Bill Clinton’s successful campaign seemed to restore the Democratic Party’s competitive strength in presidential elections. For the first time since 1964, Clinton showed that it was possible for a member of his party to make the case for stronger government intervention in the economy and particularly in health care—central factors in increasing Democratic votes in states from New Hampshire to California. Clinton’s campaign also prevented conservatives from successfully exploiting the racial and social issues that had divided the Democratic Party for a generation. The Republican coalition was in shambles, torn apart by differing views on abortion and taxes, by Bush’s failure to deal with the recession, and by its own populist insurgency from the right.
Still, within six months, the passage of Clinton’s budget proposal by two votes in the House and one in the Senate barely averted a defeat that would have severely damaged the Clinton presidency. Similar tests of presidential strength are quickly approaching with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the plan for health insurance, both of which will require bipartisan support. Has Clinton’s behavior during the first six months of his administration made impossible what he once seemed well-equipped to accomplish—the rebuilding of the power of the Democratic Party to win elections and to set national goals? That question cannot be answered this early in a new administration, but the available evidence suggests that Clinton has badly damaged the opportunities he had to create a strong Democratic coalition. He has revived just those conflicts growing out of the politics of race, gender, and sexual identity that his campaign sought to smooth over, if not resolve.
At the root of Clinton’s difficulties is his inconsistent approach to the conflicting, and often contradictory, forces within contemporary liberalism—his failure to balance the tensions between majority and minority interests, between the goals of equality of wealth and equality of opportunity. J. David Greenstone’s recent The Lincoln Persuasion: Remaking American Liberalism has provided for Clinton a useful example of the effective use of executive power in its account of how Lincoln succeeded in addressing the central failing of the American liberalism of his day—slavery. Lincoln, Greenstone argues, created a moral consensus that placed the highest value on the preservation of the Union, a position with wide support in the North, while skillfully improvising a policy reflecting the principles in the Declaration of Independence that implicitly called for eliminating slavery.
Lincoln, according to Greenstone, prevented a destructive polarization from taking place between the Puritanical absolutism of the Abolitionists and the practical, calculated approach of the conservative Whig tradition, exemplified by Henry Clay. Lincoln won wide support in the North by establishing a morally coherent position that combined some of the arguments of both the pragmatists and the absolutists. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Greenstone writes, Lincoln developed the view that,
In order to promote a national unity, the Union had to “faithfully observe” all the constitutional guarantees that protected slavery in the slave states and had to accept even the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. But the principle also imposed a strict condition: the national government had to stigmatize the institution—to declare it immoral—by “treating it as a wrong, with the fixed idea that it must and will come to an end.” Moreover, this stigmatization required deeds as well as words. The national government must adopt policies that would eventually end slavery, primarily by preventing the institution’s territorial expansion.
The crisis of liberalism facing Clinton is obviously far less threatening—it endangers the Democratic Party, not the Union—but it is in some ways more complex. The emergence over the past decade of the politics of sex and race has intensified demands that government resources and special legal protection be given to newly formed constituencies, mainly of the left—among them homosexuals, women, the disabled, and those who advocate more help for the homeless. The demands of these groups tend to be uncompromising in ways that divide a potential Democratic coalition politics. The Republican Party, for its part, has in recent years laid claim to broad constituencies such as white men and the middle class; it has capitalized on the Democrats’ vulnerability to charges that the people dependent on welfare, who are largely black and living in crime-ridden neighborhoods, are at the heart of the Democratic power base in the big cities.
Clinton learned from his 1980 defeat for re-election as governor the dangers of liberal hubris: even the longstanding Democratic voters of Arkansas would not tolerate a chief executive and a staff determined, for example, to carry out programs for increased environmental control of timber and farmland without popular consent. After being re-elected in 1982, Clinton, according to several accounts of his years in Little Rock, made his own analysis of the weaknesses of his own party and its candidates; he saw the potentially divisive consequences of many Democratic policies for the constituencies, particularly the white working class and lower middle class, that had traditionally provided the core of the party’s support. In most states the issues of “family values,” tax policy, and race were central to Republican victories in the presidential campaigns of 1980, 1984, and 1988.
