Liberal Loss or Progressive Mandate?

The postmortems on the Democrats' 2000 election campaign have focused on Bill Clinton's "moral drag" on the Democratic ticket and Al Gore's shortcomings as a candidate. Both played a part in the unhappy outcome, but the fixation on personalities obscures a third and probably decisive factor: the campaign's dominant themes and message. After all, Gore could not undo the Clinton scandals or undergo a personality transplant. But the failure to craft a consistent and compelling case for his candidacy can only be charged to his account.

Such a case would have built upon the Clinton-Gore successes of the previous eight years. Yet instead of running on the winning New Democrat formula, the Gore campaign often looked and sounded like a throwback to the doomed Democratic campaigns of the 1980s, replete with vintage class-warfare themes and narrowly tailored appeals to constituency groups. This backsliding from reform-minded centrism to interest-group liberalism turned an election Gore should have won into a virtual tie.

To be sure, Gore voiced some key New Democratic themes, such as fiscal discipline and responsible fatherhood. But the fall campaign centered on his business-bashing "populism" and a laundry list of programs aimed at specific slices of the electorate. Often these proposals had merit: Seniors, for example, really do need a prescription drug benefit as part of a modernized Medicare system. Yet the campaign's inability to articulate any purpose larger than the expansion of government for the benefit of favored groups reinforced George W. Bush's charge that Gore was really a big-spending liberal--"Mondale with a surplus," in the tart description of one observer.

Where Clinton had invoked broad middle-class aspirations, Gore directed his appeals to particular group interests. The campaign Web site invited visitors to select from a list of interest- or identity-group affiliations so they could be steered quickly to custom-tailored proposals. Unimaginative scheduling reinforced the group-oriented strategy, and Gore's unmodulated performance on the stump fed the damaging public perception that he would say anything to get elected.

The point is not that Gore should have shunned the party's loyal constituencies. No Democrat can win without their support, and no one can argue that they did not do their job in 2000. But in an era of political parity, Democrats cannot win with narrow appeals to core constituencies. They also have to preach to the not-yet-converted: independents, wired workers, upscale suburbanites, young voters.

When the Gore campaign finally hit upon an overarching theme--"fighting for the people, not the powerful"--it had a contrived feel. Although it's the sort of tag line campaign consultants love because it gets a strong response in focus groups, it didn't grow naturally out of Gore's political biography (which described a brainy technocrat, not a tub-thumping populist) or a fresh critique of the iniquities of American capitalism. In fact, Gore's combative "populism" was jarringly out of sync with a population basically content with the country's direction and heartily sick of mindless partisanship. It was also confusing: When an incumbent with a strong record adopts the rhetoric of an insurgent, he gives the impression of running against himself. "The biggest problem," lamented one Gore campaign aide, "was that our message didn't fit our policy."

The strongest argument for a Gore presidency was the one that most voters already agreed with: America had made great progress under the Clinton-Gore watch and continued to move in the right direction. Gore was instrumental in shaping the policies that helped restore fiscal discipline, spur the emergence of an explosively inventive new economy, produce the longest and strongest economic expansion in memory, reduce violent crime and welfare dependency, and sustain a relatively stable international environment in which American interests and values have rarely been more secure. In the end, the strength of these fundamentals came achingly close to overcoming an ill-conceived and ill-executed presidential campaign.

In exchanging a winning New Democrat message for a faux populism and narrow appeals to interest groups, the Gore campaign lost the political ground that the Democrats had gained during the past decade along five critical philosophical dimensions: the role of government, economic opportunity, mutual responsibility, mainstream values, and security.

Big Government versus Enabling Government. Bush's biggest coup in 2000 was hanging the albatross of big government around Gore's neck. This set back New Democrats' efforts over the past decade to identify their party with a less bureaucratic model for public activism.

Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over," and Gore himself led the "reinventing government" initiative that produced the smallest federal bureaucracy since the early 1960s. On the campaign trail, however, the vice president offered few new ideas for reforming government and plenty of proposals for expanding it. On education, a top voter concern, both candidates called for more spending; but Bush did a better job of portraying himself as someone who would hold schools accountable for lifting the performance of low-income and minority students.

