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Forget Those Supremes!

Photo by Michael Powers

Don’t look now, but Al Gore is starting to run away with the election.

On Monday, as the Electoral College was ratifying the verdict of the Supreme Court, the Washington Post checked back with the various state election officials to see how Gore’s 337,000 popular-vote lead was holding up, and lo! It had grown to 540,539! Gore’s margin is now at one-half of 1 percent, or roughly five times the size of John Kennedy’s lead over Richard Nixon — and that doesn’t include any additional votes that The Miami Herald and other newspapers may turn up in their re-canvassing of Florida’s ballots.

As Inauguration Day draws nigh, it is becoming clear that Al Gore did not merely win the election, he won it handily — everywhere, of course, but at the Supreme Court. Moreover, it was Gore’s program, not W.’s, on which voters conferred a mandate. As an election-night survey conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg makes clear, voters strongly preferred Gore’s position to W.’s on Social Security, prescription-drug coverage, education, the environment, tax cuts and what to do with the budget surplus.

In his first week as president-elect, however, W. is proceeding as if there were clear public support for what are in fact his least popular proposals. The first bills he will send to the Hill, he has told us, will be his programs for education and his tax cuts. The centerpiece of his school package is a federal authorization of state voucher programs — even though in last month’s election, voters in California and Michigan absolutely crushed well-funded ballot measures that would have established such programs (in California, vouchers went down by a thudding 29 percent to 71 percent margin).

W.’s tax-cut proposal has even less support than vouchers. Every poll taken over the past year has shown voters prefer the government use that money to shore up retirement programs, help seniors purchase medicine, build more schools or retire more debt. They also show that voters favored Gore’s targeted cuts — for instance, deductions for college tuition — to Bush’s throw-the-money-at-the-rich approach.

(The intellectual argument for W.’s tax cut is no less shaky than the political one. Bush contends that his cut would provide just the kind of countercyclical stimulus the economy needs as it trembles on the brink of recession. How a tax cut that is supposed to be phased in over 10 years will provide a quick fix for investors and consumers, however, is something no one in the Bush camp has even seriously attempted to explain. More likely, such a cut would only make it harder for Alan Greenspan to lower interest rates — an economic stimulus that could avert a recession.)

In pushing for vouchers and tax cuts, Bush seems to have concluded that popular support is no more essential to enact a major program than it was to elect him president. Someone should tell him that not even Antonin Scalia can break a filibuster.

W.’s problem isn’t simply that he’s a minority president. It’s that he, and his party, represent a minority that is growing steadily smaller. George W. Bush’s America is essentially white and provincial — at a time when immigration (both foreign and domestic) and education are making America increasingly nonwhite and cosmopolitan.

As historian Jim Chapin has noted, fully 90 percent of W.’s voters were white, while just 69 percent of Al Gore’s were. Gore defeated Bush among blacks by a 90 percent to 8 percent margin (and among African-Americans, to know Bush was not to love him: W. carried just 5 percent of the black vote in Texas). Gore carried the Latino vote, 62 percent to 34 percent, and the Asian vote, 55 percent to 41 percent — and these are two slices of the electorate that are growing. A survey by the William C. Velásquez Institute concludes that the Latino vote in California increased by 30 percent between the 1996 presidential election and last month’s vote.

It’s been a commonplace of American politics over the past 15 years that the Democrats’ support for race-specific programs such as affirmative action would cost them more white votes than it would gain them nonwhite support. With the changing composition of the electorate, however, that is looking increasingly like yesterday’s news. In Florida, of course, it was opposition to Jeb Bush’s ban on affirmative action that provoked the voter-mobilization program among African-Americans, pushing the black share of the electorate from 10 percent in 1996 to 15 percent last month. In California, the black and Latino reaction against Proposition 209, which ended this state’s affirmative-action programs, and Latino rage at the immigrant-bashing Proposition 187, have created a united anti-Republican front among the state’s nonwhite voters.

To be sure, Gore faced huge problems in courting the white working class — though they turned less on issues of race in this election than on issues of guns, abortion and traditional authority. Beyond any doubt, Gore’s strength among nonwhites and educated elites would not have sufficed to win him anywhere near a plurality of voter support. What pushed him over the top were the efforts of the AFL-CIO, which brought him just enough working-class votes to carry any number of states he would otherwise have lost.

