House in their hands.
For the next twenty years, the central tenets of Democratic liberalism were two: government expansion, and the solidification of congressional power. As to the first, Congressman David Obey of Wisconsin, a rare dissenter from his party’s habits, pithily captured the prevailing attitude when he remarked of a 1981 appropriations bill packed with extraneous spending measures, “It would have been easier to simply grant every American three wishes.” As to the second, changes in campaign-finance laws—still another innovation from 1974—gave rise to a proliferation of political-action committees (PAC’s) whose effect was to strengthen the incumbent majority. The Democrats soon discovered that they rarely faced serious threats at the polls, and could concentrate on accumulating and preserving their legislative privileges.
Similarly conducing to congressional power and congressional irresponsibility in those years was the growing role of the federal courts in mandating results that would previously have had to be fought for through the legislative process. A whole series of divisive issues—from busing and affirmative action to the management of prisons to the legalization of abortion and the separation of church and state—was taken up and heard by an activist judiciary. As court decisions increasingly became a favored means of enacting liberal public policy, Congress could focus on expanding benefit programs for the poor and selected middle-class constituencies—what David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s first budget director, would call “social pork barrel”—and consolidating its power.
The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 seemed, at first, to signal a retreat from this brand of Democratic activism. Carter, after all, was a Southern Baptist who spoke openly (and frequently) about his traditional religious faith and boasted of his success as governor of Georgia in reducing the size of government. Yet, appearances notwithstanding, during Carter’s tenure the Democratic commitment to government expansion grew apace.
And so, ineluctably, did the gulf between the aims of Democratic leaders in Washington and the views of the majority of American voters. It certainly did not help matters that Carter revealed himself early on to be an incompetent manager and an ineffective leader. Often at odds with a Congress controlled by his own party, he struggled vainly with a sinking economy and with foreign-policy crises that dominated the headlines. Carter’s misreading of Soviet intentions in Afghanistan, the bungled hostage crisis in Iran, his misconceived energy policy, double-digit inflation, interest rates soaring to 20 percent, and the relentless growth of government make-work programs all combined to discredit the administration and, in 1980, to defeat it at the polls.
In the judgment of the political analysts Thomas and Mary Edsall in their 1991 book, Chain Reaction, the most egregious Democratic blind spot concerned the grass-roots tax revolt emerging across the country in the late 1970′s. Beginning in California in 1978, the anti-tax movement grew to encompass a wide range of voters who had not heretofore been favorably disposed to Republican laissez-faire economics. Yet thanks to Democratic policies, these same working- and middle-class voters had come to look upon government with disdain as a mechanism for confiscating wealth—their wealth—and conferring it on programs which were having little or no effect in reducing the welfare rolls.
And so in 1980 the Democrats lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, and the Senate to Republican control. But still the party declined to heed the changes under way in the electorate. Four years later, the Democratic nominee—the one who lost 49 states—was Walter Mondale, a Northern liberal who ran with the support of big labor and on a promise to raise American taxes. Four years after that, with George Bush as the GOP nominee, Michael Dukakis led his party in one more run at Reaganism. Although he seemed a more centrist candidate, and could boast a record of genuinely strong economic growth as governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis was also a stern technocrat, uncomfortable with the deeper cultural and moral issues that were on the minds of the working-class ethnic voters who had been retreating from the Democratic party en masse since the late 1960′s. These so-called Reagan Democrats were repelled, for example, by Dukakis’s defense of a Massachusetts prison program that had given lenient furloughs to convicted murderers, and by another Massachusetts initiative prohibiting school children from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in class.
In the 1988 election, the Democrats would learn to their astonishment that the honorific “liberal” could be used, and very effectively, as a term of derision.
And so to Bill Clinton. In the wake of Dukakis’s defeat, the profound troubles of the party finally seemed undeniable. In only one of the past six elections had the Democrats captured the presidency, and in general the party seemed to have become stamped indelibly with an image of wasteful social spending, high taxes, and welfare programs that were making the plight of the poor—especially the urban black poor—worse. Put more starkly, the Democrats had emerged from the 1980′s as the party of poverty and federal bureaucracy. In the meantime, while the Democrats were sleeping, the Republicans had carved out for themselves an impressive new coalition of middle-class taxpayers, social and religious conservatives, free-market libertarians, and foreign-policy hawks, and stood forth proudly as the party of self-reliance and less government.
