The Progressive Challenge
and the 1996 Elections:
is completely wrong
By Robert L. Borosage
What did voters say in the election of l996? What are their priorities and
expectations in returning Bill Clinton to the White House and a chastened
Republican majority to the Congress?
These questions make for endless Washington parlor games on cold, winter
nights, and help keep pollsters and pundits busy between elections. But
they are not academic questions -- nor, in a democracy, should they be.
In the White House and Congress, what leaders conclude about the meaning
of the election and the mandate of the voters will frame policy and politics.
No wonder the struggle over what voters said is often as contested and bitter
as the election itself.
There is a conventional view congealing in this city about the election:
that Clinton won by moving to the right, co-opting Republican issues. Gingrich
calls him the "first Republican ever nominated for president by the
Democratic Party." The president is said to have made strategic inroads
among upscale suburban voters, particularly this year's fixation -- the
stressed-out soccer moms -- described as Volvo-driving, young, professional
women torn between careers and children.
According to the same conventional wisdom, Democrats failed to retake the
Congress because they are still perceived as fiscally irresponsible and
voters were unwilling to trust them to balance the budget, cut welfare,
etc. They are still too liberal to govern.
This leads the White House and Republicans to talk about a new bipartisan
cooperation. The president has claimed a mandate for what he calls the "vital
center" agenda -- more deficit reduction through domestic spending
cuts, curbing Medicare and Social Security, pursuing tree trade agreements,
and continuing to substitute symbols and gestures, "incremental steps,"
for policy and program.
This is increasingly the conventional view. It is almost completely wrong.
It is worth stating as clearly as possible what voters said in the past
I. Not Newt
The election was framed early by the so-called Gingrich revolution. Democrats
began to come back in late 1995 when progressive leaders in the House --
against the advice of the White House and conservatives in the party --
decided to fight Republican attempts to cut vital domestic programs -- particularly
Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment -- while cutting taxes
largely on the rich. Clinton's fortunes rose when -- rejecting the advice
of Dick Morris and the triangulaters -- he stood up against Republican cuts
even to the point of shutting down the government. By January l996 the president
had a double-digit lead in the polls that he never relinquished. It is worth
noting that the president's relative popularity continued to rise even as
he reaffirmed affirmative action, vetoed the partial birth abortion bill,
vetoed two welfare reform laws, and vowed to fight Republican efforts to
give the Pentagon $11 billion more than it asked for.
The new voters that gave the president his margin and almost returned a
Democratic majority in the Congress were precisely those most frightened
by the Republican onslaught. Three quarters of the new Clinton voters and
the new Democratic voters were non-college educated voters with family incomes
of less than $50,000 a year. They were joined by women -- particularly working
women -- who harbor greater economic insecurities than men, Hispanics driven
to the Democratic Party by race-based, Republican immigrant baiting, and
union members mobilized to vote in larger numbers against a conservative
assault on workers. The president actually lost support among upscale, suburban
voters compared to four years ago.
Every part of the Republican coalition was repudiated in the election. The
radical right was deemed not ready for prime time and put in the closet
at the Republican convention. The storm troopers of the Gingrich revolution
survived by divorcing themselves from the cause. Gingrich himself ended
his campaign with ads criticizing his opponent -- the cookie magnate --
for not paying his workers more than the minimum wage, or providing them
with family leave. Supply-siders put their man on the ticket and their issue
-- the famed tax cut -- at the center of the hapless Dole campaign and were
repudiated by the voters who just wouldn't buy the potion a second time.
This reality is reflected in the disarray now experienced in the Republican
Party. Newt Gingrich has scheduled 12 days of work in the first three months
of this Congress not simply to elude the posse chasing him for his crimes
and misdemeanors but because Republicans don't know what to do. So Republicans
say they'll lower their voices, work to balance the budget and let the president
go first -- not out of suddenly discovered modesty -- but because they need
time to figure out what they will stand for.
As to the conservative claim in both parties that Democrats failed to retake
the House because they remain too liberal, there is simply no evidence to
support that proposition. In a poll by the president's own pollster, Mark
Penn, a higher percentage of voters considered Clinton a traditional liberal
than Democratic candidates for Congress. Republicans gained seats in the
South, as the party of white sanctuary, running against the most conservative
Democratic candidates. Progressive Democrats ran well across the country.
Why did Democrats fail to retake the House? As challengers, they were outspent
dramatically, by 5, 6 and 7 to 1 in many of the most contested races. Many
of their candidates, recruited during the conservative high tide in early
1995, left much to be desired. If Democratic candidates had the same relative
resources as the presidential race, the same gifts as candidates as the
president, opponents as lame as Dole, this Congress would be Democratic
-- even though Republicans were the incumbents.
