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What Los Angeles Needs To Know About the Democrats

It‘s nap time in America.

In this, the summer of our content, the nation seems blissfully oblivious of the presidential campaigns, and the candidates themselves are doing little to disturb our rest.

In the case of W., a quiet candidacy makes perfect sense. His calling card is his affability, which he can reaffirm daily with a brief, genial appearance. He’s sewn up his GOP base -- a recent L.A. Times poll shows him drawing 90 percent support among Republicans -- and can now focus solely on the centrists, taking care not to startle them with right-wing rhetoric or sudden loud noises.

In the case of Al Gore, and more broadly of the Democratic Party, such silence equals political death. Democrats don‘t win unless their base is ablaze with passion, unless unionists and students and enviros have taken to the streets on their behalf. The same polling shows Gore pulling down the support of just 80 percent of the Democrats -- meaning he not only has to reach swing voters but reconnect with voters mulling over the Nader option, with the Teamsters and turtles of American politics.

But the Democratic Party in the year 2000 -- which is to say, the Democratic Party as Bill Clinton has remodeled it -- will be hard put to mobilize its foot soldiers. Over the past eight years, the party base has swung into action largely to oppose Republican congressional folly, or its own administration’s free-trade mania.

Clinton is clearly the most brilliant Democratic presidential campaign strategist, and candidate, since Franklin Roosevelt. He has freed his party from many an election-day albatross: No longer are the Democrats the party of big government, or welfare cheats, or high taxes, or coddled criminals. While such recasting was probably necessary to the party‘s revival, it certainly hasn’t been sufficient to the task.

The president has been utterly unable to transfer his magic to Democrats in other branches or at other levels of government. When Bill Clinton took office in 1992, the Democrats held a majority 258 House seats; today, they hold a minority 210. In the Senate, they‘ve gone from a majority of 53 to a minority of 46. In the statehouses, the two-party ratio has been reversed: In 1992, there were 30 Democratic governors and 18 Republicans; today, there are 17 Democrats and 31 Republicans. Both New Democrats and Old have been felled in the age of Clinton.

Ironically, the decline of Democratic fortunes on Clinton’s watch has meant he‘s gone all but unchallenged in recharting his party’s course. Unable to pass legislation of their own, congressional Democrats have been reduced to fending off the Republicans‘ most dubious brainstorms. A truly brilliant legislator like Henry Waxman has been able to navigate a few bills through the Congress, but most of the time he’s been forced to swat down the absurd conspiracy theories of GOP Committee Chair Dan Burton, which is rather like being repeatedly compelled to chase after an escaped lunatic.

By the same token, the only major state that‘s had a Democratic governor since 1994 is California, and there only for the last 19 months. Even America’s two mega-cities have been under uncharacteristic Republican rule since 1993. All of which has rendered Bill Clinton not just the party‘s pre-eminent redefiner, but damn near its only one. And, as both politics and policy, some of those redefinitions have put the party in jeopardy.

Consider, for instance, the strange case of the vanishing debt. It began, innocently enough, with Clinton’s 1993 budget, which raised taxes on the richest 1 percent of Americans as a way to bring spiraling deficits under control. Then, confronted with a Newtster-run Congress complaining of Democratic profligacy, Clinton neutralized the GOP attack by agreeing to balance the budget at the expense of much programmatic spending, while protecting Social Security and Medicare from Republican depredations.

As the deficit turned to a surplus, Clinton came forth with a plan, Heisenbergian in its incomprehensibility, to protect Social Security by paying down the debt. This was largely a ploy to fend off the Republicans‘ tax-cut proposal, but the ploy took on a life of its own. The Social Security part of the plan went nowhere, but debt retirement suddenly became the North Star of administration fiscal policy. Today, retiring the debt by 2012 has become the linchpin of Clinton-Gore economics -- taking precedence over such longtime Democratic priorities as universal health insurance. For his part, Gore has gone one step further -- telling The Wall Street Journal that he’d not even be inclined to run a deficit during a serious recession, preferring rather to slash government spending. (A proposal that shocked even John McCain, whose understanding of Keynesianism seems farther along than Gore‘s.)

 

Gore, in short, is something new in the political firmament: an Andrew Mellon Democrat. (Mellon was Herbert Hoover’s treasury secretary, who deepened the Depression by counseling Hoover to cut spending as factory after factory was shuttered, and by advising business to ”Liquidate capital, liquidate assets, liquidate men.“) Gore himself is proposing to liquidate -- or at least diminish -- Democratic prospects. As policy, a program of debt reduction uber alles, or at least uber comprehensive health care and better schools, is bizarre. As several liberal commentators have noted, it‘s rather like a family electing to defer purchasing health insurance, or defer sending the kids to college, in order to pay off the mortgage more quickly. As politics, the program is even shakier. Not even the dread bond market has given any sign that the debt must be paid off in the next dozen years. And when it comes to inspiring Democratic activists or drawing the attention of the occasional swing voter, debt retirement doesn’t quite carry the wallop that health care does.

