Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton; drawing by David Levine

The town square of Valdosta, Georgia, a red-clay south Georgia community just above the Florida border, was packed with over five thousand men and women on September 23. Valdosta was a Democratic stronghold throughout the Great Depression, but the voters here began to leave in the 1960s when the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt became, in their eyes, the party of Martin Luther King. Twenty-four years ago, George Wallace, running as the candidate of the American Independent Party, won by an absolute majority in Lowndes County (which includes Valdosta), beating the combined vote cast for Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. In 1988, George Bush crushed Michael Dukakis here, winning 66 percent of the vote.

In the fall of 1992, however, Bill Clinton and Albert Gore attracted a crowd that jammed the plaza in front of City Hall. And most of those waving Clinton-Gore signs were white. While a film crew under the direction of Clinton’s “media consultant,” Frank Greer, made a tape for commercials to be shown in southern states, Clinton, his voice full of sarcasm, ridiculed Bush’s criticism of him. “One day I’m a redneck from a little southern state, the next day I’m an Oxford man. He went to country day schools, a prep school…and to Yale. Where does he get off looking up to me as an Oxford man? He got $300,000 from his daddy to start the family business.”

But what was perhaps most striking about Clinton’s speech is that he claimed credit for changing the “national Democratic Party” in a part of the country where the words “national Democratic Party” are understood as shorthand for a federal government that, during the 1960s and 1970s, promoted both racial integration and policies intended to shift income from the working and lower-middle class to the nonworking welfare poor.

I brought change to the Democratic Party. I challenged the Democratic Party, and we did change the Democratic Party. You read our platform. It says the best social program is a good job and a growing economy, and that is what we stand for. First time in a generation, the Democrats are running on their platform and the Republicans are running away from theirs.

Clinton may have overstated the revolution in his own party, but the 1992 presidential campaign has already produced one clear result: the Republican presidential coalition has been broken. The size of Clinton’s audience in the Valdosta town square was a sign of that. Neither Michael Dukakis nor Walter Mondale (nor George McGovern, nor Hubert Humphrey) would have even tried to hold a rally there.

George Bush could still come from behind to win the election, but the powerful conservative alliance, a virtually all-white coalition that dominated five of six presidential elections during the twenty years from 1968 to 1988, is no longer the driving force in national politics. The GOP is plagued by defections among three of its core constituencies—Reagan Democrats, suburbanites, and the young. The increasingly powerful religious right, in turn, may now become the political special interest group against which Democratic voters will react in the 1990s. The centrist voters who have been estranged from the Democrats by liberal claims on behalf of minorities, homosexuals, and feminists may now be more alienated by rightwing religious leaders, particularly Pat Robertson, who threaten to dominate the GOP.

By supporting Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, white, working-class ethnic groups in the North and Protestant rednecks in the deep South helped to give populist legitimacy to a Republican Party that had long been identified with the well-to-do. Now these groups are abandoning Bush and the GOP, whether in such Deep South towns as Valdosta or in northern communities from Parma, Ohio, to Festus, Missouri. The presence of such voters in the Republican alliance previously helped to counter Democratic claims that the GOP is the party of corporate America and the rich. Door-to-door interviews and polling carefully aimed at these Reagan Democrats have recently shown a surge of support for Bill Clinton and a strong tendency of many of them to return to the Democratic Party. Some of the people who voted for George Wallace in 1968 were part of the hard-hat “silent majority” that voted for Nixon in 1972. They now hold Ronald Reagan in lower esteem than Jesse Jackson.1

The former Reagan Democrats still feel threatened by minorities; they still resent the Democratic programs that created special preferences for blacks, first through busing and then through affirmative-action programs that, in their view, threaten their chances for jobs and promotions. No one should have any illusions that such feelings have diminished. But they are now counterbalanced by the Bush administration’s evident determination to weaken unions and to limit protection for employees on the shop floor, and by the recession that has sharply increased unemployment among bluecollar workers. For white workingclass voters the busing of the 1970s is now less alarming than the danger that the corporations that employ them will be destroyed or broken up, while financial manipulators like Frank Lorenzo, the union-busting former head of the bankrupt Eastern Airlines, walk away with millions of dollars.


Steve Schott, a thirty-five-year-old Teamsters Union member who commutes from Festus, Missouri to work at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, described to me why he felt his life was increasingly constricted, his autonomy diminished: the union members, he said, “get pushed on and there is nothing we can do. We just have to take it. You can’t go someplace else, you don’t have that choice. I make good wages, I don’t have that much to complain about. But they [management] kicked our ass. If you don’t like it, walk.” In a working-class bungalow suburb of St. Louis, Lillian Bitter, a sixty-six-year-old married woman who works as a clerk in a large store, said that, in 1988,

I thought Reagan had done a good job, and Bush would continue things. Now, I think Reagan started the whole thing, he escalated everything. He could have done more for the people, it took a long time to catch on. … After what Bush has done to the working people—I have a son who is unemployed. He’s going to school, but he just got laid off from a warehouse job.

