Commentary Magazine

Why the Democrats Finally Won

The Democrats have finally recaptured the White House, led by a fresh ticket that distanced itself from conventional liberalism, and abetted by George Bush and, in a sense, Mikhail Gorbachev.

“The economy, stupid,” read a famous sign in the Clinton/Gore headquarters in Little Rock, and exit polls ultimately confirmed that the economy was by far the leading issue on the minds of voters. Forty-three percent of those asked to name one or two issues that “mattered most” in deciding their vote cited the economy or jobs; of these voters, only one-quarter wanted to reelect the President, the same number as preferred the independent candidate H. Ross Perot, while fully half of them voted for Bill Clinton.1

In part George Bush was just unlucky. Most economists know very well what few voters want to hear—that a President’s control over the vagaries of the business cycle is very limited. In effect this is what Bush said in his first response to the recession that began in mid-1990, when he assured Americans that prosperity would return before long in the natural course of things. By the usual definition, the recession did end at some point in 1991, but no clear recovery ensued and Bush’s early reassurances came back to haunt him, reinforcing his image as a patrician out of touch with the woes of the common man.

As the economy’s sputterings wore out the patience of the electorate, Bush cast about for palliatives to match those being offered by the Democrats. All he could come up with, however, were either Democratic-type programs like public works (for that, who needs Republicans?) or gimmicks. The first gimmick, announced in the State of the Union address last January, was to instruct the Internal Revenue Service to withhold less in income tax from each earner’s pay check, recouping the difference through a higher tax bill at the end of the year. Since taxpayers have a lot of freedom to adjust their own withholding rates through the W-4 form that every wage earner must fill out, and since most people dislike owing the IRS at the end of the year, this device probably engendered more annoyance than economic stimulus.

The second gimmick, announced in Bush’s acceptance speech at the Republican national convention, was aimed not at the recession but at its cognate—the deficit. Bush said that he wanted taxpayers to be given the right to earmark 10 percent of their tax payment for reduction of the national debt. But the 10 percent would have to be drawn from other expenditures, and unless specific cuts were enacted in defense or Social Security or Medicare or the like—something neither the Democratic Congress nor Bush himself had yet proposed—these programs would have to be made whole by new borrowing. We would, in short, be going in a circle.2



For Bush, the more logical response to the recession—from a political if not an economic point of view—would have been a tax cut, for that is what Republicans can offer convincingly, just as the Democrats’ forte is to provide government services. And indeed, Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, and several Republican “supply-siders” urged Bush to follow just such a course. But Bush resisted this advice right up until the Republican convention where he promised

to further reduce taxes across the board, provided we pay for these cuts with specific spending reductions that I consider appropriate, so that we do not increase the deficit.

This pledge was so qualified and vague that it had no impact.

Probably Bush deemed the supply-side advice to be unsound economically, but in any event it could not have worked politically for him so soon after he had broken his famous “no-new-taxes” pledge. Had Bush executed a second about-face on taxes, he would have looked not like a leader with a plan for recovery but like a politician who could not decide in which direction to go.

The tax-pledge reversal did not hurt Bush only by limiting his economic options. After all, the original declaration, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” was more than a policy pronouncement. The most memorable line of his 1988 campaign, it was designed to dispel his image both as a “wimp” and as one who held no deep convictions. The “wimp” charge was forever laid to rest by Bush’s strong leadership against Iraqi aggression, but the idea of him as a man without convictions was confirmed with a vengeance when he reneged on his tax commitment. There was some unfairness here, since Bush did exhibit strong conviction in a few areas. He was steadfast in his pro-life position on abortion, and in his solicitude for China’s reform Communists whom he had come to know during his brief stint as ambassador there. But rather than adding up to a coherent philosophy or sense of direction, these constituted a pastiche.

On other matters his positions seemed more muddled. For example, he vetoed one civil-rights bill, calling it a “quota bill,” and then signed another, claiming it was not a “quota bill.” But the real issue was not so much quotas—fixed numerical requirements—as it was racial (and other such) preferences, and both bills had that in common. According to one “administration official” quoted anonymously in the Washington Post, Bush signed the second bill not because it differed significantly from the first, but “because of the after-effects of the [Clarence] Thomas hearings.”

