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The Matter with Democrats

In response to:

What's the Matter with Liberals? from the May 12, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

I read with the utmost curiosity Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Liberals” [NYR, May 12] and was left with several questions unanswered. The one I would most desire Frank to answer is this: If the Democrats lost in 2004 because they “chose to sacrifice the liberal economic policies that used to connect them to such voters [presumably working class and middle class] on the altar of centrism,” are you saying that the centrism of the party’s last president is to be abandoned? How do you account for Bill Clinton’s election and reelection if not his centrism?

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.

Editor in Chief

The American Spectator

Arlington, Virginia

Thomas Frank replies:

Putting all the lesser details aside, I would account for Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 the same way Mr. Tyrrell himself does on page 283 of his book Boy Clinton: by pointing to the intervention of H. Ross Perot. Clinton’s reelection in 1996 I would chalk up to the usual boring factors: incumbency, a booming economy, and the weakness of the Republican candidate.

However, the great historical truth that most commentators perceive in Clinton’s victories is the transcendent power of “centrism” or, more grandly, “The Third Way,” by which they mean the former president’s abandonment of his party’s traditional economic liberalism and his embrace of the Reagan economic agenda. Among mainstream D.C. types Clinton’s famous about-face is thought to have been both a maneuver of incredible tactical shrewdness and at the same time a profundity for the ages, a ringing confirmation of the eternal rightness of the laissez-faire system, the glory of “globalization,” the miraculosity of the “New Economy,” and all the rest of the Op-Ed usual.

For my thoughts on the second part of this assessment I refer readers to my book One Market Under God. As for the long-term political benefits of Clintonian triangulation, just take a look at recent headlines. I doubt that anyone contemplating the political scene four and a half years after Clinton’s departure from it can honestly conclude that these are good times for the Democratic Party. While it is true that Clinton himself remained personally popular to the end of his term, dumping his party’s historical principles had fatal consequences for his fellow Democrats. Since 1992 the Democrats have gone from enjoying large majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives (where they had been in the majority, with two one-term interruptions, ever since 1931) to being almost powerless in both. White working-class voters, formerly the party’s core, are today deserting its candidates by the millions. In huge swaths of the country Democrats are no longer competitive at all.

Curiously enough, though, economic liberalism (universal health insurance, good public schools, good wages, equality, etc.) remains consistently popular to this day whenever voters are polled. It remains popular even as Democrats sit around wondering who they are and what their principles ought to be. Economic liberalism’s deletion from our national political conversation—the greatest achievement of Clinton’s “centrism”—is what makes it possible for conservatives to get away with what would have been a prima facie absurdity forty years ago: the notion of Republicans as allies of the little guy in his endless war against the elite.

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