Shortly after last November's election, two prominent Democratic pollsters offered opposite interpretations of how to read the results. Mark Penn, who emerged as President Clinton's favorite pollster working closely with strategist Dick Morris, conducted a postelection survey for the Democratic Leadership Council. Not surprisingly, Penn found that President Clinton had won because he had followed the DLC recipe. Penn wrote that "Clinton won the election because on every issue that the Republicans hoped to dominate—balancing the budget, welfare, crime, immigration, and taxes—Clinton staked out a strong centrist position early on."
For example, the poll found that "88 percent of voters said they would favor President Clinton if he made a balanced budget the top priority of his second term." And "more than 85 percent of voters would favor making Social Security and Medicare reform his second priority." Fifty-seven percent of voters, according to Penn, identified Clinton as "a different kind of Democrat," while a majority of voters thought the Democratic Party as a whole hadn't changed. House Democrats, Penn declared, failed to regain a majority because they "failed to join Clinton in the center, demonstrating fiscal moderation. . . . Democrats, egged on by the labor unions, focused relentlessly on wage stagnation and the perceived lack of good jobs. They systematically deprived themselves of the greatest edge the party controlling the White House can have—a successful economy."
Meanwhile, Penn's principal rival, pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, released his own postelection survey, conducted for the Campaign for America's Future, a new progressive organization that aims to become a kind of counter-DLC. Greenberg's poll told a very different story. Most voters did not support Clinton because of his stands on entitlement reform, budget balance, or shrinking government. Rather, it was his defense of traditional Democratic programs. According to Greenberg, 59 percent of those polled cited Clinton's "support for domestic programs" (education, Medicare, and the environment) as the prime reason for their vote. Overall, about 31 percent supported Clinton because of "centrist" positions (moderation, welfare, balanced budget, and crime)."
The Greenberg/Campaign for America's Future poll also found that "downscale" voters—those earning under $50,000 and those without college degrees—were key to Democratic gains. According to the Greenberg poll, it was mainly pocketbook issues—complemented but not replaced by "values" issues—that attracted new voters to Clinton. By implication, Democrats do better when they rouse less-affluent voters with pocketbook issues and with values issues that have pocketbook overtones, such as work and family.
To some extent, of course, these rival groups were able to divine these competing interpretations of the election because of the way they posed questions. For example, on Medicare, Penn asked: "In thinking about the necessary changes to Medicare, do you think it would be better to stay within the existing system—for example, raise premiums and cut benefits—or would it be better to move toward more structural changes to Medicare like getting the private sector involved?" Since preserving the existing system was defined as raising premiums and cutting benefits, it is hardly surprising that 71 percent said they preferred (undefined) "structural changes" rather than benefit cuts and higher charges.
Still, creative wording notwithstanding, the debate between DLC/Penn and CAF/ Greenberg analyses mirrors almost precisely the debate dividing the Democratic Party. Is the road to the party's recovery to the center or to the left? We invited Penn and Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank affiliated with the DLC, to continue the debate with Greenberg and Robert L. Borosage of the Campaign for America's Future. Here is the result.
Bill Clinton's re-election not only broke the Republicans' so-called "lock" on presidential elections, it foreshadowed the emergence of a new progressive majority in America. For left-leaning Democrats, however, there's a big hitch: The new progressivism aims not, as they would like, at European-style social democracy, but at a new political synthesis that decentralizes decisions, injects choice and competition into the public sector, respects the prerogatives of civil society, and replaces welfare-state paternalism with a government that equips people to take care of themselves.
In trouncing an estimable opponent, Clinton joined Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt as the only Democratic presidents in this century to win back-to-back elections. The parallels are intriguing: Wilson and FDR were pivotal figures who transformed their dispirited and rudderless party into a vital instrument of reform and national leadership. Clinton also has a historic opportunity to change the course of U.S. politics by converting Democrats from a party that defends narrow interests and outdated programs into a modernizing force in the nation's public life.
The election vindicated Clinton's "New Democrat" renovation of the progressive agenda, a project that is expanding the party's appeal even as it raises hackles among liberal elites. Clinton set the tone for a mold-breaking campaign by declaring, in January, that the "era of big government is over." Boosted by a strong economy, which he linked to White House policies of fiscal restraint and trade expansion, Clinton stressed such social and moral concerns as drugs and tobacco, juvenile crime and television sex and violence. In August, Clinton overrode fierce liberal opposition to sign a landmark bill fulfilling his key 1992 campaign pledge to "end welfare as we know it."
