Dead Center

We're going to govern from the center," White House political
director Doug Sosnik said in the immediate aftermath of the election,
and no doubt they will. The question is, which center?

*There's the balanced budget center, which has demonstrable popular
support. There's the preserve-universal-entitlements center, for
which every poll shows majority backing. And there's the slash-universal-entitlements
center, and the expand-NAFTA-to-all-the-Western-Hemisphere center—centers
that don't have much mass support, positions for which you'd never
have heard an encouraging word in the election just completed.
Democrats and Republicans alike assured voters that cutting entitlements
was the farthest thing from their minds, while expanding NAFTA
went totally unmentioned.

And yet, there's every reason to think that the reduction of entitlements
and the expansion of free trade have emerged from the Stalemate
of 1996 at or near the top of the governing center's to-do list
for the next four years. The election has assured that we will
see no more either of the liberal Clinton of 1993-94 or the rabid
Gingrich of 1995. In their stead, we have the center—but the center
as defined by K Street and Wall Street rather than Main Street.
It was a bad year and a bad election for the yahoo wing of business,
the small business lobbies seeking the repeal of every regulation
back to the child labor laws; they rose and fell with the Gingrich
tide. But elite business—globalist, not crudely antistatist but
surely anti-entitlement growth—awoke the morning after the election
to find a world wholly to their liking: a government with no branch
under liberal control, and inclined to give bipartisan support
to business's otherwise not hugely popular agenda. (Indeed, in
the first week after the election, the quintessential K Street
idea was that Bill Clinton should ask Bob Dole to head a bipartisan
entitlement review commission. Crude populists might point out
that Clinton had just carried 31 states insisting that he had
fought to save Medicare while Dole could not be trusted to, but
a true Beltway Bipartisan cannot be deterred by a mere election

Besides, the election outcome was centrist, if not entirely
centrist as the Beltway Bipartisans defined it. Some small, moderately
progressive advances may yet be possible during Clinton II—pension
portability, mild reforms of HMOs and campaign finance. But the
changes that loom large over Clinton's second term— a balanced
budget, a scaling back of Medicare, the possible privatization
of Social Security, and the acceleration of global free trade—portend
not merely a wrenching transformation of the economy, but also
a widening of the split between progressive and centrist members
of Clinton's own party. By and large, the election of 1996 leaves
American liberals facing two (and likely four) years spent struggling
for small-scale victories and trying to stave off epochal defeats.

No wonder the most important liberals of Clinton's first term—Robert
Reich, George Stephanopoulos, Harold Ickes—are leaving (though
Ickes may merely be downwardly mobile within the administration).
Their centrist rivals who chiefly crafted the campaign that returned
Clinton to power succeeded all too well—producing a centrist victory
that looks to isolate liberals during Clinton's second term.


Since there can't be much of a market for a book on campaign 1996
(a year so utterly without interest that Theodore White, had he
been alive, might have preferred covering smallmouth bass
for Field and Stream), the postelection specials of
Time and Newsweek will have to provide our definitive
inside looks at the campaign just completed. In both sagas, the
heroes are pollster-strategists Mark Penn and Doug Schoen, whom
consultant Dick Morris brought into the White House inner circle.
Reich, Ickes, and Stephanopoulos, along with Clinton's former
pollster, Stan Greenberg, are the heavies—liberals replaying the
campaign of 1992, tiresomely arguing that Clinton address the
economic angst haunting millions of Americans. The magazines solemnly
recount Penn and Schoen's epiphany on a sweltering July evening
in 1995—pouring over poll numbers, realizing that economic anxiety
wasn't all it was cracked up to be. "Values!" Penn cries
(with all the assurance of the guy in The Graduate who
tells Dustin Hoffman, "Plastics!"). "It's about

Thus a new strategic premise was born—that the economic anxiety
that turned up in Greenberg's and other Democrats' polls had subsided,
that the Pat Buchanan boomlet was an epiphenomenon signifying
nothing, that Clinton should concentrate chiefly on allaying the
largely noneconomic anxieties of suburban moms. Clinton didn't
discard the liberals entirely—it was they, not Penn, Schoen, and
Morris, who persuaded him he would win public support by standing
up for Medicare rather than cutting a budget deal. But with that
one major course correction, he gleefully trundled down the path
that Morris & Co. had charted, hailing the V-chip, ignoring
issues of corporate accountability, and winning a smashing victory.

