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Eye on the Prize

Yet this was not a year in which the Democratic Party was inclined to address the question of bringing these nonvoting citizens into the process. The party leadership was focused instead on its phantom Reagan Democrats, on what Robert J. Shapiro, a Clinton adviser and vice-president of the DLC’s Progressive Policy Institute, described last year to Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times as “an attempt to take the traditional goals of the Democratic party…and find means to achieve them that embody the values of the country.” The “values of the country,” which is to say the values of that fraction of the country that had come to matter, also known as “the swing vote,” began to be defined in 1985, when the Michigan House Democratic caucus commissioned the pollster Stanley Greenberg to do what became a seminal study of voters in Macomb Country, Michigan. Greenberg assembled, at a motel in Sterling Heights, Michigan, a focus group made up of three dozen registered Democrats who had voted for Reagan. According to Peter Brown,

The voters were broken into four groups. Each participant was paid $35 for two hours and fed cold cuts. The tone was set when Greenberg read a quote from Robert Kennedy, a man held in reverence by these heavily Roman Catholic voters. The quote was RFK’s eloquent call for Americans to honor their special obligation to black citizens whose forefathers had lived through the slave experience and who themselves were the victims of racial discrimination.….

That’s bullshit,” shouted one participant.

No wonder they killed him,” said another.

I’m fed up with it,” chimed a third….

The resulting report sent a shudder through state and national Democrats. It was the first of a continuing series of research projects during the latter half of the decade that explained the problem, quite literally, in black and white.

The votes for Reagan among these traditional Democrats, Greenberg reported, stemmed from…a sense that “the Democratic party no longer responded with genuine feeling to the vulnerabilities and burdens of the average middle-class person. Instead the party and government were preoccupied with the needs of minorities…. They advanced spending programs that offered no appreciable or visible benefit” for middle-class people.

Traditional” has many meanings here. These were traditional Democrats, and yet black voters were those who tended to share, what Shapiro called “the traditional goals of the Democratic Party.” Any candidate bent on at once luring the former and holding a majority of the latter will predictably be less than entirely forthcoming on certain points, which is part of what lends the Clinton program, as outlined in Putting People First, essentially a paste job of speeches and position papers and the odd specific (for example a call to “end taxpayer subsidies for honey producers”), its peculiar evasiveness. Read one way, the program could seem largely based on transferring entitlements from what are called “special interests” to those who “work hard and play by the rules,” or distributing what wealth is left among the voting percentage of the population. Putting People First speaks often and eloquently, and in many variations, of “rewarding work,” of “providing tax fairness to working families,” of “ending welfare as we know it,” of “cracking down on deadbeat parents.” Read another way, Putting People First stresses benefits to accrue to the formerly needy and now “empowered”:

Empower people with the education, training, and child care they need for up to two years, so they can break the cycle of dependency; expand programs to help people learn to read, get their high school diplomas or equivalency degrees, and acquire specific job skills; and ensure that their children are cared for while they learn.

After two years, require those who can work to go to work, either in the private sector or in community service; provide placement assistance to help everyone find a job, and give the people who can’t find one a dignified and meaningful community service job.

Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to guarantee a “working wage,” so that no American with a family who works full-time is forced to raise children in poverty. [Emphasis in original]

Clues to how all this might be reconciled seem absent in the text itself. Much of Putting People First appears to derive, however, from the thinking of the Democratic Leadership Council, particularly as expressed in a document distributed as a “discussion guide” at a May meeting to which Governor Clinton, the former chairman made candidate, returned in triumph. The thrust of this document has since been refined as the DLC’s “New Social Contract,” outlined in the July 1992 issue of its bi-monthly publication, The New Democrat, and it is this that provides an instructive subtext for the Clinton program. “Data suggest that the public is ready to shift the moral foundations of entitlements from a one-way street—if you need it, you are entitled to it—to a more balanced social contract,” Daniel Yankelovich suggests in The New Democrat. “If the society gives you a benefit, you must, if you are able, pay it back in some appropriate form. This means no more ‘freebies,’ no more rip-offs, and no more unfairness to the middle class.”

A few pages earlier, Will Marshall, President of the DLC’s Progressive Policy Institute, quotes Yankelovich to explain how to remedy the fact that an “explosion of new rights and entitlements,” among which he counts the rights “to remedial and college education, to abortion, to equal pay for women, to child and health care, to free legal counsel, to public facilities for the disabled, and many more,” has meant “higher taxes to pay for public transfers to ‘special interests”’: “What the public is saying is that government programs should require some form of reciprocity: people should no longer expect something for nothing.”

