June 1, 2004
With Responses From
Jun 1, 2004
6 Min read time
Rick Perlstein’s 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. Perlstein’s piece bears out my fears.
To begin: while I am anything but complacent about the future of the Democratic Party, Perlstein’s 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 can’t 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 party’s 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.
Nixon’s 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 administration’s schizophrenic foreign policy, culminating in its shocked response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, weakened the public’s 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 Mondale’s 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 Mondale’s 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 Dukakis’s 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 public’s economic concerns, out of touch with its cultural beliefs, and unable to defend America’s 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 Perlstein’s claim, Clinton’s pledge to end welfare as we know it was more than a vague throwaway; it was at the core of Clinton’s 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 Truman’s 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 headwind—that is, if the public had been confident rather than skeptical about the effectiveness of government programs—the 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 Clinton’s 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 Perlstein’s saga of shell-shocked boomers recklessly pitching their principles overboard makes for engaging reading, but it is a fantasy.
Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum “How Can the Democrats Win?”
Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.
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