From this crisis, Bill Clinton emerged. An indefatigable and skilled politician, Clinton had once been both a protester of the Vietnam war and an active McGovern supporter. But later, as a twelve-year governor of Arkansas, he had conspicuously not followed the typical liberal pattern. For example, he supported the death penalty, and as governor he focused on issues of prime importance to the working and middle class, like falling educational standards and health care. At conferences, he talked about the need for welfare reform, and about the importance of work. He signaled an interest in a more active foreign policy.
Much of Clinton’s positioning was shaped by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), an independent organization founded in 1985. Key members of the DLC—they spoke proudly of themselves as “New Democrats”—were Southern moderates like Charles Robb, the governor of Virginia and later a U.S. Senator; Tennessee’s Al Gore; and Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia. In 1991, Bill Clinton became DLC chairman.
More than an informal group of Democrats with occasional conservative leanings, the DLC conscientiously sought to separate the party from its harmful attachment to welfare-state liberalism at home and isolationism abroad, and to recapture older Democratic values and older Democratic constituencies alike. Above all, the DLC stressed a middle-class agenda that borrowed much from Reaganism: welfare reform, crime reduction, free trade, personal responsibility. The breach between the DLC and the party’s reigning leadership was made clear when, in 1991, the Council declined to invite Jesse Jackson to its annual convention and endorsed President Bush’s decision to send troops to the Gulf to fight Saddam Hussein.
“New Democrat” themes also informed Clinton’s run for the presidency in 1992. During the campaign, he criticized the Bush administration for its failure to become engaged in Haiti and Bosnia. He called for an “end to welfare as we know it.” Perhaps most notably, he chastised a racist black rap singer, Sistah Souljah, at a Rainbow Coalition rally sponsored by Jesse Jackson: this was a clear message to white voters that the Democratic party did not need to defend or justify every instance of black behavior.
Today it is widely believed that Clinton campaigned as a DLCer only to abandon its platform once in office. But the truth is more complicated. The DLC did influence Clinton, but not to the extent that is often claimed, and its impact on the party as a whole has been negligible. More influential by far with the Clinton team was an essay by Stanley B. Greenberg, “From Crisis to Working Majority,” which appeared in the Fall 1991 issue of the American Prospect, a liberal journal of public policy.
Greenberg, a former professor of political science who had become a professional pollster, took stock there of the various eulogies that had been pronounced on the Democratic party since the Dukakis defeat in 1988. Like the “New Democrats,” Greenberg agreed that the party’s image was now inextricably tied to quotas, failed welfare programs, social permissiveness, taxes, and big government. But unlike the “New Democrats,” he did not advocate a shift toward the center. Instead, he argued, the Democratic party should assuage the growing economic and social anxieties of the “forgotten middle class” by offering a new form of liberal empowerment, “using government to secure prosperity in a very uncertain world.”
It would be giving the Clinton White House too much credit to suggest that the President’s first two years in office were informed by any single theory of Democratic politics. Indeed, the various scandals, backtrackings, and policy fiascos in the early months of the presidency made it seem that the Clinton team was blending the management talents of the Carter administration with the ethical sensitivities of the Nixon White House. But the defining event for the new administration and the party as a whole was, of course, the proposal for health-care reform: in both scope and design, Washington had not seen anything so grand since the Great Society programs of the 1960′s.
From a strictly political perspective, the notion of a federal health-care bill met the goals of both the DLC and Stanley Greenberg’s thesis of a “forgotten middle class.” And it also fit perfectly with Greenberg’s strategy of tying middle-class anxiety to a new dependence on government programs, in this case an insurance card that would link every American to a health-care provider. After all, Americans who had lost their jobs during the 1991 recession had discovered first-hand how insecure their own, employer-provided health care could be. Here, in short, was a Democratic dream come true: a new federal entitlement that was not merely a safety net for the chronically poor.
