Posted on February 08, 1993 in Washington Watch
This period, the weeks and months immediately following a Presidential election, is a time of great ferment in both political parties in the United States. In many ways the 1992 elections shocked the Republicans and Democrats, and they are now attempting to learn and apply the lessons of that election. It will take some time, but as they assimilate all the lessons of ‘92 they will redirect their organizations in accordance with what they learn.
In the past two weeks the national committees of both parties met to elect their new officers and set their national agendas.
The Democratic National Committee met in Washington the day after Bill Clinton’s inauguration. While Democrats were elated with their new power, the session opened with a solemn warning from one of the President’s chief political strategists, Stan Greenberg. In an effort to get the party to focus immediately on its work for the next two years, Greenberg, who was the pollster for Clinton campaign, brought the party leaders face to face with some compelling and sobering facts.
Bill Clinton won with only 43% of the vote, meaning that 57% of the American people voted against him. An additional sign of trouble, for both parties, is that party identification is at an all-time low—only 38% of Americans consider themselves to be Democrats, which is down from 52% in 1980. The Democrats took it as small consolation that only 35% of Americans consider themselves to be Republicans, which is down from 41% in 1988. Due in part to the phenomenon of Ross Perot and in part to the general dissatisfaction of American voters with both parties, the percentage of Americans who consider themselves to be political independents allied with neither party has risen to 27%.
Greenberg then stated the obvious: that despite their success in the Presidential election, they were guaranteed nothing in the future. If the party is to win future elections, Greenberg warned, the Democrats would have to work to rebuild their status as a majority party. To do this they must find a way to win back the support of the millions of voters who supported Perot, and they also must understand what elements of their message took them to victory in 1992.
The effort to understand the 1992 victory, and to capture the hearts of independent voters, will be the key to the Clinton Presidency. Clinton and his party will seek to utilize the central messages of their election campaign as the basis for how they will govern.
Early in the election campaign there was a great deal of attention devoted to the proposition that “the Democrats could not win.” This notion, at its core, held that the Democratic Party had become too driven by factions and special interests and took positions (on abortion rights, homosexual rights, civil rights, environmentalism, anti-war) favored by intellectuals and upper-middle class liberals. As a result, Democrats had fallen out of touch with the values and needs of the traditional base of the party, the working middle class. This was the group that became so alienated from the Democratic candidacies of Carter, Mondale and Dukakis that they abandoned their party. There were so many of them that they acquired a political label all their own—they were the “Reagan Democrats.”
By focusing on the middle class and basic economic issues (“It’s the economy, stupid”), Clinton sought to win back the Reagan Democrats in 1992. He succeeded at this to some extent. But his electoral victory also depended on his success in winning the support of the traditional liberal and cause-oriented voters as well.
A meeting I attended shortly after the campaign in November brought together the leaders of many of the traditional liberal groups. Each group made a presentation saying that their support had won the election for Clinton. African Americans, women, Latinos, labor unions, environmentalists—all had their charts and statistics, and all made their claim that Clinton needed to respond to their agendas in order to solidify their support for 1996.
At the same time Clinton’s analysts noted that a hidden key to his victory was that he was the first Democrat since the 1960’s to win both the white vote and the middle class vote. Americans prefer not to think of themselves as divided along race or class lines, but in every election since 1968 the Democrats had won a minority of both the white vote and the middle class vote. These two groups became ever more associated with the Republican in the 1970’s, and the sweeping victories of Reagan in ‘84 and ‘88 and Bush in ‘92 seemed to solidify this section of the electorate as a part of Republican coalition. But Clinton managed to reverse this trend.
Just as Clinton’s campaign was carefully orchestrated to balance its appeal to these two sides of the Democratic coalition, his Presidency must do the same. That Clinton feels this need is obvious from his acts in his first few weeks in office.
Even before the inauguration, Clinton felt a need to balance his cabinet appointments so that all groups were represented in it. Economic liberals and fiscal conservatives, environmentalists and executives from the energy industry, African Americans, women and Latinos. Clinton’s cabinet was supposed to “look like America.” But the failed confirmation of Zoe Baird cast light on the fact that she and those who did get confirmed didn’t “live like most Americans.” The press gleefully noted the statistic that 77% of Clinton’s cabinet were millionaires (even more than the 63% under Reagan), and that too many of them were upper-class Washington lawyers.
Then came the flak over Clinton’s decision to end the ban on homosexuals in the military, and his apparent waffling on the proposed middle class tax cut. In the midst of these controversies some in the press have begun to criticize the President as being a traditional liberal who was elected under a moderate disguise. Now, they crowed, the mask was off.
Others in the press, however, have been more cautious and understood that many of Clinton’s early decisions were simply executive orders (easing abortion restrictions and ending the ban on homosexuals in the military) that require little effort. These analysts have correctly pointed out that the real direction of the Clinton Presidency will be determined later when he announces his economic program in his February 11th State of the Union Address; and after First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton completes her study and proposals on health care reform in the next three months.
The centerpiece of the Clinton economic program will be a deficit-reduction plan based on a combination of targeted tax increases, cuts in the Pentagon and other government employment, and cuts in some of the more costly Federal programs such as Social Security; and an economic stimulus program that will include some increased spending and some targeted tax cuts. The goal of the stimulus package is to create more jobs in the short term, and the goal of the deficit-reduction program is to create a healthier long-term economic environment that should sustain the increased employment levels. The President and his team believe that the successful creation of more and better employment opportunities for the middle class will be the basis on which Administration will ultimately be judged. And he may be right—the Bush Administration would probably still be in power if the 20 million new jobs it promised in Bush’s inauguration speech had actually been created.
