Democrats at the Crossroads

Two factions of Democrats with sharply divergent ideas are fighting to lead the party. Will they resolve their differences? Or will it be Republicans who cross Clinton’s “bridge to the 21st century”?

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An “eerie unity” is how one Democratic activist describes the discipline Democrats showed during the 1996 election campaign. “What Newt Gingrich did to this party,” the activist explains, “is what no Democrat could do. He unified it.”

But with Bill Clinton safely re-elected and Gingrich’s revolutionaries in partial retreat, that unity is already beginning to fray. Democrats have fought their way back to the brink of building a new majority — only to find themselves deeply divided on how to proceed. “New Democrats,” led by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), call for moving the party to the right to find market-based compromises with the GOP. Meanwhile, a group of “populist” Democrats, fueled by a reinvigorated labor movement, argues for taking the Republicans head-on by offering solutions to protect workers and the middle class from unfettered markets and widening inequality.

How will Democratic leaders respond to this split? Will Clinton, Gore, and their fellow Democrats find a way to bring these factions together and build a new national majority — one that can counter the still-potent Republican combination of corporate cash, bold ideas, and grassroots activism? Or will the president drift ever rightward in a quest for bipartisan “compromise,” jettisoning Democratic accomplishments and constituencies each step of the way? In short, will the Democratic Party make it across Clinton’s “bridge to the 21st century,” or will it tear apart, leaving conservative Republicans to dominate American politics well into the future?

The Split

As Clinton’s second term begins, both New Democrats and populists are maneuvering furiously to influence the White House and shape future party strategies. The DLC is using its close personal ties to Clinton, Gore, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and other White House staffers to push proposals for “reinventing government,” such as privatizing Social Security and Medicare, and reforming education.

New Democrats are delighted by the commanding Clinton-Gore victory in November — but at the same time they can hardly hide their glee that the AFL-CIO’s campaign fell short of putting the Democrats back in charge of the House of Representatives. They fear and dislike “big labor,” of course. But another factor may also be at work. The DLC has always cared most about presidential politics, while its congressional ties have been primarily to Southern Democrats — and these are a fast-disappearing breed. Many Southern DLC politicians are now former members of Congress, defeated or replaced by Republicans. Not incidentally, perhaps, DLC leaders are suddenly talking about “bipartisan” solutions, above and beyond mere “party politics.”

For the DLC, there is a real irony here. Since its founding in the wake of the Walter Mondale debacle, the DLC has helped reshape the agenda and rhetoric of the Democratic Party. And not just in presidential politics. After all, the 1996 Democratic congressional campaign was run on a “Families First” agenda that closely follows a DLC script. But nothing the congressional Democrats do seems to make DLC leaders like them any better. Just as many Democrats are adopting key DLC themes, the DLC itself is giving up on party loyalty.

New Democrats are now calling for “above it all” presidential leadership focused on bipartisan coalitions in Congress. After criticizing Clinton for liberal overreaching with his failed health security plan in 1993-94, the DLC now wants the president to make top-down proposals that are just as sweeping — but this time moving in the opposite direction, away from a strong federal government role in promoting family security.

DLC President Al From is urging Clinton to undertake a “fundamental restructuring [of] our biggest systems for delivering public benefits — Medicare, Social Security, and public education, for openers.” Similarly, Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), the DLC’s think tank, argues for moving Medicare and Medicaid “into the new marketplace.”

But Democrats are going to lock horns over this sort of DLC advice to the second Clinton administration. Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future (CAF), a populist advocacy group launched last July, says Clinton won’t swallow the privatization pill unless he forgets the reason he won the November election: “People want him to protect Medicare.” But Hickey acknowledges that “there is going to be enormous elite pressure for a big comprehensive solution,” and he says that without public pressure an “inside-the-Beltway pundit consensus” might prevail.

In the next few years, the populist Democrats envisage a hard-fought campaign to mobilize support for maintaining Medicare and Social Security as shared security programs for all Americans. But there are no illusions that congressional Democrats can push forward ambitious legislation right now. “It’s movement-building time,” says Hickey.

One Election, Two Interpretations

The predominant analysis in the media echoes the New Democrat view that Clinton won by pre-empting the right on such issues as crime, welfare reform, and a balanced budget. “Every time Dole tried to get cracking on an issue,” Al From pointed out at a post-election DLC press conference, “he couldn’t do it because the president had, in a sense, beat him there.”

