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Eye on the Prize

Until now,” Mary McGrory wrote in The Washington Post on the last day of the 1992 convention, the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta was “considered the best. But Clinton hopes to top it, and of course, go on to a far different outcome in November.” Not long after the 1988 defeat I was told by Stanley Sheinbaum, who had been a major California fund-raiser but had become distressed in the mid-Eighties by the direction the party was taking, about having been excluded from a meeting at which leading Democrats had discussed the disaster and what to do next: “Don’t ask Sheinbaum, I kept hearing from someone who was there, he’ll only want to discuss issues,” he said. It seemed these Democrats had already convinced themselves that they had once again lost on “issues,” specifically on what they saw as too close an identification with Jesse Jackson, and they had wanted to discuss mechanics, knowhow, money: what Senator Rockefeller would describe, four years later at the Garden, as “focus groups, polling, research, whatever it takes to get the message out.” The problem, as Sheinbaum saw it, was there was no longer any message to get out:

When you’re caught up in this dance of how to run campaigns better, rather than what you can do for that constituency that used to be yours, you’re not going to turn anybody on. The whole focus is on big money. The Democrats under Dukakis and this guy Bob Farmer mastered how to get around the campaign financing limitations, both with PACS and soft money. They were magnificent in what they raised and it didn’t do them a fucking bit of good. I mean it’s no longer a thousand dollars. To get into the act now you’ve got to give a hundred thousand. So who are the players? The players are the hundred-thousand people. Who are the hundred-thousand people? They’re the people who don’t go into Harlem, don’t go into South Central. They don’t even fly MGM [MGM Grand Air, currently the transcontinental airline of choice for the entertainment industry] any more, they have their own planes. You get this whole DLC crowd, their rationale is that to talk about the issues will alienate too many people.

What was important, in 1992 as in 1988, was “winning this election,” which was why the DNC’s major fund-raisers, or “Managing Trustees,” had been asked to raise for 1992 not 100,000 but 200,000 dollars. What was important, in 1992 as in 1988, was “not saddling the candidate with a position he’ll have to defend.” What was important, in 1992 as in 1988, was almost exclusively semantic, a way of presenting the party as free of unprofitable positions it might have to defend. “I don’t only think George Bush is popular on many of these issues, I think he’s absolutely right,” the 1992 Democratic candidate had said in 1991 on one subject that might traditionally have been considered an issue, the incumbent administration’s foreign policy. By the time he reached Madison Square Garden he had incorporated into his acceptance speech the very line with which the incumbent president, in February 1992 at Concord, New Hampshire, had formally opened his campaign for reelection: “If we can change the world we can change America.”

In this determined consensus on all but a few carefully chosen and often symbolic issues, American elections are necessarily debated on “character,” or “values,” a debate deliberately trivialized to obscure the disinclination of either party to mention the difficulties inherent in trying to resolve even those few problems that might lend themselves to a programmatic approach. A two-party system in which both parties are committed to calibrating the precise level of incremental tinkering required to get elected is not likely to be a meaningful system, nor is an election likely to be meaningful when it is specifically crafted as an exercise in personalismo, in “appearing presidential” to that diminishing percentage of the population that still pays attention. Governor Clinton, interestingly, began to “appear presidential” on the very morning he left New Hampshire, despite both his much-discussed “character problem” and the previous day’s vote, which had shown him running eight points behind Senator Tsongas and incapable of raising more than 25 percent of the Democratic vote.

He appeared presidential largely because he was sufficiently well-financed and sufficiently adroit to exit this disappointing performance via motorcade and private plane, in the authenticating presence of his own press entourage and ten-man Secret Service detail. By the day before the California primary he had begun to achieve the imperial untouchability of the presidency: plunging into a crowd on the UCLA campus, live on C-SPAN, the candidate and his Secret Service cordon became suddenly invisible in the sea of signs and faces. Only voices could be heard: “Bill, Bill, here, Bill,” someone had kept saying. “You got a joint? Just one? I promise not to inhale?” And then, the same voice said, apparently to someone in the cordon of aides and agents: “I’m not touching him, hey, I said I’m not touching him, get your fucking hands off me.”

Some weeks later, on the hot July morning when he stood outside the governor’s mansion in Little Rock to introduce his choice for the vice-presidential nomination, Governor Clinton, in one simple but novel stroke, eliminated what some found the single remaining false note in this performance of presidentiality: he resolved the “character problem” by offering the electorate, as his running mate, an improvement on himself, a more authentic Bill Clinton. In Senator Gore, he could present a version of himself already familiar to large numbers of Americans, a version of himself who had already produced the requisite book on a curve issue (Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit by Senator Al Gore) and need not turn defensive about Arkansas whenever the subject of the environment was raised; a version of himself, most importantly, who had spent fifteen years in Congress free not only of identified character flaws but also of too many positions that might identify him as a Democrat.

