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A Tale of Two Cities

The party got credit for showing “moderation” when it excluded Buchanan, but far more moderates were excluded than Buchananites. Three governors who support women’s choice in abortion were considered too risky, since they would have elicited hearty booing (even the iconic General Powell was booed when he briefly referred to abortion rights). The three governors had been heckled at a press conference they had held on their arrival in San Diego, with bystanders calling them “libertines” and crying “Get out of the Republican Party.” Governor Pete Wilson was not allowed to welcome the convention to the state where he is governor and the city where he was mayor—this despite the fact that Wilson had been a loyal ally of Dole when he was in the Senate, even leaving a sickbed to cast the deciding vote on a Dole tax bill. Governor William Weld of Massachusetts was excluded, though he is waging a close race for the Senate with John Kerry, and conventions traditionally give such candidates an opportunity to advance themselves. Governor George Pataki was made an offer he could not afford not to refuse—to marginalize himself by introducing a film clip on the comically marginal candidate Morry Taylor.

After signaling acquiescence to party stalwarts by muzzling these moderates, Dole slipped two of them back in, after a feel-good spirit had been established on the floor. Wilson was given a few minutes to introduce Elizabeth Dole and Jack Kemp’s popularity as the vice-presidential pick made it safe for Pataki to introduce his fellow New Yorker—though this last-minute decision was hotly contested in Dole’s inner circle.8

The cost the convention managers were willing to pay the millennialists for their TV torpor was a high one. Buchanan was persuaded to accept exclusion since the party turned the platform’s composition over to his people—which is like hiding a crazy passenger on an ocean liner by locking him in the pilot’s control room. It is true that party platforms can be ignored as products. But the process of their formation is important, since it indicates what terms party factions can insist on as conditions of their support.

Those who fought and won the platform battles were unhappy when they saw that this was all the recognition they were to be given. Mere party principles were ceded to them in order to arrange the party’s cosmetics in its prime-time exhibit from San Diego. Having been dragged to the edge of the cliff by the millennialists of the party, the millionaires dangled those crazies below the lip of the precipice, leaning energetically away from them to avoid plunging down with their dead weight.

It was interesting to observe the same dynamics in reverse at the Reform Party “convention” held a hundred miles up the California coast at Long Beach, where the comparatively sane people were silenced by a wild majority. The supporters of Richard Lamm, who was challenging Ross Perot for the nomination, were well-dressed, young, and polite; but their speakers were heckled with cries for Ross, and their nominating presentations lacked the high-tech gloss of Perot’s filmed introductions. The power of cosmetics was on the zealots’ side here, as Perot seemed to confess when he made a typically weird reference to Newt Gingrich as insufficiently made-up when he appeared with the President and Vice-President at this year’s state of the union address: “Old Newt had on his regular skin.”

For all the differences in size and composition of the crowd, the rhetoric of both places was remarkably the same. Over and over we were told that “the people” were being oppressed by “the government.” As if to prove this is a country without a left, Perot’s protest was against taxes and deficits. He dislikes Clinton for raising taxes and Dole for the kind of taxes that will preserve the deficit. Meanwhile, his troops expressed the same misgivings that Buchanan’s people have—over the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Concord Coalition. The “giant sucking sound” heard by Perot’s supporters is not only of dollars going off to Buchanan’s villains in Mexico, but of sovereignty being drained to the UN and of dollars supporting new immigrants. The Perot convention protested the Republicans’ gathering by replicating it in different costume. Perot’s retired folk call themselves “the people,” as do Dole’s millionaires.

2.

Chicago

The Democrats are, in the surreal language of our politics, the party of the left. Clinton is widely said, even by some Democrats, to have run in 1992 “to the right,” praising the Democratic Leadership Council, but to have reverted to party form, “governing to the left” when he took office. What were his leftist moves? He raised taxes on the rich—but not to the level that preceded Reagan’s slashes of the Eighties or that have been our historic norm; not, clearly, to the level supported even by the right-wing parties in other countries. Furthermore, he tried to meet the demographic challenge of an aging populace, and an expensive health insurance industry, with government guarantees of health care that were minimal by the standards of other countries. And he tried to recognize the undoubted existence of gays in the military, bringing appearance into some relation to reality.

Even these moderate measures he compromised by timidity. On taxes, he heeded people in his administration who said he should not make targeting the rich his rhetorical emphasis—with the result that a widespread impression prevails, to this day, that the real victims of his tax bill were those in the middle class.9 Then Clinton made things worse by telling several business groups that he agreed with them that he had raised their taxes too high. To paraphrase Lowi on Kinsley, “If Bill Clinton is a leftist, then Marx is a monkey’s uncle.”

The health plan was as crippled by preemptive yieldings as the tax plan. While opponents painted it as “socialistic,” it was actually made too complex by an attempt, using the vehicle of “managed care,” to let insurance companies in for the maximum amount of action compatible with complete and guaranteed coverage. There was feckless hope that the companies and doctors would prefer part of the action to the free hand they now have. Polemicists like Betsy McCaughey (now Ms. Ross) presented the plan as removing freedoms now available, though choice is already inhibited both by lack of insurance and by the kind of insurance held by most people.10

On gay rights, Clinton signaled capitulation by saying he would let the Joint Chiefs of Staff tell him how and whether the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Services can set executive policy.

For this modest set of initiatives, Clinton was judged “too liberal” in polls. After the 1994 elections, which seemed to endorse Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, Clinton panicked and called back the amoral technician, Dick Morris, who had advised him in a former period of funk (after he lost his re-election bid as governor of Arkansas). Morris advised that Clinton veer right and adopt Republican issues, which he did so effectively that Senator Dole called his opponent a born-again Republican.