Populist Democrats, meanwhile, are both chastened and encouraged by the November outcome. Their efforts, backed by the AFL-CIO, were not enough to return Congress to the Democrats. But it’s possible to make a strong argument that Clinton’s victory owes more to the populists than to the New Democrats. “In this election,” argues Robert Borosage of the CAF, “the centerpiece was Medicare, Medicaid, education, the environment, children, choice, more help for working people…a liberal set of issues.”

During 1995 and 1996, the New Democrats opposed the popular minimum wage increase. They also urged, in the words of DLC chair Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), an end to “the current system of unconditional government entitlements [in favor of a] market-based system.” Had Clinton taken such advice, the populist Democrats argue, he would not have trounced Dole in the election.

Ruy Teixeira of the pro-labor Economic Policy Institute points out that Dole and Clinton remained even in presidential polls for some time after Clinton embraced the balanced budget goal in June 1995. “Clinton did not pull away from Dole,” says Teixeira, “until he joined with congressional Democrats in defense of Medicare and other popular programs and the Republicans made their disastrous decision to shut down the government. By December of 1995, Clinton was 10 points ahead and never looked back through his re-election.”

Populists also stress that working-class voters moved markedly toward Democrats in 1996. While college-educated voters increased their support of Clinton by only 3 percent since 1992, says Teixeira, “non-college-educated voters can account for about three-quarters of Clinton’s overall increase in support.” For House Democrats, the increase in votes since 1994 was even more class-skewed. And Democrats came closer to taking back the House than one might think. According to Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, 25 Republican seats were won with 51 percent of the vote or less, and the Democrats lost ground only in the two weeks before the election, when the media focused on Clinton’s fundraising lapses.

No Monopolies on Truth

The beginning of wisdom for Democratic voters, thinkers, and officeholders may be to notice that neither the New Democrats nor the party’s populist wing has an entirely adequate analysis — or a winning political formula.

The New Democrats condemn bureaucracy and exhort Americans to be mutually responsible for one another. But why, then, does the DLC want the nation’s most popular and administratively efficient public program, Social Security, to be partially diverted into millions of individual accounts managed by Wall Street brokers? By pursuing the breakup of unitary programs for Social Security and Medicare, the DLC is promoting social division, regulatory complexity, and a vast corporate subsidy — rather than furthering the mutual responsibility, administrative simplification, and “end of corporate welfare” it claims to favor.

The arguments of the CAF’s populist manifesto, “Taking Back Our Future,” however, are too narrowly focused on the economy. Wage stagnation, job insecurity, and sharply increasing inequality are indeed major problems, but the populists pay insufficient attention to average families’ worries about moral values and everyday responsibilities.

People worry about crime, ineffective schools, and whether parents and communities can adequately supervise and guide children. For many citizens these concerns are not manifestations of declining wages or corporate irresponsibility. Moreover, to protect social values, people look not to unions, but to parents, schools, churches and synagogues, and community groups.

Neither the New Democrats nor the populists give enough weight to the political stirrings among female voters. Women’s concerns about family and community had a huge impact on the 1996 election. Women reacted sooner and more consistently to proposed Republican cutbacks in Medicare, education, and other broad social programs; and women also seem to have approved President Clinton’s endorsement of measures like the V-chip for parental screening of television programs. By large margins, women favored Clinton over Dole — and also, by a lesser margin, Democrats over Republicans for Congress.

The strength of the female vote, however, captured the DLC entirely by surprise last year. “The so-called gender gap is a false hope for Democrats,” DLC President Al From pronounced back in the fall of 1995. The DLC’s pooh-poohing female voters as a potential strength for the Democrats is probably due to its rigid policy commitments. The DLC wants to shrink or privatize the very programs — Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and education funding — that American women disproportionately support and rely upon. In addition, the DLC has locked itself into a drumbeat of grand rhetoric against “big government,” at a time when polls suggest women are relatively appreciative (though not naively uncritical) of many federal programs.

But the populist Democrats also leave women, families, and communities in a rather marginal position, because they place so much stress on building “movement” infrastructure through and around the trade unions. Energetic unions are certainly vital, and labor’s new network of activists across the country is a sign that unions are likely to get stronger, not weaker. But unions will not be enough.