During the 1980s, Bill Witkowsky, a forty-one-year-old production worker who worked at Fruehauf, a trailer truck manufacturer in Chicago, voted for Reagan and Bush. But the decade was increasingly brutal to Witkowsky. The Fruehauf company “went through a buyout in ’85, and they bought back the buyout, and they went too far in debt, they ended selling everything off. And then the business and the economy went and they kept trimming and trimming”—until Witkowsky was fired. He is now, he says, “trying my hand at real estate,” and plans to vote for Clinton. “Nobody is going to tell me what my family values are. I want them to show me the economy. If they get people back to work, family values go up. If people aren’t working, it hurts the family.”

Discontent with Bush is running deep in working-class neighborhoods in Illinois, Missouri, and other states, and even voters who were openly and explicitly drawn to the GOP because of its racial policies are having second thoughts. Sixty-eight-year-old Joseph Piscopo, who has retired from his job running a machine at Royal Crown Cola and lives near Midway Airport in Chicago, said that in the 1980s he “took a chance and voted Republican. Jesse Jackson was starting to pick up steam back then, and rather than put a black in there, I’ll vote Republican anytime.” Piscopo does not conceal his feelings about blacks:

I’ve worked with niggers all my life and they are nothing but a prejudiced bunch of people. They are the ones that start all the things, and they have to find someone to blame, so that is why they blame the whites, they will stick it to the white man any time they can.

This year Piscopo says of Clinton, “I like his ideas, and Bush hasn’t done a damn thing. Twelve years of that bullshit has been enough, I’m switching, that’s it.”

While the “Reagan Democrats,” the group that has been central to the winning Republican strategy of recent years, are returning to the Democratic Party, a new group is emerging in the politics of 1992. Its members could be called Clinton Republicans, but that is not a label they use. They are suburban, middle-class Republicans who feel that “they have not left their party, their party has left them,” to reverse the slogan Reagan formerly used to appeal to Democratic voters. Glen Fitten, a twenty-six-year-old musician who lives in West Orange, New Jersey, took part in a discussion among suburban New Jersey Republicans organized by the Washington Post. He was disturbed by Pat Buchanan’s speech at the Republican Convention and particularly by its “tone, his putting down of groups like homosexual groups and other people like the other groups who are not part of the mainstream.”

I registered myself as a Republican. I didn’t know about politics, I was quite young. I just did it because my folks were Republicans, no other reason, really, that’s why I did it. But being around all their friends who are Republicans, some of my relatives, I never got that negativity from them. They always taught me “yeah, you are registered Republican but always go by the issue, not necessarily by your party every time if you don’t feel strongly about that.” I know I can’t really pinpoint exactly in his speech which really turned me off or which made me really swayed to voting Democrat, it was just the basic negative tone of that. I found it really scary.

Joan Sutch, a forty-nine-year-old New Jersey Republican, who had until recently managed a real estate firm, said:


I’ve lost all respect for Bush based on the fact that he is a “don’t worry, be happy” President. He has no solutions at this point, and we are in, I think, a serious economic crisis. My children are twenty-two and twenty-four, boys; one is making minimum wage in Dallas and is not able to live on it, can’t find a job. There are no jobs to speak of in Dallas. The other boy is in Tulsa and both of these oil cities have suffered. And he makes a living wage but to do so he works seventy-two hours a week.

A similar defection of relatively well-off suburbanites from the Republican coalition can be seen on the West Coast as well. In 1988, Bush barely carried California, by a margin of 352,684 votes out of 9.9 million cast. No county in the state contributed more to that margin than the famously conservative Orange County, where Bush beat Dukakis by 586,230 to 269,013—Bush’s 317,217 vote margin over Dukakis being substantially larger than Dukakis’s total vote. This year, according to polls taken by the Los Angeles Times, Bush and Clinton are virtually tied in Orange County. Together with the defection of Reagan Democrats, these losses suggest that two pillars of the Republican coalition are crumbling, at least for the moment.

The third weakened pillar of the GOP—and in the long run, the most important—is made up of the young voters who came of political age in the 1980s. Largely because of the contrast between the perceived failures of Jimmy Carter’s administration—among them his failure to deal with stagflation and to rescue the hostages in Iran—and the apparent success of Ronald Reagan, the 1980s produced the first generation of young voters for most of whom the Republican Party seemed preferable to the Democratic Party.

