A New Conversation: How to Rebuild the Democratic Party

When liberal Democrats dragged themselves off the electoral battlefield after last fall's election, for the first time in 40 years they had nowhere to hide. Throughout these years, even after their defeats by Nixon and Reagan, the House of Representatives was a protected citadel to which Democrats could retreat shielded by political warlords like Sam Rayburn and John McCormack, Tip O'Neil and Jim Wright, Dan Rostenkowski and John Dingell. With the House in Democratic hands, the core New Deal and Great Society programs survived. Labor, minority, elderly, environmental, and women's organizations were safe to lick their wounds and plot revenge.

But this protection came with a price. The liberal coalition was increasingly tied to a Washington legislative agenda and became preoccupied with the lobbying and financing of the Democratic congressional majority. An unhealthy mutual dependence developed. Despite their grumbling about the chores of fundraising, many Democrats in Congress and leaders of constituency groups had an easier life. Why spend your time driving around the congressional district to maintain a permanent organization of amateurs when fundraising receptions in Washington could buy a professionally packaged political campaign?

Why go through the effort of answering conservative critics when voters would reelect you on the basis of your seniority on an important committee? Why burden yourself with mobilizing the membership when you could get access to the Hill by writing a check?

As the Democratic Party's capacity to organize in the precincts atrophied, the party's financial foundation shifted away from labor, construction companies, and others who did business with government, to Wall Street investors and Hollywood celebrities. The eclectic political tastes of these new supporters tended toward that combination of conservative economics and social sentimentality known as "limousine liberalism." Meanwhile, the Southern conservative wing of the party reinvented itself as "New Democrats" and consciously sought to build a base on a business constituency happy to support Democrats who would attack labor and denounce welfare.

Dependent on the Democratic establishment in Washington, liberals failed to grasp the growing outrage of a financially squeezed middle class at the arrogance of those in political power. Liberal concerns such as campaign finance reforms, lobbying restrictions, and unjustified perks of the powerful went ignored because of the discomfort they caused Democrats on Capitol Hill. Major constituencies were inhibited from mobilizing for their interests for fear of damaging their relations with the congressional leadership or Bill Clinton. As a result, liberal institutions have had the worst of both political worlds: They were demonized by their enemies and increasingly seen as ineffectual by their own rank and file.

Meanwhile, the Republican right created the awesome, ideologically driven, local and national organizing network that finally captured the Democratic citadel of the House of Representatives. In the process, they rolled up the Democrats' southern flank to the point where a Republican majority in the South may be the closest thing to a sure bet in American politics. The House is now controlled by smart, seasoned, reactionary politicians bent on liquidating liberalism as an organized force. The Senate is in the hands of conservative Republicans who would rather not get their hands too bloody but will gladly hold down the victim.

And the White House is no refuge. The administration has already capitulated to the right on a number of strategic fronts. Military spending will rise, the shrunken domestic budget will be squeezed dry, and consumer, labor, and environmental protections will be sacrificed. High-level administration officials speak openly of how Newt Gingrich's demolition of the House Democrats gives them a strong ally in their effort to downsize government and cut domestic spending.


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The president may change his strategy of accommodating the right, or he may not. He may decide to fight back, or he may not. He will have to resist on some issues if only as a demonstration of personal character. But one thing is clear: The administration has little interest in rebuilding an integrated grassroots political network to take on the conservative political ideology that now dominates American politics. Unlike the Nixon, Reagan, and even Bush administrations, which consciously nurtured the cadres and institutions of the partisan conservative movement, Clinton like Jimmy Carter, his predecessor New Democrat has loaded his administration with people who, in Robert Kuttner's phrase, are "ideologically incompetent."

In presidential politics, liberal Democrats have no credible alternative to Bill Clinton. But in the more fundamental struggle for the nation's political soul, they are on their own. Exposed and un sheltered, the core constituencies of the party must regroup, reorganize, and pursue a disciplined, independent path that uses the next election to revitalize themselves as a political force. The issue is not only their own political relevance but the relevance of the Democratic Party itself. The liberal-labor constellation of forces is the only sector of the party that has a capacity to field a grassroots challenge to the right.