Clinton’s sense of a more inclusive, less divisive national politics informed his 1992 campaign. In the primaries, he partly revived the tacit electoral alliance between whites and blacks from the working class and lower middle class. In the general election, he won only 43 percent of the popular vote, but the sources of his support, and, most important, the gains he made over George Bush among white voters, suggested that the Democratic coalition could eventually expand beyond 50 percent during a well-run presidency. While Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis had been defeated by white voters, Clinton split the white vote, losing it in the South but winning it in the North, while holding onto decisive majorities among black and Hispanic voters. The Republican coalition that appeared invincible in the 1980s was torn apart. The GOP emerged from the 1992 election without broad support on virtually every domestic issue of central importance to the voters, a major setback from its powerful position throughout the 1980s.
On January 20, the moment seemed ripe for Clinton to establish the strength of his own presidency while restoring the Democratic Party to national dominance. From the primary in conservative New Hampshire, where out-of-work white-collar executives had abandoned the GOP, to the Democratic general election victory, to the two Democratic Senate seats in once-GOP leaning California, the 1992 elections revealed a country that was on the whole ready for government intervention to help improve the performance of private business, to train or retrain the work force, to raise the standards of education, and, most urgently, to do something about the recession that had grown worse under conservative Republican control.
Central to Clinton’s success was his ability to define himself and the Democratic Party in a way that was attractive to swing voters, who had been deeply suspicious of Democratic motives throughout the campaign. His implicit and explicit message was that he would stop directing government money toward the influential rich or the nonproductive poor. In his New York convention speech he said that he accepted the nomination “in the name of all the people who do the work, pay the taxes, raise the kids and play by the rules—in the name of the hard-working Americans who make up our forgotten middle class.” While avoiding the issues of racism and affirmative action, he made it clear he would, as the black sociologist William Julius Wilson advocated, favor general programs such as health insurance and job creation that would be of particular help to black voters and assure their support.
The crucial importance to a Democratic presidential candidate, who must depend on a biracial coalition, of neutralizing, if not countering, some of the more divisive aspects of contemporary liberal ideas and policies is suggested in The Scar of Race,1 a study of public opinion, in which Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza discuss the ways conservatives have used social, cultural, and racial issues to break up the Democratic electoral majorities. The conventional wisdom, they write, “is that opposition to affirmative action is driven by racism, with the vehemence of whites’ opposition to racial quotas and preferential treatment taken as proof of the tenacity of their prejudice against blacks.” Their interviews, however, found that
apparent cause and effect can be reversed: dislike of affirmative action can engender dislike of blacks…. What we found was that merely asking whites to respond to the issue of affirmative action increases significantly the likelihood that they will perceive blacks as irresponsible and lazy…. 43 percent of those who had just been asked their opinion about affirmative action described blacks as irresponsible, compared with only 26 percent of those for whom the subject of affirmative action had not yet been raised.
Central to Clinton’s attempt to separate himself from the more divisive elements of the Democratic cultural and racial policies was his promise to reform welfare:
Welfare should be a second chance, not a way of life. In a Clinton administration, we’re going to put an end to welfare as we know it. I want to erase the stigma of welfare for good by restoring a simple, dignified principle: no one who can work can stay on welfare forever.
As part of that same strategy, Clinton gave very different signals. On the one hand he promised that, while welfare payments would be limited to two years, he would provide public work to people on welfare who could not find private sector jobs. At the same time he made a show of criticizing Jesse Jackson and the National Rainbow Coalition for sponsoring an appearance of the rap singer Sister Souljah. In doing so Clinton wanted not only to make clear that he was not an indulgent liberal who would tolerate even the appearance of sympathy for black criminal violence, but also to separate himself from Jackson’s attempt to portray the constituencies of the Rainbow Coalition as essentially victims of racism and discrimination.
Seen as moving the party to the right, Clinton tried to make a new, broader version of Democratic liberalism widely acceptable. Jack Germond and Jules Witcover skillfully document the success of this strategy in Mad as Hell, their fourth book analyzing presidential elections.
