Commentary Magazine


Defining the Democrats Down

In Behind the Oval Office, his memoir recounting his days as President Clinton’s chief political strategist, Dick Morris writes that during the 1996 presidential campaign, everything the Democratic candidate said was read regularly over the phone to a cross-section of voters; their responses would determine the shape of the next day’s message. This, according to Morris, was the way Bill Clinton “conducted an extensive conversation with the public.” As the operation expanded, so, too, did its influence over the President’s campaign, until it was no longer possible to tell whether he was conversing with the public, or the public was directing him. At one point, Morris suggested that Clinton spend his entire summer hiking and camping: polling research had demonstrated that images of hiking and camping resonated with swing voters.

Morris left the Clinton campaign on the eve of the 1996 Democratic convention, embroiled in a sexual scandal that has since been dwarfed by his erstwhile employer’s own escapades. Today, Morris’s stinging observations about the current crisis in the Oval Office, appearing in a syndicated newspaper column, have made him persona non grata at the White House. At the same time, however, his deeply cynical approach to American politics has left an indelible mark on both the President and the Democratic party.

Morris’s most famous contribution to Clinton’s thinking was to teach him the art of “triangulation,” an overly complex term for the process of justifying any position the would-be President wished to take by locating it between two equally unreasonable and immoderate “extremes.” It was, indeed, the magic of triangulation that allowed Clinton to free himself from the Democratic party’s (and his wife’s) dated and truly extreme brand of 60’s Left-liberalism while still setting himself over against the putatively no less extreme alternative offered by conservatives and Republicans.

But the deeper lesson of the Morris philosophy, and the one that Clinton seems to have absorbed more completely, is that the most powerful political asset in the modern era is not clear convictions, not ideas, and not even majorities in Congress, but rather high favorable ratings from voters. And the way to secure those high ratings is to treat the American electorate as a giant focus group, testing whatever one has in mind to do or say—sending troops to Bosnia, framing a speech on welfare reform—by how it registers in the polls.

Today, Clinton’s favorable ratings have become nothing short of a political life raft, both for him and for his party. What is more remarkable, despite mounting evidence of presidential wrongdoing, an ignored agenda in Congress, humiliations abroad, and few signs of electoral success, the Democrats are enjoying a strange resurgence. In the midst of the greatest scandal since Watergate, they actually seem to have seized the national initiative from their Republican opponents.

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How has this happened? By any objective measure, the Clinton era has been calamitous for the Democratic party. Since the President took office in January 1993, the party has suffered a series of defeats at virtually every level of government and in every region of the country. At the time Bill Clinton was elected, 30 states had Democratic governors; today, the number is down to eighteen. If, six years ago, nearly 60 percent of legislators in statehouses across the country were Democrats, now only 52 percent are. The two largest cities in the U.S., Los Angeles and New York, have elected Republican mayors. And, most notably, in the midterm election of 1994, the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades.

There are other signs of weakness. Since 1992, nearly 400 elected officials nationwide, including five Congressmen and two Senators, have switched party affiliation from Democratic to Republican. Voter allegiance has likewise been affected: two months after Clinton took office, 52 percent of respondents to a New York Times survey said they most closely identified with the Democratic party; this past May, only 44 percent of respondents gave the same answer.

The weakness of the party’s support may help explain why it has failed to nurture a new generation of national leaders even as a Democratic President has been occupying the White House. The Clinton cabinet is uniformly unimpressive, and there are no promising legislators in either the House or Senate. The two most able Democratic governors, Lawton Chiles of Florida and Zell Miller of Georgia, are both stepping down this fall.

Prospects on the presidential level are even bleaker. Vice President Al Gore is the obvious leading candidate to win the Democratic nomination in 2000; the only other names that register a significant response in a recent poll of Democratic voters are Richard Gephardt, the House majority leader, and Jesse Jackson. None of these three is exactly a fresh face. In fact, all three ran and lost to Michael Dukakis ten years ago in the 1988 Democratic primaries.

As for the President himself, he has been busy doing nothing. In the months since the story of his connection with Monica Lewinsky first appeared, his greatest effort has been expended avoiding any public discussion of his personal behavior; instead, he has set his aides on an aggressive attack against the credibility of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel investigating the White House scandals. In the meantime, the initiatives he trumpeted in his State of the Union speech last January have gone languishing.

Thus, the President’s education agenda, including the rhetorically powerful proposal to hire 100,000 teachers, was easily defeated in Congress with barely a whimper of opposition. Another State of the Union proposal, to expand the Medicare program by making benefits available to lower-income citizens beginning as early as age fifty-five, had all the earmarks of success, yet it, too, seems to have been dropped from debate. Calls from the White House for new child-care benefits and an increase in the minimum wage have simply been ignored.