Indeed, if the White House had not worked to resuscitate the Republican
reputation at the beginning of the campaign -- by capitulating on shameful
repeal of welfare -- and to bushwhack Democrats in the last week of the
campaign -- with the headlined foreign money scandals -- Democrats would
be a majority today.
II. What Voters Want
What does this say about the future agenda? Republicans often suggest that
Clinton runs as a conservative and then governs like a liberal. Actually
the reverse is far more true. Clinton always has prospered by running on
populist campaign themes, and suffers by abandoning them in office. The
"vital center" agenda that he has announced threatens to repeat
that mistake -- and do great disservice to the voters that elected him and
the country that needs leadership.
When the Campaign for America's Future asked voters what they wanted, their
priorities reflected their concerns.
The first priority was to protect Medicare and Social Security. These basic
programs are building blocks by which hard-pressed working people plan their
lives, upon which they depend for their retirement after decades of labor.
Young people concerned about their parents share that concern. The vast
majority of the public is not in favor of the elite reforms -- privatization,
cutbacks -- now being bandied about in this city.
The majority of the public wants the budget balanced, as sign of government
discipline. But overwhelming majorities -- two thirds and more -- support
new investment in education, in rebuilding schools and making college affordable,
paid for by new taxes on the rich, by cuts in corporate welfare, by issuing
bonds, or even by extending the time it takes to reach a balanced budget.
The third priority chosen by voters is one that went literally unmentioned
on the campaign trail -- guaranteeing affordable, health care for all. In
the Congress, the consensus is that incremental steps are all that is possible
-- guaranteeing new mothers a couple days in the hospital, defending the
right of doctors to tell patients what is wrong, offering unemployed workers
the right to buy health insurance. For working Americans -- one of five
of whom have no health care insurance and many of whom can afford only inadequate
coverage -- health care remains a continuing concern. And for this wealthy
country to remain the only industrialized country unable to provide its
citizens with comprehensive health care remains a continuing outrage.
III. The Progressive Challenge
Working Americans -- the three-fourths of the country without college education
-- form the basis of the potential Democratic majority. They struggle against
stagnant wages and growing insecurity. They piece together three, four jobs
a family to make ends meet. Even in the sixth year of a slow-growth recovery,
they remain deeply concerned about their ability to educate their children,
pay for health care, finance their retirement. These voters -- even the
self-described conservative ones -- are far more populist on economic issues
that the current Washington dialogue. They are worried that trade agreements
cost more jobs than they create. They want corporations held accountable
to invest in this country. Over 60% want government to hold corporations
accountable, even in the face of the argument that this will make them less
competitive and cost jobs. Seventy percent support issuing bonds to rebuild
our infrastructure. Sixty-five percent support taxes on the wealthy and
corporations to invest in education.
The problem for progressives and for the country is that these people are
losing faith and hope. Increasingly Americans believe -- and who could fault
them -- that this city is bought and sold by special interests which they
define as lobbyists and corporations. The vast majority believe their leaders
are out of touch with people like themselves.
Their response is to drop out, to put their hopes in prayer or the lottery,
rather than in collective action. The turnout this year was at its lowest
levels since 1924. The president was returned to office with less than one-half
of the vote of the 49% who bothered to vote. Republicans received similar
support, less than a quarter of the eligible voters. The people who stayed
home were disproportionately non-college educated, middle- and low-income
voters -- the very voters that are the core of the progressive constituency.
That is why it is vital for the Democratic Party in Congress -- and for
the progressive caucus in particular -- to set out a clear agenda that fights
to make this country work for working people, that rejects the conservative
consensus that trumpets the success of a society in which workers face stagnant
wages and growing insecurity, in which one in four children are born into
poverty, in which one in five workers goes without health care, in which
inequality has reached the levels of a banana republic, while the middle
class declines and working people are left to compete in a global labor
hall intent on driving down wages and driving out labor unions.
This country is at the ash-end of a 30-year conservative era. Across the
country, people are looking for help -- and sensibly skeptical of the willingness
or ability of Washington to provide it. We have the wealth to fulfill the
Founders' promise of liberty and justice for all, the guarantee of inalienable
rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But that promise will
not be met by Newt Gingrich and the radical right; it cannot be reached
by the minimalist agenda of the Vital Center. It will come only with a progressive
movement and revival. It is time for this Caucus to turn its attention,
its energies and its skills outside this city in rousing people and reviving
hope in a new possibility.
Robert L. Borosage is co-director of Campaign for America's Future. This
is adapted from a speech he gave at a Capitol Hill forum on January 9, sponsored
by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Institute for Policy Studies.
Contact Campaign for America's Future, 1101 14th St. NW Ste 600, Washington
DC 20005; phone 202-371-6990; email AmerFut@aol.com.
News | Current Issue
| Back Issues | Essays
About the Progressive Populist | How
to Subscribe | How to Contact Us
Copyright © 1995-1997 The Progressive Populist