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Problem is, the safe-'n'-centrist campaign Clinton waged produced
a safe-'n'-centrist electorate, markedly smaller and more upscale
than the one that had voted in 1992, when Clinton had waged a
more progressive-populist campaign—too small and upscale, in fact,
to elect a Democratic Congress. Voter participation declined by
about seven million Americans from 1992 to 1996, with almost all
that decline coming from Americans in households with annual incomes
under $50,000. (Their share of the electorate was 6 percent smaller
than it had been in 1992.) Americans with annual household incomes
over $50,000, by contrast, represented 6 percent more of the turnout,
with all but 1 percent of that increase coming among those with
incomes over $75,000.

Democrats poll worse with each step up the economic ladder. Clinton
carried those voters from households making under $15,000 by a
31 percent margin, and every category under $75,000 by a successively
smaller margin (those making between $50,000 and $75,000 by a
scant 2 percent). Dole carried only those voters with household
incomes over $75,000, by a hefty 10 percent.

Historically, when turnout falls from one election to the next,
it generally falls disproportionately among the non-affluent.
This year was no exception: a postelection poll for the Campaign
for America's Future showed that voters of 1992 who were nonvoters
in 1996 were overwhelmingly downscale and inclined to vote Democratic.
Had these vanishing voters shown up at the polls, the popular
vote for House candidates would have shifted from a tie between
the two parties to a 51-49 advantage for the Democrats—quite possibly
enough to restore the House to Democratic control.

The famous victory devised by Penn, Schoen, and Morris, then,
came at a price. One could imagine a campaign that at least mixed
Penn and Schoen's helpful tips for busy moms with more of Greenberg's
emphasis on issues of economic security. Postelection polling
Greenberg conducted for the Campaign for America's Future showed
considerably more Clinton supporters were drawn to him by his
support for domestic programs—Medicare, education, and environmental
protections in particular—than by his espousal of such centrist
evergreens as a balanced budget, crime prevention, and welfare
reform. (The margin was 59 to 31.) Among moderate and conservative
Democrats, and first-time voters, the margin was just as wide.
More tellingly, both Greenberg's polling and midsummer polling
conducted for the Preamble Center showed widespread support for
government intervention to make corporations more accountable
to the workers they employ and the communities they inhabit—even
at the risk of making the corporations less competitive.

That, however, was the campaign Clinton didn't run. At
least partly as a consequence of the one he did run, centrist
advisers like domestic policy chief Bruce Reed are busily devising
microprograms for a gridlocked second term, while liberals flee
the administration. As far back as late 1994, Dick Morris was
explicit in his preference that Clinton govern from the center
and isolate the left. In 1997 (and in absentia), Morris may yet
get his wish. Clinton will here and there align with congressional
progressives, but chiefly on discrete issues that may be unwinnable:
health insurance for uninsured children, restoring food stamps
to legal immigrants, creating $3.4 billion in tax credits for
jobs for former AFDC recipients.

But progressive Democrats are likely to find themselves arrayed
against their centrist colleagues—and against the Republicans,
and the administration—on the major items, much as they were pushed
into opposition during Clinton's first term by welfare reform
and NAFTA. On the highest-stakes game of all, entitlement reform,
congressional Democrats are certainly beholden to labor, which
opposes major reductions in benefits, to a far greater degree
than the administration is. The Clinton White House could make
common cause with congressional liberals in defending entitlements,
but that would require it to buck the establishment consensus—a
chancy course it generally eschewed during its first term.

With the specter of Gingrichism considerably diminished, the imperative
of Democratic solidarity has dwindled as well. The factions in
the next intra-party battle can already be glimpsed. During Clinton's
first term, House minority leader Dick Gephardt broke with the
administration over welfare reform and NAFTA (he even advocated
a trade zone with an advanced economy, the European Union, which
the administration instantly dismissed); Vice President Al Gore
led the charge for both. In the second term, such rifts are likely
only to widen, particularly if the Sweeney-ized AFL-CIO has the
courage to reward its friends and punish its opponents at the
highest levels of the Democratic Party. In general, the era of
government retrenchment all but ensures that the Democrats, absent
a unifying threat like Gingrich, will increasingly become a house


Republicans emerged from the 1996 elections in even worse shape
than the Democrats. After all, the central factor in both Clinton's
comeback and the Democrats' gains at the congressional level was
public revulsion at the Republican ascendancy—specifically, at
the control of the Republican South and Mountain West over the
legislative agenda. More succinctly, at Newt.

