In the understandably general yearning for “change” in the governing of this country, we might pause to reflect on just what is being changed, and by whom, and for whom. At Madison Square Garden in New York from July 13 until the balloons fell on the evening of July 16, four days devoted to heralding the perfected “centrism” of the Democratic Party, no hint of what had once been that party’s nominal constituency was allowed to penetrate prime time, nor was any suggestion of what had once been that party’s tacit role, that of assimilating immigration and franchising the economically disenfranchised, or what used to be called “coopting” discontent. Jesse Jackson and Jimmy Carter got slotted in during the All-Star Game. Jerry Brown spoke of the people who “fight our wars but never come to our receptions” mainly on C-SPAN.
“This convention,” Representative Tom Foley declared, and a number of speakers echoed him, “looks like our country, not like a country club,” but the preferred images were precisely those of a sunbelt country club, for example Tipper and Al Gore dancing sedately on the podium. The preferred sound was not “Happy Days Are Here Again” but Fleetwood Mac, Christine McVie’s request before the New Hampshire primary that the Clinton campaign stop using her song “Don’t Stop” notwithstanding.
Those who wanted to dance with the Gores, join the club, made it clear that they were transcending, as their candidate had often put it, “the brain-dead policies in both parties,” most noticeably their own. “Democrat” and “Republican,” we heard repeatedly, as if a prayer for electoral rain, were old labels, words without meaning, as were “liberal” and “conservative.” “The choice we offer is not conservative or liberal, in many ways it is not even Republican or Democratic,” the candidate told us. “It is different. It is new…. I call it a New Covenant.”
What Governor Clinton had been calling “a New Covenant” (for a while he had called it “a Third Way,” which had sounded infelicitously Peruvian) was essentially the Democratic Leadership Council’s “New Choice,” or more recently its “New Social Contract,” a series of policy adjustments meant to “reinvent government” (as in Reinventing Government by David Osborne, a Clinton adviser) not at all by diminishing but by repackaging its role. There was in the New Covenant or the Third Way or the New Choice or the New Social Contract much that was current in Republican as well as Democratic policy thinking, but there was also a shell game; part of the “New Covenant,” for example, called for the federal government to “cut 100,000 bureaucrats” by attrition, but it was unclear who, if not a new hundred thousand bureaucrats, would administer the new federal programs ($133.7 billion to “Put America to Work,” $22.5 billion to “Reward Work and Families,” $63.3 billion to encourage “Lifetime Learning”) promised in the ticket’s Putting People First: How We Can All Change America.1 The “New Covenant” was nonetheless the candidate’s “game plan” and it was also, covering another Republican base, his “new choice based on old values.”
In certain ways this convention’s true keynote address was delivered not by the keynote speakers of record but by the Democratic National Committee finance chairman, Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia. Senator Rockefeller, describing himself as “one of those Democrats who doesn’t threaten big donors,” reported that this was a year in which it was possible to mount “the best financed Democratic presidential campaign ever,” one in which the “donor base is bigger than ever,” enabling the party to buy “focus groups, polling, research, whatever it takes to get the message out.” The message was this: we’re tough, kick ass, get a life. “We Democrats have some changing to do,” the candidate said, accepting the nomination on behalf of those who “pay the taxes, raise the kids and play by the rules,” by which he meant “the forgotten middle class” that had been the basis of his campaign since New Hampshire. He had an ultimatum for “the fathers in this country who have chosen to abandon their children by neglecting their child support: take responsibility for your children or we will force you to do so.” He had a promise to “end welfare as we know it,” to put “100,000 more police on your streets,” to set right a situation in which “the Prime Minister of Japan…actually said…he felt sympathy for America.”
This world the candidate evoked, one in which the Prime Minister of Japan conspired with welfare queens and deadbeat dads (referred to delicately in Putting People First as “deadbeat parents”) to deride those who paid the taxes and raised the kids and played by the rules, began and ended with the woolly resentment of the focus group, and so remained securely distanced from what might be anyone’s actual readiness to address actual concerns. The candidate spoke about “taking on the big insurance companies to lower costs and provide health care to all Americans,” but Putting People First made it clear that this more comprehensive health care was to be paid for not only by decreasing Medicare benefits for those with incomes over $125,000, a proposal with which no one could argue, but also by “cutting medical costs,” which means limiting either medical fees or medical reimbursements, or, again (but this time at all income levels), decreasing benefits; the practical effect here is to either compel participation or institutionalize a two-class health system. (This is a thorny business. One reason medical costs keep rising is not necessarily because the consumer is being “gouged,” as Putting People First suggests, but precisely because insured consumers now make up certain deficits incurred by the treatment of patients subject to the restricted payment schedules specified by Medicare and Medicaid.)