Bush rose to his greatest moment in defeating Saddam Hussein, for which the world will long remain in his debt, but we know now that he himself had fed this monster. His justification was that he had been trying to win Saddam over. Other things being equal, it is always desirable to make new friends, but Saddam was a tyrant, a butcher, a terrorist. Why would we want a friend like that—especially if the price was supplying parts for his war machine?

During Operation Desert Storm, Bush spoke of a New World Order, which some might have taken as a reference to the dramatic spread of democracy. Two years later, in one of the presidential debates, Bush himself said that this was what he had meant. Yet at the time he coined the phrase, he opted to leave Saddam in power rather than attempt to democratize Iraq, and he exerted little pressure for democratic reforms in Kuwait after it was rescued by U.S. forces. If, on the other hand, the New World Order involved upholding the UN Charter’s proscription of aggression, why did Bush sit immovably on his hands when Serbia committed aggression against Bosnia?

In all probability, the New World Order, like “read my lips” and the “education President” and the “environmental President,” was just a speech-writer’s invention. Bush himself seemed not to care which President he was, just so long as he was President.

This is not attractive to voters, and combined with his lack of oratorical gifts, it made Bush a mediocre candidate. Not that he had ever been a particularly good one. He had been defeated in the Republican primaries by Ronald Reagan in 1980, he had lost two races in Texas for the Senate (to Lloyd Bentsen in 1970 and to Ralph Yarborough in 1964), and in 1988 he had begun the presidential race trailing Michael Dukakis by 17 percentage points. But he had overcome that deficit by presenting himself effectively as Reagan’s true heir and a generic conservative, and by demonstrating to the voters, through symbols like Willie Horton, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), that Dukakis was a liberal.

Dukakis’s riposte that the race was “not about ideology” only served to underline the point. When they went to the polls, 80 percent of liberals voted for Dukakis and 80 percent of conservatives for Bush, while moderates split evenly. But only 18 percent of the voters called themselves liberals, while 33 percent called themselves conservatives, giving Bush an easy victory.




After the 1988 election, liberal pundits came up with a plethora of theories to explain away the outcome: the voters were too selfish, or not self-interested enough; the accident of peace and prosperity had conspired against the Democrats; the election had turned on technique, or lies, or racism; Bush’s margin, a mere 8 percentage points, hardly constituted a victory at all. But fortunately for the party, these liberal rationalizations made little dent either on the Democratic standard-bearer in 1992 or on Democratic primary voters. Bill Clinton knew that the party needed to move back toward the Center, and rank-and-file Democrats seemed to know it, too.

It was in the presidential primaries in 1968 that the Democratic party first began moving to the Left. But the real shift occurred in 1972, when George McGovern, the candidate who ran farthest to the Left, won the nomination. Twenty years later, it was in the presidential primaries that the party finally reversed direction. This time Bill Clinton, running as a “different kind of Democrat”—code for “not a liberal”—swept the field.

Clinton entered the lists as the champion of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a group of mostly Southern Democrats organized after the 1984 election to speak for the party moderates. Unlike the older Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), which sought to combat the dominant liberal wing head-on, the DLC worked gently to nudge and cajole the Democrats away from the Left (an approach which seems to have had better results).

To be sure, despite his DLC connection, Clinton’s stance was a liberal one in certain areas. He was strongly pro-choice on abortion; he favored equal rights for homosexuals, including in the armed services; and he laid stress on the inclusion of women and minority-group members in all authoritative bodies. He also campaigned for an additional cut in the military budget of $60 billion over four years beyond the reductions already proposed by Bush, and his economic program was based on the idea of government “investment,” which, his opponents aptly noted, was a euphemism for spending. To top it all off, during the primaries, he was criticized by one of his Democratic rivals, Paul Tsongas, for “pandering” to various interest groups.