As meaningful proposals have been brushed aside, the list of trivial political gimmicks masquerading as Clinton policy has grown quite lengthy. The President’s plan to “save Social Security” is in fact no plan at all, only rhetoric, and has been treated as such by Congress. His “initiative” on race has been a national embarrassment, quickly degenerating into a series of opportunities for the President to participate in town meetings, still his favorite setting for uttering carefully phrased pieties. Other new “initiatives” from the White House over the past several months have included federal funding of bullet-proof vests for police officers, still more punishments for deadbeat dads, and a plan to conduct background checks on child-care workers.

Clinton’s domestic weakness has had an impact on his ability to conduct foreign policy as well. Although the President appealed personally to the leader of Pakistan to refrain from testing nuclear weapons in May, the appeal was politely ignored, as was Clinton’s prior request to G-8 leaders that sanctions be placed on India for exploding a nuclear device. In June, the New York Times revealed that Iran has long been violating a U.S.-imposed trade embargo by selling oil to Turkey—with tacit U.S. permission; our inability to enforce economic sanctions on Iran seems perfectly in keeping with what has been revealed about unlawful transfers of American technology to China. In the former Yugoslavia, the Clinton State Department has been protesting—futilely—against assaults on ethnic Albanians by the forces of Slobodan Milosevic. Only against democratic Israel, apparently, has it been deemed safe in recent months to display American muscle (and then only fitfully).

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Why, then, with so many legislative defeats, with presidential credibility diminishing abroad, and with a White House submerged in subpoenas and scandals, are the Democrats not slumped in dejection? Why, to the contrary, does the party appear more buoyant than at any time since the Republicans took control of Congress in November 1994?

Some of this surely has to do with the President’s approval ratings, which, against all odds, continue to remain solidly above 60 percent. Many explanations have been advanced for these high ratings, the most plausible of which point to a thriving domestic economy, a still-healthy stock market, and a world largely at peace. It has also been suggested, paradoxically, that thanks to Clinton, public expectations of presidential performance have been significantly lowered.

There is something to each of these explanations, but what they all overlook is the link between the ratings and what the President is doing—i.e., nothing. In other words, the fundamental reason for the high ratings may be a circular one: the President will not make a move without testing its resonance with voters, and the voters evidently do not wish him to make any bold move at all. For the time being, then, our political life is in stasis.

At any rate, and perhaps because they have nothing to lose, the Democrats have been following the President’s lead, taking their own page from Dick Morris’s 1996 playbook and “triangulating” every issue in sight. And again as with the President, the issues on which they have carefully chosen to concentrate their energies are increasingly symbolic, if not downright touchy-feely. The party that once agitated over staples like poverty, Medicare, worker safety, and environmental protection now focuses on such safe and virtually controversy-proof matters as patients’ rights, campaign-finance reform, and tobacco. On none of these three matters do the Democrats have the slightest intention of devising a substantive remedy.

No one could miss the irony of Democratic enthusiasm for a new federal “patients’ bill of rights.” Four years ago, the party came a cropper because of a White House plan that would have subjected the entire national health-care system to rigid government control. Today, the Democrats seem bent on exploiting the high level of discontent that has accompanied the spread of private-sector managed care; but their proposed solution—the pending legislation known as the Patient Access to Affordable Health Care Act—would, if taken seriously, subject the relationship of doctors and patients to an extraordinary degree of federal control and have the certain effect of hiking insurance premiums in a period when health-care inflation has finally been reduced to manageable levels. Luckily, the Democrats are not serious. The real purpose of the proposed “patients’-rights” legislation is to engage in partisan politics by tagging every critic of this outlandish bill as an enemy of quality medical care for Americans.

Similarly with campaign-finance reform. As has been pointed out time and time again, any legislation designed to penalize candidates who surpass an arbitrary spending limit would have the effect of restricting political speech and would be unconstitutional on its face. The same goes for bans on contributions from political-action committees (PAC’s) and spending on “issue advocacy.” But the fact that their proposed remedy to campaign-finance abuse would never survive a Supreme Court challenge is once again immaterial to the Democrats. The issue is merely a ploy.

Last fall, national polls showed that voters trusted Republicans over Democrats to deal with campaign-finance issues. And with good reason: for much of 1997, the President, the Vice President, and the Democratic National Committee were immersed in troubles over, precisely, campaign donations. Hence the sudden rally behind the McCain-Feingold bill, which serves the dual purpose of deflecting attention away from Democratic misdeeds and of embarrassing Republicans by painting them as conscienceless opponents of “reform.”