The candidate spoke about “less entitlement” and more “empower-ment,” the preferred word among the Bush administration’s own “New Paradigm” theorists for such doubtfully practicable ideas as selling housing projects to their tenants, but it remained unclear just what entitlement he could have the political will to cut; the single “entitlement reform” detailed as an actual monetary saving in Putting People First was the Medicare cutback for those with incomes over $125,000, and it was hard not to remember that four months before Governor Clinton had saturated Florida retirement condos with the news that Paul Tsongas, who had proposed to limit cost-of-living increases on Social Security benefits to recipients with incomes over $125,000, was against old people.
He spoke about reducing defense spending, but also about maintaining “the world’s strongest defense”; the projected figure for “1993 defense cuts (beyond Bush)” given in Putting People First, however, was only two billion dollars, and Governor Clinton, during the press of his losing primary campaign in Connecticut, had promised to save the Groton-based Seawolf submarine program, one multibillion-dollar defense expenditure marked for a cut by the Bush administration. He spoke about the need to “clean out the bureaucracy,” as he had during all his primary campaigns except one, that in New York, where his key union endorsements included the Civil Service Employees Association (some 200,000 members in New York State) and District Council 37 (135,000 members in New York City) of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. “There is a real opportunity in the citadel of the failures of the old bureaucratic approaches to talk about new ideas,” Will Marshall, the president of the Democratic Leadership Council’s Progressive Policy Institute and a Clinton adviser, had acknowledged to Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times on this point. “On the other hand, he’s got a lot of support from public employee unions, he’s fighting for his life and he needs support wherever he can get it.”
These were Democrats, in other words, who accepted the responsibility with which Ron Brown had charged them: to “keep our eye on the prize, so to speak.” These were Democrats who congratulated themselves for staying, as they described it, “on message.” Not much at their convention got left to improvisation. They spoke about “unity.” They spoke about a “new generation,” about “change,” about “putting people first.” As evidence of putting people first, they offered “real people” videos, soft-focus videos featuring such actual citizens as “Kyle Harrison,” a student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville who cooperatively described himself as a member of “the forgotten middle class.” Convention delegates were given what a Clinton aide called the “prayer-book,” a set of six blue pocket cards covering questions they might be asked, for example about “The Real Bill Clinton.” (“His father died before he was born and his mother had to leave home to study nursing…. Bill grew up in a home without indoor plumbing.”) The volunteers who worked the DNC’s “VVIP” skyboxes at the Garden were equipped with approved conversation, or “Quotable Lines” (“Al Gore complements Bill Clinton, they are a strong team,” or “The Republicans have run out of ideas, they’re stuck in a rut…all Americans are losing out”), as well as with answers to more special, more VVIP-oriented questions, as in “Celebrity Talking Points” #3 and #4:
- Tipper Gore previously worked on a drive to put warning labels on albums classified violent or obscene. Isn’t this a restriction of our 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech?
First, let’s be clear—Al Gore is the Vice Presidential candidate and this convention will determine the platform for this party and for this campaign. Second, Tipper Gore is entitled to her own opinions as is any other American. She is a good campaigner and will work hard on behalf of the platform of this party and the Clinton-Gore ticket.
- Why are some entertainment personalities who normally endorse Democratic candidates sitting this election year out or going to Ross Perot?
There are many other issues such as Human Rights, the Environment, Women Rights, AIDS and other such important issues which have become a priority for certain individuals. Also, those who have chosen other campaigns must have their reasons and I respect their right to do that.
“When in doubt,” skybox volunteers were advised, “the best answer is, ‘Thank you, I’ll get a staff person to get you the campaign’s position on that issue’.” It was frequently said to be The Year of the Woman, and the convention had clearly been shaped to make the ticket attractive to women, but its notion of what might attract women was clumsy, off, devised as it was by men who wanted simultaneously to signal the electorate that they were in firm control of any woman who might have her own agenda. There was the production number from The Will Rogers Follies with the poufs on the breasts. There was the less than convincing transformation of two mature and reportedly capable women, Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Gore, into double-the-fun blondes who jumped up and down, clapped on cue, and traveled, as Mrs. Reagan had, with a hairdresser on the manifest for comb-outs.