At the level of presidential politics, the South swung into the
GOP's column decades ago. But the Republicanization of the South
at the presidential level didn't fully polarize the nation along
geographic and cultural lines. Republican presidents, after all,
won by carrying nationwide coalitions and espousing fairly broad
agendas. The Republicanization of the South at the congressional
level, however, has proved far more polarizing. The new leadership—Gingrich,
Armey, DeLay, Lott, Nickles—advocated antigovernment positions
that threatened middle-class entitlements, aid to education, and
the environment. These positions played well in the South and
Mountain West but repelled unmarried women and swing groups that
had been drifting Republican for a quarter century.

Thus Clinton became the first Democrat in 20 years, for instance,
to carry a majority of the Catholic vote (53 percent), running
strongest in the most Catholic states in the nation—Massachusetts,
Rhode Island, New York—while Dole's states tended to be among
the least Catholic. Clinton also carried 25 of the 30 most heavily
unionized states; Dole, 16 of the 21 least unionized.

In general, the election marked an intensification of regional
political alignments. Of the 19 congressional seats the Democrats
picked up, 17 were in states Clinton carried. Of the 12 Republicans
picked up, 9 were in states won by Dole. New England emerged from
the election with 18 Democratic House members and just four Republicans,
with Bernie Sanders thrown in for good measure. And in the vast
quadrant of Dole's greatest strength, running from North Dakota
south through Oklahoma, west across the Texas Panhandle all the
way through the California desert, and north through the Sierras
up to central Washington, the Republicans now hold 49 House seats
to the Democrats' five.

But Republicans won outside the South and Mountain West (and sometimes
within) only by repudiating the Gingrich agenda. Indeed, Republicans
emerged from the election in full flight from their antistatism
of 1995, beset by doubts as to the viability of the kind of antitax
jihad their presidential candidate had waged, and bereft of their
historic advantage on foreign and defense issues as a result of
communism's untimely demise. Only their insistence on a balanced
budget remained to define them—and even here, there were Republican
supply-siders in opposition, and, more problematically, Democratic
opportunists, the President most especially, in support.

Neither side returns to power, then, with a mandate of its own;
indeed, this may have been the most mandateless of American elections.
An electorate that turned out at a record-low rate of 49 percent
returned the Republicans to the House with 49 percent of their
vote and Clinton to the White House with 49 percent of their vote.
A minority electorate has given us a minority president and a
minority Congress.

Nor does this electorate tend toward activist government. In 1992,
after 12 years of Reagan-Bush, exit polls found voters preferring
a government that did more to one that did less by a margin of
49 percent to 41 percent. That was both Clinton's and the liberals'
moment of opportunity, but both made strategic blunders and neither
could overcome the opposition from various sectors of business.
In the Gingrich landslide of 1994, the polling on this question
reversed itself; just 41 percent favored a government that did
more while 56 percent favored a government that did less. Nothing
in the 1996 campaign turned this dynamic around: Still only 41
percent favored a more activist government this November, while
52 percent favored a government that did less. This does not mean
that Americans want to dismantle existing programs that meet their
needs, like Medicare or Social Security. It does mean that a balanced
budget amendment has widespread support and that the basic terrain
of American politics is largely inhospitable to progressive reform.

So what are the prospects for changing that terrain?


The short list of reasons why the 1996 elections weren't entirely
bleak begins not only with the gender gap but also with the emergence
of the Hispanic vote.