But as the myriad details from the 1,400-page plan trickled out, the package also began to look like a caricature of the worst excesses of Democratic policy-making. There would be price controls on pharmaceuticals; a federally defined list of benefits to be ultimately decided upon by the whim of Congress; penalties for doctors who dared to operate outside the new system; a network of providers that would cut the ground out from under private, fee-for-service medicine; new federal taxes; and a politically appointed national-health board to oversee the whole operation. In short, the Democratic dream was also a Democratic nightmare.
Moreover, although the President had declared a national health-care “crisis” as the main justification for such far-reaching measures, Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike were capable of reading the polls: the vast majority of Americans were content with their present arrangements and were not willing to risk what they had for the sake of an extravagant policy experiment. Once again, it seemed that the Democrats had misread the American people’s mood. The “crisis” having suddenly dissipated, the President’s bill never even came up for a vote in either chamber of a Democratic-controlled legislature.
Did this mean, at long last, that the Democrats had learned their lesson? Not quite. Whatever the President was thinking, the Democratic caucus in Congress seemed oblivious to the larger direction of events. Well into the first two years of the Clinton presidency, Congress had continued to act with a high-handed arrogance, and with a blithe disregard for the growing anti-Washington sentiment around the country.
The pattern could be seen most clearly in the House. There, veteran Congressmen like Henry Waxman of California and John Dingell of Michigan exercised tremendous power from their seats as committee chairmen. Although barely known by the public, they controlled more than half of everything Congress did each year. Waxman, chairman of the subcommittee on health and environment, spent his time pushing forward an immense and immensely high-priced agenda, and in particular engineering countless expansions of Medicaid. For his part, Dingell used his perch atop the House Energy and Commerce Committee to exercise jurisdiction over everything and anything that (as the National Journal once put it) moved, burned, or could be sold.
The high-profile public hearings held by these two legislators provided a vivid textbook illustration of a many-tentacled Congress, undaunted by the task of expanding its reach into every nook and cranny of American life. And as if this were not enough, the Democrats in Congress conducted many of their activities in secret, or under rules that permitted no dissent or even input from Republican opponents. Finally, adding insult to injury, Congress exempted itself from many provisions of the laws it imposed on others.
It was this image of a permanent and arrogant Democratic power structure, isolated and protected from public sentiment, and above all unaccountable, that fueled the Republican drive in the 1994 midterm elections and, coupled with the record of the seemingly hapless occupant of the White House, allowed the Republican moment finally to arrive.
The President’s own recovery from the Democratic debacle at the polls did not come swiftly. In his first press conference following the rout, a visibly shell-shocked Clinton stammered and fumbled as he tried to answer the question on everyone’s lips. Yet in the year-and-a-half following, he has proved a patient politician, and his patience has been rewarded.
In the shadow of November 1994, what few could have predicted was that the ousting of the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress would turn out to be, for the President, a liberating experience. Throughout 1995, as the Republicans set and moved their agenda, he bided his time, apparently content to seem irrelevant to the political process. But by the end of the year, as Republican designs went awry, Clinton was free to cast himself in a new role: the nation’s foremost advocate of prudential tinkering.
In the President’s newly authorized version of political reality, the Democrats, just like the Republicans, wanted a balanced budget—only, one that would not recklessly endanger programs that protected children and/or the environment. Just like the Republicans, the Democrats, too, wanted to cut federal spending, but not if that meant compromising Medicare. And the Democrats, too, wanted welfare reform, just not at the cost of ripping away the safety net from desperate families. And so forth.
Since January of this year, the President has appeared bent not only on imitating but on seizing the Republican agenda. In his State of the Union address, delivered in Reaganesque tones, he mentioned few government programs but invoked the themes of family, hard work, the need to end welfare abuse, and the American role as a beacon of freedom around the world; most memorably, he declared the era of big government over. In recent months, he has advocated repealing the gas-tax hike he had fought for in 1993; presented his own plan for a balanced budget; boasted repeatedly of having already placed 40,000 new police officers on the streets out of a promised 100,000 (when pressed, Attorney General Janet Reno could only account for 17,000); endorsed the welfare-reform plans of conservative Republican governors; and announced his intention of signing a bill that would deny federal recognition of homosexual marriages.
