Lessons of 2000
By Mark J. Penn
As George W. Bush's first 100 days in office come to a close, the
election of 2000 suggests several lessons if Democrats expect to recapture
Congress in the short term and the White House in the long term. To win broad
support, Democrats need an inclusive message that emphasizes growth and
prosperity while relying on a smaller but more activist government.
In a postelection poll conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates for
the Democratic Leadership Council on November 11 and 12, 2000, we examined the
lessons of the election by surveying 1,200 Americans who voted in the
presidential election. While Al Gore won on the individual issues of the
campaign, he lost on the broader meta-themes of the election. Overall, he won
voters who cared about the issues by a margin of 52 percent to 34 percent.
Particularly, he won voters most concerned about education, health care, the
economy, preserving Social Security, Medicare, and the environment. But George W.
Bush's central messages of smaller government and of "changing the tone in
Washington" allowed him to overcome his deficiency on the issues and position
himself closer to the center rhetorically.
Bill Clinton's New Democratic coalition succeeded by combining a vision of
smaller government with one of greater government activism. Here Gore's message
fell apart and Bush successfully captured the issue of the right role for
government in the twenty-first century. Consequently, Gore rendered himself
vulnerable to attacks that portrayed him as an old-style, big-government liberal
à la Michael Dukakis--the very image that effectively brought down Dukakis in his
presidential race against George H.W. Bush. So while Gore won on the issues, he
lost on the governing philosophy necessary to implement important programs like
prescription drugs, reforming Social Security, and improving education.
Progress, Prosperity, and the Clinton Record
Only sporadically did Al Gore talk about progress, prosperity,
and the Clinton administration's achievements on the economy. But despite his
resistance to it, this message was his biggest potential asset in his election.
Sir Isaac Newton once said that he was able to achieve so much because he "stood
on the shoulders of giants." Al Gore stood on the greatest Democratic
achievements since Franklin D. Roosevelt--and yet failed to use them sufficiently
in his campaign. Of those who voted for Gore, 34 percent cited progress and
prosperity as the top reason. But a larger proportion of Bush supporters, 41
percent, named smaller and better government as their prime reason for choosing
the Republicans' candidate. If Gore had used progress and prosperity consistently
rather than sporadically, he would have had a much clearer message and would have
captured more of the voters who said they believed that the country was on the
right track. Gore took 60 percent of "right track" voters; Clinton in 1996 took
69 percent of right-track voters.
Of those who said they were better off in 2000 than they had been eight years
earlier--a traditional gauge for determining whether to support the party in
power--Gore won a healthy but unremarkable 62 percent. Of those who said that the
economy was headed in the right direction, he captured only half. So Gore failed
both to sell himself as the only candidate who could prolong the nation's
prosperity and to portray George W. Bush and his tax-cut plan as a clear and
present danger to the robust economy. This point is even more salient now that
Bush is threatening our well-being by sticking blindly to his two-year-old
tax-cut proposal while offering no real leadership on the economy.
Many pundits claim that "Clinton fatigue" was a key factor that cost Al Gore the
presidency. But the postelection polls showed little evidence of such a
phenomenon. Immediately following the election, President Clinton enjoyed a solid
favorability rating of 57 percent in the Gallup poll. Clinton's job approval
immediately before election day was among the highest of any president in the
last 20 years--higher even than before his re-election in 1996.
Indeed, even 34 percent of Bush voters approved of Clinton's job performance and
20 percent approved of Clinton personally. Of the late-breaking Bush swing
voters, 35 percent approved of Clinton personally. This is strong evidence that
using Clinton more often in terms of record and out on the hustings as the
campaign wound down could have pushed Gore over the top. The early breakers were
anti-Clinton; the late breakers had enough pro-Clinton voters in the mix to make
the difference in the election.
Instead of running as a new-economy Democrat, Al Gore used an
old-style populism that limited his appeal rather than expanded it. His message
distanced him from swing voters who could have provided the margin of victory.