Yet the American public is so chary of what it perceives to be left-liberal views that some still thought Clinton “too liberal” on the eve of the Chicago convention. Only a quarter of the populace said that of him in August of 1992; but over a third (36 percent) were saying it this August.11 Many believed that Clinton had a wild radical, Hillary, at his left elbow, working to undo the guidance of Morris at his right elbow. These critics were not confined to the slavering talk shows on radio. Richard Nixon expressed to an admiring young aide his almost hysterical fear of Hillary’s hard-left influence on her husband: Bill “can’t go too far left [and win], but if he doesn’t [go left], Hillary will kill him.”12 Nixon believed Hillary was trying to prevent Bill from taking his (Nixon’s) saving advice. Nixon was angling to be Clinton’s Tricky Dick, not aware that Morris had that position sewed up.

It was the Morris line that was being peddled in the Chicago convention. The Democrats tried to out-family the Republicans on “values,” out-tough them on crime, and out-Lourdes them on “caring.” Evan Bayh even out-babied Susan Molinari. The podium in Chicago was so wheelchair accessible that it seemed at times as if only wheelchairs could make it up there, carrying Christopher Reeve, James Brady, or Michela Alioto to lay claim to FDR’s party.

Unions, especially the teachers’ un-ion, were as disproportionately represented in Chicago as millionaires were in San Diego. But this did not mean the Democrats’ platform was as “liberal” as the Republican one was “conservative.” If there were a left party in America, it would care as much for the bottom tenth of the populace as the other party did for the top tenth. There is, after all, more need today to be concerned with people at the bottom of the economic scale. In the decade (1977-1987) when the top tenth saw its income rise by 24.4 percent, the bottom tenth lost 10.5 percent of its income.13 Such disparity is destabilizing in a society. Sheer self-preservation, to say nothing of humane concerns, should make our government wary of such economic deprivation. It creates the breeding conditions for crime, drug exploitation, and broken families. It does not even make economic sense. A forthcoming study for the World Bank argues that a nation’s growth rate is in inverse proportion to the share of national wealth concentrated in the richest fifth of its citizenry.14

It is not surprising that the millionaires’ party would be suicidally insensitive to the plight of the poor, cutting funds for their offspring and most vulnerable members. It was also to be expected that the Democrats would point this out in their platform—as they did in a first draft. Speaking of welfare reform, the draft said, “The plan proposed by Senator Dole and Speaker Gingrich was weak on work and tough on children. That is the wrong approach.” But between the draft and the convention itself, something untoward happened: a Morrisized President signed on to the Dole and Gingrich “wrong approach.” Silent revisions took place on the welfare plank, which now says: “Because of the President’s leadership and with the support of a majority of the Democrats in Congress, national welfare reform is going to make work and responsibility the law of the land.”15 Some felt, on the last day of the convention, that Dick Morris had sabotaged the party because a tabloid printed allegations of his toe-sucking sessions with a call girl. Senator Pat Moynihan and others felt that Morris’s real dirty work was done before the convention even assembled.

The few dissatisfied liberals remaining in the party were in no position to make the kind of protest that the right did in San Diego. When Dole tried to introduce language of toleration in the platform, Bay Buchanan and Gary Baur whipped him back into line. When the platform was quietly subverted in Chicago, it was the whipped liberals who had to give in. They were not excluded from expressing their disagreement, as the three moderate governors had been in San Diego, but Harold Ickes, Clinton’s campaign director, made sure that Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo would endorse Clinton before they were allowed to voice their misgivings before the convention (but not in prime time). And the person Nixon and others consider the real radical in the party, Hillary Clinton, gave a speech advocating measures like one more day in the hospital for women after childbirth. Long an advocate for children’s welfare, an ally of Marian Wright Edelman (who denounced Clinton’s signing of the welfare bill), Ms. Clinton said nothing about the way her husband ended a sixty-year federal responsibility for the poorest segment of society. Her pink-toned address and visiting-nurse delivery at the convention amazed Bob Borosage, the progressive advocate in the party, who said, just after the speech: “How can she do that, after the welfare bill?”

  1. 8

    Robert Novak, “Saving Pete Wilson,” Chicago Sun-Times, August 18, 1996, p. A39.

  2. 9

    For Clinton’s failure to get credit for shifting the tax burden to the rich, see Bob Woodward’s The Agenda (Simon and Schuster, 1994), which traces the influence of people like Robert Rubin, at that time economic advisor to the President. “Rubin, the multimillionaire, said frankly that he hated it when Clinton used the word ‘rich.’ They should use some other phrase, he suggested, like ‘the well-to-do’ or ‘people who have done well.”’ The language was important. Rubin added that he had not heard a single person who had done well complain that their taxes were going to go up by as much as a third.

  3. 10

    See Ronald Dworkin’s analysis of McCaughey’s misleading arguments in The New York Review of Books, May 26, 1994, pp. 52-53.

  4. 11

    USA Today/CNN polls of 1992 and 1996: USA Today, August 28, 1996, p. 6A.

  5. 12

    Monica Crowley, Nixon Off the Record (Random House, 1996), p. 182. Nixon was obsessed with Ms. Clinton, who gets fifty-eight separate references in this book’s index.

  6. 13

    Congressional Budget Office figures cited in Kevin Phillips, The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath (Random House, 1990), p. 14.

  7. 14

    Report by Michael Bruno, chief economist for the World Bank, cited by William Pfaff in his Los Angeles Times Syndicate column of August 3-4, 1996.

  8. 15

    Mary Ann Akers, “Last-Minute Carpentry on Welfare Plank,” National Journal Convention Daily, August 27, 1996, p. 17.

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