In general, according to pollster Mark Penn, voters saw Bush as more likely to demand accountability from government. They saw Gore as holding the paleoliberal view of government's role as protecting people and solving problems for them rather than the New Democratic view that government should equip people with the tools to tackle their own problems.

On Social Security as well, Gore championed the status quo and allowed Bush to seize the mantle of reform. Bush took a big political gamble in proposing that workers be allowed to use part of their payroll tax to create private savings accounts that they control and own. Gore's attempts to paint privatization as a mortal threat to Social Security proved unpersuasive. According to Voter News Service exit polls, voters favored private accounts by a solid 57 percent to 39 percent--a margin that prompted pollster James Zogby to remark that "the third rail has been broken."

If Democrats are to champion progressive government effectively, they have to be serious about public-sector reform and accountability. Today that does not mean expanding existing structures but fashioning a new model of public activism suited to an age of networks, dispersed power, and empowering technologies.

Class Warfare versus Rising-Tide Economics. The Democrats' greatest political feat during the 1990s was reclaiming their reputation as the party of prosperity. By embracing fiscal discipline, expanded trade, and entrepreneurial dynamism, the Clinton administration helped to stimulate productivity growth rates to levels not achieved since the 1950s and 1960s. Poverty and unemployment fell, stock ownership soared, and, after 1995, the poorest 20 percent of Americans experienced strong wage and income gains.

Astonishingly, however, Gore failed to frame the 2000 debate around the nation's economic progress. Instead of saying how he would build on that success, he sought to stoke economic grievances by casting working families as victims of corporate villainy. An obvious problem with this strategy was that most voters didn't feel like victims. According to Penn's postelection poll, 79 percent thought the economy was headed in the right direction and a solid majority said they were better off than they had been eight years earlier.

Gore's "fighting for you" populism may have thrilled upscale liberals, but it failed to sway the voters at whom it was aimed: white working-class men and women. As political analyst Ruy Teixeira has pointed out in TAP [see "Lessons for Next Time," December 18, 2000], Bush won white working-class households with incomes below $75,000 a year by 13 points and non-collegeeducated whites by 17 points. Gore also lost among the "wired workers" who now make up fully a quarter of the electorate and who are decidedly more upbeat about the nation's economic prospects.

In the future, Democrats ought to leave retro populism to the likes of Jim Hightower and Ralph Nader and instead heed an authentic party hero--John F. Kennedy--who understood that the rising economic tide lifts all boats. To build electoral majorities, Democrats must appeal both to traditional constituencies and to the new-economy entrepreneurs and knowledge workers who have little use for the old left-right debate and are looking for a political home.

Entitlement versus Civic Responsibility. Conspicuous by its absence in the 2000 campaign was the theme of civic responsibility. In the late 1980s, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) called for a new balance between citizens' rights and responsibilities and proposed national service as a way to revive the slumbering spirit of civic obligation. Clinton carried the theme into the 1992 election, promising an end to government policies that offered "something for nothing," challenging citizens who receive public benefits to give something back to the community, and insisting on replacing the entitlement to cash welfare with an obligation to work.

In the 2000 race, however, Gore rarely invoked the ethic of civic responsibility or challenged Americans to do anything but passively receive new benefits from government. A return to one-way entitlement is a dead end for Democrats. The party needs to stop asking what government can do for citizens and start asking how government can equip citizens to do more for themselves. Democrats could push for a big expansion of AmeriCorps and open up opportunities for young Americans to serve their communities in exchange for college aid. They could also explore ways to reinforce the efforts of civic and voluntary associations, including faith-based institutions, to allay our social problems--a theme Gore broached in a thoughtful speech last June but seldom returned to in the general campaign.