The election verified that the right wing of the Democratic Party has little mass base. It is primarily a collection of conservative politicians and business lobbyists held together by a centrism calculated to appeal to the establishment press. Members of the Mainstream Forum, the major New Democrat organization in the House, lost seats at almost twice the rate of the rest of the party. The New Democrat excuse is that their members held seats in the conservative South and were therefore more vulnerable. But that is exactly their rationale: By moving to the right, they were supposed to take conservative votes from Republicans in those areas. The losing Senate bids of leading New Democrats Jim Cooper of Tennessee and Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma were particularly telling. The results validated the point attributed to Harry Truman that when faced with a choice between pseudo- Republicans and Republicans the voters will choose the real thing.

The administration's effort to reinvent the Democrats as a pro-business, fiscally conservative party was a particular disaster. The business community got most of what it wanted from the administration. Yet a Business Week poll last fall found that 87 percent of top CEOs opposed Clinton, with only 9 percent supporting him. His successful effort to reduce the deficit also went unappreciated; a plurality of voters believed that the deficit rose under Clinton, suggesting again that the deficit is symbolic of economic anxiety rather than an informed demand for fiscal probity. (Of those who said the deficit was the most important issue, 58 percent voted Republican!)

A liberal strategy to rebuild the Democratic party must begin with an understanding that the decline in real wages and living standards is at the heart of the anger and frustration being felt by the middle class. This is particularly true of white working-age men with less than a college degree, among whom the greatest Democratic falloff has occurred. As political scientist Ruy Teixeira reports, long-term wage declines were largest where the Democrats lost in November. To a large extent, Americans still voted their pocketbooks in the last election. Despite the solid overall economic growth of the past two years, 57 percent of the voters thought the economy was "poor or not-so-good." More than 60 percent of those people voted Republican. This does not mean that social issues crime, gun control, gays in the military, the perennial welfare problem, family decline were unimportant. In the absence of a strong economic appeal by the Democrats to their base, these issues defined the campaign. Indeed, they defined Clinton's "liberalism." But it is a trap for Democrats to believe that traditional American conservatism on social issues reflects a desire to buy a conservative economic package as well.

Historically, Democrats have always been out of sync with the white working class on social issues, most notably on race. Nonetheless, white workers voted Democratic for decades because they saw Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson as taking their side on the central question of economic security and jobs. When Democrats sound like Republicans on economic issues, they lose because they are not as credible as social conservatives.


Clinton's Half-Right Response

In its rhetoric, the administration has correctly diagnosed the current condition of the middle class. The president caught the right mood in the 1992 campaign when he said that "Americans were working harder for less." Recent poll data show they still think they are. And Labor Secretary Bob Reich speaks eloquently of middle-class anxiety. It is unreasonable to expect that Clinton could have turned around 20 years of stagnant and falling wages in his first two years. But we could have expected a clear message about a credible strategy, and the Clinton prescription did not match its diagnosis.

The administration has actually had three answers to the question of declining living standards among the working classes. The first is distributional and includes the earned income tax credit (EITC), universal health coverage, and a higher minimum wage. The increase in the EITC adopted in Clinton's first year is a real benefit, but it is targeted at a small part of the population, requires filling out forms, and, unfortunately for the administration, does not actually reach its beneficiaries until this year. Health care reform in its most ambitious version would have done a great deal to alleviate middle-class economic anxiety, but the political moment was missed. The administration's call for a higher minimum wage in 1995 is a welcome move along the same lines. To his credit, Clinton seems to have drawn a line in the dirt on this issue, and put himself on the worker's side.

The second and more troubling answer is free trade. The administration has now completely adopted the laissez-faire notion that eliminating trade barriers is the path to prosperity. Indeed, Clinton's decibel level on the subject has exceeded that of the Republicans. Even establishment economists for whom free trade is an article of faith say that the numbers and claims made by the administration for NAFTA and GATT have been widely exaggerated. In the wake of the collapse of the Mexican peso, it is now clear that the U.S. trade surplus with Mexico, upon which NAFTA job claims were based, was the creation of a deliberately overvalued peso and will now disappear. Although some might still argue that NAFTA is good for America in the long run, a year after it went into effect the administration's arguments on jobs, the trade balance, political stability in Mexico, and immigration were in shreds.