The party did introduce its five women candidates for the Senate (Carol Mosley Braun, Jean Lloyd-Jones, Lynn Yeakel, Barbara Boxer, and Dianne Feinstein) as well as four of its most visible ingénues (Kathleen Brown, Barbara Roberts, Sharon Pratt Kelly, and Pat Schroeder), but had originally hedged the possibility that the presence of too many women might threaten any viewer by ghettoizing them, scheduling them, with Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson and the AIDS presentations, on Tuesday night, which on the Monday-through-Thursday convention schedule had traditionally been known as “losers’ night.” (After some complaints the Senate candidates, although not the ingénues, got moved to the Monday schedule.) “What used to be losers’ night we’re making women’s night,” Ron Brown had said about this to one woman I know, a prominent Democrat in the entertainment industry.
The proceedings ran so relentlessly on schedule that it was sometimes necessary to pad out the preprime events with unmotivated musical interludes, and on one occasion with an actual ten-minute recess. “The people running this convention are just impossible,” an aide to Governor Ann Richards of Texas, who as convention chair might in past years have been thought to be one of the people running the convention, said on its second evening. “Wouldn’t give a minute of time when the networks were on. Finally she [Governor Richards] said to us, girls, my ego doesn’t need this, so don’t let yourselves get dragged down.” Jodie Evans, who managed Jerry Brown’s campaign, was told that to enter his name in nomination would “clutter up the schedule.”
Governor Brown, who did not get to be governor of California for eight years by misunderstanding either politics or the meaning of political gestures, remained a flaw in the convention’s otherwise seamless projection of its talking points. It was not by accident that he had been the only one of the six Democratic primary candidates who, on the evening of the primary campaign’s first Washington debate, did not go to dinner at Pamela Harriman’s. He maintained so apparently quixotic a guerrilla presence in New York that Maureen Dowd in the Times began referring to him as The Penguin. He worked out of the Rolling Stone office. He got messages at Dennis Rivera’s Hospital Workers Union Local 1199. He camped one night at a homeless shelter and other nights at my husband’s and my apartment. He passed up the balloon drop and the podium handshake to end the convention with his volunteers, finishing the night not at the DNC’s four-million-dollar fund-raising gala but at Elaine’s.
He told Governor Clinton that the ticket would have his “full endorsement” in the unlikely eventuality that the platform was amended to include four provisions: “a $100 ceiling on all political contributions, a ban on political action committees (PACS), universal registration undertaken by government itself (together with same day registration), and finally election day as a holiday.” That these were not provisions the Clinton campaign was prepared to discuss (“I want to work with you on these critical issues throughout my campaign,” the response went) freed Brown on what was for him, since he had shaped his campaign as a “fight for the soul of the Democratic party,” a quite sticky and isolating point, that of endorsing a ticket that could be seen as the very model of who his adversary might be in any “fight for the soul of the Democratic Party.”
“I’d like to thank someone who’s not here tonight,” he said on the evening he declined to endorse but nonetheless did opt to clutter up the schedule. “Someone who’s missing his first Democratic Convention since the Depression. Someone I think of as the greatest Democrat of all. My father, Pat Brown.” Referring as it did to a Democratic past, a continuum, a collective memory, this was in context startling, deliberately jarring, off the beat of a party determined to present itself as devoid of all history save that one sunny day in the Rose Garden, preserved on film and repeatedly shown, when President John F. Kennedy shook the hand of the Boy’s Nation delegate Bill Clinton, who could be seen on the film elbowing aside less motivated peers to receive the grail: the candidate’s first useful photo opportunity.
More recent opportunities had given us, early on, the outline of the campaign the Democrats planned to run. There was, first of all, the creation, or recreation, of Governor Clinton. By all accounts, and particularly by certain contradictory threads within those accounts, this was a dramatically more interesting character than candidate, a personality so tightly organized around its own fractures that its most profound mode often appeared to be self-pity. “I was so young and inexperienced,” Governor Clinton told The Washington Post about his 1980 Arkansas defeat, “I didn’t understand how to break through my crisis and turn the situation around.” In his famous and extremely curious letter to the director of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas, Colonel Eugene Holmes, who could not reasonably have been thought to care, he had spoken of his “anguish,” of his loss of “self-regard and self-confidence”; of a period during which, he said, he “hardly slept for weeks and kept going by eating compulsively and reading until exhaustion set in.” He spoke of the continuing inclination of the press to dwell on this and other issues as “the trials which I endured.”
“When people are criticizing me, they get to the old ‘Slick Willie’ business,” he explained to Jonathan Alter and Eleanor Clift of Newsweek before the New York primary. “Part of it is that I’m always smiling and try to make it look easy and all that. And part of it is the way I was raised. I had such difficulties in my childhood.” Governor Clinton spoke often about these difficulties in his childhood, usually, and rather distressingly, in connection with questions raised about his adulthood. Such questions had caused him to wonder, he confided to The Wall Street Journal, “whether I’d ever be able to return to fighting for other people rather than for myself. I had to ask myself: what is it about the way I communicate or relate? Was it something in my childhood? I didn’t wonder if I was a rotten person. I knew I was involved in a lifelong effort to be a better person.”
