Posted on June 22, 1992 in Washington Watch
Political analysts have made news of the fissures that have opened up within the Republican party.
Pat Buchanan has not stopped rallying conservatives to challenge President Bush for allegedly “abandoning Reagan’s economic program,” and Republican women have become increasingly vocal in opposition to the party’s rejection of abortion. Added to this is the real threat posed by Ross Perot, who is now attracting the white middle class American voters who, in recent years, have voted Republican. The result is that some analysts are now questioning the whether the Republican coalition, which has won five of the last six presidential elections, will remain intact through the 1992 election.
As difficult as those pressures are for the Republicans, the more fragile of the two national parties is the Democratic Party. This became especially clear this past week when the party received two major blows—both delivered by the party’s nominee, Governor Bill Clinton.
First, some background on the recent evolution of the Democratic Party.
The Democrat’s Problem
As a national party, the Democrats are in trouble. The fact that Democrats have lost five out of the last six presidential elections is a clear sign of the party’s problems. The Democrats, today, suffer from a lack of identity, an inability to coalesce around a defined message and vision, and an absence of a cohesive national leadership.
For two generations, the Democratic Party has been identified as a coalition of labor, ethnic immigrant communities, small farmers, the disenfranchised south, and racial and ethnic minorities. It was the party of the “New Deal”, the “Great Society”, and the “New Frontier”—it was the “bread and butter” party, the party that encouraged government reordering of economic and social priorities to provide for those in need.
But social and demographic changes that have taken place in the United States in the past two decades have severely weakened this Democratic coalition and created serious frictions within the party.
With the highly unpopular war in Vietnam and the social upheavals of the 1960s, especially the civil rights movement, the Democrats have become identified with more divisive social issues than with the bread and butter issues that were the party’s driving themes. Pacifism, civil rights, abortion and affirmative action—these issues, while strongly supported by some of the party’s traditional activists, have deeply alienated others.
At the same time, the constituent groups that have formed the base of the party have, themselves, changed.
The labor movement has shrunk considerably and has changed in composition. Blacks and Hispanics have replaced the European ethnics who formed the labor movement in the early part of the century. Many of the ethnic communities that were the key to Democratic strength in the cities have since assimilated and moved to the suburbs; and while they remain committed to the economic issues that brought them into the party, the party’s position on several social issues have sometimes been in conflict with their traditional family and religion-based values.
Another source of trouble for the Democrats is the general political malaise affecting all Americans.
There is an increasingly negative public attitude toward government in general, and politicians in particular. One reflection of this has been a steep decline in voter participation. Since World War Two, the percentage of Americans who vote in presidential elections has steadily dropped to its current low of 49 percent. The average turnout in a congressional race is in the 30 percent range, while in many local races the percentages are down to 20 percent. In party nominating caucuses only a shocking 5 percent of the party’s voters participate. This last figure is especially significant since it explains how highly motivated small minority interest groups have come to dominate the party’s decision-making process.
It is in the context of these transformations that one can understand the fractious intraparty feuds of the past 20 years; especially the McCarthy and McGovern anti-war insurgencies of 1968 and 1972, the Hart and Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988, and now the southern conservative counterthrust of 1992 led by Governor Clinton.
It is also in this context that one can best comprehend the hesitation of nationally prominent Democratic leaders to enter the kind of blood-letting fracases that have characterized recent Democratic campaigns.
The party’s internal struggles have, for many, become ends in themselves. As interesting as these debates are for party loyalists—and as important as they are in determining the direction of the party—continuous intraparty squabbles have not been helpful in providing the Democrats with the ability to unify and run winning national campaigns.
Bill Clinton and the Democrats in 1992
This background is necessary to understand the events of the past week. Bill Clinton, whose campaign has been lagging far behind both Perot’s and Bush’s, opened fire on two fronts. Both attacks were directed at targets within his own party.