Politically, the NAFTA effort alienated many working-class voters and failed to compensate by winning over centrists and conservatives to the administration. The politics of Clinton's devotion to free trade defies common sense. "You have to imagine the Alice in Wonderland quality of this," said a senior administration official to the New York Times two weeks before the GATT vote. "Here we are trying to figure out how to get business leaders to put pressure on Republicans to vote for something Reagan championed and Bush almost implemented." Regardless of one's views on NAFTA or GATT, they are clearly not issues that define differences between Clinton and the Republicans or give anyone a reason to vote for Democrats.

The administration's third answer to the problem of declining living standards is training and education. The unintended message the president sent to those facing $6 an hour in a $12-an-hour world was that they are the problem: They lack the skills to compete in the new flexible, brutally competitive world. No one in the administration seems to have thought through the impact of repeatedly lecturing working Americans already working longer and harder just to stay in place that they will have to change jobs and careers many times in this new deregulated global economy. The prospect of a life spent on a constant treadmill of retraining in a world that continually threatens you with obsolescence might seem exhilarating for the highly educated and confident policy intellectuals in Washington, but it is frightening for most people.

Moreover, the administration has not actually been able to deliver much help to workers who face this prospect. Public support will be negligible for the lifetime of education and skill upgrading the administration says workers need. Democrats abandoned Clinton's original proposal for universal on-the-job training and gave low priority even to the modest Reemployment Act, which died in the last Congress. An adequate level of investment in skills would be expensive, and the administration has given up the fight for more money. When asked about this recently, a high- level administration official shrugged his shoulders and said that working people facing job stress will just have to take responsibility to "invest in themselves."


The Republican Diversion

The Republicans did not blame the people for their anxiety. They spent two years changing the subject, diverting the economic question into a social one. The reason for your anxiety, they told the anxious middle class, is the deterioration in moral values as a result of liberal excesses tolerance of crime in the streets, generous welfare, gun control, subsidies to immigrants. Above all, the problem is big government. Through their well-built organizing base, the talk radio network, and the constant stream of books and seminars to influence the press, they blanketed American politics with conservative propaganda. They hammered at the media for being too liberal and pushed PBS and C-SPAN to more conservative programming. They trained people in the art of argument.

In effect, the right created a filter between Democrats in Washington and the electorate to screen out positive messages. A case in point was the defeat by the conservative movement of the bill to restrict lobbying in the last weeks of the Democratic Congress. Given the popular disgust with Washington, the lobbying reform bill represented a perfect opportunity to expose Republican hypocrisy using the graphic visual images of members of Congress getting free meals and golf vacations. Yet, the right-wing network generated massive protests on patently false objections, charging that citizens writing letters would have to register as lobbyists. With many Democratic members secretly relieved, the conservative network killed the bill in a few days.

This display of political prowess clearly intimidated the White House. Since the election it has generally let Newt Gingrich set the terms and boundaries of debate. It has conceded to Gingrich the principle that government must be smaller. Federal power should be shipped to the states (where business has more leverage over government), regulation should be weakened, and the military budget should expand. In response to the incredibly destructive balanced budget amendment, the administration announced that it was not in favor but would not fight hard against it.

The White House has also trapped itself into collaborating on welfare reform on the assertion that Democrats have plenty of "common ground" with Republicans. The president cannot win on this issue. Effective reforms will require more spending, particularly for training, child care, and health coverage, to enable those on welfare to qualify for jobs and make work pay. But given a climate in which prominent Democrats talk openly about cutting Medicare and Social Security, there is unlikely to be more money for welfare recipients. In the end the president can only quibble with the right over how much to take away from the poor. He will not get credit for a punitive bill, just as he did not get credit for the crime bill.

The result will be to make him look weak and without conviction, and further alienate his base. Indeed, the administration seems deliberately to run away from its own constituency, violating a fundamental rule of politics and war: secure your base. Even after deciding to propose an increase in the minimum wage, the White House staff let it be known they were worried that they would be seen as captives of organized labor.

Newt Gingrich's Contract With America is riddled with special-interest influence, yet it's hard to imagine the Republican leadership worrying about Democrats attacking them as captives of business. The combination of Republican boldness and Democratic timidity has even allowed conservatives to claim that they are the party of new ideas. In the current environment, proposals for increasing the minimum wage, which date to the 1930s, are ridiculed in the press as "old- fashioned," while proposals for orphanages and deregulation, which date to the nineteenth century, are hailed as innovations.

