The Progressive Challenge
and the 1996 Elections:

The conventional,
middle-of-the-road view
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 election.

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

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