Senator Gore, it was generally agreed, grounded the ticket, raised what had been its rather uneasy social comfort level: the Gore family had been with us for two generations now, and did not suggest, as the Clintons sometimes did, the sense of being about to spin free, back to the hollow. (This ungrounded quality reflects the oldest and deepest strain in actual American life, but we do not often see it in our candidates. We saw it in Gary Hart, where it was called “the weird factor,” and engendered the distrust that ended his political career.) Senator Gore, moreover, lent Governor Clinton the gravitas of the Senate, and a presumed senatorial depth in foreign policy that the ticket might otherwise have been seen to lack: he supported the Bush administration on the use of force in the Persian Gulf. He had supported nonlethal aid to the Nicaraguan contras. He had supported the Reagan administration on the bombing of Libya. He had supported the Reagan administration on the invasion of Grenada.

Closer to home and to what his party had recently come to view as its terminal incubus, Senator Gore had been seen, during his aborted 1988 campaign for the presidency, as the only one of the Democratic candidates willing to criticize, or “take on,” Jesse Jackson. This was a Democratic candidate for vice-president who could stand there in the hot midday sun in Little Rock and describe his birthplace, Carthage, Tennessee, as “a place where people know about it when you’re born and care about it when you die.” He could repeat this at Madison Square Garden, where he could also offer this capsule bio of his father, Senator Albert Gore, Sr., who served seven terms in the House and three in the Senate before losing his seat in 1970 after opposing the war in Vietnam (a lesson learned for the son here): “a teacher in a one-room school who worked his way to the United States Senate.”

Carthage as presented by the younger Senator Gore had its political coordinates somewhere in Reagan Country, as did the father’s one-room school, as for that matter did the entire tableau on the lawn behind the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, the candidate and the running mate and the wives and the children with the summer tans and the long straight sun-bleached hair that said our kind, your kind, good parents, country club, chlorine in the swimming pool. “This is what America looks like,” Governor Clinton said at La Guardia when he led the same successful cast off the plane on the eve of the nominating convention, “and we’re going to give it to you.”

5.

He said this in a summer during which one American city, Los Angeles, had burned. He said this in another American city, New York, that had a week before in Washington Heights come close to the flashpoint at which cities burn. This was a year in which 944,000 American citizens and businesses filed for bankruptcy, a figure up 21 percent from the year before. This was a year in which 213,000 jobs vanished in the city of New York alone, or 113,000 more than the 100,000 bureaucrats Governor Clinton proposed to lose by attrition from the federal government. This was a year in which the value of real property had sunk to a point at which Citicorp could agree to sell a vacant forty-four-story office tower at 45th and Broadway to Bertelsmann AG for $119 million, $134 million less than the $253 million mortgage Citicorp held on the property. Four years ago, in the same 1988 interview in New Perspectives Quarterly, Walter Dean Burnham argued that neither of the two existing parties would have sufficient political resources to impose the austerity required to resolve America’s financial crisis, the Republicans because their base was narrow to begin with and the Democrats “because a substantial number of people who would be followers of the Democrats if they had credibility, have dropped out of the political system and don’t vote”:

It is already clear that when the fiscal crunch gets serious enough, we are going to find ourselves further away from anything that can be called democracy‌.and the more turned off the public becomes, the more they drop out. There is probably no recourse for this situation. The system is becoming more conspicuously oligarchic all the time. Both the politics of deadlock and, increasingly the bipartisan politics of resolving the fiscal crisis, are accelerating this dynamic.

Half of those eligible to vote did not do so in the 1988 presidential election. The percentage of those registered to vote who actually did vote in the 1992 California primary was 44 percent. The percentage of those registered to vote who actually did vote in the 1992 New York primary was 26 percent; the percentage of those eligible New York citizens who actually voted was 7 percent. The question of what happens when 50 percent of the electorate (or 56 percent, or 75 percent, or in the case of New York 93 percent) perceives itself insufficiently connected to either the common weal or the interests of the candidates to render a vote significant, could mean, in hard times, something other than what it might have meant in good times, and a working instinct for self-preservation might suggest that one’s own well-being could well depend on increasing the numbers of those who feel they have a stake in the society.

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