As an economic proposition, the Contract with America will fail. Abolishing welfare, cutting capital gains taxes, debasing the Constitution with balanced budget amendments and the rest will not reverse shrinking real earnings and opportunities for the majority of American workers. We are in many ways returning to an era of economic insecurity that predates World War II. The prospect of having to take a job at the minimum wage, or a dollar or so above it, does not seem nearly so remote to the typical 30-year-old as it did 10 or 15 years ago. The growing numbers of college graduates in the workforce have clouded this reality. Yet real earnings for college graduates have been falling since 1987. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that one in five employed college graduates is working at a job that does not require a degree. Even with continued economic growth, the forecast is that in 10 years it will be one in four.

But because they are better educated, the working- and middle-class families that make up the Democrats' natural constituency are more demanding of their leaders and more socially tolerant than they used to be. For Democrats to remobilize them, they will have to learn to speak to them with respect and intelligence. Democrats need not so much a new message as a new conversation with the majority of Americans who work for a living. They have to stop lying to the people that some marginal, insufficiently financed piece of pilot legislation is going to make a difference in their lives. They have to be willing to name and attack their enemies. They need to commit to engaging the right everywhere political discussion goes on in Washington, on the nightly news, in local media, in neighborhood bars and churches, at the workplace, on the Internet with their story of how the world works.


The Democratic Story

We already have a "first draft" of such a story. Various liberal thinkers and Democratic politicians including President Clinton have been telling parts of it for a decade. Some of it was reflected in the president's 1992 campaign and in parts of his post-election Little Rock summit. It goes something like this:

The American dream is fading. More Americans will have to work harder to prevent their living standards from falling further. People now under 35 years of age are doing worse than their parents. On our current path, the future generation will do even worse.

The root causes of working people's financial stress is that America is trying to compete in the new world economy by (1) lowering our wages, (2) generating short-term profits through downsizing and speculation rather than prosperity through long-term investment, and (3) abandoning larger numbers of potentially productive people to poverty. Democrats must, therefore, raise the central question: How do Americans compete in a world of six billion people, most of whom will work for much less than Americans will? The Democratic answer must start with a vision of a permanent high-wage, full-employment economy for the twenty-first century. The choice is either to continue along the current low road condemned forever to work harder and harder to compete in a brutal global marketplace or to move to a higher, more productive level of economic activity.

In this brave new global economy what does it mean to be an American? Nothing, we are all on our own, say the Republicans and "Newt" Democrats. If the Chinese can undercut your job with slave labor, that's too bad. If your employer decides to throw you out in the street after 20 years of loyal service, too bad. If you can't afford health insurance, too bad. Other than through voluntary acts of personal charity, we have no obligations to each other.

The Democratic task is to challenge this dreary social Darwinist notion by reconstructing an economic framework designed to promote prosperity for the American community. For starters, the road to a high-wage full-employment economy should include:

  • a low interest-rate policy that gives Main Street priority over Wall Street;
  • public investment in our people, infrastructure, and the technology of the future, paid for by eliminating unnecessary subsidies and tax breaks;
  • empowerment of workers and their unions through a new labor law framework to promote greater productivity and a fair sharing of its benefits;
  • enhancement of family economic security through universal health care, pension portability, and higher minimum wages;
  • trading only with nations that produce under accepted labor and environmental standards;
  • tax, regulatory, and industrial policies that favor those who invest in long-term job creation and penalize the short-term speculator.

The fundamental objection to a high-wage, full-employment program is that the global financial markets will not permit it. The global marketplace does put new constraints on economic policy, but no iron law of international economics requires Americans to have lower wages and huge pockets of unemployment and poverty. The idea that we must abandon control of our economic destiny to the multinational corporations and global financiers is nonsense. Ninety percent of what America makes is sold in America. If Japan can keep an unemployment rate below 3 percent for decades and create a dynamic economy, so can we. It can't be done overnight, of course. But a revived Democratic answer must be based on the conviction that it can be done.