That he was sometimes demonstrably less than forthcoming when confronted with contradictions in this lifelong effort (by mid-May this year he was still undertaking what he called an “enormous effort” to reconstruct his draft history, which had first come into question in Arkansas in October 1978, but was clear on one point: “Did I violate the laws of my state or nation? Absolutely not”) could be seen, from this angle, as evidence of what came to be called his “reaching to please,” his “need to bring people together.” “I’m always trying to work things out because that’s the role I played for a long time,” he told David Maraniss of The Washington Post at one point, and, at another, “The personal pain of my childhood and my reluctance to be revealing in that sense may account for some of what may seem misleading.”
He frequently referred to “my pain,” and also to “my passion” or “my obsession,” as in “it would be part of my obsession as president.” He often spoke, at low points in his primary campaign, of those who remained less than enthusiastic about allowing him to realize his passion or obsession as “folks who don’t know me,” and about his need to “get the people outside Arkansas to know me like people here do”; most of us do not believe this about ourselves. “I can feel other people’s pain a lot more than some people can,” he told Peter Applebome of the New York Times. What might have been self-delusion was translated, in the reinvention, into “resilience,” the frequently noted ability to “take the hits.” “The comeback kid” was said at the convention to be Governor Mario Cuomo’s tribute to the candidate, but of course it had initially been the candidate’s own tribute, a way of positioning his second-place finish in New Hampshire as a triumph, and there was in Governor Cuomo’s echo of it a grudging irony, a baroque New York edge.
What else did we know about this candidate? We knew that he, or his campaign, was adept at what is generally called negative campaigning. There was the knockout punch in Florida, on the eve of Super Tuesday, when Clinton supporters distributed leaflets, each stamped “authorized and paid for by the Clinton for President Committee,” suggesting that his principal rival there, Senator Tsongas, besides being against old people, was against Israel. (Governor Clinton, who had himself campaigned in Delray Beach wearing a white yarmulke, allowed after the primary that the Israel leaflets had been misleading.) There was, on the weekend before the New York primary, the Clinton radio commercial, run for a few hours and then pulled off the air (not in this case because it was misleading, according to Governor Clinton, but because it “made the wrong point—from my point of view”) accusing Jerry Brown, the only Clinton challenger then extant, of being against choice.
In fact Governor Brown’s position on choice in California had been precisely that of Governor Cuomo in New York: each had said that he personally accepted the position of the Catholic Church on abortion but as governor supported both the right to choose and full public funding for abortion. This was a notably less equivocal position than that previously taken by Governor Clinton, who had signed into Arkansas law a measure requiring minors to notify both parents before abortion and had apparently taken no position on the state’s 1988 constitutional amendment banning public financing for abortion. There remained some cloudiness about this amendment. “I opposed the vote of the people to ban public funding on that,” Governor Clinton had said when he was asked about it during a WNBC discussion with Gabe Pressman and Jerry Brown, the Sunday before the New York primary.
That was in April. Then, in July, a letter turned up (according to the New York Post, which printed excerpts from it, the letter was “made available” to news organizations by “Republican operatives”) that had been written by Governor Clinton in 1986, when an earlier version of the amendment had been proposed, to Arkansas Right to Life. “I do support the concept of the proposed Arkansas Constitutional Amendment 65 and agree with its stated purpose,” Governor Clinton’s 1986 letter read. “I am opposed to abortion and to government funding of abortions. We should not spend state funds on abortions because so many people believe abortion is wrong.”
Apparent accidents, and even some apparent mistakes in judgment, had emerged over time as less accidental than strategic. There was Hillary Clinton’s “gaffe” in complaining to Gail Sheehy, interviewing her for Vanity Fair, that the press was following a “double standard” in dwelling on her husband’s alleged friendship with Gennifer Flowers, since Anne Cox Chambers (“sittin’ there in her sun-room”) had told her about “Bush and his carrying on, all of which is apparently well known in Washington.” This was an “embarrassment,” a “mistake,” and yet the appearance of the Vanity Fair piece coincided with Clinton strategists issuing the same preemptive warning to the Bush campaign; with Ron Brown suggesting that if questions about adultery were to persist, he thought similar questions should be put to Bush; and with Democratic consultant Robert Squier suggesting on the NBC Today show that Bush be asked what he called “the Jennifer question.”