The 1996 election was the first in which the third wave of immigrants
played an appreciable part nationally, and, remarkably enough,
the Republicans seem to have knocked them into the Democratic
column as thoroughly as they did the second immigrant wave 60
years earlier. Until this year, the Hispanic vote seemed increasingly
up for grabs. Over the past decade, though the Hispanic population
has been soaring, Hispanic turnout has stagnated, while Hispanics
who did vote were moving in a Republican direction (though a majority
still voted Democratic). This past November, though, the Latino
backlash against Republican nativism suddenly emerged full blown
at the polls. In California, the reaction against Republican support
for 1994's anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and 1996's anti-affirmative
action Proposition 209 prompted unprecedented levels of naturalization
and registration; and the Latino share of the electorate jumped
from 7 percent (in 1992) to 10 percent. In Texas, where a Latino
Democrat challenged Phil Gramm for his Senate seat, the Hispanic
share of the turnout rose from 10 to 16 percent. In Florida, where
even the Cuban-American community seethed at the Republican welfare
bill's termination of aid to legal immigrants, turnout rose too.
Nationally, Hispanics went from 3 percent of the electorate in
1992 to 5 percent in 1996.

And they came out to vote Democratic. Nationally, Hispanic support
for Clinton rose from 61 percent in 1992 to 73 percent in 1996.
In California, Clinton's support soared from 51 percent in 1992
to 75 percent in 1996. Conservatives have long argued that the
relatively traditionalist stance of Latinos on cultural questions
would incline them to the GOP. Sure enough, while Californians
were approving the medical marijuana initiative on the 1996 ballot,
Latinos opposed it, by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin in a
Los Angeles Times exit poll. This had no measurable effect,
however, on their other votes. They opposed Proposition 209, the
affirmative action repeal, by a 76-24 percent margin. They supported
Proposition 210, raising the state's minimum wage, by a whopping
86-14 percent margin, according to polls commissioned by the Southwest
Voter Research Institute. In Los Angeles-area neighborhoods that
had been Republican strongholds for six decades, they unseated
Bob Dornan with a Latina challenger (in Northern Orange County),
and ousted enough Republican legislative incumbents (in Long Beach,
Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena) to shift the California Assembly
to Democratic control.

The flaw in the Republicans' "traditionalist" argument
was that it forgot to note that the Eastern and Southern European
immigrants of the century's early years were conservative on cultural
questions, too—but when confronted with a Republican Party espousing
nativist policies and a Democratic Party that stood for progressive
economics, they opted for the Democrats. Led by the wondrously
shortsighted Pete Wilson, the Republicans seem bent on recreating
that dynamic today. Their continued opposition to repealing the
welfare bill's sanctions against legal immigrants will only intensify
the Hispanic drift toward the Democrats. If this year's level
of Hispanic mobilization can be maintained in future elections,
it's conceivable the Hispanic share of the electorate could double
in a little over a decade. In 1996, Clinton won nearly a majority
of the total vote with support that was just 74 percent white.
(Dole's vote, by contrast, was 94 percent white.) Early in the
next century, a Democrat could win a majority with a vote just
two-thirds white.

There's one other way in which the mobilization of the
third immigrant wave parallels the mobilization of the second:
In both cases, the immigrant mobilization was hastened by union
mobilization. In 1936, Pennsylvania went Democratic for the first
time since the Civil War as the state's ethnic steel and mining
towns were finally mobilized—by the CIO. In 1996, historically
Republican areas in California, ranging from Andrea Seastrand's
Santa Barbara district to Bob Dornan's Santa Ana one, went Democratic
at least partly because the Latino vote had been mobilized by
John Sweeney's new model AFL-CIO.

Labor was the other bright spot for progressives in the 1996 election—although
labor's greatest impact came well before the actual vote, when
its advertisements last spring placed the Republicans on the defensive
on issues like Medicare and the minimum wage. On election day,
while working-class voting was falling generally, voting among
union members rose. Union household voters constituted 23 percent
of the 1996 turnout, up from 19 percent in 1992, and that turnout
was heavily Democratic. A postelection poll of AFL-CIO members
showed 68 percent to 32 percent support for Democratic over Republican
House candidates. While women and nonwhites tend to favor the
Democrats in any case, the gap between union and nonunion white
males was huge. White male unionists supported Democratic House
members by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin; nonunion white men
gave Democrats just 36 percent of their vote and Republicans 64

The problem for Democrats isn't the level of support they attain
among unionists; it's the declining number of Americans who belong
to unions. In its first year in power, though, the new Sweeney
regime threw most of its resources into politics rather than organizing.
Some member unions still had a passing acquaintance with how to
do elections, though many others had to have their staffers and
stewards trained and led gently from their offices to the streets
for the first time in four decades. Nonetheless, Sweeney calculated,
politics at least held some prospect for short-term success—a
calculation that November's vote at least partly vindicated.