Liberals are certainly right to point as well to Clinton's defense of Medicare, education, and environmental protection as key factors in his success. What they ignore, however, is the predicate Clinton himself never failed to mention on the hustings—that he would protect these programs within the constraints of fiscal discipline. In short, Clinton's winning formula in 1996 was a canny synthesis of traditional Democratic commitments and New Democrat innovations. While the former appeals to core Democratic constituencies, the latter has greatest potential for enlarging the party's base.
In a postelection study for the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), Mark Penn, a key Clinton strategist and pollster, found that voters recognized and explicitly endorsed Clinton's New Democrat agenda.
It is specifically this distinction between Clinton and what the people view as traditional Democratic ways of doing business that made voters—many of whom had not voted for Democratic presidential candidates in the past—willing to vote for him in 1996, even as they were voting against Democratic House candidates.
Though drawn to Clinton's new ideas, voters were warier of congressional Democrats, whom they saw as more likely to cling to old-time liberalism. Although voters described Clinton as a different kind of Democrat, by a margin of 57 to 37 percent, they also said, by a margin of 54 to 41, that the Democratic Party is pretty much the same. Penn notes that on issues where Clinton successfully staked out the center—balancing the budget, crime, and welfare—Clinton's approval rating was nine or ten percentage points higher than that of House Democrats. He concludes:
Had the Democrats moved with the President toward more mainstream positions, they would have retaken the House. Their lesson for the future is clear: earn credibility by proving fiscal responsibility and centrist moderation. Only by establishing these more centrist credentials will the Democrats acquire the credibility they need to be heard on the rest of their issues, such as education, the environment and protection of entitlements.
THE LEFT'S INTERPRETATION
No sooner were the ballots counted when a new left-labor group, the Campaign for America's Future, came out spinning. Its postmortem, based on a poll by former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg, held that Clinton won primarily because he defended Medicare, education, and the environment; his "centrist" stands on other issues were secondary.
To a certain extent, this is true—but only because Clinton succeeded in defining the ground on which the election was contested. The real key to Clinton's victory was his strategy of seizing the political center abandoned long ago by liberal activists and elites and more recently by the new Republican majority in Congress. This forced Bob Dole to the right while reassuring independents and suburbanites unnerved by the Gingrich "revolution" that they could vote for a Democratic president without giving him a mandate for going back to big government liberalism.
Had Clinton heeded his leftish critics, had he failed to endorse the goal of a balanced budget, had he saved the roundly despised welfare system, had he ceded crime and other social and family concerns to his conservative opponents, the Republicans once again would have waged a presidential campaign on familiar and favorable terrain. Democrats' defense of Medicare and domestic programs would have appeared in an entirely different light—as more evidence that the party remains bent simply on preserving the bureaucratic status quo. Instead, Senator Dole grew visibly frustrated as the old GOP attack lines and supply-side elixir failed to work their customary magic. Republicans tried to cast Clinton as a conventional liberal, but the public simply wouldn't buy it.
Clinton's preemption of issues that Republicans used to control elicited predictable squawking on the left about abandoning principles and "moving to the right." In fact, Clinton and the New Democrats are bringing the party home to a politics grounded in the moral outlook as well as the economic aspirations of the "forgotten middle class."
Sooner or later, the party's left will have to resolve its ambivalence on questions of values. Opinion surveys and election results alike confirm that Americans are worried at least as much about social as economic problems. Nonetheless, the labor-left axis insists that the party should dwell exclusively on the tried-and-true themes of class warfare, now rechristened as "economic populism." Afraid of being accosted at the cash machine by some remorseless juvenile with a Tech-9? Concerned that the breakdown of marriage and family is yielding a bitter harvest of damaged and vulnerable children? These, we are instructed, are Republican issues; real Democrats talk about stagnant wages, job insecurity, and corporate perfidy.
And we really should talk about these things. But the left's economic reductionism and pessimism can only narrow the party's appeal. This approach discounts Clinton's success in restoring economic confidence and links the party's success to economic misery. It trivializes citizens' well-founded concerns about the social and moral climate in which they raise their children. And it patronizes working Americans by casting them as victimized proles moved only by appeals to class resentment and material self-interest.
THE EMERGING COALITION
If a new progressive majority is aborning, what are its critical elements? Where is its social base?
By blunting traditional GOP advantages, Clinton was able to win back for Democrats key voter groups like independents, married voters with children, and middle-class families in general, Penn reports. For example, Clinton scored significant gains among people with annual incomes between $30,000 and $75,000—precisely the average working families whose past defections from the party fueled the GOP ascendancy in presidential politics after 1968.