Labor’s efforts for Gore were stunningly effective. Fully 26 percent of all voters came from union households — up from 23 percent in 1996 and 19 percent in 1992 — and they gave 59 percent of their vote to Gore. The increase in turnout follows directly from the AFL-CIO’s increased campaign activity: This year, the federation had 1,000 full-time coordinators in key congressional districts, up from 400 in 1998 and 200 in 1996.

But these aggregate figures mask the two distinct kinds of campaigns that the unions waged. At one end of the spectrum, it was the unions that funded and waged the mobilization campaigns within nonwhite communities. Here in Los Angeles, for instance, the Hola! campaign coordinated by the County Federation of Labor registered thousands of new Latino immigrant voters in two congressional districts where Republican incumbents — James Rogan and Steven Kuykendall — were then unseated.

At the other end of the spectrum, unions went up against the National Rifle Association for the votes of culturally conservative white male union members — and came out ahead. According to Susan Pinkus, director of the Los Angeles Times national exit poll, Gore trailed Bush by a 35 percent to 62 percent margin among white men who didn’t belong to unions — but led Bush by a 48 percent to 47 percent margin among white men who were union members. Among white men who were gun owners, Gore trailed Bush by a catastrophic 26 percent to 71 percent margin — which shrunk to a more manageable 42 percent to 54 percent margin among gun-totin’ white guys who also had union cards. (“Al Gore doesn’t want to take away your gun,” the union leaflets read, “but George Bush does want to take away your union.”) On Election Day in Michigan, ground zero in the wars between the AFL-CIO and the NRA, the union-household share soared to 44 percent of the total vote, and Al Gore carried it by a two-thirds margin — enough to give him a five-point margin of victory statewide.

Gore had an identical five point, 51-to-46 victory in Pennsylvania, where labor’s efforts within Pittsburgh’s dwindling band of steelworkers were augmented by the efforts of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Planned Parenthood among the upscale women in Philadelphia’s historically Republican suburbs — which Gore carried handily. As John Judis has argued in The New Republic, a gender gap has opened between the two parties on issues of choice and traditional authority (and, I would add, of social provision) that works increasingly to the Democrats’ advantage. Gore won the support of 54 percent of women voters, 57 percent of women college graduates and 63 percent of women with advanced degrees. Indeed, professional women, like nonwhite immigrants, are a mortal threat to the Republican future. The number of well-educated voters is growing steadily: 27 percent of voters had bachelor’s degrees in 1980; 42 percent had them last month, and 18 percent had advanced degrees. Gore carried the advanced-degree-niks by 8 percent; and among women with advanced degrees, he led Bush by 22 percent. The percentage of women among college graduates is also growing steadily: It stood at 50 percent of those getting degrees in 1982 and is at 57 percent today.

From the GOP’s electoral perspective, a mind is a terrible thing to educate. Gore’s growing strength among the heavily degreed enabled him to win fully 50 percent support among women voters in households making over $75,000; four years earlier, Bill Clinton had done no better than 42 percent among the same voters.

In sum, for the first time since 1968, one can look at the electorate and discern an emerging Democratic majority. Like all American political majorities, it consists of a number of disparate elements, but that doesn’t mean its priorities must conflict with one another. The emerging majority espouses a politics of social tolerance and limited government activism against the inequities and oversights of the market. And its chief constituent elements are either growing in size (Latinos, professional women) or increasingly expert at mobilizing an existing base (blacks, union members).

In the long run, this should prove a lot more decisive than five Supreme Court justices out on a Republican toot.

The best place to study this emerging majority up close is right here in Los Angeles. Every trend that is transforming the Democrats into a majority coalition is either accentuated or accelerated in L.A. In the course of the past decade, the white working class has fled; the labor movement has mobilized vast numbers of new immigrant voters and bolstered Democratic support within its existing membership; affluent, eco-conscious “lifestyle” liberalism has increased its sway; and the electorate has become much more Latino even as Latinos have become much more Democratic.

In consequence, L.A. in 2000 is well to the left of L.A. in 1990. Up until this November’s election, the most liberal section of the state was the Bay Area, with L.A. always clearly Democratic — but not nearly so Democratic as San Francisco. In the election just completed, however, the level of L.A. County support for the Democratic presidential and senatorial nominees was identical to the Bay Area’s.