These liberal positions, however, were balanced by others of a notably different cast. Crime is among the most sensitive of social issues, and it was pivotal to the 1988 election. Bush hammered Dukakis as a member of the ACLU—an organization widely seen as responsible for the efflorescence of procedural protections of criminal defendants that have weakened law enforcement—and as a governor who opposed the death penalty and who supported lenient treatment of murderers (which, rather than race, was what the much-misrepresented Willie Horton ads were about).

Clinton, in contrast to Dukakis, vocally supported the death penalty, underscoring the point by flying home to Arkansas in January 1992 to facilitate the controversial execution of cop-killer Rickey Ray Rector. The 1992 Democratic platform, moreover, called crime “a relentless danger in our communities,” and it declared that “the simplest and most direct way to restore order in our cities is to put more police on the streets.” This was a far cry from liberal pieties about solving the “root causes” of crime. So too was the platform’s proposal to create a Police Corps as a form of community service through which young adults could work off college loans.



Clinton again managed to distinguish himself from liberal orthodoxy on the critical subject of race. He did this not in his formal positions, but in his handling of Jesse Jackson.

It started with a celebrated incident at a convention of Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in June, when Clinton criticized Sister Souljah, a black performer, for urging blacks during the Los Angeles riots to spend a week killing whites. By any reasonable standard Clinton’s remarks were exceedingly mild. All he said was, “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ and reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.” But this was received as an affront by Jackson, who had grown accustomed to fawning treatment from Democratic leaders. (In 1984, for example, after Jackson and his supporter, Louis Farrakhan, made anti-Semitic utterances, Democratic leaders turned aside a convention resolution against anti-Semitism lest it be interpreted as a rebuke to Jackson.) Rather than bowing to Jackson, Clinton let him stew (which he did, visibly), while other less controversial blacks—Ron Brown, Vernon Jordan, and Barbara Jordan—assumed prominent roles in the Democratic campaign.

On the issue of welfare, too, Clinton established his nonliberal credentials. “Welfare should be a second chance, not a way of life,” he said, and he put forward proposals limiting welfare eligibility to two years.

Also, notwithstanding his advocacy of defense cuts, Clinton spoke more often and more forcefully than any Democratic candidate in recent memory about the importance of maintaining military strength and of being willing to use it. On other foreign-policy issues, he even ran somewhat to Bush’s Right: he criticized the President for “coddling” dictatorial regimes and he advocated tougher polices toward China, Serbia, and Cuba. These positions not only won over some neoconservatives (including me), but they correspondingly antagonized the far Left. For instance, the radical scholar Richard Falk complained:

The Clinton ticket[‘s] position on foreign-policy matters is either banal or identical to that of Bush. And where it departs, as in the setting of the Middle East, the Democratic party position is actually worse.

Aside from his stands on various issues, Clinton established his nonliberal persona in two other ways. One was his insistence on speaking of and for the middle class. This was neither bold nor original, but in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Democratic party had so often looked like an alliance of the poor and the highly educated that the renewed emphasis on the middle class suggested middle-of-the-road as well.

The other important symbol was his selection of Senator Al Gore as his running mate. Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, might have placed him pretty far to one side of the debates about environmental policy, and some conservative groups might have tagged him as a big spender. But by most measures Gore was a moderate rather than a liberal (and his wife, Tipper, famous crusader against obscenity in popular music, was viewed by many liberals as a benighted reactionary). Gore was, in fact, very close on the ideological spectrum to Clinton himself, and since choosing him as a running mate did not balance the ticket either in this way or regionally, sexually, racially, or generationally, it gave the impression that Clinton was serious about his own nonliberal philosophy.

It also helped to counter the impression created at the Democratic convention—by a color guard made up of homeless veterans, and by the presentation of not one but two AIDS speakers—that the party was bent on repeating its past mistake of identifying itself predominantly with victims and fringe groups. When Clinton named Gore in defiance of traditional ticket-balancing, he gave the Democrats a very different image: two boyish Southerners who seemed to offer something new but not far-out to a country yearning for change but not radical change.