The enormous margin Clinton rolled up among women voters provides a striking illustration of the New Democrat synthesis at work. Women—suburban and younger women especially—strongly endorsed Clinton's defense of key federal programs against the GOP onslaught. At the same time, they backed fiscal discipline, vigorous anticrime efforts, and especially Clinton's table-turning discourse on family values, in which he emphasized ways in which government can help parents shield their children from harmful influences, from drugs to school disorder to the marketing of sex and violence.
In addition, Clinton tallied big gains among Asian and Hispanic voters, perhaps in reaction to the Republican Party's restrictive stands on social benefits for legal immigrants and on immigration generally. "In thinking about the future, the Democratic party needs to continue to consolidate its support among the middle class and to energize support among its new key constituencies—namely, youth, women and Hispanics," concludes Penn.
To build a new progressive majority, it is imperative that Democrats build a constituency in the new economy. Just as industrial workers formed the backbone of the New Deal coalition, the party needs to attract the knowledge workers who are emerging as the dominant force in the information economy. Dubbed "wired workers" by Morley Winograd and Dudley Buffa, they transcend the old "white collar, blue collar" dichotomy. Whether they work in factories or offices, wired workers use computers, have more flexibility in deciding how to do their jobs, and often work in unstructured settings and as part of teams.
According to recent research by Winograd and Buffa, wired workers now constitute 51 percent of California's workforce and 31 percent of its electorate, and their ranks are growing rapidly. In many respects, wired workers look like the quintessential New Democrats: They are optimistic about their economic prospects; they are for choice and competition in education and against race and gender preferences; they are impatient with the ideological ax-grinding of the left-right debate; and, they favor a smaller, nonbureaucratic form of government activism that equips people to help themselves.
Whereas the left's economic story mainly conveys fear of change and animosity toward U.S. businesses—usually depicted with all the subtlety of a Snidely Whiplash cartoon—progressives must craft a new narrative that appropriates the new symbols, lexicon, and techniques of the information age. Democrats must remain especially attentive to the inequities and insecurities generated by today's rapid economic changes. But basic electoral math dictates that a new progressive majority must include upwardly mobile Americans as well as those caught in the downdraft of the global economy.
In short, Democrats need to develop a new political economy, a new social compact, and new ways of governing tailored to the new conditions of postindustrial America. From its stress on market-led growth and open trade to its attempts to redesign government and anchor social policy in the mainstream values of work, family, and mutual responsibility, the Clinton administration has made the first, tentative steps in the right direction. It has established important beachheads in the struggle to bring about structural changes in government and the nation's policy agenda. These include:
- Expanding public support for the working poor, through a $21 billion increase in the earned income tax credit.
- Cutting in half the federal deficit as well as slowing spending growth.
- Injecting choice and competition in public education through charter schools.
- Helping communities defend themselves through community policing and more police on the streets.
- Replacing the federal entitlement to welfare with an obligation to work.
- Stimulating community initiative and economic development in the inner cities.
- Reinventing government, including a sharp reduction in the federal workforce
- Linking increased college aid to national service through the AmeriCorps initiative.
- Expanding trade and assisting emerging democracies.
The party's challenge now is to steadily enlarge these beachheads—to move these progressive innovations from the margins of a big, bureaucratic government to the center of a leaner yet more dynamic public enterprise that enables people and communities to tackle their own problems.
In Building the Bridge: 10 Big Ideas To Transform America (published this January), the Progressive Policy Institute elaborates a new progressive governing philosophy and offers large policy prescriptions for dramatically transforming how government works to advance public purposes in the information age. Here, for example, are three tasks that progressives should tackle in the second Clinton term:
First, wean U.S. businesses from dependence on government subsidies. In a January 1994 study for PPI, economist Robert Shapiro identified and challenged the rationale for hundreds of billions of dollars in federal subsidies for U.S. industries. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich subsequently endorsed the study and called for ending "corporate welfare." An odd-couple pairing of environmental activists and the free market Cato Institute next joined the chorus. This is an issue on which new and old Democrats can agree and perhaps even win the support of honest conservatives who don't conflate being pro-market with being pro-business.
President Clinton and congressional Democrats should adopt Shapiro's practical suggestion for creating an independent panel, modeled on the highly successful military base-closing commission, to examine industry subsidies—both direct spending and indirect tax subsidies—and present Congress with a list of eliminations and cutbacks for an up-or-down vote. PPI estimates such an effort could yield as much as $20 billion a year in savings, which should be split evenly between new public investments and deficit reduction.
