What Clinton Won

Bill Clinton’s campaign for the presidency was a calculated drive not only to win the White House but to restore the coalition that used to make up a Democratic majority, both in the country and in the Congress. Judged by this standard, it was a remarkable success, producing the first effective alliance of black and white voters in favor of the Democrats since the height of the civil rights revolution in the mid-1960s. Of all the Democratic candidates since Franklin Roosevelt, only Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, had a bigger margin of victory. With a ruthlessness and determination largely unnoticed during the campaign, Clinton set out to rebuild the Democratic Party. By supporting capital punishment, making a point of repudiating the antiwhite comments of the rap singer Sister Souljah, and advocating limits on welfare, he was able to extend the base of the Democratic support among previously hostile voters; yet he did not estrange either black voters or liberals who oppose the death penalty.

Central to Clinton’s victory was his winning a majority of the votes of the Reagan Democrats who had become Bush Democrats. These working-class whites who had defected from the party of Franklin Roosevelt to vote for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush in 1988 were a crucial part of the Republican coalition that won the presidency, and were the single most important factor in the elections of the 1980s. The return of these voters to the Democratic Party allows the party’s leaders to claim once again that they represent most of the poor, the working class, and the lower middle class, black and white.

At the same time, the election proved its candidate could win a high proportion of voters in two other important constituencies: both in the suburbs on which Republicans had been banking to provide a new conservative majority in the 1990s—and among the youngest voters, between eighteen and twenty-four years old. To have the allegiance of a majority of the young is a sign of a long-range potential to maintain a dominant national political position. That these voters, and a majority of first-time voters of all ages, cast their first ballot for a Democratic presidential candidate, suggests a vitality that has been glaringly absent from the Democratic Party for a generation.

The crucial question for Clinton and his supporters now becomes whether he can build on the political coalition to establish a governing majority—a majority that will strengthen the Democratic Party’s power at virtually all levels of the political system. For twelve years, the Republican Party sought unsuccessfully to convert a fragile presidential majority into a lasting realignment of American voters. Such a conversion was achieved by the Democratic Party from 1932 to 1964; it gives the dominant party not only the competitive advantage in elections, but the partisan trust and continuing support that enables a president to propose and enact a coherent legislative program.

Clinton now faces the same daunting task that so frustrated the GOP …

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