Gore narrowly won the popular vote with this message by piling up large wins in
states like California, where extra votes didn't matter, while the old-style
message sent him tumbling backward in key border states, his home state of
Tennessee, and the electoral college. His liberal positions on social issues, his
economic populism, and his association with big government combined to turn what
should have been a substantial win into a draw. Had Gore combined his positions
of conscience on social issues with a more modern vision of the role of
government, he would have carried a larger percentage of upwardly mobile,
socially tolerant suburban men--and won the election.
While Bush emphasized themes that sounded inclusive and bipartisan, Gore
sounded divisive. In his populist rhetoric, Gore became the fighter who would pit
the good versus the bad, the people versus the powerful, the poor versus the
rich, and the Democrats versus the Republicans. His populism and his emphasis on
himself as a fighter came at the expense of maximizing his advantage on the
issues. While this theme was effective with some voters, it hit a wall with
others. President Clinton stood for bridging partisanship with progress; Gore
stood for winning the good fight, regardless of its divisiveness. So those in the
middle who had voted for Clinton turned their backs on Gore. While many suburban
women evidently wanted someone who would fight for them, many men wanted a
president who stood more for freedom instead. While 55 percent of those making
under $15,000 strongly supported the populist message, this dropped to 32 percent
of those earning $15,000 to $30,000, an audience that should have been much more
receptive to this message.
Since taking office in 1992, Bill Clinton repeatedly referred to the New
Democratic mantra of opportunity for all, responsibility from all, and a
community of all. This message, on its face, consistently scored higher than the
"people versus the powerful" message. And this gap was critical in 2000 among the
swing groups that decided the election. Among independents, those earning $30,000
to $50,000 annually, those earning $50,000 to $75,000, and those who made up
their mind for Bush in the last month, the "opportunity for all" message polled
at least seven points higher than the people-versus-the-powerful message. In an
election decided by handfuls of votes, the difference between these two messages
and campaign philosophies could have meant the difference between garnering 48
percent of the vote versus 52 percent.
While the vice president did realize that he had to reach the prize of
the 1996 election--the much ballyhooed soccer moms--he missed the new target of
the twenty-first century: the wired workers. Al Gore particularly failed to reach
the voters who broke for Bush in the last month--primarily middle-class, white
suburban males, many of whom had voted for Clinton in the past. While Gore did
well with better-educated, higher-income, pro-choice white women, he performed
dismally among these upscale white men. They comprised 20 percent of the
late-deciding voters, a group who broke against Gore 29 percent to 57 percent in
our poll. These people voted for Bush because they were attracted to his message
of smaller government and greater economic freedom. They were turned off by
populism. In the next election, Democrats need to "own" the new economy and stand
for policies that will help all Americans succeed in our technology-based
Clinton had managed to stand for saving Social Security and Medicare without
being saddled with the onus of big government. But Al Gore left voters with the
impression that while he would protect government programs, a vote for him would
mean a return to the era of big government. Gore led by 36 points on the
attribute "is for big government." This association played a significant role in
limiting Gore's success. One of his constant refrains, and a key part of his
message, was that Bush was beholden to the special interests. Despite this, Gore
was seen by a five-point margin as more captive of special interests than Bush.
As president, Bush needs not just to provide a general framework for his views
but to put forward policy prescriptions. Thus far many of his policies have been
to roll back popular environmental and workplace protections put in place by the
Clinton administration. Here Bush is vulnerable, because voters in fact prefer
the policies of Gore and the Democrats.
While Al Gore did not capture a majority in the 2000 election, neither did George
W. Bush. The vital center is up for grabs in 2002. This crucial core of the
electorate is looking neither for a return to big government nor a return to
fend-for-yourself policies. Most voters are still looking for fiscally
responsible progress on major issues of the day like the availability of health
care, and for policies that reflect a smaller but more active government,
leadership on the economy, and a prosperity agenda. If the Democrats can
convincingly offer that message, they will be the majority party.
Back to the Future with the DLC
By Guy Molyneux
The analysis of the 2000 election offered by the Democratic
Leadership Council inevitably brings to mind Yogi Berra's great expression "It's
déjà vu all over again." For the past eight years, the DLC has stepped
forward eagerly to take credit for every Democratic success, and just as eagerly
to blame other Democrats for any setbacks. Whenever Bill Clinton was up in the
polls, he was being a New Democrat; when he was down, it was because he wasn't
enough of a New Democrat. Mark Penn's analysis of the post-election survey he
conducted on behalf of the DLC, unfortunately, largely continues the tradition
of tautology masquerading as analysis.
