Liberal Loss or Progressive Mandate?

This was the winter of Democratic discontent. By stealing the presidential election last fall, Republicans gained control of all branches of the federal government--the presidency, both houses of Congress, and, of course, the Supreme Court. Their dominance in state legislatures means that reapportionment is likely to carve out more Republican seats. And though lacking a mandate from the country, a conservative White House is seeking to make changes that will take decades to undo--deep tax and spending cuts, privatization of Social Security, vouchers for Medicare, and rollback of corporate accountability and environmental regulation.

At this moment, some Democrats want to refight the 2000 election--this time with fellow Democrats--in order to win some sectarian advantage or to score some self-interested point. Instead Democrats should use this time to take stock, state basic principles, and develop strategies to move forward. It is easy to envision Democrats leading a powerful public backlash against a conservative takeover that flies in the face of the priorities and purposes of an emerging majority. It is also possible that, divided and confused, Democrats will act cautiously, embrace a least-common-denominator bipartisanship, and help Republicans consolidate their putsch.

To move forward boldly, Democrats should be clear about where we are, who we are, and what we want. Replaying the 2000 election is important only to the extent that it helps us understand the task ahead.

Where We Are. Begin with the reality that Al Gore won. He got 500,000 more votes than Bush, and as studies from Florida show, he likely won the electoral vote as well. Moreover, the 52 percent of the electorate who voted for Gore or Ralph Nader represent the largest center-left vote since 1964.

In addition, Gore's message and issue agenda were far more popular than his candidacy. In a straight test between his central "populist" theme and Bush's "small government" theme, voters preferred Gore's message by 57 percent to 34 percent. On the central issues of the campaign--education, Social Security, prescription drugs, patients' rights--voters preferred Gore's position overwhelmingly. Far from falling short on the economy and spending, according even to polls by the DLC's Mark Penn, Gore emerged as more fiscally responsible than Bush and better able to continue the prosperity.

Gore's message should not be distorted in a revisionist blame game or burlesqued as an anti-corporate rant. His basic theme--that we should fight to ensure that our prosperity enriches all, not simply the few--gave his campaign its first lead and a sustained lift. It was a classically optimistic message about the opportunity presented by the prosperity of the last decade. It offered a picture of the progress that could be made if entrenched and very unpopular interests--drug companies, HMOs, and the like--were overcome.

Whatever the inadequacies of the candidate and the campaign, and there were many, the majority of Americans preferred that message to the conservative budget and tax themes sounded by George W. Bush. Making sure that the large majority, not just the most privileged, share in the prosperity or gain opportunity will almost certainly be at the heart of any successful Democratic challenge to the Republican conservatives.

So why was the election close enough to steal? Not because, as the DLC suggests, Republicans won either the issue or the thematic battles. Nor because Gore framed issues for narrow group constituencies. A broad consensus exists across lines of class, age, and race for investing in education, reforming HMOs, and providing prescription drug benefits under Medicare.

Indeed, Bush and the Republicans paid tribute to the power of those concerns by working hard to blur differences with the core Democratic agenda, in order to turn the discussion toward their preferred issues--character, trust, and values. The single biggest reason voters gave for turning to Bush was his commitment to restore "dignity and honor to the White House." The Republicans made the troubled Clinton White House the centerpiece of their campaign, seeking to enlarge the Democratic losses among non-college-educated white men and women that were already evident during the impeachment and in the 1998 congressional elections. They were aided in this effort by Gore's performance in the debates, the "gotcha" reporting of his supposed exaggerations, and his difficulties in linking programs to vision.

Few could deny that Al Gore would have won comfortably if not for the fallout from the impeachment and the debates. New Democrats duck the first point and its consequences for the values issues and Democratic support in the more traditional, non-college-educated electorate. Supposedly, Gore would have overcome these obstacles if only he had presented himself more as a techno-savant in favor of expanded national service while joining Bush in seeking to privatize Social Security and our local schools. But it is hard to imagine how helping Bush blur the difference between the two candidates could have aided Gore in the election.

The divided vote reflected an ambivalent electorate. Large majorities wanted to move forward on the Gore reforms. Large majorities also wanted to turn the page from the White House troubles, which seemed unending. That burden will eventually be behind us. And to move forward, Democrats and progressives should be emboldened about the broad support that Gore's more populist message had with the public.

Moreover, the new economy is likely to increase the popular demand for activist government. Globalization puts increased pressure on families and workers, whether wired or not. ("Wired workers," now being laid off by the thousands, are not dramatically different from other workers in this regard.) At the end of the long period of growth, employees still find themselves working longer with less security. More find it difficult to afford health insurance. Fewer have strong pensions. More work in short-term, part-time, or contractual jobs that offer flexibility but also less stability. Women now work in large numbers, but the society has done little to meet their needs for equal pay, affordable child care, protection against forced overtime, and paid family leave. Parents are less sure that their children will learn about right and wrong and make their way through an increasingly raucous culture.

These dynamics were being felt in the last election. For example, academics are now changing their election models to give less weight to macro indicators, like gross national product, and more to personalized ones, such as changes in disposable income. In the four quarters before the last election, disposable-income growth declined in each quarter, finally going negative in the quarter of the election--even at a time of record high employment and solid growth. The financial pressures raised interest among working people in tax cuts for working people.

These dynamics suggest that conservatives have it wrong. The vast majority of Americans are looking for more social support, not less; more corporate accountability, not less; more concern for fairness and empowerment, not less. The majority want tax cuts that relieve the pressure on working- and middle-class families, and they oppose conservative efforts that lavish favor mainly on the top 1 percent.