Exit polls showed that in 1992 conservative voters still outnumbered liberals by about 3 to 2 (the margin had been almost 2 to 1 four years earlier). The polls showed, too, that liberals voted overwhelmingly Democratic and conservatives overwhelmingly Republican, and that this ideological commitment remained a stronger predictor of a person’s vote than his own economic progress or regress. Half the voters, however, identified themselves neither as liberal nor as conservative but as moderate, and the moderates, who had usually divided almost evenly, gave Clinton a 17-point margin.




With the extremely low approval ratings to which he had sunk since the end of the Gulf war, it was inevitable that Bush would try to turn the election into a referendum on Clinton rather than on himself. This strategy had been effective against Dukakis in 1988. For all the bitter recriminations to the effect that Bush had run a “dirty” campaign, all he had done in essence was to depict Dukakis quite accurately as a liberal. In 1992, the Bush campaign’s attacks were much more personal, focused as they were on the “character issue”—that is, on Clinton’s marital problems and his avoidance of the draft during Vietnam. These attacks weakened Clinton, but not as much as the ideological assault had weakened Dukakis.

Another part of Bush’s strategy in 1992 was to shift attention away from the economy, which worked against him, and onto the social issues, which in the past had generally worked to the advantage of Republicans. But with the issues of crime, race, and welfare having largely been neutralized by Clinton, the Republicans had to find something else—and the something else they found was “family values.”

This was not easy political ground to occupy. Defined loosely, the term had no political edge, no inherently partisan implication. Governor Mario Cuomo’s much-celebrated speech to the 1984 Democratic convention, a liberal classic, took “family” as its theme. And when Barbara Bush, at the 1992 Republican convention, said that family values included “integrity, strength, responsibility, courage, sharing, love of God, and pride in being an American,” it was not obvious why they would necessarily lead anyone to vote for her husband.

Defined more sharply, however, there is a real political issue here. It is about the progressive dilution of moral standards, expressed in rising rates of divorce, illegitimacy, and venereal disease, and about clamorous “liberation” groups that seem to deny the inherent differences between men and women, and between heterosexual unions and homosexual ones. Yet even this is not easy political ground, for while most Americans are on the conservative side of such questions, most also believe in tolerance and compassion. This ambivalence expresses itself, for example, in opinion polls showing that many people who favor “equal rights” for homosexuals also oppose employment of homosexuals in the military or as elementary-school teachers. And it also showed up in the 1992 exit polls.

The same ambivalence suggests why the Republicans failed to gain as much as they might have done with the “family-values” issue. When, at the Republican convention, Pat Robertson and Patrick J. Buchanan both sounded this theme, they did so in a way that lacked any trace of tolerance or compassion. To make matters worse, Buchanan declared that “there is a religious war going on in our country . . . as critical . . . as was the cold war itself,” and he summoned true believers to battle. But few Americans want their country to go the way of Lebanon, Bosnia, the Sudan—places where there really are religious wars. If a religious war were brewing in our country, most Americans would want to know how to end it.

With Buchanan setting the pace, the Republicans even fumbled the chance to score some points at the expense of Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton had left himself open to attacks on his wife’s politics by his comment early in the campaign, “Buy one, get one free.” Soon thereafter various press accounts revealed that Hillary Clinton had served in 1988 and 1989 as chair of the board of the New World Foundation, which had given money to a variety of left-wing causes. These included the Committee in Support of the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a self-proclaimed support group for that country’s Communist guerrillas, and the Christic Institute, a wacky pro-Sandinista group specializing in bizarre conspiracy theories, which was later fined by the courts for bringing baseless law suits. The Republicans might have asked some pointed questions about whether Hillary Clinton knew the true nature of these groups. Instead, they chose to attack her on the ground that she would “give children the right to sue their parents.”

The filial-litigation question was intended to represent a larger concern—namely, the erosion by government of parental authority. What with Washington, D.C. schools distributing condoms to students against their parents’ stated wishes, and with New York City suspending a local school board because it objected to the tenor of an elementary-school curriculum on homosexuality, there is something to this concern, but even here the Republicans were off target. For the critical issue is not so much the erosion of parental authority as the erosion of parental responsibility. Increasingly, parents give birth out of wedlock, abandon their children, expose them to drugs and disease in utero or soon thereafter, and in myriad ways put their own convenience or “self-realization” ahead of the safety or comfort of their offspring.