Second, adopt a "reform and invest" strategy that links government reform to empowering U.S. workers. David Osborne, whose seminal work inspired the Clinton-Gore "reinventing government" initiative, proposes that the effort be pushed to a second, more radical stage. Drawing on the success of government reform efforts in Britain and Australia, he calls for converting large federal agencies that deal directly with the public—such as the Patent Office and the U.S. Forest Service—into semi-autonomous "performance based organizations" (PBOs). Agencies would get the flexibility they need to improve performance in return for being held accountable for results. Osborne estimates that PBOs could achieve productivity gains of 3 percent a year (a common benchmark in the private sector), saving the federal government $25 billion a year.
That would be more than enough to finance President Clinton's array of educational initiatives: tax credits for a thirteenth and fourteenth year of schooling, deductions for college tuition, and his previously proposed "GI Bill" for American workers that was derailed by right-wing opposition in the last Congress. That measure would consolidate federal job training programs for dislocated workers and convert the money into vouchers workers could use to buy education, training, or other employment services from private vendors. To encourage all workers to develop their own intellectual capital and manage their own job security, Osborne further proposes that Washington create "Career Opportunity Accounts"—tax-free savings accounts that would be used to upgrade skills.
Third, lay the groundwork for entitlement reform. Eventually, Democrats will have to get serious about reforming Social Security and Medicare so that these massive programs don't default on their obligations to future retirees, impose a crushing tax burden on tomorrow's workers, or crowd out other urgent public needs.
Yet talk of structural reform induces self-righteous conniptions among the party's old guard, which seems equally incapable of acknowledging structural flaws in the programs or imagining any change that would not strip them of their universal or "solidaristic" character. Is it conceivable that poor people could actually reap more in retirement benefits if some portion of their Social Security taxes were invested in private savings accounts? We may never know, because their self-appointed tribunes are too worried that someone on Wall Street might make money too.
Die-hard defense of troubled entitlement programs also conflicts with an urgent progressive goal: increased public investment in education, health care, antipoverty initiatives, and infrastructure. Since the early 1970s, the exponential growth of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid has dramatically squeezed these so-called "discretionary" accounts of government. In the President's last budget, for example, nondefense discretionary spending was frozen at $275 billion, while the entitlement programs were allowed to rise from $875 billion to $1.2 trillion in 2002. Of course, the contradiction between shielding entitlements from reform and expanding public investment disappears if, in lieu of constraining the former's growth, liberals declare themselves ready to raise taxes substantially, slash defense spending, or expand the federal deficit.
As usual, the public takes a more practical and nuanced view of the issue than the ideologues. Penn's survey found that people are surprisingly receptive to major entitlement reform: Given a choice between "staying within the existing system" or implementing "more structural changes" that include "getting the private sector involved" in Medicare and "letting people control portions of their own retirement savings" in Social Security, they overwhelmingly chose the more dramatic structural changes.
How to square this public realism with liberal assertions that unyielding defense of the current structure and benefits of Medicare and Social Security is the Democrats' political trump card? One obvious explanation is that Americans know that the entitlement programs have to be modernized in order to be preserved for the long haul. They want Democrats to do the job, because they quite reasonably don't trust Republicans.
The new progressive agenda includes much more. A top priority is moving stepwise toward a universal system of private medical insurance. Another imperative is to convert our public school system from a public monopoly that offers wildly varying quality to a pluralistic system that offers uniformly high standards within a setting of school choice and diversity. In Building the Bridge, PPI also offers new ideas for reducing inner-city poverty, revamping America's archaic criminal justice system, fortifying families, launching a "second generation" of environmental activism, restructuring our defense and foreign policy institutions, and more.
As this list suggests, the end of big government need not mean the end of big ideas. At this pivotal moment, what America needs is not a politics of modest ambitions, crimped vision, and incrementalism, but a contemporary version of the "bold, persistent experimentation" that was FDR's greatest legacy.
ROBERT L. BOROSAGE AND
STANLEY B. GREENBERG
What did voters say in the election of 1996? What are their priorities and expectations in returning Bill Clinton to the White House and Republican majorities to the Congress?
These are not academic questions. What leaders in the White House and Congress 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.