But the granddaddy of Democratic issues in the late-Clinton era is undoubtedly tobacco. The legislation that was finally stopped by the Senate in June, as empty and vague as legislation gets, provided an opportunity for political demagoguery surpassing even Washington’s normal standards, with the President describing opponents of the bill as “standing in the way of saving one million children’s lives.” For all the rhetorical heat generated by the issue, however, Democrats never adequately explained why the centerpiece of their bill was a $500-billion tax increase that represented the kind of regressive levy that Democrats have traditionally condemned because the burden would fall directly on lower-income households. Nor, in their insistence that the bill’s ban on advertising would reduce teen smoking, did they ever acknowledge the absence of any evidence linking advertising or promotion with increased levels of tobacco consumption. Once again, symbolism and name-calling were all.

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Patients’ rights, campaign-finance reform, tobacco: these have become the Democrats’ legislative equivalents of what in electoral campaigns are known as “wedge issues”—issues intended to score high ratings in focus groups and to spook the opposition. But here, truly, the Democrats have succeeded: the opposition has indeed been spooked.

To be sure, confusion has prevailed in Republican ranks for quite some time now. Ever since the disastrous government shutdown in the winter of 1995, congressional Republicans have failed to find a way of reframing the national debate on their terms. Moreover, on a whole series of major issues that once united the party—foreign intervention, taxes, immigration, free trade—there are deep internal fissures that Republican leaders have not begun to repair.

Still, in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, many conservatives sensed that the moment had come for Republicans once again to seize the political initiative. Writing in early February in the Weekly Standard, the columnist Fred Barnes predicted:

[I]f Republicans don’t screw up, they can substitute much of their agenda for Clinton’s: a ban on partial-birth abortion, a serious tax cut for individuals, a child-care bill far different from the one envisioned by the Clinton administration, a more aggressive stand against liberal judges and judicial nominees. And that’s only for starters. The opening is there, so long as Republicans don’t get sidetracked with intraparty squabbles over impeachment.

The Republicans did get sidetracked, however, and not by impeachment hearings. Instead, the GOP has been taken in by the superficial appeal of the new Democratic “issues.” Rather than attempting to establish an agenda of their own, the Republicans have found themselves struggling to come up with compromise positions that will allow them to escape the charge of being a party of, in effect, tobacco growers, heartless insurance companies, and wealthy industrialists who believe money buys influence. Whereas, in 1996, a Democratic President found himself signing into law a whole series of Republican initiatives that he awkwardly tried to claim as his own—welfare reform, a balanced budget, a line-item veto, a reduction in the capital-gains tax—in the space of two years the situation has almost reversed itself. The Republicans are now on the verge of crafting and delivering legislation to the President that reflects an agenda entirely driven by what was supposed to be a chastened and enfeebled Democratic party.

The electoral consequences of this state of affairs will become visible in November’s midterm elections. Although few believe that the Democrats have any chance of regaining a majority in the Senate, where they would need to pick up five seats, the race could be much closer in the House. The National Democratic Congressional Committee decided early on not to fund any challenger in a traditionally Republican district, which means that more than 50 GOP House members are running unopposed. This strategy has permitted the Democrats to focus on a handful of key races. A swing of just eleven seats, the smallest margin in over 40 years, could return the Democrats to power and make Richard Gephardt Speaker of the House.

Traditionally, off-year elections benefit the party that does not hold the White House. Not too many months ago, Republicans were rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation of a replay-in-reverse of November 1974, when, following President Nixon’s resignation over Watergate, the Democrats picked up 49 House seats; Speaker Newt Gingrich openly contemplated the possibility of a net gain this fall of 40 Republican seats. Today, Republican confidence has largely vanished. Unless the party succeeds in changing the terms of debate, a GOP sweep of both chambers will be hard to engineer.

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But all that is in the near term. In the medium and longer term it remains undeniable that, the present flush on Democratic cheeks notwithstanding, the party is in a bad way—indeed, the flush is itself a sign of just how bad a way.

As the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle, well knows, a united Democratic caucus is the most potent weapon he has; but one of the things that has enabled him to hold this caucus together is the fact that its current members display no firm allegiance to any set of policies or point of view. Even now, unlike the Republicans who ran under a unified “Contract” in 1994, the party is encouraging prospective Democratic candidates in November to articulate whatever platform suits them. According to the Washington Post, a sizable number of Democrats hoping for election have been espousing pro-life, anti-gun-control, and small-government platforms. Having abandoned traditional Democratic themes and even traditional Democratic constituencies—there have been, for example, no efforts to advance legislation that would appease the party’s numerous black or gay activists—the Democrats will find it increasingly hard to energize their “base” voters of teachers, union members, and minorities.

