Still Thinking Big
William A. Galston
Perlsteins essay is such a complex mixture of insight, misinterpretation,
and outright error that I hardly know where to begin. Like Perlstein,
I believe that a political party must stand for something that
matters and must seek to rally a sustainable majority around its
core beliefs. Like Perlstein, I believe that chasing short-term
political profits is likely to lead to the erosion of brand loyalty.
And for the record: Dick Morris is not a New Democrat. He is not
an Old Democrat. Based on his list of clients, I doubt that he
is a Democrat at all. He is a man of some tactical shrewdness
and no discernible principles. Like most other DLCers, I deplored
his prominence in the 1996 Clinton campaign, in part in the belief
that it would reinforce the canard that the New Democrat movement
was nothing more than a congeries of unprincipled tactics. Perlsteins
piece bears out my fears.
To begin: while I am anything but complacent about the future of the Democratic Party, Perlsteins description of its current condition is overwrought. He claims the party is so hollowed out by short-term thinking, so stripped of people proud to identify with it, that it cant compete in the big leagues at all. As I write, the percentage of Democratic Party identifiers exceeds the percentage of Republican Party identifiers, an edge that is particularly pronounced among young adults. The U.S. Congress is split down the middle, as are state legislatures. And the partys 2000 presidential nominee received half a million more votes than the man who now occupies the White House. In my extensive travels this year, I have encountered a substantial number of lifelong Republicans who tell me roughly the same thing: they find the policies and demeanor of the Bush administration so repellant that they intend to vote for John Kerry.
To be sure, the Democratic Party has lost its New Deal advantage and must now compete with Republicans on roughly equal terms. I cannot tell for certain why Perlstein thinks that happened. Here is my thumbnail sketch.
Nixons rout of McGovern need not have signaled the end of the Democrats national majority. But by 1980, three large events had generated tectonic shifts in the electorate. Runaway inflation ended economic recovery and eroded real incomes while forcing tens of millions of Americans into the upper tax brackets. The Carter administrations schizophrenic foreign policy, culminating in its shocked response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, weakened the publics confidence in Democrats stewardship of foreign policy. And President Carter failed to redeem the promissory note he had issued to evangelical Protestants during the 1976 campaign, dooming Democrats prospects in the South and setting into motion the long-term realignment of the electorate around religious and cultural issues.
Walter Mondales defeat in 1984 tells us very little: with 5.8 percent real economic growth and no major foreign entanglements, I doubt that a Democratic ticket headed by Jesus Christ, with Moses as his running mate, would have gotten more than 45 percent of the vote against Reagan-Bush. (Full disclosure: I was Mondales issues director during that campaign, so the reader is free to discount my judgment.) The fate of the 1988 Democratic standard-bearer is far more revealing. Surely Perlstein remembers the tank ride that crystallized doubts about Michael Dukakiss credibility as commander in chief. And surely he remembers the controversies over prison furloughs, the death penalty, and the ACLU that stamped Dukakis as a cultural liberal out of touch with the middle of the electorate.
In the wake of the 1988 fiasco, in which Dukakis turned a 17-point lead into a 7-point defeat, a number of us reached a judgment that I would still endorse today: that the 1970s and 1980s had solidified an impression of the Democratic Party as inattentive to the publics economic concerns, out of touch with its cultural beliefs, and unable to defend Americas interests abroad. We believed that if the Democrats 1992 nominee wanted to get a fair hearing for a progressive economic message, which we all endorsed, he would have to address these concerns. That is what Bill Clinton did. Contrary to Perlsteins claim, Clintons pledge to end welfare as we know it was more than a vague throwaway; it was at the core of Clintons successful effort to persuade moderate voters that he was a different kind of Democrat. It is no accident that the campaign featured a TV ad on welfare reform in every swing state during the ten days before the election. That is a contemporaneous fact, not retrospective DLC spin. And by the way, welfare reform was not a political tactic. We proposed it because we believed in it. So did Bill Clinton. And as events proved, we were more right than wrong to do so, and our critics were more wrong than right.
We come now to the beginning of the Clinton administration. Bill Clinton did three big things during his first year in office. He proposed, and drove through a reluctant Congress, a budget plan that laid the foundation for the rapid economic growth of the 1990s, the fruits of which were more broadly shared than at any time in 30 years. Over the opposition of his own party, he pushed successfully for enactment of an ambitious free-trade agenda. And to redeem Harry Trumans 1948 pledge, he proposed a system of universal health care. He did all these things not because he judged that they were popular (at least two of them were not), but because he believed they were right. Perlstein may well be correct that Democrats lost the Congress not for proposing health care, but for losing on it. That leads to the much-debated question of why they lost. I believe that if Democrats had enjoyed a political tailwind rather than a headwindthat is, if the public had been confident rather than skeptical about the effectiveness of government programsthe proposal would have been structured differently and its fate would have been happier. But that is an argument for another day.
The argument that cannot wait concerns the meaning and motivation of the New Democratic movement. In brief: far from abandoning the traditional values and goals of the Democratic Party, we sought to renovate them to meet changing conditions. Let me give one example, drawn from many others. Along with all Democrats, we believed that the working poor were getting a raw deal. But we did not agree that an increase in the minimum wage was the best or only way of improving their condition. Instead, we advocated a massive increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit. Included in Clintons 1993 budget, it produced a huge income transfer to the working poor. (And, by the way, it was funded through a progressive income-tax increase on the wealthiest two percent of Americans.)
New Democrats spent the years from
1989 through 1992 crafting new policies that we hoped would both
promote the common good and spur the long-term resurgence of the
Democratic Party. These proposals were gathered in Mandate
for Change, a densely argued and footnoted 388-page book
that repays reading even today. We may have been right; we may
have been wrong. But we were not cynical, we were not tactical,
and we were not thinking short-term. Rick Perlsteins saga
of shell-shocked boomers recklessly pitching their principles
overboard makes for engaging reading, but it is a fantasy. <
William A. Galston
is the Saul Stern Professor at the University of Maryland School
of Public Affairs and the director of the Institute for Philosophy
and Public Policy. He was President Clintons deputy assistant
for domestic policy (19931995) and is the author of, most
recently, Liberal Pluralism.
Click here to return to the New Democracy
Can the Democrats Win?
Originally published in the summer
2004 issue of Boston Review.