Indeed, L.A. County is now, with the Bay Area, the most liberal region of the state, and an examination of recent election results shows conclusively that this transformation has been coming for some time. In 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis won 51.9 percent of the L.A. County vote. Bill Clinton won 52.5 percent in 1992 and 59.3 percent in 1996. Al Gore won 64 percent last month. It’s when you compare these figures to the overall state totals, though, that the sea change in L.A. politics truly becomes apparent. Dukakis’ L.A. percentage was 4.3 percent higher than his state average. Clinton’s ’92 L.A. figure was 6.5 percent higher than his state total; in ’96, he ran 8.2 percent ahead here of his California percentage. This November, Al Gore polled a full 10.4 percent higher in Los Angeles than he did statewide.

Over the past dozen years, then, this onetime bastion of the union shop has become the Election Day functional equivalent of the Bay Area at its most bolshevik. This leftward Angeleno lurch is the main reason why California is now a solidly Democratic state — particularly inasmuch as the county is home to fully 26 percent of California voters. It reflects the transformation of L.A.’s once heavily white inner-ring suburbs into today’s polyglot communities. Indeed, what links the three local congressional districts where the Democrats either ousted or almost ousted Republican incumbents in last month’s election is precisely the same economic-demographic recomposition. The Burbank district of defeated Republican Congressman Jim Rogan, the South Bay district of defeated Republican Congressman Steve Kuykendall and the Long Beach district of almost-defeated Republican Congressman Stephen Horn were, from World War II through the early ’90s, home to the greatest concentration of aerospace manufacturing in the world. The aerospace work force was disproportionately white and middle-income, and when the Cold War ended and the factories closed, hundreds of thousands of those workers left the region in search of comparably paying jobs that no longer existed here. In their stead came a mix of socially liberal film-industry techs and low-wage Latino immigrants — abetted by the most politically adept labor movement in the nation.

The Democratic legislative delegations that represent this new Los Angeles are appropriately diverse; about the only group not reflected in the mix is white Christians. Of the 14 Democrats elected to Congress from greater L.A. this November, six are Latino, five are Jewish, and three are black (including Julian Dixon, the supremely effective veteran congressman who died of a heart attack earlier this month). Seven — half of them — are women. The Republican members of Congress who represent L.A.’s peripheries, by contrast, are to the man — or in the case of Palm Springs’ Mary Bono, the woman — white and Christian.

To those who marvel at the outbursts of municipal progressivism that have shaken the city in the past half-decade — at the rise of the nation’s most successful living-wage project and its most vibrant and broadly backed labor movement, at the scope of L.A.’s immigrant organizing and the persistence of its eco-activism — the changes in the county’s voting patterns provide a kind of statistical confirmation for a new political reality that’s been described but not hitherto quantified. The city that elected Richard Riordan as its mayor in 1993 is not easily found in these numbers; Hizzoner is already looking increasingly like a historic artifact, a political hiccup.

There were times during the five weeks that followed Election Day when Al Gore seemed like one of those beleaguered archetypes in Jewish folklore, the arch-schlemiel to whom everything imaginable and unimaginable would happen as a matter of the utmost routine. Gore’s losing, we should recall, required a senior-friendly ballot in Palm Beach County that was all but undecipherable; creaking punch-card machines in Duval County that were no longer capable of registering votes for president; a network that entrusted its victory call to W.’s cousin; a chief statewide election officer who was a Bush partisan; a Palm Beach election board that delayed its recount, finally got it going, and finished it 90 minutes after the deadline; a Dade County election board that was dissuaded from recounting its ballots by rampaging Republican congressional subalterns; a circuit judge who refused to inspect the evidence of undervoted ballots and then ruled that no recount was permissible because he’d seen no evidence of undervoted ballots; and a Supreme Court that stayed the recount on the grounds that it might hurt Bush and then stopped it by decreeing that it would run past a deadline the court itself had set. In some weird and fatal way, Gore had wandered into the political equivalent of the Book of Job, facing a deity bent solely on his electoral demise.

By the end, he had become not just an object of pity but a figure of resolve and even grace. Which — had he not just run the most stale, weary, flat, uninspiring, temporizing, calculating, patronizing, directionless, uncertain and all-around boneheaded presidential campaign in memory — would make him the clear front-runner in 2004.

Suffering may ennoble, but it doesn’t entitle. You wuz robbed, Al. Now, get a life.


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