As these voters grew older and began to vote in higher percentages, and as their parents and grandparents, a larger proportion of whom tend to vote Democratic, began to die off, the Republican Party, many political experts predicted, would achieve a slow, “generational realignment.” For the first time since 1930 it would have the allegiance of a plurality of voters. It would no longer have to depend on the people identified as Reagan Democrats to win the presidency, the same Democrats who have helped to preserve Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

The evidence so far suggests that this predicted generational shift of power to the Republican Party has been halted and reversed. The three major polls (ABC-Washington Post, CBS-New York Times, NBC-Wall Street Journal) have shown that not only is Clinton beating Bush by overwhelming margins among younger voters but that allegiance to the Democratic Party is almost as high among the eighteen- to thirty-year-olds as it is among the voters who came of political age during the Depression. While voters between eighteen and thirty years old turn out on election day in lower percentages than their elders, they still make up 20 percent of the electorate, and thus shifts in their allegiances can have major consequences in elections.

The immediate cause of the collapse of the Republican coalition is the stagnant economy. Bush is now discovering what Jimmy Carter learned in 1980: neither a Democrat nor a Republican can claim to represent the working or middle class when the economy is going through a period of sustained recession.

There are, however, indications that Bush may have done a different kind of harm to the Republican coalition. During the past two decades, under Richard Nixon (with strong support from Spiro Agnew) and Ronald Reagan (with the support of ideological allies such as Ed Meese, William Bradford Reynolds, and Newt Gingrich), the Republican Party has made a conservative promise to the electorate. It is a promise—more implicit than explicit—to represent the white middle and the white working classes against the claims of nonwhite minorities, against liberal court rulings in cases involving the rights of criminals and dissidents, and against escalating government demands for higher taxes to pay for domestic welfare and international foreign aid (which is seen as a form of welfare for the third world).

For the GOP to make this promise central to its winning strategy, it had, first, to develop what its political strategists call a “wedge” of cultural, moral, and racial issues that would both polarize the electorate and counteract the division of the voters according to their economic and class interests which had occurred under the New Deal and which was still effective in the victories of Harry Truman in 1948 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. No contemporary Republican politician has been better at manipulating such “wedge issues,” and linking them so that they reinforce one another, than the North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. In 1990, Helms beat his opponent, Harvey Gantt, who previously had a substantial lead, by using the now famous commercial showing the hands of a white man tearing up a job rejection slip from an employer who ostensibly had been forced to hire minorities to meet federal “quota” requirements. The Helms campaign also used an equally effective commercial accusing Gantt of endorsing legislation “mandating” the presence of gay teachers in the public schools.

The acknowledged master of the technique for raising and linking wedge issues was the late Lee Atwater, who ran the Bush 1988 campaign. Atwater “repackaged” Bush, using a combination of emotionally loaded issues, images, and slogans including Willie Horton, “no new taxes,” the ACLU, the flag, the death penalty, and Harvard Square “boutique liberalism.”

As the 1992 election approached, most of the evidence, including Helms’s victory in 1990, suggested that Bush and the Republican Party would still be able to use roughly the same combination of cultural, racial, and moral issues to win in 1992. In Alabama and Texas in 1990, the Democrats who were favored to win in state elections were defeated, in large part, by television commercials showing them with Jesse Jackson, who in many ways had come to epitomize a liberalism that is pro-black and in favor of redistributing income from the middle class to the poor. In 1991, Kirk Fordice, a little-known Republican businessman, defeated the Democratic governor of Mississippi, Ray Maybus, basing his campaign on attacks on state welfare payments and on the failure of the government to make inmates in state prisons work harder. At the same time, David Duke, a political figure of the far right, emerged in Louisiana as a candidate for senator and governor—winning a majority of the white vote in both contests—and attacked both affirmative action and “the rising welfare underclass” in his heavily racial appeals to whites.

The continuing effectiveness of racial issues seemed to be confirmed as well by a 1991 poll commissioned by the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, an alliance of civil rights groups. Deeply disturbed by President Bush’s successful veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990—a veto that apparently had little negative effect on Bush’s popularity—the civil rights groups wanted to find out to what degree public opinion had become hostile to the civil rights claims of minorities. The findings were troubling to the organizations and their leaders. According to the survey by Geoff Garin and Celinda Lake, a large part of the electorate no longer perceived civil rights leaders as people who were altruistically trying to remedy injustice in an unequal world. They no longer had the moral legitimacy that was central to the success of Martin Luther King, Clarence Mitchell III, and other civil rights leaders of the past, but they were increasingly seen as running yet another Washington special interest lobby, promoting benefits for their constituents at the cost of the electorate generally. At the same time, according to other public opinion research, a large number of white voters have come to see the workplace, whether public or private, as influenced, if not dominated, by racial and sexual standards that in many cases are used to supersede merit in hiring and promotion.2