What We Want. The challenge is not to cobble together thin majorities and eke out an election victory but to build an enduring majority. To do so, Democrats must find ways to win back white working- and middle-class men and women-- those whom political scientists Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers call the "forgotten majority"--especially non-college-educated families with incomes in the range of $30,000 to $75,000.

Bill Clinton supposedly made headway with these voters because he ran as a New Democrat. But this view begs definition. Clinton's 1992 campaign was uniquely populist. Specifically targeting high CEO pay, Clinton called for new taxes on the wealthiest while demanding personal responsibility from those at the bottom of the ladder as well as those at the top. He offered a populist economic agenda--Putting People First, with its promises of national health care and public investment--as he also sought to provide social reassurance by favoring the death penalty, calling for cops on the street, and trumpeting an end to welfare as we knew it. In 1996 that conversation began to gain votes, as Clinton campaigned largely by portraying himself as the protector of M2E2--Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment--against the excesses of the Gingrich Congress.

But in 1998, while Democrats gained seats because of labor union and minority mobilization, they lost ground badly among "forgotten majority" voters, many of whom were deeply put off by the Monica Lewinsky stories and the impeachment.

How will Democrats appeal to these voters now? The DLC would have us walk away from them, and instead combine social liberalism with conservative economics to appeal to more upscale voters, especially "wired workers." This is an unlikely recipe for electoral victory, and it simply abandons the project of creating an enduring majority for progressive reform.

Instead, Democrats can appeal to forgotten-majority voters through the very issues that unite the party's base--a progressive-populist appeal to kitchen table issues that people struggle with every day--material issues of security and education, as well as values concerns about raising children in the modern world. And Democrats prove their bona fides by taking on the entrenched interests who often stand in the way of progress for most Americans.

Who We Are. Democrats will succeed by being the party that looks out for hardworking people and seeks to make the society more just, the opportunity more widely shared, families more secure, and large institutions--corporate and governmental--more accountable. Democrats should be the party that seeks to ensure that all children have a healthy start and a real opportunity to develop their gifts. We should make sure that parents--worried that their children learn the right values--live in safe neighborhoods and sit in safe classrooms.

Moreover, the Democratic Party is inescapably the party of inclusion, the party of diversity. The progressive movements of the last decades--civil rights, women, environmental, gay and lesbian--have made progress through the Democratic Party. As their values and concerns gain mainstream acceptance, the party's potential coalition is strengthened.

That Democratic Party builds from a vibrant and growing base: labor union households that represented more than one-fourth of the vote; African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities; pro-choice, pro-environment, and pro-education voters, and thus many of the best-educated and new-economy voters. This base can't simply be assumed or inherited. If Democrats have a larger purpose--including making sure that all share in the country's bounty--then we will go a long way to affirming and expanding our majority.

Out of the Bushes. This analysis informs how Democrats should take on the Bush administration. In areas where bipartisan agreement can make progress--more money for education, increased military pay, even tax relief for low- and middle-income people--Democrats should work for common ground. But we should boldly and directly challenge the conservative attempt to remake the country. What is clear about the Bush administration is that the president wasn't kidding when he said that millionaires were "my base."

In a matter of weeks, Bush has shown that his administration will be in service of political and corporate donors who for their own benefit are willing to trample the interests of working people. His tax scheme is most vulnerable because it squanders the nation's prosperity on tax breaks that mostly benefit the very wealthy--while completely omitting the hardworking families that include one-third of America's children. Bush's budget will shortchange our schools and stiff badly needed investments on everything from sewers and prescription drugs to keeping our food safe and our water clean. The first bills signed by the president repealed worker safety protections and made it easier for credit-card companies to collect from families in financial distress, largely from layoffs, illness, or divorce. The first executive orders imposed the gag order on family planning abroad and began undermining environmental protection and worker rights.

New Democrats would meet this conservative assault with old saws--growth, active but efficient government, personal responsibility, mainstream values, personal and national security. In principle, nobody could argue with that. But such rhetoric hardly provides the Democrats with the tools they need to challenge Bush and the conservatives. Indeed, it abandons the tools that gave the Democrats their majority.

Democrats have a clear opportunity to become the tribune of working and middle-income families--and to make the case for a reformed government that holds powerful interests accountable, strengthens the safety net for all families, ensures affordable health care for all, and makes the investments vital to our future with the resources that George W. Bush would hand out to the wealthiest people in the world. And Democrats must also be the party that pushes to get the economy moving again and makes certain that the victims of the faltering economy get a hand up.

This analysis is hardly shopworn class politics that's out of tune with the new economy. On the contrary, it is the heart of the democratic purpose: to mobilize the majority to ensure that the economy spreads its blessings widely; that the society makes the investments vital to its future; and that an affluent nation sees to it that no child is raised in poverty or left without hope.

Of course, the language must be modern and the analysis attuned to today's realities, not yesterday's romance. As the party that wants to use government for social purpose, Democrats should be the most intent on reforming it and on constantly experimenting to make it more efficient and more accountable. If the New Dems were actually serious about this agenda, it would be a wonderful contribution to the debate. But we should not be distracted from the central purpose for this time: an optimistic message about the possibilities we have, a fierce challenge to an administration headed the wrong way in service of the few, and a renewed commitment to building an America that works for the broad majority of Americans.

See "Liberal Loss" by Will Marshall. The discussion continues in the May 6th, 2001 issue of The American Prospect.