Freebies” and “rip-offs” and “something for nothing” are extremely loaded words to use in reference to entitlement programs already weighted, via Social Security and Medicare and tax exemptions for medical care and for contributions to pension funds, to favor the voting class, but they are the words heard in focus groups. Similarly, the “new right” to abortion does not mean “higher taxes to pay for public transfers to ‘special interests’ “; women who need funded abortions would tend alternately to need funded births and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, clearly the more expensive choice, yet abortion remains, among swing voters, a deeply freighted issue.

The most discussed and ambitious part of the Clinton program has been his proposal to involve the federal government (in ways and at a cost not satisfactorily detailed in Putting People First) not only in medical care but in rebuilding infrastructure and retraining and educating the work force, and yet what is said in The New Democrat suggests that even this proposal may have been crafted to reflect “what the public is saying”: Daniel Yankelovich, describing the results of a focus-group study conducted for the DLC on the mood of the electorate, notes that since “the American people believe activist government is important to solving the great challenges facing our country,”

they are rejecting calls to eliminate government and leave problems like helping their kids go to college to the whims of the marketplace…. While any proposal to help families send their children to college would appeal both to the growing emphasis on education and to the public’s economic worries, national service is especially attractive because it emphasizes the value of reciprocity. 2 There is a strong belief among the public that “there is no free lunch.” In nearly every focus group, people echoed the comments of the man in Detroit who said, “I believe in giving something in return, I don’t think anyone should get a free ride…”

Welfare reform proposals that emphasize reciprocal obligation resonate well with the public, because they reinforce core American values…

There is virtual unanimity (76 percent) on the idea that the country’s elected leaders are not paying attention to the long-range needs of the country…. They are convinced that education, training, and the dedication of the workforce are the keys to economic vitality…

All of this points to a possible solution involving a massive commitment to training, education and outreach; a practical and realistic examination of what is meant by “most-qualified” so that minorities were not disqualified; and a serious good faith effort to take black mistrust seriously and work at building a new structure of trust.

This is not an easy or simple strategy to implement. But it offers a basis for compromise, rather than a sure formula for confrontation and defeat—moral as well as electoral.

What is striking about this “new social contract,” then, is that its notion of what might resolve our social and economic woes, the “program,” has been specifically shaped, like Governor Clinton’s Madison Square Garden speech, to reflect what is said in focus groups. The “new social contract” talks not about what the Democratic Party should advocate but about what it “must be seen advocating,” not about what might work but about what might have “resonance,” about what “resonated most clearly with the focus group participants.” The “need for profound changes in the way progressives view economic policy” is confirmed for Will Marshall not by an economic reality but by an “evolution in the public’s thinking.”

The use of focus groups is not new, nor is it unique to the Democratic Party (the Willie Horton issue, most famously, was born in a 1988 focus group the Bush campaign ran in Paramus, New Jersey) or even to politics; that the fearsome contemplation of electoral (“as well as” moral) defeat shapes the policies of both parties has been well documented. What seems troubling this year is the increasingly narrow part of the population to which either party listens, and the extent to which this extreme selectivity has transformed the governing of the country for most of its citizens into a series of signals meant for someone else. “When people are asked to prioritize U.S. foreign policy,” Daniel Yankelovich notes, “they favor furthering our economic interests over support for democracy by a two to one margin.”

This is what is meant by the DLC’s “revolution in government,” the revolution, according to The New Democrat, that the Democratic Party must lead if it “expects to win back the confidence of the American people.” Out where confidence is harder to come by and the largest political party in America gets larger as we watch, the questions raised in the focus groups of the two leading minority parties about “freebies” and “rip-offs” and “something for nothing,” about Willie Horton and Sister Souljah, remain less clear. At a time when the country’s tolerance of participatory democracy has already shallowed, what remains less clear still, and a good deal more troubling, is what kind of revolution might be made after the focus session in Sterling Heights or Costa Mesa or Paramus when “the American people,” which is the preferred way of describing the selected dozens of narrowly targeted registered voters who turn out for the cold cuts and the $35, decide to say something different.

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    Clinton is proposing national service, not in the sense of military draft but as a way to pay back universal college loans and also as a way of employing those former welfare recipients who can’t get jobs after two years.

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