Nor was just the single point scored: there was also considerable secondary gain in showing Mrs. Clinton as “feminine,” a weaker vessel, gossiping with a friend over tea in the sunroom and then retailing the gossip to a new friend—who, in the “unfeminine” role of reporter, could be seen to have taken unfair advantage of the shared confidence, the moment of indiscretion in her man’s defense. The erring but contrite wife could then be firmly but gently “reprimanded” by the presumptive CINC, her husband (“The main point is, she apologized….she made a mistake and she’s acknowledged it”): an improved role for both.
What else did we know? We knew that this was a candidate who arrived on the national scene with a quite identifiable set of regional mannerisms and attitudes, the residue of a culture that still placed considerable value on playing sports and taking charge and catting around with one kind of woman and idealizing the other kind. Although one sensed that this cavalier “southernness” was in Governor Clinton’s case less inherited than achieved, and at some cost (“You’re not worth being on the same platform with my wife,” which is what he said to Governor Brown when the latter suggested a possible conflict of interest between Mrs. Clinton’s law firm and the state of Arkansas, seemed so broad as to raise doubts that he really had it down), the rudiments of the style were in place, and they worked to convey the image of a candidate not beholden to the very “special interests” that many voters believed to be receiving undue attention.
Women were one such “special interest,” which presented a delicate problem since the party was increasingly dependent on the support of women who were declaring their intention to vote a single issue, that of choice (the candidate covered this by repeating that he wanted to see abortion made “safe, legal, and rare,” an unarguable but distinctly paternalistic construction); blacks were another, and one about which the candidate claimed an ambiguous regional expertise. “Where I come from we know about race-baiting,” Governor Clinton had said when he announced for the presidency at the Old State House in Little Rock, and in many variations, most of which mentioned “the politics of division,” thereafter. “They’ve used it to divide us for years. I know this tactic well and I’m not going to let them get away with it.” This was generally seen, for example in a New York Newsday editorial, as the candidate “at his most believable,” evidence of his “fidelity to the cause of ending racial divisiveness in America.” Richard Cohen, in The Washington Post, even managed to cite, as “an early indication of why Bill Clinton enjoys such wide support in the black community,” the draft letter, in which the twenty-three-year-old Clinton had told Colonel Holmes that his opposition to the Vietnam war had plumbed “a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America.”
Yet there remained an odd undertone in what Governor Clinton actually said on this subject: the “race-baiting” about which he claimed the special southern knowledge, for example, worked more than one way: “racebaiting” was what Governor Clinton accused Senator Tsongas of doing, after Tsongas ran commercials in the South showing the film on which Governor Clinton, unaware that a camera was running and enraged by a misunderstanding (he had just been told mistakenly that Jesse Jackson was endorsing Senator Harkin), spoke of Jackson’s “backstabbing” and “dirty double-crossing.” Similarly, letting “New York be split apart by race” was what Governor Clinton accused Governor Brown of doing when the Clinton campaign wanted to remind New York primary voters that Brown had named Jesse Jackson as his choice for vice-president. There was often this chance, when Governor Clinton spoke about race, to hear what he very clearly said and yet to understand it quite another way; the “them” who would not be allowed to “get away with it,” for example, were clearly those who practiced “the politics of division,” yet “the politics of division” itself remained, like “race-baiting,” open to conflicting interpretation: it has been within memory the contention of large numbers of white Americans that civil rights legislation itself represented the politics of division.
This has not been a sphere in which very many American politicians have known how to talk straight. Susan Estrich, who managed Michael Dukakis’s 1988 campaign, has pointed out (in Minority Party: Why Democrats Face Defeat in 1992 and Beyond by Peter Brown, the chief political writer for Scripps Howard) that she did not hear voters in the party’s 1988 focus groups say they were “against” blacks. What she did hear, she said, was, “I want to get a decent job, send my kid to a good school.” What was being said, as she saw it, was, “Are you the party that is going to bend over backwards for blacks when the rest of us just want to walk straight?” Although the 1992 candidate told us in the Garden about where he got what he called “my passionate commitment to bringing people together without regard to race” (from his grandfather, who ran a grocery in a black neighborhood and “just made a note of it” when customers couldn’t pay), this was not a campaign that took extraordinary care to leave the impression that it was bending over backward for blacks.
There was the picture, taken the day before the Georgia, Maryland, and Colorado primaries, showing Governor Clinton standing with Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia in front of a formation of mostly black prisoners at the Stone Mountain Correctional Facility, a less than conventional setting in which to make time for photos on the eve of three contested primaries. Senator Tom Harkin had promptly blanketed rural South Carolina with some eighty thousand copies of this Stone Mountain shot (juxtaposed with one of himself with Jesse Jackson), and its explication had for a while been a staple of Jerry Brown’s stump speech: “Two white men and forty black prisoners, what’s he saying? He’s saying we got ’em under control, folks, don’t worry.”