If this sounds unfair, ask yourself this question: If Theresa LePore had not
invented her butterfly ballot and Gore were now president, wouldn't the DLC be
explaining "Why Gore Won" instead of "Why Gore Lost"? And wouldn't every one of
us bet our life savings that the DLC's answer would be "because he was a New
My own view is that "Why did Gore lose?" is exactly the wrong question for
Democrats to ask today. First, it takes us back down the road of recriminations
and assignment of blame that has always served to divide and thus weaken the
Democratic Party. Second, and even more important, it asks us to look backward
when what we need to do is look forward. The right question is "How can Democrats
win?" And both traditional Democrats and New Democrats have relevant, practical
insights to offer, but only through honest and serious discussion.
That said, having a clear understanding of the 2000 election is essential. We
won't chart our course effectively if we don't know where our point of departure
is. Mark Penn looks at the election and reaches three main conclusions. None are
terribly helpful in providing a road map for Democrats.
1. Gore's populism limited his appeal rather than expanded it. The sole
evidence for this central DLC claim is that "only" 70 percent of voters in the
survey were attracted to a populist message. That's a pretty thin reed on which
to hang this audacious interpretation. Consider other relevant evidence on this
convention speech. It may be hard to separate the impact of his populism from his
distancing from Clinton ("I am my own man"), but certainly his promise to fight
for the people did not hurt him.
"special interests." According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a large
majority of voters say that oil companies (74 percent), drug companies (69
percent), and HMOs (60 percent) are too powerful and have too much influence; far
fewer feel that way about teachers' and public employees' unions (30 percent), or
even the entertainment industry (52 percent) or trial lawyers (53 percent).
drug coverage for seniors, a higher minimum wage--were all winning issues, as
Penn concedes. Why else would Republicans have embraced them?
All of this speaks to the power of Gore's populism. It was the single-most
effective Gore message tested. Even 67 percent of the "Bush swings"--the swings
who voted for Bush--say it was an appealing message. You can argue that Gore's
version of populism did not take him far enough, perhaps because it was not bold
enough or because he was not the right messenger. But there is no evidence here
that it hurt Gore in this election.
The absence of clear evidence in this survey for populism's lack of appeal is
itself revealing. The DLC could have posed direct questions that would actually
have tested its theories, such as, Were voters turned off by Gore's promise to
"fight for people" over the special interests? Did they feel he was too
anti-business? Were Gore's DLC commitments, like permanent normal trade relations
for China, an electoral advantage? The questions apparently not asked in
this survey are often more interesting than those that were.
2. Gore did not take full advantage of the Clinton administration's economic
record. This is a much more plausible claim. However, there was no inherent
reason that Gore could not have combined populist language with a prosperity
message. In fact, the survey tested voter reaction to two similar prosperity
messages--a DLC-sanctioned one that frames the choice as going forward versus
going backward, and one that asks if we will enrich all families or only a few.
The latter provides a revealing, and presumably unintentional, test of populism's
appeal; this variant is more effective, both overall and with the Bush swing
voters. The DLC's own survey reveals that prosperity versus populism is what Bill
Clinton might have called a "false choice"--Gore could, and should, have embraced
And even if there is truth in this critique of Gore, where does this take us now?
Now that Democrats are the out party, and with the economy slowing, the question
of how much credit Democrats should claim for prosperity seems less than
3. Gore lost because he failed to capture the votes of highly educated "wired
workers." Let's step back and see where Gore actually lost ground in 2000,
compared with Clinton in 1996.
behind Clinton; he actually did slightly better than Clinton among the college
more than $100,000 (43 percent, versus Clinton's 38 percent). He lost ground in
only one category: those earning less than $15,000.
metropolitan areas handily. John B. Judis notes that Gore did best in states with
the highest proportions of postgraduates and in the most economically dynamic
areas [see "Two More Years," TAP, December 4, 2000]. The four states Gore
lost narrowly, and arguably should have won, were West Virginia, Tennessee,
Missouri, and Arkansas. Looking for a common denominator here, who would come up
with "wired workers"?