We heard about [the Sister Souljah controversy] repeatedly from Democrats in the South through the general election campaign. As Al LaPierre, executive director of the party in Alabama, recalled: “People would come up to me and say ‘Dammit, we’ve finally done something right.’ …It was really amazing that one instance worked so well.” And we heard it from blue-collar workers in the industrial states outside the South. Kevin Mullaney, an electrician in north Philadelphia, later told one of us, “The day he told off that fucking Jackson is the day he got my vote.”
Germond and Witcover point out that Democrats who had voted for Reagan and/or Bush in the 1980s voted for Clinton by a two-to-one margin.
This strategy was central to winning the November 4 general election—and it is central to any effort to build support for the first Democratic presidency in twelve years. In 1981, Ronald Reagan had exploited the intense hostility to what many voters perceived as Democratic schemes to redistribute wealth to people who were poor or black or both. He was skillful in getting support for a program that promised to cut taxes, while in fact providing tax relief to the rich and the upper-middle class, and restricting the social expenditures that benefited the poorer half of the population.
The task facing Clinton as he took office was to enlarge the ideological consensus that had been formed during the campaign, and to create for himself and for his economic program a new political alignment, both in the country and in the Congress, that would support a reversal of Reaganomics. In pressing for a new program, it should be stressed, he had to have credibility as a Democrat. The voters had to be prepared to trust a Democrat to expand domestic spending in ways that would enlarge the job market and improve long-range productivity, and to shift the tax burden back to the rich without penalizing the middle class.
Clinton talked of the traditions of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy as if he could rely on them for electoral support. Beneath the surface, however, he faced an accumulation of distrust that had built up over the past twenty-five years. It was under the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter that taxes rose most dramatically for working- and lower-middle-class voters, because inflation increased their marginal tax rates. It was the Democratic Party that after 1968 adopted the McGovern rules, which undermined the influence and authority of traditional political organizations and leaders tied to ethnic urban communities. They did so by replacing the customary practice of having city and state Democratic Party organizations select delegates to presidential conventions. Instead delegates were chosen by strictly regulated participatory caucuses or primaries that shifted power from local political leaders to the organizations of presidential candidates. (The most dramatic example of the power shift occurred in the 1972 Democratic convention when Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s slate of delegates was thrown out in favor of a reform slate that included Jesse Jackson.) The national Democratic Party endorsed busing and affirmative action policies, without recognizing their political and social costs. Then, too, under the Carter administration jobs in car and steel production began their decline.
As Clinton prepared to take over the presidency, he needed to adopt a strategy that would solidify and enlarge the coalition that had been temporarily put together for the campaign, and that would diminish factionalism within the party. Having won with only 43 percent of the vote, he had, according to the polls, created by mid-January a strong base of popular support with a favorable rating well above 60 percentage points. The end of the cold war had brought home to conservative enclaves in such places as southern California and Georgia—both largely dependent on military spending—that government intervention would be essential to make the transition to a civilian economy. More broadly, the public was increasingly aware of international competition, and the impossibility of continuing to rely on an insulated marketplace.
Instead of recognizing that taking over the presidency was not an end in itself but a step into an even more demanding competition, and with far higher stakes, Clinton became, during the weeks between the election and his inauguration, excessively caught up in celebrating his victory. A series of self-congratulatory dinners and meetings seemed to supplant careful preparation for the struggle to displace a weakened but entrenched conservatism. In these weeks, the campaign’s meticulous attention to detail, which had been crucial to working out a battle plan, seems to have been abandoned. For example, on January 18, when Bill and Hillary Clinton walked across Lincoln Bridge and talked via television satellite to gatherings of Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans, no plans were made to include Irish, Polish, or Italian Americans.
Nor were the European ethnic groups included in Clinton’s plans for cabinet “diversity.” No previous president has been as explicit about diversity as a criterion for cabinet and government appointments. But as defined by Clinton, diversity emphasized women, blacks, Hispanics, liberals, and even representatives of the Democratic business elite; his highly visible and highly symbolic appointments included neither Bill Daley, brother of Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, nor former Michigan governor Jim Blanchard, although both gave him important support in both the primaries and the general elections. Both politicians can be seen as representative of the broad class of Democratic-leaning voters who had defected to Reagan and Bush throughout the 1980s. Clinton’s disregard of the Reagan Democrats, whose return to the party was perhaps the most significant demographic event of 1992, made his talk of “diversity” seem exclusive.