Divining any clear mandate from the election in 1996 is far from easy. With relative peace abroad, and a growing economy and declining unemployment at home, anger at Congress and politicians receded. Yet turnout in this election plummeted to the lowest levels since 1924, in partial reflection of a listless campaign that grew sour at the end. Both the President and the Republican majority in Congress were returned to office with less than half of the vote.
Still, some basic conclusions about what voters want can be made about the election based on common sense, exit polls, and our own poll, by Greenberg Research for the Campaign for America's Future. On core issues our conclusions are dramatically at odds with many of those drawn by Mark Penn from his poll for the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).
This election was framed by the public reaction to the Republican "revolution." During the congressional term leading up to the election, the new, Gingrich-led Republican majority tried to make dramatic cuts in government programs and regulations, while passing tax cuts primarily of benefit to the wealthy. The Democratic response to that situation, as voters came to see it in 1995, framed the campaign: Republicans were voting to cut Medicare and Medicaid, education, and the environment to pay for tax cuts for the rich, while Democrats were fighting to keep an extremist Congress from doing harm to people. Democrats in Congress, not the White House, took the lead in framing that message.
The President's political revival did not occur until he rejected the advice of conservatives of the party and denied Republicans a deal on the budget. Rather, it came when he chose to fight and defend broad-based programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. It was at this point—and not six months earlier when the administration advanced a balanced budget and reached out to Speaker Gingrich—that his job approval ratings began to rise. Only when Clinton stood up to Gingrich and withstood the shutdown of the government did he gain a double-digit lead in the polls. After that point, Clinton was never seriously threatened by Republican challengers.
The President's popularity continued to rise through the spring and summer, as the economy strengthened further and he spoke forcefully for strengthening the family. He got heard on those issues, even as he vetoed two Republican "welfare reform" bills, re-affirmed affirmative action, and vetoed late-term-abortion legislation. Later in the fall, when Clinton and Dole clashed over the fundamentals of the government role in education, Clinton gained support with younger voters, as the education issue was nationalized for the first time.
More than two-thirds of the voters made up their minds early. Those making the early decision tended to favor the President. Those deciding in the last days of the campaign, bombarded by headlines about Indonesian money, tended to swing Republican.
Republicans kept their majority in the Congress—barely—at the price of abandoning their revolution. Every part of the Republican agenda was repudiated in the election. The Christian Coalition agenda was kept locked in the closet at the Republican convention. Republican candidates scrambled to distance themselves from Newt Gingrich and tried to present themselves as sensible reformers who only meant to save Medicare and voted for the minimum-wage increase, health care reform, and the Clean Water Act, and who pumped billions into education (all done in the last frantic days of Congress prior to adjourning to campaign). Even the 15 percent tax cut, the centerpiece of the Dole campaign, had little appeal. The Republicans ended the election in disarray.
The America's Future poll confirmed that voters supported Bill Clinton (and Democrats in Congress) because of his stands on education and Medicare. He also benefited from his support of family values and parents. In the America's Future poll, twice as many respondents cited Clinton's defense of domestic programs (Medicare, education, and the environment) as his positioning on centrist issues (welfare, balancing the budget, and crime) when explaining what caused them to vote for him. New Clinton voters—the swing bloc that supported Clinton this year but not in 1992—also cited Clinton's defense of domestic programs as most important in their vote decision. This is not just a story about "base voters," as Paul Starr mistakenly characterized the American Future study in these pages ["The Clinton Presidency, Take Three," January-February 1997]. It is a story about the critical bloc of swing voters needed to win.
Mark Penn's own survey for the DLC underscores this fact. Penn asked respondents to rate how important various Clinton accomplishments were to their vote. Sixty-five percent of respondents to the DLC poll did say that the fact that Clinton's budget plan had produced a "60 percent decrease in the deficit" was "very important" to their vote. But 11 other Clinton accomplishments were deemed even more important. Sixty percent of respondents said that his signing welfare reform was very important—but 15 other accomplishments ranked higher than that. According to network exit polls, an overwhelming majority of the relatively small number of people who cared most about balancing the budget cast their votes for Bob Dole.
A CLASS AND GENDER DIVIDE
Who made the difference for Clinton and the congressional Democrats? Both exit polls and the Campaign for America's Future poll show that the new Clinton voters and the new presidential year voters, who provided the President his margin of victory, were overwhelmingly the people most alarmed by the Republican assault on social programs and most receptive to the President's regulatory initiatives in support of the family. These swing voters are starkly defined by class and education: More than three-quarters were noncollege-educated, low- and middle-income people with household incomes under $50,000 a year. It is the downscale, not the upscale, electorate that gave the Democrats the opportunity to win.