To review this record and conclude that Al Gore's biggest problem in this
election was losing "wired workers" by 3 points is to substitute ideology for
analysis. Clearly, Gore held the constituencies most attracted to the New
Democrat message but lost the working class, especially men. And surely it cannot
be the case that Gore's excessive populism--as opposed to, say, issues such as
the environment, gun control, or Clinton's scandal--accounts for these patterns.
Perhaps the greatest shortcomings of the DLC's 2000 analysis are sins
of omission--it completely misses the real story. Penn denies the reality of the
adverse environment created by impeachment and Clinton's scandals. For a year,
George W. Bush's best applause line--always--was his promise to restore "honor
and dignity" to the White House. This was the fundamental raison d'être of Bush's
campaign, yet the DLC survey fails to include it among the three Bush "themes"
tested. Penn points to Clinton's 57 percent job approval rating, to argue the
president was not a burden for Al Gore, while conveniently ignoring Clinton's
abysmal 36 percent personal-favorability rating.
The DLC's own poll shows that voters who cared about personal character voted
overwhelmingly for Bush and that those who cared about issues supported Gore. Is
this of no consequence? Penn's analysis is also static, taking no account of
Gore's rise and fall in the polls. We know that Gore lost his lead during the
debates, while he was being attacked for his exaggerations and lack of integrity,
not after his populist convention speech. Surely this is relevant. An
analysis of the 2000 election that makes no mention of Gore's weaknesses as a
candidate and denies the difficulties created by scandal is hard to take
The larger problem with asking "Why Gore Lost" as a starting point for developing
Democratic strategy is that he didn't. Gore not only won the popular vote by
500,000 votes, but he probably won the electoral college as well. Penn holds up
the 1996 election, in which Clinton received 49 percent of the vote, as the
pinnacle of Democratic success. But Gore's 48 percent is characterized as
failure. Why is the bar set higher for Gore, when he was not an incumbent
president, he faced a much tougher opponent, and the strongest third-party
candidate was on the left rather than the right?
Although Gore's popular-vote plurality is unimpressive, Democrats won the issue
debate in this election decisively. Among people whose vote was based mainly on
issues (62 percent of voters), Gore won in a landslide, 55 percent to 40 percent;
those who cared about personal qualities went for Bush 62 percent to 35 percent.
Furthermore, the key to the GOP's overall success in the 2000 election was its
hidden agenda and obscuring of policy differences. In 1996 and 1998, the
Republicans abandoned the agenda of 1994. In 2000 they went one step further and
embraced the Democratic agenda--or at least its language and themes. Republicans
ran as proponents of HMO reform, defenders of Social Security, supporters of
prescription drug coverage for seniors, and friends of public education. Their
hypocrisy constitutes more powerful evidence of the appeal of the traditional
Democratic agenda than any poll could provide.
In short, this is not 1981. The Democratic Party faces challenges, but also
great opportunities. It will not take advantage of these opportunities if it
fails to understand the ways in which the political environment has improved and
the real weaknesses of the right, or if it expends more energy looking for
scapegoats than in moving forward.
Strategically, the single-most important challenge for the party is winning more
votes among non-college white men. The labor movement--a quintessentially "old"
Democrat institution--can speak with some authority on this topic. White male
union members voted for Al Gore by a margin of 24 points, while Bush won by 24
points among all white men nationally. Non-college union men voted for Gore by 31
points, even as nationally Bush won the white non-college male vote by 29 points.
Labor accomplished this despite the fact that white male union members are much
more conservative than liberal, despite a massive National Rifle Association
campaign to reach them, and despite Al Gore's embrace of free trade.
How did labor do it? With a strong populist message that focused on Bush's record
of favoring the rich and special interests over working families, and by hitting
him hard on his support for Social Security privatization--a position that the
DLC would have the party take--and right-to-work laws. Labor overcame cultural
conservatism by appealing to voters' pocketbooks and their self-interest as
working people--a rather traditional Democratic approach.