Organizing held no such prospects. Labor law had long since decayed
to the point where organizing had to proceed around rather than
through the law. In some parts of the country, there were three
or four internationals that seemed to know how to organize despite
the law; but for the rest—for the vast majority—organizing had
long been a foreign country. The entire culture of the unions
had to be changed—from one where staff serviced the existing membership
to one where staff and members organized new members. Organizers
and members had to be trained, new strategies developed, joint
drives planned. None of this was the work of a single year. And
organizing on a scale that could actually reverse the percentage
decline in membership—a decline that has proceeded apace for 41
years now—was almost unimaginable.

But absent organizing on that scale, a change in the political
terrain is equally hard to imagine. The Republicans will have
to be spectacularly inept to have the gender gap widen beyond
the historic 16 points it reached this year. The electorate will
become more Hispanic (it will not become more black), but not
in numbers that by themselves will be transformative, and even
that development requires the help of the union movement. Both
to shift the balance of forces on election day, and to provide
some counter to the corporate domination of the national agenda
between elections, progressives need a considerably larger union
movement. For its part, the movement is looking at large-scale
sectoral organizing drives in some major cities, where it is already
helping out, and in some cases spearheading, "living wage"
campaigns to require by municipal statute that city contractors
increase their employees' pay. Sweeney's regime can already claim
considerable success in addressing the subjective factors in labor's
decline—issues of personnel, training, and morale. But the objective
impediments to union growth—the globalization of the economy,
the erosion of labor rights, the atomization of working America—remain
in place.


If there's a message from the 1996 elections, it's that the second
Progressive Era has yet to dawn. Even worse, the social compact
of the postwar years is coming unstuck everywhere it was put in
place. While progressives in both the United States and the United
Kingdom search for models in the stakeholder capitalism and welfare
states of Europe, the stakeholder capitalism and welfare states
of Europe are being disassembled under the pressure of investment
flight and a pending unification on terms dictated by financial
markets. Instead, it is our model of capitalism, which maximizes
profit and minimizes the rights of workers and communities, that
seems to be rolling over Europe. We may be moving toward some
grand level playing field, but largely by a leveling downward
within the industrialized democracies.

And what of an economic downturn—will that at least alter the
terrain? Most probably, but not necessarily in a progressive direction.
In Europe, where unemployment is stubbornly high and an extensive
range of services is being cut back, unionists take to the streets
in unprecedented numbers, and right-wing nationalists go to the
polls in still greater numbers. The parties of the mainstream
Euroleft—the social democratic, socialist, and labor parties that
have been in and out of western European governments for the past
50 years—seem oddly distanced from both protests. Maastricht looms
before them as free trade looms before the Democrats here—a boon
to some of their newer, more upscale supporters; a curse to more
of their long-term, working-class supporters; a seeming inevitability
to all. There as here, the oppositional impulse is forfeited,
to unions on the streets, to the LePens and Haiders, Buchanans
and Perots at the polls. The parties whose raison d'être
was that they successfully built and managed a mixed economy at
the national level for several decades after World War II are
today so paralyzed they cannot even conceptualize a transnational
mixed economy in the wake of the globalization of markets, corporations,
and banks.

Clinton's solution, like Tony Blair's and that of an increasing
number of leaders of Europe's historically left parties, is to
go with the flow. For many of his supporters, Clinton is apparently
convinced, the most he can deliver is retrenchment with a human
face. Here and in Europe, labor is not sufficiently powerful—optimists
among us may say not yet sufficiently powerful—to alter
that equation. The result is a slow, sometimes wrenching downward
drift that over time can only erode support for the onetime parties
of government—and for government itself.

Markets are not "smart," nor government "dumb,"
as Dick Armey asserts; but markets are surely growing more powerful
at government's—and politics', and democracy's—expense. It is
not only progressives who should feel alarm at this prospect;
it is chiefly progressives, though, who must begin to remedy it.

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