Clinton and the Democrats also enlarged their support among married and single women, especially noncollege-educated working women. Democrats have been making steady gains with single women since the 1980s, but gains among married voters are new. Clinton and the Democrats ran very strong with young voters and Hispanics, who were particularly aggrieved by Republican immigrant bashing. The combination of Medicare, education, the environment, and family values proved very important to Democratic gains among all these groups.
Noncollege-educated voters—the voters who have disproportionately suffered declining incomes and growing insecurity in the new economy—are the most volatile portion of the electorate. They turned out and voted in large numbers for Bill Clinton in 1992, stayed home and turned against Democrats in 1994, and—although many stayed home in 1996, providing the source of much of the fall in turnout—returned to vote for Democrats in 1996.
Neither the President nor Democrats in Congress made gains among the upscale electorate. One of the more puzzling assertions of the DLC report is that the President made his biggest gains with suburban and "middle-class" voters. Penn's report includes no data of his own on the subject, selectively using exit poll data instead. Unfortunately, he omits education in his breakdown: Clinton made his biggest gains among high school-educated voters and he lost ground with college graduates. Penn fails to note that Clinton's biggest gains came from voters in households earning $15,000 to $30,000 a year and that Clinton made no gains with voters earning above $50,000.
The President was well positioned to appeal to working middle-class voters. For those piecing together two, three, or four jobs in a family to make ends meet, economic growth that produces better jobs is important. The President's focus on education touched deep concerns about the future of their families. Fighting to defend Medicare, education, and the environment reflected core values and concerns. His stands on values, from school uniforms to V-chips, from cops on the street to moving people off of welfare, appealed to working-class voters' concerns as parents. His support of a balanced budget and tax cuts showed he understood that government needed to get its own house in order and respect the people who pay their bills.
THE FUTURE AGENDA
When we asked voters what they most wanted from the new Congress, their answers showed them to be concerned mostly about three broad policy areas: protecting Medicare and Social Security against major cuts, achieving a balanced budget, and guaranteeing health insurance to all Americans (a priority ignored by all candidates in 1996). Education initiatives ranked in the middle range probably because the proposals themselves did not seem bold enough, but we know from the election that education matters a great deal also.
Our survey reveals a public committed to balancing the budget and sensibly skeptical of a government that it sees as controlled by special interests. Dramatic majorities support large investments in education, paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy, cutting corporate welfare, or issuing investment bonds. A majority would accept delaying the target date for a balanced budget if the earlier date jeopardized other priorities, particularly investment in education.
The Penn survey employed extraordinary wording to suggest that balancing the budget and major entitlement reform are the highest priorities of the public. While Penn focuses on the 88 percent of respondents who feel more favorably about the President because "a balanced budget is a top priority," his report does not mention the wording of the question, which reads: "Suppose President Clinton made the top priority of his second term balancing the budget to keep the economy strong, interest rates low, and create new jobs." Why wouldn't respondents say they wanted these things, assuming they were attainable? But even with this loaded wording, six other items scored as higher priorities, including "insuring the safety of Medicare."
The misreading of the working- and middle-class voters, the over-reading of the balanced budget issue, and the neglect of Medicare in the Penn report leads to a misleading set of conclusions about entitlement reform. The report argues that voters overwhelmingly think there is a crisis with Medicare—but it makes little use of the DLC survey's finding that the majority would prefer "small steps" to avert a crisis, rather than attempting "major reform immediately." The report emphasizes that only 17 percent want to "stay within the existing system" on Medicare. Again, however, it does not highlight the wording of the question, which read in part: "stay within the existing system—for example, raise premiums and cut benefits." Little wonder that, presented with this example, people might prefer structural reforms. In fact, the surveys for both the DLC and the Campaign for America's Future show voters place a high priority on avoiding major cuts and insuring the safety of Medicare.
The dynamics of the new economy remain important to voters. While the public is optimistic about the current economy, deep economic insecurities remain. Noncollege-educated voters in particular are deeply concerned about their ability to afford education for their children, to pay for health care, and to provide for their retirement. They strongly support measures designed to hold corporations accountable and are markedly skeptical of the value of free trade agreements. While the President, as Penn pointed out, was able to "ride the wave of good economic news" in 1996, that is hardly sufficient for the longer term.
What our survey suggests the people want is clearly far removed from an elite centrist agenda consisting primarily of major entitlement reform, balancing the budget with deep cuts in domestic programs, and free trade agreements.