Reasonable people can debate about the right way for Democrats to appeal to these
voters, yet they must recognize labor's success for what it is: not a strained
analysis of survey data, but real votes in the bank. If someone has better ideas
for reaching white men and persuading them to support Democrats, they should come
forward. But the unions' record deserves respect, and those who would take the
Democratic Party in a different direction bear the burden of proof.
What are the issue positions the DLC believes the party should now embrace?
Curiously, the survey omits much that would be helpful. Would supporting Medicare
vouchers, Social Security privatization, or fast-track trade procedures make the
party stronger? Would it especially help to reach the non-college men who
abandoned the party in 2000? The DLC survey didn't ask these questions.
But evidence suggests that, in many cases, DLC positions would weaken rather than
strengthen the party. The most important example, which President Bush is
determined to make relevant, is Social Security privatization. While the idea of
private accounts is popular in the abstract, surveys always reveal strong
opposition to the benefit cuts required by privatization. A poll by AARP last
year showed opposition at almost two-thirds. Moreover, this issue was put to the
test in 2000--and Al Gore, not George W. Bush, was the beneficiary.
Fourteen percent of the electorate said Social Security was their top issue; they
voted for Gore by 58 percent to 39 percent. As Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon
argued in The Weekly Standard, Gore's Social Security assault at the
campaign's conclusion caused much of the late shift to Gore in key battleground
states. Seniors were the only age group among whom Gore (at 51 percent)
outperformed Clinton (48 percent).
There is nothing Democrats could do that would damage their party more than
supporting privatization of Social Security--except perhaps getting behind
voucherization of Medicare.
Perhaps, then, the DLC's strategic genius lies in formulating
"themes," rather than issues. But unified Republican control of the federal
government poses very different strategic and tactical questions from those faced
by the Clinton and Gore campaigns. The first challenge is to develop a
persuasive critique of Republican policies and the Bush administration. That has
not been, to say the least, a DLC strength. Penn's report actually criticizes
Gore for drawing too many sharp distinctions. But this time around, it was the
Republicans who sought to obscure differences and blur ideological lines. If
anything, Democrats failed to draw lines clearly and sharply enough, especially
In any case, Democrats are now the opposition party and must make the case for
change. Traditional Democrats will charge that Republicans cater to corporate
special interests at the expense of the environment and consumers, and to the
wealthy rather than working families--and a lot of polling data shows that this
criticism is powerful. The DLC rejects this critique, but where will the DLC find
fault with the GOP? For not being sufficiently fiscally conservative? History
provides no support for the proposition that an incumbent party can be defeated
with "me too" politics. Even if Democrats set aside their moral and political
commitments--to fight for social justice while defending social provision--and
conduct a cold-blooded, utilitarian calculation of political advantage, the DLC
appears to offer the party very little.
Traditional Democrats can, of course, make their own countervailing case against
New Democratic politics. It was under the leadership of New Democrat Bill Clinton
that the Dems lost a House majority they had held for 40 years. Under Clinton,
Democratic governors almost qualified for a listing on the endangered species
list and the party lost ground in many state legislatures. As William Schneider
recently observed in The Atlantic Monthly, "In a variety of ways Clinton
left the Democrats in the worst shape they have been in in more than fifty
years." Even at the presidential level, the party has now nominated New Democrats
in three successive elections and secured 43 percent, 49 percent, and 48 percent
of the vote. Doesn't that suggest that New Democrats may not have all the
Nevertheless, traditional Democrats should resist the urge to continue with an
internecine battle that has now grown tedious as well as destructive. One thing
we can say for sure: The party needs both traditional and New Democrats--and the
constituencies they represent--to get where it wants to go. Without labor,
African Americans, and the women's movement, the party would quite literally not
exist. Without New Democrats and the voters they speak for, Democrats cannot
build a durable majority. This is a time for what we might call Democratic
We can identify many areas where traditional Democrats and New Democrats can come
together, including commitment to fiscal responsibility and investment in
education and training over huge tax cuts. Both groups can get behind private
retirement accounts, outside of Social Security, as Clinton and Gore
proposed. Even support for sensible labor and environmental standards in trade
agreements provides important common ground.
