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 dominatebalancing the budget, welfare, crime, immigration,
and taxesClinton staked out a strong centrist position early
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 havea 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" votersthose earning under $50,000 and those
without college degreeswere key to Democratic gains. According
to the Greenberg poll, it was mainly pocketbook issuescomplemented
but not replaced by "values" issuesthat 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 systemfor
example, raise premiums and cut benefitsor 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
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
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
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 hustingsthat 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
It is specifically this distinction between Clinton and what the
people view as traditional Democratic ways of doing business that
made votersmany of whom had not voted for Democratic presidential
candidates in the pastwilling 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
centerbalancing the budget, crime, and welfareClinton'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 truebut 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 lightas 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
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 $75,000precisely 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.
Womensuburban and younger women especiallystrongly 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 constituenciesnamely,
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. businessesusually depicted with all
the subtlety of a Snidely Whiplash cartoonprogressives 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
- Injecting choice and competition in public education through
- Helping communities defend themselves through community policing
and more police on the streets.
- Replacing the federal entitlement to welfare with an obligation
- 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
- Expanding trade and assisting emerging democracies.
The party's challenge now is to steadily enlarge these beachheadsto
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
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 subsidiesboth direct spending and indirect tax
subsidiesand 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 publicsuch as the Patent
Office and the U.S. Forest Serviceinto 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
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
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
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 pointand not six months earlier when the administration
advanced a balanced budget and reached out to Speaker Gingrichthat
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 Congressbarelyat 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 votersthe swing bloc that supported
Clinton this year but not in 1992also 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
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 importantbut 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
Noncollege-educated votersthe voters who have disproportionately
suffered declining incomes and growing insecurity in the new economyare
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, andalthough many stayed home
in 1996, providing the source of much of the fall in turnoutreturned
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
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
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 Medicarebut 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 systemfor 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
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
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
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 budgetnot 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 thingas Greenberg suggests it wasbehind
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 downscaleHispanics 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 votersmostly womenwere 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 oneand 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 voterswho
see his leadership consistent with fiscal responsibility, family
values, and economic growthon 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
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 Securitythat 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 worktraining, 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 workpretending
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?
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