The party is also hurting for money. Indeed, the 1994 loss of majority status in both houses of Congress, followed quickly by revelations of campaign-funding malfeasance, has rendered the Democrats financially more desperate than at any time in recent memory. So cash-starved is the party that in April its national headquarters sent over $1 million in “soft money”—i.e., donations that cannot be used directly for political races—to state parties, which then immediately returned it in the form of “hard-money” contributions. While both parties have long resorted to such sleights-of-hand in specific races, this was the first time the ruse has been conducted on such a massive scale. Financial straits also explain why it was so important this past June for organized labor to defeat the “pay-check protection” referendum (Proposition 226) in California. Had the proposition succeeded, unions would have been prevented from directing a portion of their members’ dues to political activity, thus cutting off one of the major sources of Democratic money.

But the Democrats’ largest problem, and the one accounting for the long catalogue of weaknesses I enumerated earlier, is the loss of identity. Since the defeat of Jimmy Carter by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the spread of popular conservative politics in the United States, professional Democrats have been agonizing over the future. When, in 1992, Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency along with fresh Democratic majorities in Congress, hopes ran high that he would oversee the revival both of the party and of American liberalism. It was widely believed at the time that the most promising path forward was some form of “New Democratic” agenda that would steer the party successfully away from the McGovernite brand of liberalism that had dominated it in the 70’s and 80’s.

Now, six years into Clinton’s presidency, the debate over political ideology is still unresolved. Some conservative journalists, including Robert Novak, have argued all along that, whatever platform he ran on to get elected, the President remains a deeply rooted old-style liberal, willing to expand government and promote McGovern- or Ted Kennedy-style causes whenever politically feasible. By contrast, Al From, the leader of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, contends that Clinton is not only a New Democrat himself but has successfully spread New Democratic ideas throughout the party.

Each of these interpretations, as well as others more nuanced than they, misses the mark. The Democratic party is not rooted in the 60’s past, and it is not headed toward the New Democratic future; it is not moving in any particular direction. It is merely aping the modus operandi of a President who has learned how to remain “popular” while having no genuine source of political strength or adhering to any particular set of principles. In the current age, both the old “progressive” liberalism of Ted Kennedy and the new centrist liberalism of Al From have been trumped by the focus-group liberalism of Bill Clinton.

It is important to distinguish here, for it could be plausibly objected that the Republicans’ Contract With America in 1994 was equally dependent on survey data and focus groups. The difference is that the ideas advanced by congressional Republicans in that year—a balanced budget, term limits, congressional accountability—were all well-established policies of the party. The provisions of the Contract With America were, moreover, but the fine print of a broader theme—the perils of big-government and welfare-state liberalism—and of a common Republican ideology that every candidate could run on.

Democrats, by contrast, have only Joe Camel and the Ken Starr “witch hunt” to fall back on. Lacking any larger theme or deep-seated belief, the party, like the President, now seems destined to spend the next two years jumping from one hot-button issue to the next, pinning its hopes on the continued self-destructiveness of the GOP and on continued high approval ratings for the President. The first may be a relatively safe bet; the second is a thin reed on which to hang the future of a national political party.

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By now, as TV pundit Christopher Matthews has observed, there has accumulated “an O.J. level of evidence” that Bill Clinton engaged in a sordid sexual relationship with a White House intern half his age, lied about it point-blank to the American people, denied it during a sworn deposition, and possibly directed others to prevent federal investigators from learning the truth. What is the party doing about this? When first faced with the prospect of an imminently imploding presidency in January, Democrats across the country understandably hesitated to react; but no elected leaders rushed to the President’s defense, or branded the charges implausible on their face. It was only as the weeks went by and the President’s approval ratings recovered that Democrats in Congress and around the country decided, after all, to keep their party’s wagon hitched to the fortunes of Bill Clinton. They are, in effect, betting that the public does not care whether the President is, as the columnist Michael Kelly has called him, a shocking liar.

The decision to stick with Clinton rather than break ranks (as many Republicans did with Nixon in the final months of Watergate) may well represent a turning point. Instead of using this election year to develop a compelling alternative to Republican ideas, the Democratic party has embraced a crass populism and a pragmatic cynicism learned at the feet of its current master. Unfortunately, this means that, without alternative leaders, without a comprehensive agenda, without even the financial support to compete against established Republicans, the Democratic party has only Bill Clinton to save it.

In The Agenda, Bob Woodward’s inside view of economic policy making during the early years of the administration, Clinton is quoted as telling his aides: “I could never have survived the presidential campaign of ’92—never—if it had just been a personal odyssey.” Now, in the twilight of his presidency, the Democratic party has become little more than a minor bit player in the personal odyssey of Bill Clinton. Elected in 1992 to bring the Democratic party back to the mainstream, he has instead succeeded in making the party over in his own corrupt image. Whether or not he survives, it is sinking ever deeper into a morass.

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About the Author

Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm.




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