There was, when Governor Clinton was campaigning in a white Detroit suburb before the Michigan primary, his rather unsettling take on the Bush campaign’s 1988 use of Willie Horton: “This guy runs Willie Horton, scares the living daylights out of people, then cuts back on aid to local prosecutors, cuts back on aid to local law enforcement, cuts back Coast Guard, Customs and Border Patrol funding to intercept drugs.” There was the apparently unmonitored decision, the day after the Illinois and Michigan primaries, to play nine holes of golf, accompanied by at least one television camera crew, at an unintegrated Little Rock country club, a recreational choice so outside the range of normal political behavior that it seemed aber-rational, particularly since the issue was not unfamiliar in Little Rock; a group of twelve Arkansas legislators had a year or so before boycotted an event at another unintegrated local club, and both the Boston Herald and the New York Post had already run stories about Governor Clinton’s honorary memberships in unintegrated Little Rock clubs.
There was the equivocal response to the May riots in Los Angeles (the desirability of “personal responsibility” and “an end to division” remained the unexceptionable but distinctly elusive Clinton position on discontent of all kinds), followed six weeks later by the surgical strike at a Washington meeting of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the Sister Souljah incident.
Sister Souljah had said what she said (“I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying everyday in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?”) not at the Rainbow summit but a month before, to The Washington Post. That Sister Souljah turned up on the program of the Rainbow conference (she had taken part in a panel discussion the day before Governor Clinton was scheduled to speak) was fortuitous, one of those random opportunities by which campaigns live or die: a number of reporters had apparently been told in advance by Clinton aides that Governor Clinton would use his Rainbow speech to demonstrate his “independence” from Jesse Jackson, and the very quotable intemperance of Sister Souljah provided the most logical possible focus for such a demonstration. That this opportunity had been seized was precisely what constituted, for the campaign and its observers, the incident’s “success,” and the candidate’s “strength.”
The extent to which many prominent Democrats perceive their party as hostage to Jesse Jackson is hard to overestimate. I recall being told by a prominent Democrat, one of the party’s 772 “superdelegates,” a category devised to move the control of the nominating process back from the primary electorate to the party leadership, that Jackson’s speech at the 1988 Atlanta convention had been “a disaster” for the party, and had “lost the election for Dukakis.” Duane Garrett, a San Francisco attorney and fund-raiser, told Peter Brown about 1988 in Atlanta that “the key thing that would have helped Dukakis enormously would have been to go to war with Jesse at the convention. Not to be mean-spirited or petty, but to make it clear that Dukakis was the guy in charge.” (A good deal of Governor Clinton’s campaign has been about creating situations in which he could be seen to not do what Dukakis had done. Eleanor Clift, for example, on one of the Sunday morning shows, interpreted “You’re not worth being on the same platform as my wife” as a success on the not-Dukakis scale. The candidate, she said, had “needed to pass the Dukakis test, needed to show true strong emotion toward his wife.”) The Sister Souljah incident, in this view, represented a Clinton call for “an end to division” that had at once served to distance him from Jackson and to demonstrate that he was “the guy in charge,” capable of dominating, or “standing up to,” a kind of black anger that many white voters prefer to see as the basis for this country’s racial division.
“It was a brilliant coup,” Mary McGrory concluded in The Washington Post. “Clinton didn’t take on Jackson directly. He didn’t pick the fight on a central black concern.” That Sister Souljah herself was a straw target was, then, beside the point, and what he actually said at the Rainbow meeting (he said that her comments in the Post had been “filled with the kind of hatred that you do not honor,” that they were an example of “pointing the finger at one another across racial lines,” and that “we have an obligation, all of us, to call attention to prejudice wherever we see it”) was less important than the coverage of it, and the way in which the candidate capitalized on the coverage: the signal had been sent and he reinforced it, just as he had reinforced his willingness to make “tough choices” by allowing the Arkansas execution of Rickey Ray Rector to proceed by lethal injection forty-eight hours before the Super Bowl Sunday on which Governor and Mrs. Clinton would discuss the adultery question on 60 Minutes. The measures Governor Clinton had apparently taken to avoid the draft were adroitly reframed as another tough choice, a decision to do what he saw as “right” (“I supported the Persian Gulf war because I thought it was right and in our national interest, just as I opposed the Vietnam war because I thought it was wrong and not in our national interest”); this was his commander-in-chief transformation, a mode in which he recently mentioned, as evidence of his ability to handle crises abroad, the several venues, including Honduras, to which he had deployed the Arkansas National Guard.