Common Values versus Culture Wars. Populism notwithstanding, the 2000 presidential election divided Americans along cultural rather than class lines. Where people live, marital status, religion, stance on abortion, and gun ownership turned out to be better predictors of voting behavior than income. Undoubtedly, the Clinton scandals figured into the electorate's identification of "moral decline" as a top issue. But it's also true that during the Clinton-Gore years, Democrats made significant progress in realigning their party with mainstream social and cultural values.

Styling himself a "different kind of Democrat," Clinton in 1992 called for replacing welfare with work, stemming the tide of teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births, and reinforcing the police in their "unequal struggle" against crime. As president he crafted initiatives intended to highlight such themes as parental responsibility (a crackdown on "deadbeat dads"), social order (community-oriented policing and school uniforms), and media sex and violence (the V-chip and voluntary content ratings).

In 2000 Gore's rhetoric seemed to inflame rather than transcend the old divisions on race and cultural issues. Where Clinton had a fine ear for nuance and acknowledged voters' ambivalence on issues like group preferences, abortion, gay marriage, and gun control, Gore tended to draw bright lines and deploy us-versus-them invectives. To be fair, Gore's cultural liberalism may have helped him with some voters, such as upscale women. But it appears to have hurt him with white men, whom he lost by 24 points, compared with Clinton's 11-point loss in 1996. Gore's positions on social and cultural issues cost him dearly in the 11 states that he lost in 2000 but Clinton had won in 1996, including Arkansas, West Virginia, and his own home state of Tennessee.

Instead of taking sides in the cultural wars, Democrats should seek common ground based on shared civic values. Rejecting both the right's coercive moralism and the left's relativism, the party should embrace what scholar Bill Galston has called a "tolerant traditionalism" that respects differences while honoring the common values of work, family, and self-reliance.

Personal and National Security. Finally, there were two notable exceptions to the Democrats' advantage on specific issues: crime and national security. Although these were less salient in 2000 than in previous elections, the GOP's lock on white men is no doubt linked to its image of strength on these prototypically "masculine" issues. In any case, a determined effort by Gore could have reduced and perhaps even neutralized the Republican hold.

On crime Gore had a good story to tell. The Clinton administration's emphasis on preventing crime proved more effective than the GOP's traditional fixation on punishment after the fact. The "100,000 cops" initiative not only put more police on the streets; it also carved out a creative new role for Washington as a catalyst for innovative law enforcement strategies, such as community-oriented policing. Here as in other areas, the incumbent failed to remind the voters that America had become a much safer country or to lay out new ideas for extending that progress over the next four years.

On defense and foreign policy, Gore possessed sterling credentials and wide experience in Clinton-Gore diplomacy and the great national-security debates of the past two decades. Yet he declined to exploit his huge comparative advantage over the inexperienced Texas governor and rarely addressed international issues on the stump. Efforts by Gore's foreign-policy team to schedule major speeches on these issues were continually frustrated by the campaign wizards in Nashville, who evidently saw no political value in them.

Resolve in standing up for American interests and values in a dangerous world is still a threshold issue for any candidate who would be president. Moreover, Democrats must avoid the trap of treating national security as a natural GOP issue and the military itself as a Republican interest group. GOP security policy since 1994 has been an unstable mix of pork barrel politics and go-it-alone unilateralism that demands huge investments in unproven national-missile-defense systems and opposes international efforts, like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles. Such cramped and insular nationalism creates new openings for Democrats to advance a progressive internationalism that combines energetic U.S. global leadership with unequivocal support for a strong military that is capable of projecting power around the world.

To be competitive in an era of political parity and dizzying economic and social change, Democrats must remain intellectually dynamic. Instead of standing guard over an old economic and political order, they must generate new ideas for equipping Americans to succeed in the new economy. This approach, of course, will cause friction with traditional constituencies deeply invested in the status quo. But as the Clinton-Gore success showed, those frictions are manageable. Rather than simply defending old programs, the party needs to keep innovating, reforming, and finding new and modern means to advance its enduring values. That's how Democrats can appeal to new constituencies and build a new progressive majority.

See "Progressive Mandate" by Robert Borosage and Stanley B. Greenberg. The discussion continues in the May 6th, 2001 issue of The American Prospect.