Consider, finally, the evolution of the policy debate here. In the first half of the ‘90s, Republicans, and the conservative movement generally, were divided into two camps on economic issues: the deficit hawks and the supply-siders. Deficit hawks -- old-line conservatives like Bob Dole and Pete Domenici -- thought a balanced budget to be both the means and end of government, and those cockamamie tax-cut proposals from the likes of Jack Kemp would only gum up the works. Supply-siders like Kemp and the Journal editorialists viewed tax cuts as the holy grail of conservatism, and bugger the balanced budget.

Today, what was once a debate within Republican ranks has become a debate between deficit-hawk (now, debt-hawk) Democrats and tax-cutting Republicans; each conservative position now has a party of its own. The green eyeshade has been passed -- entrusting a raft of social problems, in the absence of government intervention, to the mercies of the market.

Consider next the case of the self-inflicted wedge. Bill Clinton has been a stunning success at blunting all the old GOP wedge issues: crime, the death penalty, welfare. At the same time, he has driven his own wedge deep into his own party.

The wedge, of course, is the administration’s promotion of free trade and free markets. Under Clinton, the U.S. has crafted treaties that enable U.S. capital to invest anywhere, and oblige the host country to protect our property rights, conform to our business practices, and stop protecting its own industries just because, say, it wants to keep producing 500 kinds of non-standardized cheese, as is the case in France. These treaties impose no equivalent obligations on the host countries to respect workers‘ rights to organize, to abolish child labor or adhere to environmental standards.

No other issue so fundamentally and bitterly divides the Democrats’ activist base from the Democrats‘ corporate and financial funders. No issue so divides popular opinion from the elite consensus, or so sharply counterposes the Democrats’ belief in a mixed domestic economy with their belief in a laissez-faire global economy. And time and again, the administration has sent these treaties to Congress and asked the Democrats -- the party that brought regulated capitalism to America -- to abandon their base, flout public opinion and impose unregulated capitalism on the world.

What‘s striking is that the Democrats leave the decade as divided on the trade issue as they were eight years ago. Thirty-nine percent of House Democrats voted for NAFTA in 1993; 35 percent voted for granting China permanent normalized trade status in 2000. Every public-opinion poll showed plurality public opposition to NAFTA -- and to the China deal. (Remarkably, the poll-obsessed administration largely ignored these polls, in part because the poll-obsessed media largely ignored them, too. Such is the weight of elite consensus -- or, as we codgers still call it, ideology.) In 1994, the administration’s backing for NAFTA hurt the Democrats at the polls; in 2000, it sure isn‘t doing Al Gore any good.

Indeed, in the seven key swing states in the Jersey-City-to-Kansas-City belt where Gore will either win or lose the election -- New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin -- 52 out of the 56 House Democrats opposed the administration position on China. (That’s a 13-to-1 ratio.) Many came to this position out of sincere belief, but surely all were aware that the administration position was heavily unpopular in their districts. Though labor and key House Democrats implored him not to do it, Bill Clinton painstakingly crafted his very own wedge -- and it has damaged no one so much as his own vice president.

In the days of Lane Kirkland, of course, alienating the unions was not a matter of the gravest consequence. Union political-action campaigns were no thing of beauty; business agents who seldom left the office were hardly capable of rallying the troops. Since John Sweeney took the helm at the AFL-CIO in 1995, however, the number of union staffers who actually work in the field has increased hugely, as has the sophistication and comprehensiveness of the Federation‘s political program. Unions were key to the Democrats’ House pickups in 1998. And estranging unions so close to the election -- even just dampening the ardor of their newfound activists -- could toss the election to the GOP.

 

One scene I witnessed this winter manages to illustrate the Democrats‘ dilemma. The setting was the town square in Nashua, New Hampshire, on the Saturday before February’s primary. On one side of the square were UAW activists (chiefly retirees: there are no better Democratic activists than old Reutherites), who held signs and blew whistles for Al Gore. On the other side of the square were college students, come from up and down the East Coast, who held signs and tooted horns for Bill Bradley. The two groups jockeyed warily for position, but after a while they started talking, and discovered that they agreed with each other -- and disagreed with their respective candidates -- on trade. In the year 2000, the real dividing line in the Democratic Party, so to speak, isn‘t vertical, between the presidential candidates. It’s horizontal, dividing the party‘s financial superstructure from its activist base.

The Democrats are hardly alone in their drift away from the mixed economy. Across Europe, their counterparts -- the parties of the center-left, the social democrats -- have been compelled to move rightward, too, by a combination of high unemployment rates and the increasing willingness of their businesses to invest in distant lands with lower wages and fewer worker protections. The odyssey of these parties is even more painful than the Democrats’, since the social protections they‘ve enacted are more universal, generous and popular than ours. But the American model is increasingly the global model, and in varying degrees, they are succumbing to it.