THE PRESIDENT AND THE DEMOCRATS IN CONGRESS
Penn and the DLC argue that Bill Clinton won and the Democrats in Congress lost because the President was seen as a "different kind of Democrat," while the Democrats in Congress were not. Penn argues that "people were unwilling to return the Democrats to power in the House" because "Democrats could not be relied upon to work within the limitations of a tightening budget."
But there is precious little in the Penn data or elsewhere to support the idea that, were it not for their excessive liberalism, the Democrats would be in control of Congress today. Penn's own data show that 39 percent of the electorate considered both the President and the Democrats to be "traditional tax and spend liberals." And this says nothing about how voters viewed the specific Democratic candidates in their own districts. Penn makes no mention of his remarkable findings that 64 percent of the public approved of how Democrats in Congress handled crime, 59 percent approved of their approach to balancing the budget, and 56 percent approved of their stance on welfare.
So why didn't the Democrats win back the House when Clinton was re-elected? Since 25 of the Republicans won with only 51 percent of the vote or less, a lot of things could account for their victory. Money, for example: Democrats were outspent by about seven to one in many of the closely contested races that they lost. Campaign finance scandals, for another: The last two weeks of headlines about the Democratic fundraising scandal hurt both the President and the Democrats. And the signing of welfare, minimum-wage, and health care reform legislation in August rehabilitated the Republican Congress and helped counter the argument that they were extremists who got nothing done.
THE REAL CHOICE
These differences in interpreting the election relate to fundamental choices for Democrats. The Penn study points the Democratic Party toward the college-educated, upscale voters in the suburbs. This strategic view emboldens conservatives to contemplate privatization of Social Security and major changes in Medicare and to neglect an economic program that could genuinely help working Americans prosper in an era of radical change. It obscures the income stagnation, growing inequality, and challenges of the new global economy that are so central to the voters that gave Bill Clinton his second term.
In short, Penn's report makes for bad policy and bad politics. The 1996 election showed that Democrats' fortunes are tied, and indeed should be tied, to the concerns of working Americans, the noncollege-educated, and middle- and lower-income working people, for whom the past decades have been particularly harsh and who are struggling to make things better. Democrats should be putting forth an agenda that protects their interests and affirms their values-starting with investments in education, protection of retirement security, affordable health care, reductions in corporate welfare, and an economic policy that makes sense for working people. Democrats should be putting forth an agenda that supports the parents struggling to manage work and home while protecting their children. That is the message of 1996 and, we believe, the mission for the Democratic Party.
MARK PENN RESPONDS
Contrary to what Robert Borosage and Stanley Greenberg say, downscale voters are not the center of the electoral universe. Greenberg continues to cling to this limiting and ideologically driven thesis in interpreting his poll results, neglecting both the President's message and the election returns.
Exit polls showed that Clinton's vote share decreased among the lowest class of income-earners by a statistically insignificant 3 percent, and increased among every other class. In fact, the President won all but the highest income group. Since the last election, he gained 7 to 8 percent among the lower-, middle-, and upper-class voters. Moreover, Clinton enjoyed similar vote share gains across all groups of women voters, receiving the same percentage among both the college educated and noncollege educated.
Clinton transcended one class, one education group, or one age group in putting together his winning coalition. During the budget fight, for example, Clinton's message was not framed as Greenberg suggests it was: "Republicans were voting to cut Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment to pay for tax cuts on the rich." This was the losing class-warfare argument that congressional Democrats have used so unsuccessfully for years. The President instead focused his message on "balancing the budget in a way that protects our values and priorities: Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment," and he included $80 billion in tax cuts in his own budget proposals.
Clinton's approach worked, completely reversing people's attitudes on the budget issue. By the end of the budget fight, poll subjects by a margin of ten points said Clinton would do a better job balancing the budget than the Republicans in Congress. Clinton's support for balancing the budget—not opposition to "tax cuts for the wealthy"—was the crucial factor in providing a credible alternative to the Republicans, which is exactly what congressional Democrats had failed to provide during the 1994 midterm elections.
The budget fight was an important igniting element of the campaign, but it was not the only thing—as Greenberg suggests it was—behind Clinton's high ratings. In fact, many of the seniors, especially men, originally attracted to Clinton by his stance on Medicare, drifted back to Dole (who ran a campaign based on World War II themes) as the immediacy of the budget fight passed. But despite these defections, the President's emphasis on values and on economic progress brought in large numbers of women and younger voters who kept his standing just as high.