Had they had the wit to use it, the Republicans at their national convention were handed a perfect symbol of this issue in the person of Woody Allen, who was revealed to have been committing what by any common-sense definition constituted incest. Allen’s defense of his actions will stand as the classic expression of the sensibility behind parental abdication. The relationship with his de-facto stepdaughter, he explained, “continues to turn around my life in a wonderfully positive way.” Yet instead of running against Woody Allen, the Republicans ended up running against Gregory K., a twelve-year-old who sued his neglectful, drug-abusing mother so that he could remain in the custody of foster parents who were giving him the nurturing that she had failed to provide. The result, so Newsweek reported, citing Clinton campaign polls, was that by the end of the GOP convention Hillary’s “favorable ratings had gone up.”

Given the tin ear with which the Republicans played this tune; given, too, that the party which usually wants to get government “off the backs” of people did not explain clearly what it now wanted the government to do about family values; and given George Bush’s image as a politician whose ambition was stronger than his convictions—given all that, the theme of family values fell flat and with it the Republicans’ chance of derailing the Clinton/Gore express.




Quite apart from its outcome, the 1992 election demonstrated that, despite a year of handwringing about the state of the nation, the American political system is in good health. Voter turnout, which had been in a much-lamented steady decline, leaped from 50 to 55 percent. Although early on there was much carping about the electorate’s choices (if God had intended us to have democracy, why didn’t he give us better candidates?, went one joke), in the end 70 percent said they had voted “in favor” of their man rather than “against” the other two—and the ratio was constant for the supporters of all three candidates.

With the economy stalled, a spirit of discontent permeated the campaign, but it seemed excessive and even whiny when our troubles were compared with those of other peoples or other times. A dozen states held referendums on limiting the number of terms members of Congress can serve, and the proposals passed in every state. Yet 93 percent of the congressional incumbents who ran were reelected. If the voters were so tired of representatives who serve many terms, why did they not just vote them out? Still, if the referendum voters were merely blowing off steam, this was a harmless way of doing it. A more harmful way would have been to rally behind “populists,” and this they did not do in large numbers.

On the Democratic side, that would have meant supporting Jerry Brown, whose main substantive proposal was to abolish the progressive income tax, but whose campaign otherwise was redolent of the old New Left. “In America democratic choice is rendered illusory,” he declared. “In reality, there is only one party . . . the Incumbent party.” His slogans brought back the 1960’s: “Speaking truth to power,” “We the People,” and “The revolution continues.”

On the Republican side, the populist alternative was evocative of the 1930’s Right rather than of the 1960’s Left. It took the form of Buchanan’s nativist America First campaign in which he advocated cutting off immigration and all foreign aid, withdrawing American forces from around the world, reviewing all existing treaty commitments, and throwing up new trade barriers. This last policy comported ill with his advocacy of less government and more markets, and so too did his promise of more federal assistance for the unemployed.

The populist who scored best in 1992 was neither on the Right nor on the Left; he was Ross Perot, candidate of the “radical middle,” as Newsweek put it. Perot’s message, said Newsweek, was “anger about the dysfunction in Washington and despair that no one was willing to talk about it honestly.” The buzzword Perot popularized for this problem was “gridlock.” But gridlock is not a dysfunction; it is the way the system was intended to work. We were all taught its genius in school, except then it was called the separation of powers. America’s founders feared the “tyranny of the majority” and deliberately devised a system in which one part of the government would restrain the others, and in which government action would require the collaboration of different bodies, all resting ultimately on the people but drawing their mandates differently. (It was all the more absurd when George Bush began to echo the complaint about gridlock, since his party in particular is devoted to the principle of restraining government.)

The specific result of gridlock, said Perot, was the budget deficit, and he earned applause for being braver about discussing it than either of his opponents. Yet he still resorted to a dodge. He blamed the deficit on the government and the parties, but never on the real culprits—ourselves. For the root cause of the deficit is the electorate’s failure to reconcile its yen for services and benefits with its aversion to taxes. Indeed, up until this year, when voters were asked whether they favored divided government (a President from one party and a Congress dominated by the other), they answered affirmatively. In effect, they liked having Democrats to give them services and Republicans to lower their taxes.