Which means, if there’s a party of the center-left that is potentially positioned to arrest the spread of laissez-faire at its source, it‘s our very own Democrats. In fairness, a considerable number of congressional Democrats -- House leaders Richard Gephardt and David Bonior most particularly -- endeavor to move the party in that direction, but they’re swimming upstream. Under John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO has emerged as the foremost champion for global social democracy not just in the U.S. but in the world -- and yet, so long as money dominates elections, and until unions can organize more members, theirs will not be the dominant viewpoint within the Democratic Party, either. Progressive coalitions are beginning to prevail on economic issues at the municipal level, as the rise of the living-wage movement attests. Even the most progressive cities, however, are contested terrains, and at the state and national levels, effective ”economic-justice“ coalitions, let alone majorities, have yet to jell.

On non-economic themes, the Democrats still adhere to the liberal mainstream, particularly on positions of concern to the upper-middle class. Party policy remains resolutely pro-choice, anti-tobacco, pro-environment and tepidly pro-affirmative action (though in the case of Gray Davis, ”tepidly pro“ has given way to ”increasingly anti“). With white working-class voters -- still a majority of the electorate, as political scientists Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rodgers document in their important new book, America‘s Forgotten Majority -- the party continues to flounder. Resentment at the Democrats’ social liberalism is a factor here, but an equal factor is the Democrats‘ economic abandonment of white working-class men in particular -- once the largest component of the New Deal coalition. Between 1989 and 1994, Teixeira and Rodgers show, the incomes of non-college-graduate white men declined by 10 percent, while their support for the Democrats between 1992 and ’94 declined by 11 percent. Among college-graduate white men, there was no fall-off in either income or Democratic support. It‘s these working-class voters -- many of them onetime unionized industrial workers driven to lower-paying service-sector jobs or out of the job market entirely -- whom the Democratic romance with free trade hurts the most. It’s precisely these voters, concentrated in the industrial Midwest, who can make or break Al Gore come November.

This realization seems finally to have penetrated the Gore campaign‘s strategic thinking, which throughout the spring wasn’t so much misguided as it was nonexistent. Today, Gore‘s stump speech sounds the themes of economic populism: He’s contrasting his excellent proposal for augmenting Social Security to W.‘s proposal for whittling it down. He’s calling for a higher minimum wage, for making it easier for workers to organize unions, for a Medicare prescription-drug benefit and a patients‘ bill of rights. He’s linking W. to the inaction of the Republican Congress on these issues, urging Bush to ”pick up the phone“ and tell Trent Lott and the gang to snap to. There are echoes here of Harry Truman‘s 1948 campaign, where he linked his GOP opponent, Tom Dewey, to what Truman termed ”the Do-Nothing Congress.“ And there’s a reason for these echoes.

 

For Truman, like Gore, faced a challenge from the left. A third party emerged that year, the Progressive Party, in opposition to Truman‘s cold-war policies and to his forceful if sporadic action against some of the strikes that swept the nation in the year after World War II. The Progressives’ candidate was Henry Wallace, who‘d been Roosevelt’s vice president before Truman, and who was polling as high as 12 percent in the summer of ‘48.

Truman’s response was to take a more populist tack -- vetoing the Republicans‘ union-busting Taft-Hartley bill (it passed over his veto), calling for universal health coverage (yes, the issue’s been around since 1948), generally giving the Republicans hell. In November, Truman held Wallace to a scant 2 percent of the vote while sweeping to re-election. (It didn‘t hurt that the Progressives were dominated by the Communist Party, or that Wallace’s religious mysticism became public knowledge.)

The Greens are hardly communist-dominated, and whatever Ralph Nader may be, he‘s no religious mystic. Against the threat of Nader’s candidacy, Gore is now playing the populist card. As a strategy, moreover, it‘s potentially a twofer -- helping Gore recapture some of the party’s activist base, while also sounding themes that resonate with the swing voters of the white working class (and with Latino voters as well, though Latinos are a real factor this year only in three non-swing states: California, Texas and New York).

Lord knows -- as his spring slump made very clear -- Gore needs to campaign on something. Throughout the ‘90s, in the assessment of the Democratic Leadership Council and polite society generally, that something -- the sine qua non of Democratic politics -- was fiscal responsibility and open markets. In fact, those themes only weakened the Democrats in the elections of 1994, ’96 and ‘98, and they are not the themes on which Bill Clinton won election in 1992, when he ran on the promise of universal health care and ”putting people first“ no less than ending welfare as we knew it. How plausibly Gore and the Democrats can reclaim the language, much less the substance, of even neo-populism remains to be seen; the increasing indenture of the party to financial interests certainly makes it an uphill climb. If Gore has embarked on this arduous journey, however, it’s only because no other themes actually work.

Democrats don‘t win when it’s nap time in America. The candidate of choice for a sleepy-time nation is W., himself a proud and accomplished napper. The notion that the Democrats, and their stately, deliberate, centrist ticket, have it within themselves to rouse a nation is -- well, improbable, though not impossible. Such clamorous conduct certainly wouldn‘t be anything they’ve learned in the past half-decade. One can only hope that they harbor a faint ancestral memory of progressive populism, that it‘s encoded, somewhere, in their genes.


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