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Eye on the Prize

If you want to be president you’ve got to stand up for what you think is right,” Governor Clinton said about Sister Souljah. “They have chosen to react against me, essentially taking the position, I guess, that because I’m white I shouldn’t have said it, and I just disagree with that,” he told Larry King Live. One of his principal advisers, Stuart Eizenstat, a former Carter adviser and now a lobbyist, for example representing the National Association of Manufacturers against a workers’ right-to-know law on toxic chemicals, was more forthcoming: “Clinton’s strategy is not without risk,” he told The New York Times about the calculation that reaching out to unhappy white voters should be the campaign’s first priority. “But we have no real choice. Our base is too small to win, even in a three-way race, so the old-time religion just won’t work any more.”


This current wisdom, that the failure of Democratic candidates in five of the last six national elections derived from an undesirable identification with the party’s traditional base, was of course not new. It had its roots during the Vietnam War, with the 1968 and 1972 Nixon victories over the “liberals” Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern; was crystallized by Kevin Phillips’s 1970 The Emerging Republican Majority; and became a fixed idea among the party’s revisionist mainstream after the 1980 and 1984 defection of the so-called Reagan Democrats. These “Reagan Democrats,” statistically a quite small group of people, thereafter became the voters toward whom all election appeals would be directed, a narrowing of focus with predictable results, not the least significant of which was that presidential elections would come to be conducted almost exclusively in code.

Governor Clinton, for example, does not speak of Reagan Democrats. He speaks instead of being stopped in an airport by a police officer who wanted to tell him that he was “dying to vote for a Democrat again.” He speaks of “the forgotten middle class,” or, in a 1991 speech to the Democratic Leadership Council, of “the very burdened middle class,” also known as “the people who used to vote for us.” Paul Tully, the political director of the Democratic National Committee, described one of these hypothetical “people who used to vote for us” to The New York Times as “a suburbanite, in a household with about $35,000 income, younger than forty-five, with a child or two, and in a marriage in which both partners work.” James Carville spoke of “a thirty-two-year-old with two kids in day care who works in some suburban office building.”

The point on which everyone seemed to agree was that this suburban working parent of two was “middle class,” which was, according to Ted Van Dyk, the Democratic strategist who advised Paul Tsongas, the phrase that signals “Reagan Democrats that it is safe to come home to their party because poor, black, Hispanic, urban, homeless, hungry, and other people and problems out of favor in Middle America will no longer get the favored treatment they got from mushy 1960s and 1970s Democratic liberals.” That “middle class” had been drained of any but this encoded meaning was clear for example when, at a Clinton rally in Atlanta in February, Governor Zell Miller of Georgia derided Senator Tsongas as “an anti-death penalty, anti-middle-class politician.”

Middle class, Governor Clinton told the Rainbow Coalition in January, by way of answering a direct question, was not “a code word” for racism. In fact this was accurate, because the use of the code was never exclusively an appeal to racism; it appealed instead to an entire complex of attitudes held in common by those Americans who sensed themselves isolated and set adrift by the social and economic and demographic changes of the last half century. “Middle class,” Governor Clinton said in the same speech, referred “to values that nearly every American holds dear: support for family, reward for work, the willingness to change what isn’t working.” This again was accurate, but since the phrase “nearly every American” raised the specter of unspecified other Americans who did not hold these values dear, it again appealed to those who would prefer to see the changes of the last half century as a reversible error, the detritus of too “liberal” a social policy. “I have spent most of my public life worrying about what it would take to give our children a safe place to live again,” Governor Clinton also said, striking the same note of seductive nostalgia.

This reduction of political language to coded messages, to “middle class” and “reward for work,” to safe children and Sister Souljah, has much to do with why large numbers of Americans report finding politics deeply silly, yet the necessity for such reduction is now been accepted as a given: in his Minority Party, Peter Brown quoted suggestions made to Alabama party officials by the Democratic pollster Natalie Davis:

  • Instead of talking about Democrats lifting someone out of poverty, describe the party’s goal as helping average Americans live the good life;

  • Instead of saying Democrats want to eliminate homelessness and educate the underclass, talk about finding a way for young couples to buy their first home and offer financial help to middle-class families to send their kids to college;

  • Instead of saying the Democrats want to provide health care for the poor, focus on making sure all working Americans have coverage.