Perot scored surprisingly well, winning 19 percent of the vote, and his presence on the ballot may have caused the increase in turnout. But he made no difference to the outcome: the polls showed that those of his supporters who would have voted at all had Perot not been on the ballot would have divided evenly between Bush and Clinton.

Finally, then, the choice came down to George Bush and Bill Clinton, two rather accomplished politicians, neither one a demagogue. The voters opted for change. It was a choice they might not have made were it not for another man, the unsung hero of Clinton’s victory, Mikhail Gorbachev. Had Gorbachev not called off the cold war, the Democrats probably could not have won.3

Thus, voters were asked in the exit polls what their feelings would be if Clinton won: would they be excited, optimistic, concerned, or scared? Despite the outcome, 54 percent said they would be concerned or scared about a Clinton victory. In fact, even one-third of those who went for Clinton responded this way! The voters, we can conclude, were consciously making a gamble. Further, when asked what qualities in a candidate were critical to determining their choice, only 16 percent of the electorate cited “good judgment in a crisis,” and that 16 percent went overwhelmingly for Bush.

In other words, had the cold war still been raging, and had the danger of international crises seemed more imminent, the voters would probably not have gambled on Clinton, but would have resigned themselves to Bush’s failings and returned him to office. They would have returned him because he had proved his mettle in the Persian Gulf crisis, because the young governor from Arkansas had yet to prove his, and because Clinton’s party had lost America’s trust so far as managing the cold war was concerned.




The end of the cold war has given the Democrats a new lease on life. Clinton is not only the first post-cold-war President but the first President of his generation. The country took a chance on him with a mixture of hope and anxiety, and it is eager to see what he will do. He has shown himself to be an extremely gifted politician, and if he governs successfully he could reshape our politics. In so doing he would inevitably reshape his party, bringing it out of the blind alley into which it turned in 1972, back toward the political Center. Conversely, the party could pull him to the Left, just as it did its one other President in the last quarter-century, Jimmy Carter, another Southern governor who ran as a moderate.

The Nation magazine, which granted Clinton a backhanded and grudging endorsement (it stopped short of urging its readers to vote for him), took heart from the fact that “the new Congress is likely to have a slew of new leftish Democrats.” And it called for a “post-election mobilization” to push the new administration leftward. If Bill Clinton follows Jimmy Carter in succumbing to such pressures, America will lose and so, eventually, will he.

The reason is that the electorate remains mostly moderate in its views, but more conservative than liberal. Even on basic economic orientation, usually the strong suit of the Democrats (as opposed to social issues or foreign policy), the exit polls revealed a conservative tilt. Voters were asked whether they would prefer that “government provide more services but cost more in taxes” or that “government cost less in taxes but provide fewer services.” Fifty-three percent chose less taxes while 38 percent chose more services.

Clinton prevailed on this and on other, social-issue questions because he carried a clear majority of those choosing the liberal option while managing to split almost evenly the larger group who chose the conservative position. Or, to illustrate the point with other data, most of those who called themselves liberal voted for Clinton, but they accounted for only one-third of Clinton’s votes.

Many of the issues facing the country today, in both foreign and domestic policy, are new, and Clinton has a proclivity for new answers. To govern effectively, and to win a second term, he will have to find those answers where he found his victory—in the Center.


1 All my citations of exit polls refer to those sponsored jointly by ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN. Their results may be subject to some revision in the final retabulation.

2 If the idea were not so silly, it would have been pernicious. If citizens are allowed to earmark tax payments for debt reduction, why not for other good causes? And why not allow them to withhold their dollars from what they find offensive—armaments, say, or abortions? Down this path lies the end of representative government.

3 By invoking Gorbachev, I do not mean to contest the claim that Ronald Reagan is to be credited for America's victory in the cold war. On the contrary, I endorse that claim. But since Soviet expansionism drove the conflict, it was always the Soviets' to call off. And Gorbachev was the one who called it off, although we might say that Ronald Reagan created the conditions for that decision.

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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