“If you want to be president you’ve got to stand up for what you think is right,” Governor Clinton said about Sister Souljah. “They have chosen to react against me, essentially taking the position, I guess, that because I’m white I shouldn’t have said it, and I just disagree with that,” he told Larry King Live. One of his principal advisers, Stuart Eizenstat, a former Carter adviser and now a lobbyist, for example representing the National Association of Manufacturers against a workers’ right-to-know law on toxic chemicals, was more forthcoming: “Clinton’s strategy is not without risk,” he told The New York Times about the calculation that reaching out to unhappy white voters should be the campaign’s first priority. “But we have no real choice. Our base is too small to win, even in a three-way race, so the old-time religion just won’t work any more.”
This current wisdom, that the failure of Democratic candidates in five of the last six national elections derived from an undesirable identification with the party’s traditional base, was of course not new. It had its roots during the Vietnam War, with the 1968 and 1972 Nixon victories over the “liberals” Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern; was crystallized by Kevin Phillips’s 1970 The Emerging Republican Majority; and became a fixed idea among the party’s revisionist mainstream after the 1980 and 1984 defection of the so-called Reagan Democrats. These “Reagan Democrats,” statistically a quite small group of people, thereafter became the voters toward whom all election appeals would be directed, a narrowing of focus with predictable results, not the least significant of which was that presidential elections would come to be conducted almost exclusively in code.
Governor Clinton, for example, does not speak of Reagan Democrats. He speaks instead of being stopped in an airport by a police officer who wanted to tell him that he was “dying to vote for a Democrat again.” He speaks of “the forgotten middle class,” or, in a 1991 speech to the Democratic Leadership Council, of “the very burdened middle class,” also known as “the people who used to vote for us.” Paul Tully, the political director of the Democratic National Committee, described one of these hypothetical “people who used to vote for us” to The New York Times as “a suburbanite, in a household with about $35,000 income, younger than forty-five, with a child or two, and in a marriage in which both partners work.” James Carville spoke of “a thirty-two-year-old with two kids in day care who works in some suburban office building.”
The point on which everyone seemed to agree was that this suburban working parent of two was “middle class,” which was, according to Ted Van Dyk, the Democratic strategist who advised Paul Tsongas, the phrase that signals “Reagan Democrats that it is safe to come home to their party because poor, black, Hispanic, urban, homeless, hungry, and other people and problems out of favor in Middle America will no longer get the favored treatment they got from mushy 1960s and 1970s Democratic liberals.” That “middle class” had been drained of any but this encoded meaning was clear for example when, at a Clinton rally in Atlanta in February, Governor Zell Miller of Georgia derided Senator Tsongas as “an anti-death penalty, anti-middle-class politician.”
Middle class, Governor Clinton told the Rainbow Coalition in January, by way of answering a direct question, was not “a code word” for racism. In fact this was accurate, because the use of the code was never exclusively an appeal to racism; it appealed instead to an entire complex of attitudes held in common by those Americans who sensed themselves isolated and set adrift by the social and economic and demographic changes of the last half century. “Middle class,” Governor Clinton said in the same speech, referred “to values that nearly every American holds dear: support for family, reward for work, the willingness to change what isn’t working.” This again was accurate, but since the phrase “nearly every American” raised the specter of unspecified other Americans who did not hold these values dear, it again appealed to those who would prefer to see the changes of the last half century as a reversible error, the detritus of too “liberal” a social policy. “I have spent most of my public life worrying about what it would take to give our children a safe place to live again,” Governor Clinton also said, striking the same note of seductive nostalgia.
This reduction of political language to coded messages, to “middle class” and “reward for work,” to safe children and Sister Souljah, has much to do with why large numbers of Americans report finding politics deeply silly, yet the necessity for such reduction is now been accepted as a given: in his Minority Party, Peter Brown quoted suggestions made to Alabama party officials by the Democratic pollster Natalie Davis:
- Instead of talking about Democrats lifting someone out of poverty, describe the party’s goal as helping average Americans live the good life;
- Instead of saying Democrats want to eliminate homelessness and educate the underclass, talk about finding a way for young couples to buy their first home and offer financial help to middle-class families to send their kids to college;
- Instead of saying the Democrats want to provide health care for the poor, focus on making sure all working Americans have coverage.