In other words, only last year the mood of the electorate on issues of race, values, and rights seemed favorable to Bush conservatives. Against this background, Bush’s reneging in July 1990 on his 1988 pledge not to raise taxes had a powerful effect. Especially among working-class Reagan Democrats, the realization that Bush could not be relied upon to keep his most publicized promise—to prevent government from taking more of their income—was crucial in turning opinion against him. The broken promise was perceived as a betrayal; and the evidence from polls and interviews suggests that many white voters who had abandoned their past connections to the Democrats in order to vote for Nixon, Reagan, and Bush now reacted by saying they would never again support Bush. Bush compounded this sense of betrayal among lower-income white constituencies when, while trying to win approval of Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Until he decided to support the bill, he had consistently claimed that it would force corporations and the government to use racial quotas. True, fewer people in the Republican coalition were estranged by his decision on the civil rights law than by his violation of the “no new taxes” pledge; but for a candidate going into a close election, any loss is significant.3

While Bush has been remarkably inept in maintaining the Republican presidential coalition, Clinton has been particularly concerned to make himself and the Democratic Party immune to divisive polarization. If one issue was emerging as the expression of racial and cultural conflict at the beginning of 1992, it was welfare. No matter what the reality, voters taking part in focus groups and in interviews increasingly described the welfare system as deplorable because it finances out-of-wedlock childbirth, encourages the dissolution of the family, and provides income to people who, instead of working and supporting their families, choose lives that are self-indulgent and often criminal. Clinton, at the very beginning of his campaign in February, did much to neutralize this issue, a longstanding threat to Democrats, with his “New Covenant”: after two years of welfare, everyone capable of working would have to accept a job, or training for a job; but the incomes of people who were working would not be allowed to fall below the poverty line. My own interviews in six states suggest that Clinton’s insistence on limiting welfare dependence has been a particularly significant factor in restoring Democratic loyalties among working- and middle-class white voters.

A second successful element of the Clinton strategy to defuse challenges from the right has been his promise to represent the men and women “who work hard and play by the rules.” There are a number of direct and indirect messages in this phrase: 1) that the Democratic Party is the party of workers, not nonworkers, 2) that the party will protect the interests of those who work hard against the claims, on the one hand, of rich corporate America and, on the other, of the nonworking poor. In many respects, this message—that he stood for responsibility and nonpermissiveness—is similar to the one Clinton conveyed to receptive voters when he criticized the rap singer Sister Souljah (who had talked of blacks killing whites instead of one another) at a meeting of Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition in Washington earlier this year.

Clinton finds himself in an unprecedented situation for a modern Democratic candidate. His campaign strategies, combined with Bush’s errors and incompetence, have produced a Democratic advantage as I write in early October—an advantage that astonishes even party loyalists. However, since mid-July, when he first established a strong lead over Bush, Clinton has been dogged by a continuing uncertainty among voters about his character and trustworthiness. Those who say in interviews that they will vote Democratic in November rarely show a strong personal commitment to him. This vulnerability has given added importance to the series of debates scheduled from October 11 through October 19 and increased the possibility that Perot might shift the balance away from Clinton in some key states, in spite of Perot’s waning appeal nationally.

What also remains unclear, apart from the outcome of the contest, is whether Clinton can translate the so-far-successful political rhetoric of his campaign into reality if he is elected. Clinton is a highly partisan politician identified with the Democratic Party, but effectively restoring the party to power nationally would require leadership of a different kind from what we have seen in his campaign. So far he has shown that he can persevere, can take advantage of his opponents’ weaknesses, and build a coalition consisting not only of the three disaffected groups I have mentioned but of many other constituencies as well.

Running a successful Democratic administration, however, would require a consistency and firmness of commitment that many of his Democratic and liberal critics in Arkansas contend he has not shown during his tenure as governor. Clinton has assiduously avoided making enemies among the state’s most powerful interests. He established a set of conservation guidelines designed to please environmental groups, but he made some of them voluntary in order to avoid the anger of local industry and agribusiness. He increased spending on education in an effort to improve the prospects of the disproportionately poor residents of Arkansas, while also maintaining a regressive tax structure.

Clinton has tried to present himself as the man who can bring about far-reaching changes at a time when much of the electorate is evidently dissatisfied with the way the ossified political system is working. But Clinton’s conciliatory character may not be suited to a presidency that would try to realign political forces and mobilize them to reverse the current national trends toward economic decline and increasing social inequality.

Again and again Clinton has said during the campaign that he is still defining himself. “Anyone who is making an honest effort to have strong convictions and to live an integrated life seems to me is engaged in the business of building character. I think that is a life-long process,” he said during the primary election in New York. Such statements pose the unanswered question of the 1992 campaign. Just where has this politically canny but in many ways still unformed man arrived at in the “process” of character-building he himself describes? Has he acquired the convictions and determination that would qualify him to be a strong president?

October 8, 1992

This Issue

November 5, 1992