All this, moreover, the President has done without apparent consultation or collaboration either with the Democrats in Congress, or with those seeking office around the country, or, for that matter, with a number of his most vocal supporters. Some, indeed, have expressed their displeasure with the latest turn of events. David Mixner, a prominent gay activist and fundraiser for Clinton during the 1992 campaign, called the decision on homosexual marriage “nauseating and sickening . . . an act of political cowardice.” In Esquire, Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska was even blunter on the President’s transformation, telling a reporter that “Clinton’s an unusually good liar.”
Yet the President’s critics are helpless. The Democrats in Congress are now the ones who are irrelevant to the policy-making process; and as for the national party, regardless of where it thinks the President is going, it cannot argue with his remarkable prowess as a fundraiser.
To be sure, Clinton remains committed to a number of core “Old Democrat” causes; but this commitment, too, seems tactical rather than ideological. Thus, his education agenda remains tethered to the interests of the National Education Association, with its near-hysterical opposition to school vouchers—but then, fully one out of eight delegates to the Democratic convention in 1992 was an NEA member, and in the 1994 midterm elections the organization gave over 98 percent of its $4.4 million in designated funds to Democratic candidates. Similarly, the President has opposed all legal-reform measures, even those widely supported by Democrats—but, again, the trial-lawyers’ lobby is the source of generous contributions to the party. Finally, he mended his disagreements with the unions over NAFTA by promoting a hike in the minimum wage (to which union pay scales are linked), and organized labor responded with a $35-million campaign celebrating his accomplishments.
Just as the President is taking care to assure that the party remains on solid footing with its critical interest groups, he is also striving to retain credibility with the still-prominent liberal elites, including the various Hollywood celebrities who appear at White House functions. Hence his support for partial-birth abortions, and of federal affirmative-action programs. Yet these too are unlikely to be the major themes of a campaign which will, instead, promote an image of the President as the protector of middle-class comforts like health insurance and college loans and as a (gentle) brake on Republican overreach.
What Clinton is proposing is a diluted version of the Republican agenda—Newt Lite—laced with a handful of liberal bromides to help the medicine go down. This retreat—at once hasty and cautious—from so many things the Democratic party embraced as recently as two years ago may well help reelect him. But what about the Democrats in Congress seeking to regain a majority, or those individual candidates around the country hoping to oust GOP incumbents? Whatever he is doing for himself, for the party as a whole the President offers no theme, no vision, no set of principles, no distinguishing features, not even any grand promises. He is merely seeking reelection, not a mandate.
For what it is worth, the Democrats in Congress are wanly trying to follow his lead. They have, for instance, promised their own version of the Republicans’ 1994 Contract With America, based on still murkier versions of Republican themes. “We’re asking for a second chance,” said a contrite Richard Gephardt in May. “We may have made our share of mistakes the last time we had a majority. But we’re ready to work 24 hours a day to avoid those mistakes next year.” Yet no amount of remorse can mask the fact that the party today is woefully without a winning message. “Whatever we thought the Democratic party was,” says Chicago Mayor Bill Daley, son of Richard and one of the organizers of this year’s convention, “that’s over.”
If Daley is correct, then the best hope for Gephardt & Co. is long presidential coattails. But that may not be Bill Clinton’s strategy. Having spent a full year campaigning for the presidency the last time around, and two years of his incumbency trying to balance the demands of Democratic power brokers, he now finds himself enjoying popularity and success without them. In the long term, his readiness to abandon once fiercely-held positions at a moment’s notice may prevent the creation of a broad-based, middle-class coalition of the kind that will be necessary if the Democratic party is to be revitalized. But in the near term, the crack-up of the Democratic power structure has rid the President of much unwanted baggage.
Today, far from trying to rebuild the party, Clinton is trying to decouple the presidential engine from the congressional train. He has learned how the Republicans can be, at once, a steady source of new ideas and a perfect foil. Having seen where majorities took his party over the past two decades, and what little benefit they brought him during his first months in office, he may even be quietly hoping that the Democrats remain a congressional minority, and hence that much less likely to interfere with his second term.
1 To be published in August by the Free Press, 320 pp., $25.00.