The way of talking here was familiar, that of salesmanship, or packaging, and if it seemed a way of talking that the average “young couple” or “middle-class family” or “working American” could instinctively tune out, flick the channel, press the mute, it was also a way of talking that the Democratic candidate nominated by the 1992 convention instinctively understood: Bill Clinton was the son of a traveling salesman, the stepson of a Buick dealer, he knew in his fingernails how the deal gets closed. “If we lead with class warfare, we lose,” he had told Peter Brown after the 1988 campaign. With Governor James Blanchard of Michigan and senators Nunn of Georgia and Charles Robb of Virginia, he had been a founder in 1985 of the Democratic Leadership Council, which was instrumental in reshaping the “image” of the Democratic Party to attract the money of major lobbyists. The chairman of this repackaged Democratic party, Ron Brown, was himself a lobbyist, a partner at one of Washington’s most influential law firms, Patton, Boggs, and Blow. Ron Brown was in 1988 lobbying for the Japanese electronics industry, including Hitachi, Mitsubishi, and Toshiba, but he was on the podium in Madison Square Garden on the evening when Governor Clinton got the delegates booing and hissing over how “the Prime Minister of Japan actually said he felt sympathy for America”; this was of course just more code, and accepted as such.
It was also the DLC that invented Super Tuesday, the strategy of concentrating primaries in southern states to “front-load” the process against visibly liberal candidates. After this backfired in 1988, enabling Jesse Jackson to gain, enough momentum from Super Tuesday to go on to Atlanta with a real hand to play, Jackson opened his remarks at a DLC-sponsored debate by thanking Senator Robb for Super Tuesday. This had, according to Peter Brown, so amused Governor Clinton, “sitting in the front row next to Robb, that he almost fell off his chair,” but it seems to have altered the thinking of the new Democratic leadership only to the extent that Ron Brown took care to deal Jackson out before play began for 1992.
The wisdom of the DLC analysis, which tacitly calls for the party to jettison those voters who no longer turn out and target those who do, or “hunt where the ducks are,” has not been universally shared. Jesse Jackson had in 1988 tried to prove it was possible to just register more ducks, and appeared at Madison Square Garden to endorse the 1992 ticket as that classic tragic figure, a man who had tried and failed to incorporate his constituency into the system and who consequently risked being overtaken by that constituency. Jerry Brown had tried to prove that what Walter Dean Burnham has called “the largest political party in America,” the party of those who see no reason to vote, could be given that reason within the Democratic Party, but had been led by his quite fundamental party allegiance into a campaign that remained for most Americans inexplicably internecine and finally recondite, a fight for the “soul” of a party about which they no longer or had never cared. “The last thing the Democratic Party has wanted to do is declare that there is a possibility for class struggle,” Burnham noted in a 1988 discussion in New Perspectives Quarterly. “The Republicans, however, are perfectly happy to declare class struggle all the time. They are always waging a one-sided class war against the constituency the Democrats nominally represent. In this sense, the Republicans are the only real political party in the United States. They stand for ideology and interest, not compromise.”
The 1988 loss of Michael Dukakis was widely seen, both within the Democratic Party and outside it, as another example of the same malaise that had afflicted the party in 1968 and 1972 and 1980 and 1984. Governor Dukakis, it was said after the fact, was not only “too liberal” but too northeastern, too closely identified with that section of the country that had previously been a Democratic stronghold and no longer had the votes to elect a president. (Governor Cuomo, in this view, presented the same problem, one magnified by his very visibility and attractiveness as a candidate.) But in fact Governor Dukakis had not been nominated because he was “liberal”; the party had closed ranks around him precisely because he had seemed at the time to offer the possibility of a “centrist” campaign, a campaign “not about ideology but about competence,” which was what Governor Dukakis promised in Atlanta in 1988 and which sounded not unlike what Governor Clinton promised (the choice that was “not conservative or liberal, Democratic or Republican” but “will work”) in the Garden this summer.
There were in fact a number of dispiriting similarities between what was said at the Democratic convention in Atlanta in 1988 and what was said at the Democratic convention in New York this summer. There was the same insistent stress on “unity,” on “running on schedule.” “This party’s trains are running on time,” I recall someone saying in Atlanta to dutiful applause. There was the same programmatic emphasis, tricked out in the same sentimental homilies. There were the same successful arguments to keep the platform free of any minority planks that might suggest less than total agreement with the platform. There was even the same emphasis on social control, on “enforcement,” although nothing said in 1988 went quite so far in this direction, or suggested quite such a worrisome indifference to what such agencies of enforcement have meant in other countries, as the Clinton-Gore proposal to gather up “unemployed veterans and active military personnel” into what they call a “National Police Corps.”
“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.”
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.
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.
September 24, 1992