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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: securing for his party the broad base of voters that would establish its control at all political levels. The tensions that eventually produced conflicts in the Republican Party—between suburbanites and fundamentalists, libertarians and moralists—are no less severe than divisions among Democrats between whites and blacks and between, for example, culturally conservative blue-collar workers in the Middle West and sexually permissive middle-class voters in San Francisco and New York. During Clinton’s own career he had become familiar with many of these political divisions. In 1972, when he was twenty-six years old, he had taken part in George McGovern’s presidential campaign as an antiwar activist and organizer. During the 1980s he helped to organize the Democratic Leadership Council, which opposed many of the policies on welfare, affirmative action, and economic redistribution that had been advocated by the left wing of the party. On November 3, Democrats of all political views supported him.

By his own calculations, however, Clinton’s campaign did not give him a clear mandate to govern. On the wall of the campaign headquarters in Little Rock a sign read, “It’s the economy, stupid”—a constant reminder that severe dissatisfaction with the economy under Bush was the issue that would win the election for Clinton. The attack on Bush for failing to confront the recession was highly effective, but it was not accompanied by proposals on which there is wide or enthusiastic agreement. Clinton, in calling for “change,” has advocated a program to stimulate the economy as well as national health care, welfare reform, and expanded education and training. But the voting public is by no means prepared to support a revival of the liberal Democratic style of governing associated with Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. By a margin of roughly three to two, voters leaving the polls said they would prefer lower taxes and fewer services to higher taxes and more services. Even those who voted for Clinton, who were predictably more liberal than the Bush or Perot supporters, were evenly split when asked the same question. An even more powerful force inhibiting Democratic initiatives is the national debt, which amounts to approximately $3 trillion, requiring debt payment of nearly $200 billion each year.

Still, the 1992 election had unique features that may give Clinton far more leeway than might at first appear. Clinton will be the first president since Franklin Roosevelt to begin his term in office without the burden of the cold war; he will have to convert a major part of the domestic economy into peacetime production and, in doing so, he may find he has considerable public support. Perhaps equally important, the campaign of Ross Perot suggested that surprisingly large numbers are willing to support unconventional approaches to political action and to back a leader who emphasized, however irresponsibly, that “sacrifice” would be necessary to deal seriously with national problems. Clinton will therefore take office under conditions in which much is uncertain and more is unknown. The question is whether he has the abilities and vision to seize the opportunities presented by such unfamiliar circumstances and, in doing so, change for the better the shape of American political life.

November 5, 1992

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