Let’s face it: Unions are virtually nonexistent in many parts of the United States, especially across large swatches of the South and West. Meanwhile, family concerns motivate many voters, especially women, who distrust or have no experience with unions. If populist Democrats are serious about an outward-reaching politics centered on “working families,” they will have to enlarge their movement to work with community and parental associations across the nation, synthesizing a core focus on economic security with the values issues championed by the New Democrats.

Building a New Democratic Majority

The Democratic Party may, of course, simply dwindle into long-term decline over the next few years — with New Democrats and populists hurling moral outrage at one another as the media fans the flames. If the second Clinton-Gore administration tilts all the way to the party’s right, it will sell out many of the party’s core voters and achievements, sparking a nomination brouhaha that would surely kill Gore’s (or any Democrat’s) chances for 2000. In this scenario, Medicare, Social Security, and the Democrats would all go together into the dustbin of history, and the Republicans would parade in force across Clinton’s vaunted bridge to the new century.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, not if the various Democratic factions can work out a new synthesis within the party. To make this happen, Clinton will have to focus less on creating bipartisan coalitions to pass legislation, and more on building his own party. New Democrats and populists will have to deal with one another, even as they mobilize separately.

How can a new synthesis be achieved? On some questions, the best option for Democrats is to combine ideas from the contending camps — as the first Clinton administration did when it promoted both a DLC-supported increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit and a populist-championed increase in the minimum wage. Together, these measures are doing more to help low-wage working families than either would in isolation. Similar combinations may be possible on such issues as job training and education reform.

Democrats may also be able to unite around sensible campaign finance reforms and changes in primary-election procedures. New Democrats must resist the temptation to sign on to skewed Republican finance “reforms” that hobble the AFL-CIO’s political capacities without effectively curbing corporate influence. At the same time, populists should look for areas of cooperation with New Democrats, rather than relentlessly denouncing what populist Robert Kuttner calls the DLC’s “craven embrace of business lobbies and campaign funders.”

But merely adding up New Democrat and populist proposals, or splitting the difference, often doesn’t work. To achieve a genuine synthesis, Democrats would do better to follow the DLC on some matters — such as fighting crime, reworking economic regulations, and furthering parental empowerment and civic community — while supporting populist positions on other matters — such as preserving Social Security and Medicare, strengthening unions, and finding new ways to use government to address wage disparities, educate young people, and provide support for working parents.

Recent history shows how costly it can be when the Democrats fail to cooperate and jointly mobilize popular support. In the 1993-94 battle over national health care reform, for example, the Clinton administration tried to blend the DLC’s preference for market-based “managed health care” with a populist determination to extend coverage to the uninsured. However, faced with opposition from Republicans and business groups, conservative Democrats in Congress did not rally behind the president’s plan. And some liberals in Congress never gave it wholehearted support, either. The entire health security effort crashed without any legislative progress toward offering insurance coverage to low-wage working families, a key Democratic constituency. In the aftermath, a disproportionate number of non-higher-educated voters — especially women, who had reported caring strongly about health care reform — stayed home during the 1994 midterm elections. Their failure to turn out for the Democrats was a key factor in throwing the 104th Congress to the Republicans.

After 1994, the Democrats understood the threat the Gingrichites posed, and they cooperated long enough to do remarkably well last November. Now the question is, can Democrats of different stripes manage their ongoing debates and learn to cooperate to build a new majority? Maybe. But only if the New Democrats temper their tendency to throw out all of the party’s legacies in order to leap into an undefined world of “reinvented government” and market fixes. And only if the re-energized populists can reach out to popular constituencies beyond organized labor, and go beyond defense of public programs as they are, to fashion fresh solutions to problems of family security.

Populists may not like the “new ideas” of the Democratic Leadership Council. But they will have to come up with better prescriptions and political strategies of their own, not just more compelling descriptions of America’s economic woes. CAF’s Robert Borosage puts it in a way that could be a caution to his fellow populists as well as to the Democratic Party as a whole: “People will demand the basic protections they need to raise a family. Democrats will find answers — or face decline.”

Theda Skocpol is a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University and the author of Boomerang: Clinton’s Health Security Effort and the Turn Against Government in U.S. Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996).


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