Keen analysts have noted that the driving force on Clinton’s moving on both the economy and on issues like ending the ban on homosexuals in the military is simply an extension of the balancing act of his campaign. He will use this balancing act over the next four years in an effort to maintain his hold over liberal voters while simultaneously strengthening and expanding his appeal to the economically hard-pressed middle class. From week to week it may seem that Clinton has gone too far to the center or drifted too far to the left—but it is the final four-year record that will count.
It was a despondent Republican National Committee (RNC) that met last week to elect its new leadership. They, too, were struggling with the lessons of the 1992 elections which put Republicans out of power for the first time in twelve years. But unlike the Democrats, the Republicans did not have an obvious party leader (as the Democrats have in Clinton) to determine exactly what lessons they need to learn from the elections. As a result, the party which had known genuine cohesion under the leadership during Reagan’s presidency is in danger of falling into the same disarray and fragmentation that had characterized the Democrats ever since 1968.
Reagan’s victory was like a crusade, a social movement coming to power. The center of this movement’s power was the captivating personality of its leader—this alone can account for the fact that it fused together the two intensely competitive strands of Republicanism: the social conservatives with their rigid religious-based ideology, and the more moderate traditional Republicans who focus more on the party’s economic agenda and less on its social beliefs. An added appeal to Reagan was the economic failure of the democrats and the growing level of alienation among blue collar Americans who became convinced during the 1970’s that their fears for personal safety and the decline in family values were not shared by their old party—the Democrats.
Bush won in 1988 in part as the heir of Reagan and because the Republican coalition still held. He lost in 1992 because of a slow economy, media bashing, his inability to form a captivating message, and because the Republican coalition began to come apart.
In hindsight, the central event in Bush’s defeat was his 1992 convention. The social conservatives and early competitors for the 1996 Republican Presidential nomination took control of the convention and dominated its message. The ideological rigidity and their intolerant social views of the conservatives alienated many Americans. Pat Buchanan’s convention address calling on Americans to unite and “take back our cities” and “take back our culture” like an army in a “cultural war” proved to be too much for many Reagan Democrats to accept.
And so, as the Republican National Committee members met to elect their new chairman and set their course for the next four years, they chose a new direction. By electing Haley Barbour, a former Reagan aide and former aide to President Gerald Ford, they sought leadership for a more moderate Republican Party.
Barbour’s election was overshadowed and even prefigured by the opening address given by Rich Bond, the outgoing party chairman. It was Bond who warned the RNC that it had to become more tolerant if it wanted to win. He argued that the party had to become more inclusive, a clear warning that the social conservatives and the religious right-wing should not be given control of the party.
But despite the election of the moderate Barbour, the internal struggles in the party are not about to end, and may only be beginning. Already a number of new Republican groups have been formed, each with the goal of steering the party in a different direction, and each a thinly-veiled support for a favored prospective nominee to challenge Bill Clinton in 1996.
Senator Bob Dole, who as Senate Minority leader is the highest ranking Republican in government, has his own group.
“Empower America”, a group headed by Jack Kemp and William Bennett, will focus on Kemp’s economic populism and Bennett’s concerns for traditional values, and will claim to be the heirs to the Reagan legacy. This group is widely viewed to be a vehicle for Kemp’s 1996 Presidential bid.
Conservative Pat Buchanan will have his own organization, as will Evangelical Christian leader Pat Robertson. Robertson, who was a 1988 Presidential candidate, is viewed as serious trouble for the Republican Party. His Christian Coalition has millions of members and has already taken control of a number of state Republican Parties, and will continue to press nationally for a rigidly conservative agenda.
Created specifically to counter Robertson’s group is yet another new Republican organization, the Republican Majority Coalition which was founded by a number of liberal Republican Senators. They support a more moderate social agenda than the one posed by the religious right wing.
Barbour, the new party chief, will have his hands full in reconciling these divergent views and competing claims for leadership. He knows that he must find a way to do this before the 1996 Presidential election, and hopefully much sooner. But with his election he declared his intention to open the Republican Party, and make it a more tolerant organization—a clear message of warning to the religious right.
Barbour also struck out at President Clinton and the Democrats, serving notice that he and the party under his leadership will challenge the President on traditional Republican issues such as crime, higher taxes and the very divisive issue of allowing homosexuals in the military. The challenge facing Barbour will be more difficult but is not unlike that facing the Democrats: to hold onto their ideological supporters on the right while winning back the voters in the center who abandoned their ranks in 1992.
The first target for each party will be the 1994 election when all 435 Congressional and 34 Senate seats will be contested.
The current dynamics at work in both parties show the reality that American politics is a never-ending process. An election has no sooner ended than both parties begin repositioning themselves to square off in the next round.
It is especially important to keep this central fact in mind at this time in order to understand the early months of the Clinton Presidency. His hold over the electorate is not complete. The polls, which the President watches closely, show that he must continue to attract new voters to his side. To do this, he will frame his presidency as he framed his campaign—as a political bridge-building effort designed to win a majority and hold it. As he proceeds, he will have to contend with a counter-effort waged by the new Republican leadership—that’s what politics is all about.
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