The Scar of Race
Mad as Hell: Revolt at the Ballot Box, 1992
The Lincoln Persuasion: Remaking American Liberalism
Bill Clinton’s successful campaign seemed to restore the Democratic Party’s competitive strength in presidential elections. For the first time since 1964, Clinton showed that it was possible for a member of his party to make the case for stronger government intervention in the economy and particularly in health care—central factors in increasing Democratic votes in states from New Hampshire to California. Clinton’s campaign also prevented conservatives from successfully exploiting the racial and social issues that had divided the Democratic Party for a generation. The Republican coalition was in shambles, torn apart by differing views on abortion and taxes, by Bush’s failure to deal with the recession, and by its own populist insurgency from the right.
Still, within six months, the passage of Clinton’s budget proposal by two votes in the House and one in the Senate barely averted a defeat that would have severely damaged the Clinton presidency. Similar tests of presidential strength are quickly approaching with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the plan for health insurance, both of which will require bipartisan support. Has Clinton’s behavior during the first six months of his administration made impossible what he once seemed well-equipped to accomplish—the rebuilding of the power of the Democratic Party to win elections and to set national goals? That question cannot be answered this early in a new administration, but the available evidence suggests that Clinton has badly damaged the opportunities he had to create a strong Democratic coalition. He has revived just those conflicts growing out of the politics of race, gender, and sexual identity that his campaign sought to smooth over, if not resolve.
At the root of Clinton’s difficulties is his inconsistent approach to the conflicting, and often contradictory, forces within contemporary liberalism—his failure to balance the tensions between majority and minority interests, between the goals of equality of wealth and equality of opportunity. J. David Greenstone’s recent The Lincoln Persuasion: Remaking American Liberalism has provided for Clinton a useful example of the effective use of executive power in its account of how Lincoln succeeded in addressing the central failing of the American liberalism of his day—slavery. Lincoln, Greenstone argues, created a moral consensus that placed the highest value on the preservation of the Union, a position with wide support in the North, while skillfully improvising a policy reflecting the principles in the Declaration of Independence that implicitly called for eliminating slavery.
Lincoln, according to Greenstone, prevented a destructive polarization from taking place between the Puritanical absolutism of the Abolitionists and the practical, calculated approach of the conservative Whig tradition, exemplified by Henry Clay. Lincoln won wide support in the North by establishing a morally coherent position that combined some of the arguments of both the pragmatists and the absolutists. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Greenstone writes, Lincoln developed the view that,
In order to promote a national unity, the Union had to “faithfully observe” all the constitutional guarantees that protected slavery in the slave states and had to accept even the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. But the principle also imposed a strict condition: the national government had to stigmatize the institution—to declare it immoral—by “treating it as a wrong, with the fixed idea that it must and will come to an end.” Moreover, this stigmatization required deeds as well as words. The national government must adopt policies that would eventually end slavery, primarily by preventing the institution’s territorial expansion.
The crisis of liberalism facing Clinton is obviously far less threatening—it endangers the Democratic Party, not the Union—but it is in some ways more complex. The emergence over the past decade of the politics of sex and race has intensified demands that government resources and special legal protection be given to newly formed constituencies, mainly of the left—among them homosexuals, women, the disabled, and those who advocate more help for the homeless. The demands of these groups tend to be uncompromising in ways that divide a potential Democratic coalition politics. The Republican Party, for its part, has in recent years laid claim to broad constituencies such as white men and the middle class; it has capitalized on the Democrats’ vulnerability to charges that the people dependent on welfare, who are largely black and living in crime-ridden neighborhoods, are at the heart of the Democratic power base in the big cities.
Clinton learned from his 1980 defeat for re-election as governor the dangers of liberal hubris: even the longstanding Democratic voters of Arkansas would not tolerate a chief executive and a staff determined, for example, to carry out programs for increased environmental control of timber and farmland without popular consent. After being re-elected in 1982, Clinton, according to several accounts of his years in Little Rock, made his own analysis of the weaknesses of his own party and its candidates; he saw the potentially divisive consequences of many Democratic policies for the constituencies, particularly the white working class and lower middle class, that had traditionally provided the core of the party’s support. In most states the issues of “family values,” tax policy, and race were central to Republican victories in the presidential campaigns of 1980, 1984, and 1988.