Clinton is not a traditional Democrat. His Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was formed to challenge the liberal wing of the party. In many respects it is conservative and has in the past alienated many constituent groups within the party. Clinton’s state of Arkansas has a “right to work” law which is vigorously opposed by unions. Twice during his 1992 campaign Clinton has refused to stop the execution of convicted murderers, which has angered death penalty foes. He has refused to support cuts in defense spending which most liberals have called for. And Clinton and the DLC are not committed to “affirmative action” programs for African Americans.
It is the view of the DLC that Democrats have continued to lose presidential elections because they have not been able to appeal to the “great white center” of America’s middle class voters. Their strategy was based on how best to win 51 percent of the vote in a national election—and they advocated cutting off the left wing of the party in order to compete with Republicans for the centrist, so-called “Reagan Democrats”.
It therefore should not have been surprise this week when the Clinton campaign revealed its 1992 proposed Democratic platform. It is essentially a DLC document challenging many of the traditional liberal tenets and programs and constituents of the Democratic Party.
It also should not have been a surprise when Clinton at a National Rainbow Coalition conference (Jesse Jackson’s organization) and publicly criticized an African American popular singer whose message, Clinton suggested, was essentially anti-white racism.
But all of this was a shock to many Democrats because they now feel that the 51 percent strategy most probably will not apply in a three-way race. Why, they ask, is Clinton alienating the traditional liberal base of the party (especially African Americans, labor and progressives) when they feel that the appropriate strategy is to solidify that base in order to win 40 percent of the vote—which should be enough to successfully challenge Perot and Bush.
The attitude of the 40 percent strategists is that if Clinton moves to the center he only ends up competing with Perot and Bush for the same voters. At the same time, they warn, he runs the risk of losing a significant percentage of liberal voters who will feel alienated and either vote for Perot or not vote at all.
Especially dangerous, according to this view, is Clinton’s insult to Jesse Jackson. While Clinton’s attack on the African American signer Sister Souljah drew initial praise from some political analysts as a sign of his independence and courage, as the full story becomes known it appears to have been a very calculated political stunt—and that has made Jackson and his supporters furious.
Clinton was invited to speak at the Jackson event a few weeks after Souljah made her comments. He spoke with Jackson three times during that period including an hour-long meeting immediately prior to delivering his speech. Not once during that time did he let Jackson know what he was about to do. And so when the bomb fell, Jackson felt betrayed. He has now begun to strike back.
Jackson’s ability to mobilize and organize the African American voter base is well known, and while some African American elected officials have sought to replace him, they cannot. It is not only Jackson’s connection with the mass of voters but his institutional ties with the most important organized force in the African American community—the churches and ministers’ organizations—that makes him an especially important force.
With Clinton sitting in third place with his poll numbers not going over 25 percent, he needs all the support he can get. The Democrats are a divided party and need a unifying theme to bring them together. Clinton has not yet found a way to provide that theme. His actions in the past week served more to emphasize the disunity within the party. If his candidacy is to succeed, he must try again.
There is a growing rumor that Clinton may choose Texas Governor Ann Richards as his running mate. While Richards would probably not help him win Texas against Perot and Bush, she would certainly help him win support from women—a group with whom Clinton has difficulties. She is also an extremely good speaker and campaigner. If Ann Richards were Clinton’s vice presidential choice, she could make him more competitive, but he must at the same time avoid further aggravating his fractious Democratic base.
Finally, while Clinton was busy this week showing his independence from traditional Democratic “special interest” groups (African Americans, labor, liberals, etc.), there was one group he cowered in the face of—pro-Israel forces were catered to in the most outrageous Democratic platform in a decade. The Clinton draft platform on the Middle East included such passages as:
“The end of the Cold War does not alter America’s deep interest in our longstanding special relationship with Israel, based on shared values, a mutual commitment to democracy, and a strategic alliance that benefits both nations.”
“The United States cannot act effectively as an honest broker if, as has been the case with this Administration, it encourages one side to believe that it will deliver unilateral concessions from the other.”
“Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel and should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”
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