As the leader of a coalition far more heterogeneous than the virtually allwhite Republican coalition, a Democratic president is under constant pressure to maintain order and balance among the party’s components. He has to avoid the appearance of submitting to any single group or special constituency. Here Clinton failed. He gave the impression of a politician who, lacking a firm sense of national priorities, was vulnerable to pressure from special interest groups—most notably when he permitted the issue of homosexuals in the military to supersede economic policy at the center of the national debate. By failing to appreciate the resistance to toleration of homosexuals not only from the military establishment itself but from Southern Baptists and other religious conservatives, Clinton did much to cripple himself politically. The controversy over homosexuality gave the impression of a president willing to spend large sums of limited political capital on a proposal that 1) had no broad popular support, 2) inflamed precisely those groups whose estrangement was most harmful to the Democratic coalition, 3) was peripheral to a new Democratic economic program. Clinton has repeatedly said he was not responsible for raising the issue of gays in the military at the start of his presidency and for investing large amounts of time and prestige in it; but once the issue arose, his evident responsibility was to keep it, if possible, from taking over the center of the stage.
The claim of homosexuals to military service is one of thousands of legitimate demands facing an incoming president. For a new Democratic president to allow such an inflammatory issue to dominate public life violates his larger obligation to build trust and support. For many voters who wonder whether the new President is serious about deficit reduction, a fair tax system, and investment in education, business expansion, health care, and public works, the issue of homosexuals in the military posed a disturbing question. Was he so tied to some of the marginal Democratic interest groups that gave him strong support during the campaign that he would not be able to work on behalf of the larger national interest?
Moreover, neither Clinton nor anyone else in the White House assumed responsibility for making sure that each action he took and each appointment he made would, insofar as possible, avoid the liabilities that have weakened the party in the past. For the White House staff to undertake such a “watchdog” function is as important as anything else it does. If the tendencies within the Democratic Party to rely on a politics of sexual, racial, and gender identity, and of special preference, are allowed to eclipse broader populist appeals, Clinton, or any other Democrat in the White House, inevitably loses his effectiveness.
In making appointments that would carry out this watchdog function, Clinton demonstrated a naive parochialism, for example, in his choice of chief of staff and assistant attorney general for civil rights, to name only two. The White House chief of staff is the pivotal job in an administration, responsible for overseeing all activities including relations with the Congress and the press, the timing and content of speeches, and the president’s daily schedule. In shaping the transition from the campaign to running the government, the chief of staff is more important than any other appointed official. The assistant attorney general for civil rights has to deal with the most divisive of the racial issues that Clinton has tried to smooth over: municipal after firmative action cases, often pitting black and white police and firemen against each other; the continuing struggle of the courts—and middle-class suburban neighborhoods—to deal with busing orders, many of them dating back to the 1970s; and legislative and congressional redistricting, with their controversial effects on racial bloc voting.
Unfortunately neither Thomas F. McLarty nor Lani Guinier has shown the kind of political skills essential for the jobs to which they were appointed. McLarty’s main qualification was his longstanding connection with the president: he gives little sign that he has a clear and politically sophisticated sense of larger national goals. While a legal expert on voting rights and a law-school friend of the Clintons, Ms. Guinier did not seem to have the political sensitivity required to fill a job that is crucial to the administration’s strategic goal of diminishing racial conflict over such issues as affirmative action and busing.