The way of talking here was familiar, that of salesmanship, or packaging, and if it seemed a way of talking that the average “young couple” or “middle-class family” or “working American” could instinctively tune out, flick the channel, press the mute, it was also a way of talking that the Democratic candidate nominated by the 1992 convention instinctively understood: Bill Clinton was the son of a traveling salesman, the stepson of a Buick dealer, he knew in his fingernails how the deal gets closed. “If we lead with class warfare, we lose,” he had told Peter Brown after the 1988 campaign. With Governor James Blanchard of Michigan and senators Nunn of Georgia and Charles Robb of Virginia, he had been a founder in 1985 of the Democratic Leadership Council, which was instrumental in reshaping the “image” of the Democratic Party to attract the money of major lobbyists. The chairman of this repackaged Democratic party, Ron Brown, was himself a lobbyist, a partner at one of Washington’s most influential law firms, Patton, Boggs, and Blow. Ron Brown was in 1988 lobbying for the Japanese electronics industry, including Hitachi, Mitsubishi, and Toshiba, but he was on the podium in Madison Square Garden on the evening when Governor Clinton got the delegates booing and hissing over how “the Prime Minister of Japan actually said he felt sympathy for America”; this was of course just more code, and accepted as such.

It was also the DLC that invented Super Tuesday, the strategy of concentrating primaries in southern states to “front-load” the process against visibly liberal candidates. After this backfired in 1988, enabling Jesse Jackson to gain, enough momentum from Super Tuesday to go on to Atlanta with a real hand to play, Jackson opened his remarks at a DLC-sponsored debate by thanking Senator Robb for Super Tuesday. This had, according to Peter Brown, so amused Governor Clinton, “sitting in the front row next to Robb, that he almost fell off his chair,” but it seems to have altered the thinking of the new Democratic leadership only to the extent that Ron Brown took care to deal Jackson out before play began for 1992.

The wisdom of the DLC analysis, which tacitly calls for the party to jettison those voters who no longer turn out and target those who do, or “hunt where the ducks are,” has not been universally shared. Jesse Jackson had in 1988 tried to prove it was possible to just register more ducks, and appeared at Madison Square Garden to endorse the 1992 ticket as that classic tragic figure, a man who had tried and failed to incorporate his constituency into the system and who consequently risked being overtaken by that constituency. Jerry Brown had tried to prove that what Walter Dean Burnham has called “the largest political party in America,” the party of those who see no reason to vote, could be given that reason within the Democratic Party, but had been led by his quite fundamental party allegiance into a campaign that remained for most Americans inexplicably internecine and finally recondite, a fight for the “soul” of a party about which they no longer or had never cared. “The last thing the Democratic Party has wanted to do is declare that there is a possibility for class struggle,” Burnham noted in a 1988 discussion in New Perspectives Quarterly. “The Republicans, however, are perfectly happy to declare class struggle all the time. They are always waging a one-sided class war against the constituency the Democrats nominally represent. In this sense, the Republicans are the only real political party in the United States. They stand for ideology and interest, not compromise.”


The 1988 loss of Michael Dukakis was widely seen, both within the Democratic Party and outside it, as another example of the same malaise that had afflicted the party in 1968 and 1972 and 1980 and 1984. Governor Dukakis, it was said after the fact, was not only “too liberal” but too northeastern, too closely identified with that section of the country that had previously been a Democratic stronghold and no longer had the votes to elect a president. (Governor Cuomo, in this view, presented the same problem, one magnified by his very visibility and attractiveness as a candidate.) But in fact Governor Dukakis had not been nominated because he was “liberal”; the party had closed ranks around him precisely because he had seemed at the time to offer the possibility of a “centrist” campaign, a campaign “not about ideology but about competence,” which was what Governor Dukakis promised in Atlanta in 1988 and which sounded not unlike what Governor Clinton promised (the choice that was “not conservative or liberal, Democratic or Republican” but “will work”) in the Garden this summer.

There were in fact a number of dispiriting similarities between what was said at the Democratic convention in Atlanta in 1988 and what was said at the Democratic convention in New York this summer. There was the same insistent stress on “unity,” on “running on schedule.” “This party’s trains are running on time,” I recall someone saying in Atlanta to dutiful applause. There was the same programmatic emphasis, tricked out in the same sentimental homilies. There were the same successful arguments to keep the platform free of any minority planks that might suggest less than total agreement with the platform. There was even the same emphasis on social control, on “enforcement,” although nothing said in 1988 went quite so far in this direction, or suggested quite such a worrisome indifference to what such agencies of enforcement have meant in other countries, as the Clinton-Gore proposal to gather up “unemployed veterans and active military personnel” into what they call a “National Police Corps.”

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