It should also be pointed out that the touting of economic progress, which Greenberg now acknowledges was an important factor in the spring, was heatedly opposed at the time by proponents of the downscale-voter thesis, who argued that calling attention to economic growth would be an abandonment of these voters.
Greenberg says that the swing voters were defined by class and education: "Over three-quarters were noncollege-educated, low- and middle-income people with household incomes under $50,000 a year." But this is nothing more than a description of the demographics of the American electorate! The important questions are: Who are the new voters? And what drove them?
Many of the new Clinton voters were downscale, but they were not driven by class-based concerns. New voters were drawn disproportionately from three groups: Hispanics, young people, and women. Hispanics and young people are heavily downscale—Hispanics because they are our newest immigrants, and young people because they are just beginning to earn a living. But these groups' votes were motivated by concerns about Republican anti-immigration efforts and by Clinton's generational appeal, not by class interest. And the remaining new voters—mostly women—were spread across all classes.
On entitlements, Greenberg ignores the reality of the choices. The current system is not fiscally sound. The choice between keeping the system with minor alterations and making structural reforms is a real one—and the people we surveyed overwhelmingly chose structural reform. As with health care, the prevailing attitude supports proceeding on a step-by-step basis toward major reform.
Clinton won the downscale voter in both 1992 and 1996, but the critical difference this time around is that he reached much higher and deeper into the upper and middle classes, eliminating the ceiling that the downscale-voter thesis puts on Democratic electoral chances. It is the incremental addition of these new voters—who see his leadership consistent with fiscal responsibility, family values, and economic growth—on top of the traditional Democratic constituencies that made all of the difference in the outcome.
BOROSAGE AND GREENBERG RESPOND
We are delighted that Will Marshall concedes up front that Bill Clinton won in 1996 because he synthesized "traditional Democratic commitments and New Democratic innovations." The DLC's official press release about the election results never once mentions Medicare or the President's defense of domestic programs, both "traditional Democratic commitments." If it took The American Prospect to achieve such a concession, then this exchange was well worth it.
But while acknowledging that Clinton's defense of Medicare, education, and the environment was critical to his success, Marshall asserts that his centrist positions were the "real key." This is sheer hubris. In reality, after a year of "common-ground" appeals failed to strengthen his position, Clinton revived with the battle of the budget. Both the Greenberg and Penn national polls show that protecting Medicare and education were substantially more important to people than balancing the budget. While Clinton's stands on social issues, particularly his defense of family values and his support for parents, were important, the national surveys are very clear: Clinton voters focused first on education and retirement security.
Marshall attributes Clinton's victory to gains among people with family incomes between $30,000 and $75,000. That assertion is wrong. Clinton made absolutely no gains with voters earning over $50,000; his increased margin came from families earning between $15,000 and $50,000. Apparently, Marshall is straining to invent an upscale groundswell that did not happen.
This is not a technical quibble. Marshall bases his argument that Democrats must "build a constituency in the new economy" on it. Focusing on more upscale "knowledge workers" emboldens Marshall to advance an agenda that glorifies markets, even championing the most sweeping privatization of Social Security.
Citing the Penn poll, Marshall says the public voted for major structural changes in Social Security and Medicare. But this, as we pointed out, is a manufactured result. People voted for the Democrats to protect these programs, not to cash them in. The DLC's formulation for Social Security—that it should be converted from "a transfer program to a new system of individual private savings supplemented by modest pensions for the needy"—may be popular on Wall Street, but it will be poison on Main Street.
The DLC's focus on upscale voters allows it to abandon its own welfare reform proposal that required more money for the transition to work—training, daycare, medical care, public work jobs. Now, the DLC celebrates instead a Republican welfare repeal that cuts $55 billion from the program and does little to promote work—pretending there is no difference between their original proposal and the Republican evisceration of the program.
Marshall's upscale aspirations underscore the biggest differences between him and us. We believe Democrats should find their mission in helping ordinary people make a better life in a period of historic change. We start with the 70 percent of the American people who do not have a four-year college degree. Some of them work in the "new economy" but many are stuck in the old. Whether skilled or unskilled, they are struggling to make their way in an economy that does not work very well for them. They support an agenda that strengthens the social contract now being shredded in the marketplace.
The central question is one of mission. Are today's progressives enlisting in the process of alienating people from the government and dismantling social guarantees? Or are they, like their forbears, focused on taking on "unaccountable private principalities" in their modern guise, empowering people in a changing world, and affirming the interests and values of working people?
You may also like
You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)