In 1998, a New Democrat president was on the edge of the precipice, facing
disaster. Then, union members, African Americans, and the rest of the party base
came together to save his presidency. Now, a hostile administration is declaring
war on the labor movement, environmentalists, and other core Democratic
constituencies. The question today is will New Democrats stand with traditional
Democrats, or will the finger-pointing continue? Will the DLC put as much energy
into exposing George W. Bush's flaws as it has Al Gore's? Will it search for
common ground with other Democrats, or only for wedge issues?
In times like these, the DLC must answer the old trade union question:
Which side are you on?
Dems: Round Two
Will Marshall Responds
A key lesson of campaign 2000 is that political parties should learn
from their successes. As the race began, the Democratic electoral models were the
Clinton-Gore campaigns of 1992 and 1996. Bill Clinton, after all, was the first
Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second White House term. The big
mystery is why Al Gore abandoned the New Democratic strategy that had produced
these victories--not to mention a record of prosperity, peace, and social
progress that enjoyed wide public approval--in favor of a hackneyed populism and
over-the-top appeals to interest groups.
Stan Greenberg and Robert Borosage blame Clinton for Gore's defeat. Yes, the
Clinton scandals presented Gore with a problem. But let's not pretend that it was
insoluble. Forthright condemnation of Clinton's personal behavior, coupled with
fresh ideas for building on the economic and social reforms of the 1990s, would
have perfectly mirrored the public's own ambivalence. Instead, Gore made the
fatal mistake of distancing himself not only from Clinton but from the popular
achievements he co-authored with Clinton--and that constituted the strongest
rationale for his candidacy.
This decision deprived Gore of a grand narrative linking his campaign proposals
to the political and governing innovations of the 1990s, such as restoring fiscal
discipline, stimulating competition and new-economy growth, ending welfare and
rewarding work, making government less bureaucratic and more accountable, and
rebuilding functioning markets in poor urban and rural communities. Gore's
election-year conversion to "fighting for you" populism reinforced public doubts
about his authenticity; it also failed to awaken the supposedly dormant class
grievances of the "forgotten majority" of working middle-class voters.
I agree with Greenberg and Borosage that Democrats should offer a spirited
challenge to George W. Bush's brazen bid to drive the nation's political agenda
rightward. New Democrats have vigorously opposed the Bush tax plan, the attempt
to roll back environmental protections, the decision to withdraw from the Kyoto
climate-change treaty, school vouchers, and the administration's impulse to
disengage from global hot spots. At the same time, we don't think Democrats can
succeed by simply defending old programs and underperforming public systems.
That's why we're determined not just to oppose the Bush administration but to
propose a progressive alternative that tackles the big challenges facing our
society: equipping working Americans to succeed in the new economy, enabling
low-income families to lift themselves out of poverty, investing more in public
education while demanding accountability for student performance, achieving
universal health coverage through nonbureaucratic means, harnessing market forces
to combat climate change and other environment problems, and modernizing
Social Security and Medicare. This is the agenda Al Gore should have run on--and
won on--in 2000.
Robert L. Borosage and Stanley B. Greenberg Respond
Handwringing about the 2000 election is useful only to the extent
that it helps inform future strategy. Unfortunately, the essays by Will Marshall
and Mark Penn not only revise history and distort data; they draw the wrong
lessons and point in the wrong direction. Consider four key issues.
Values. The right's cultural war against Bill Clinton, amplified by his own
missteps, weakened Democrats and Al Gore on values and trust and allowed Bush to
rise on "restoring honor and dignity to the White House." The cultural assault
was particularly effective among white non-college-educated voters. Penn and
Marshall ignore this reality; they urge Democrats to abandon these voters and
focus on the better-off. This is surely wrongheaded. Democrats should be the
party that supports working- and middle-class families and their values. To forge
an enduring reform majority, they must compete for the non-college-educated
Populism. Marshall and Penn rail against corporation bashing. But a populist
formulation--making our prosperity enrich everyone--was the actual theme of
Gore's campaign. And on themes and issues, Gore easily defeated Bush. Not
surprisingly, critics of the Bush budget, including the Democratic Leadership
Council, have found the populist argument their most effective theme in attacking
Interest groups. Marshall and Penn decry Gore's focus on union households,
racial minorities, and better-educated women. While Democrats should surely cast
a wider net, they should not ignore the accomplishments of 2000--the enhanced
majorities and mobilization of groups that together are a growing, not declining,
force in America. Read your census.