In addition to failures of political understanding in dealing with both issues and appointments, Clinton seems, at least for the present, to have quite different problems involving his personal presence, his ability to fulfill the expectations of many Americans that the President appear as a strong, confident, and paternal figure. During the campaign, Clinton talked openly of the experience of being fatherless; he tried with some success to suggest that he had, as a result, a fraternal capacity for shared compassion, and in doing so he established a rapport with thousands of sympathetic voters. Clinton often returned to the theme of the absent father during the campaign, telling delegates to the Democratic convention in August 1991: “I never met my father. He was killed in a car wreck on a rainy road three months before I was born, driving from Chicago to Arkansas to see my mother.” Later, in the same speech, he said:
“I want to say something to every child in America tonight who is out there trying to grow up without a father or a mother. I know how you feel. You’re special too. You matter to America. And don’t you let anyone ever tell you you can’t become whatever you want to be. And if other politicians make you feel like you’re not part of their family, come on and be part of ours.”
It is a question whether, having presented himself, in this way, as a genial older brother, Clinton will be a convincing and reassuring leader for voters seeking both tangible and intangible relief from the heavy burdens of economic insecurity, social disorder, and from the deep sense that there is no shared common good.
During his first months in office Clinton demonstrated a disquieting inability to regain the surefootedness he demonstrated during much of the campaign. He has, however, a history of prevailing over extreme adversity. He several times recovered from the edge of disaster—from accusations of infidelity, of draft evasion, and of having smoked marijuana. In office, he has shown from time to time a capacity to reassert his claim to leadership, most noticeably with his February 17 State of the Union address. In that speech, he briefly made a credible case that his program would achieve the goals of economic stimulation, of public and private investment in productivity and job creation, and of substantial deficit reduction. While such appointments as those of Janet Reno and Ruth Ginsburg have been well received, neither was part of a coherent strategy to build a strong coalition.
Taken together, his achievements and setbacks allow only an equivocal response to the question whether his record during the last six months has undermined what he once seemed so well-equipped to accomplish: the rebuilding of the power of the Democratic Party to undertake a program of national renewal. As the summer comes to a close, with the budget controversy behind him, Clinton has begun to shift his policies back to the coalition-building themes that were central to his campaign—health care, crime legislation, welfare reform, and job creation. Clinton’s declining ratings in the polls raise the question, however, whether voters will view his move toward the center as credible or as political opportunism.
Hardly encouraging for the Democrats are two recent Republican victories—the election of Kay Bailey Hutchison to the seat formerly held by Lloyd Bentsen, and of Richard Riordan as mayor of Los Angeles. In both cases, large numbers of white voters defected from the Democratic Party: in Texas only an estimated 21 percent of the Anglos voted for the Democrat, Bob Krueger,2 and in Los Angeles, only 33 percent of the Anglo vote went to Democrat Michael Woo.3 At the same time, the proportion of the electorate that perceives Clinton as a “liberal” (as opposed to the more acceptable “moderate” or “conservative”) has risen sharply.4 While it is doubtful that the Democrats will lose their Senate majority in 1994, and their House majority is secure, these trends suggest the likelihood of losses in both House and Senate. Such a development will most likely invigorate the Republican minority and encourage more Democratic defections, and thus seriously threaten Clinton’s ability to win approval of new legislation.
Working against Clinton are the stifling legacy of the $4.4 trillion Reagan-Bush national debt, the betrayal, for lack of revenue, of his promise to cut middle-class taxes, the failure of his national-service program to provide college assistance to substantial numbers of students, and the likelihood that whatever health-care program gets through Congress will fall short of expectations. The opportunities for the Democratic Party are not closed, but they are far less promising than they were on January 20.
October 7, 1993
“The new race-conscious agenda,” the authors write, “has provoked broad outrage and resentment. Affirmative action is so intensely disliked that it has led some whites to dislike blacks—an ironic example of a policy meant to put the divide of race behind us in fact further widening it.” ↩
“Texas Voting Highly Polarized in Runoff for US Senate,” a report issued June 8 by the Southwest Voter Research Institute, San Antonio, Texas. ↩
Los Angeles Times, Washington edition, June 10, 1993, p. B3. ↩
From September 1992 to June 1993, the percentage identifying Clinton as a liberal grew from 38 to 49 percent, while those calling him a moderate fell from 37 to 31 and those calling him a conservative from 13 to 11, with the rest undecided. The New York Times survey, June 6, 1993, p. 14. ↩