Clinton’s sense of a more inclusive, less divisive national politics informed his 1992 campaign. In the primaries, he partly revived the tacit electoral alliance between whites and blacks from the working class and lower middle class. In the general election, he won only 43 percent of the popular vote, but the sources of his support, and, most important, the gains he made over George Bush among white voters, suggested that the Democratic coalition could eventually expand beyond 50 percent during a well-run presidency. While Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis had been defeated by white voters, Clinton split the white vote, losing it in the South but winning it in the North, while holding onto decisive majorities among black and Hispanic voters. The Republican coalition that appeared invincible in the 1980s was torn apart. The GOP emerged from the 1992 election without broad support on virtually every domestic issue of central importance to the voters, a major setback from its powerful position throughout the 1980s.
On January 20, the moment seemed ripe for Clinton to establish the strength of his own presidency while restoring the Democratic Party to national dominance. From the primary in conservative New Hampshire, where out-of-work white-collar executives had abandoned the GOP, to the Democratic general election victory, to the two Democratic Senate seats in once-GOP leaning California, the 1992 elections revealed a country that was on the whole ready for government intervention to help improve the performance of private business, to train or retrain the work force, to raise the standards of education, and, most urgently, to do something about the recession that had grown worse under conservative Republican control.
Central to Clinton’s success was his ability to define himself and the Democratic Party in a way that was attractive to swing voters, who had been deeply suspicious of Democratic motives throughout the campaign. His implicit and explicit message was that he would stop directing government money toward the influential rich or the nonproductive poor. In his New York convention speech he said that he accepted the nomination “in the name of all the people who do the work, pay the taxes, raise the kids and play by the rules—in the name of the hard-working Americans who make up our forgotten middle class.” While avoiding the issues of racism and affirmative action, he made it clear he would, as the black sociologist William Julius Wilson advocated, favor general programs such as health insurance and job creation that would be of particular help to black voters and assure their support.
The crucial importance to a Democratic presidential candidate, who must depend on a biracial coalition, of neutralizing, if not countering, some of the more divisive aspects of contemporary liberal ideas and policies is suggested in The Scar of Race,1 a study of public opinion, in which Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza discuss the ways conservatives have used social, cultural, and racial issues to break up the Democratic electoral majorities. The conventional wisdom, they write, “is that opposition to affirmative action is driven by racism, with the vehemence of whites’ opposition to racial quotas and preferential treatment taken as proof of the tenacity of their prejudice against blacks.” Their interviews, however, found that
apparent cause and effect can be reversed: dislike of affirmative action can engender dislike of blacks…. What we found was that merely asking whites to respond to the issue of affirmative action increases significantly the likelihood that they will perceive blacks as irresponsible and lazy…. 43 percent of those who had just been asked their opinion about affirmative action described blacks as irresponsible, compared with only 26 percent of those for whom the subject of affirmative action had not yet been raised.
Central to Clinton’s attempt to separate himself from the more divisive elements of the Democratic cultural and racial policies was his promise to reform welfare:
Welfare should be a second chance, not a way of life. In a Clinton administration, we’re going to put an end to welfare as we know it. I want to erase the stigma of welfare for good by restoring a simple, dignified principle: no one who can work can stay on welfare forever.
As part of that same strategy, Clinton gave very different signals. On the one hand he promised that, while welfare payments would be limited to two years, he would provide public work to people on welfare who could not find private sector jobs. At the same time he made a show of criticizing Jesse Jackson and the National Rainbow Coalition for sponsoring an appearance of the rap singer Sister Souljah. In doing so Clinton wanted not only to make clear that he was not an indulgent liberal who would tolerate even the appearance of sympathy for black criminal violence, but also to separate himself from Jackson’s attempt to portray the constituencies of the Rainbow Coalition as essentially victims of racism and discrimination.
Seen as moving the party to the right, Clinton tried to make a new, broader version of Democratic liberalism widely acceptable. Jack Germond and Jules Witcover skillfully document the success of this strategy in Mad as Hell, their fourth book analyzing presidential elections.
We heard about [the Sister Souljah controversy] repeatedly from Democrats in the South through the general election campaign. As Al LaPierre, executive director of the party in Alabama, recalled: “People would come up to me and say ‘Dammit, we’ve finally done something right.’ …It was really amazing that one instance worked so well.” And we heard it from blue-collar workers in the industrial states outside the South. Kevin Mullaney, an electrician in north Philadelphia, later told one of us, “The day he told off that fucking Jackson is the day he got my vote.”
"The new race-conscious agenda," the authors write, "has provoked broad outrage and resentment. Affirmative action is so intensely disliked that it has led some whites to dislike blacks—an ironic example of a policy meant to put the divide of race behind us in fact further widening it."↩
“The new race-conscious agenda,” the authors write, “has provoked broad outrage and resentment. Affirmative action is so intensely disliked that it has led some whites to dislike blacks—an ironic example of a policy meant to put the divide of race behind us in fact further widening it.”↩