Good times. Marshall and Penn fault Gore for blowing the "good times." But
according to Penn's own survey data, voters thought Gore was more likely than
Bush to "continue the prosperity." Disposable income was faltering in the year
leading up to the election and fell in the quarter of the election. People,
especially Penn's wired workers, were already feeling the financial pressure.
Even in good times, most Americans were making modest gains at best and were
looking for leaders who understood that. As the economy falters on Bush's watch,
Democrats must rediscover their instinctive advocacy for increased living
standards for average Americans.
Guy Molyneux Responds
Despite their substantial disagreements, New Democrats and
traditional Democrats share important common ground. After all, George W. Bush
means not only to rescind every one of Bill Clinton's accomplishments but also to
repeal much of the New Deal and what remains of the Great Society. If Bush cannot
unite the Democratic Party, it's hard to imagine what could.
The central task for Democrats is to develop a compelling critique of the Bush
administration. This is a time to define party differences in ways that are
salient to voters. That is harder than it sounds, because Bush cloaks his agenda
in soothing, almost Democratic rhetoric--Gingrichism with a human face.
Let me propose a division of labor that will allow each Democratic camp to make a
useful contribution while remaining true to its values and analysis. First,
populists need to make the case that Bush is advancing the interests of big
business and the wealthy at the expense of average working people. The
administration's strategists, who seem to have a political tin ear in this
regard, are helping out by making their slavish devotion to the corporate agenda
so transparent. With his tax breaks for the wealthy, his repeal of the ergonomics
standard, and his backsliding on carbon dioxide emissions, Bush leaves no doubt
about whom he is fighting for.
The second component of the Democratic critique is less obvious, but just as
important: Bush is pursuing a reactionary agenda that will take the nation
backward rather than forward. Listen carefully to his speeches and note his
frequent use of the word "reform." He is staking an aggressive claim to the
reform mantle favored by the Democratic Leadership Council. But surely when Will
Marshall talks about "reform-minded centrism," he means something very different.
New Democrats should lay out a serious program for public investment that
empowers Americans in the global economy--and expose Bush's reform agenda as a
If we all stick to our traditional roles, New Democrats will attack populists for
their misguided "class warfare" charges, and populists will return fire. But
what's the point of continuing this argument? Let's rewrite the script, agree to
disagree, and focus on doing what we each do best. My own guess is that these two
messages are more complementary than we often suppose.
Mark J. Penn Responds
Al Gore received 600,000 more votes than George W. Bush,
principally in New York and California. Had Gore been able to distribute those
votes in the Midwest and the border states of the South that Bill Clinton won in
1996, he would have coasted in the electoral college. There is no clearer
evidence than this that Gore's handlers looked only at the overall polls and not
at the critical swing voters in key states.
Populism is a message that accentuates divisions. But as Bill Clinton said,
you can stand up for people without putting down others. That is a much more
successful message than the one used in Gore's campaign.
As to the repeated claim that Gore did better with voters earning more than
$100,000, the fact is that he did better with higher-income women but not with
men, because choice and guns were in fact a positive issue with women up the
economic ladder. That was not the case with men who vote on economic issues,
where he did substantially worse. Had he used the prosperity message, not the
populism message, he would have been able to win over the women who vote on
social issues and the men who vote on economic ones.
Wired workers are 26 percent of the national workforce, and they are in every
state. The use of old stereotypes of America is exactly the sort of analysis that
misses important election dynamics. There were more than enough knowledge workers
in Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and West Virginia to have swung the election to
Gore. Just as important, however, is the fact that Gore was perceived as being
even further to the left than the Democratic Party itself--and that also hurt him
in these states.
Al Gore could easily have distanced himself from the problems of 1998 without
also distancing himself from the successful economic and other policies of Bill
Clinton. It is true that he led after his convention, but it is also true that
the only other time he led was after he showed loyalty to Clinton at the end
of the impeachment trial. His failure to show loyalty afterward undermined his
own character; and his failure to use the issue of prosperity properly becomes
more evident with each passing day.
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