The Democratic vision must also include a spirited defense of the existing foundation of economic security. Democrats have accepted, and in many cases promoted, alarmist propaganda that casts unwarranted doubt over the future of Social Security. The logic of these attacks is flawed and the politics is suicidal. The notion that the younger generation of voters will be grateful to those who solve the "problem" of Social Security by making them wait another five years before they can get retirement benefits suggests how far out of touch the Washington policy discussion has moved.

For Democrats to succeed, the issue of what government does and should do must be taken out of the abstract. Democrats cannot run away from this question as they did during the health care debate. When challenged by attacks on government incompetence, Democrats insisted that the president's health care plan did not mean intrusion into the health care marketplace which of course it did. Americans support a wide variety of government activities. The story of the woman who in last year's campaign demanded of a U.S. senator that he do something to stop the government takeover of Medicare is symbolic of the absurd result of Democratic cowardice on this issue.

Americans have never had any love for government per se, but they like a lot of what government does for them. Polls show, for example, that when asked about the general quality of the public schools people are highly negative. But when asked about the specific public school in their neighborhood, they are positive. The point is not that Democrats should attempt to sell Big Government. But they must be prepared to make the case for government as an instrument for solving problems that the market will not or cannot address.

But to be credible concerning government, Democrats must give the highest priority to breaking the cycle of their own large contributors. A serious effort must be made to amend the constitution, which the courts have used to strike down past restrictions on election spending. Democrats cannot be the party of both the little people and the big money.

The Democratic conversation must be both in the air and on the ground. People do not internalize political ideas just from watching television. Nor do they absorb them just by talking with their neighbors or fellow workers or working the Internet. The conversation must develop at a number of levels. It is no accident that the same phrases can be heard within days on right-wing talk radio, Christian political TV, and in the speeches of Republican candidates and then in bars and at church suppers. Meeting this challenge will require Democrats to build a political network that can similarly combine local organizing, ideological motivation, and national media strategies that are in motion throughout the election cycle, not just every two years.

Individual political campaigns cannot create this kind of network. Consultant-dominated, media- centered electioneering has little capacity to develop issues. Hired guns shy away from them because issues get in the way of the mechanical operations media buys, polling, focus groups on which they make their money.

A populist conversation about economic issues powerful enough to change the national subject must be forged in the fire of the give-and-take of political experience. Economic populism has to be argued, tested, reformulated, tested again until the right language is found to connect it to the reality of the experience of the American electorate in the 1990s. It cannot be created whole in think tanks or universities or at congressional retreats. Democrats, in effect, must relearn how to speak to America.

The Democratic Party is, and will remain, a big tent that will include a variety of opinions. What is needed is not complete consensus, but a motivated core electorate of people who not only agree with a story but will themselves become storytellers. The success of the conservative movement lies not so much in the speeches of Bill Bennett or Jack Kemp or Bill Kristol or Newt Gingrich, but in the way that millions of ordinary people are repeating their message throughout the society.

Given the lack of support in the White House for this kind of effort, the immediate political purpose to which this conversation ought to be put should be to regain the House of Representatives in 1996 by electing more liberals. This is a difficult but not impossible task. At the moment Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats. Obviously Bill Clinton's re-election would help. But the evidence of the last two elections is that Clinton has no coattails. Moreover, there are sufficient historic precedents for a party losing the presidency and gaining seats in the House: In 1960, for example, while Richard Nixon lost the presidential election to Jack Kennedy, the Republicans picked up 22 seats in the House coming after a Democratic victory in the previous House elections.

This requires a definition of a party leadership that extends beyond the White House or the Democratic National Committee, which by and large serves as a fundraising mechanism. Start with the new minority leadership in the Congress, which is more liberal because of the greater losses last November among conservatives. Add liberals in state and local government and the leadership of the major Democratic constituencies labor, minority and women's groups, environmentalists, and the elderly. Add the liberal intellectual community that needs to contest the right's claim to new ideas.

The mainstream left does not have the resources and corporate influence that the right enjoys. No left-wing television networks are likely to emerge in the near future. So we must start more modestly. Major liberal institutions and networks should pool resources and concentrate on three or four dozen congressional districts with the greatest chance of electing liberals. Each district would undertake a two-year program of public education and organizing of the Democratic base. Local people would be trained in how to argue with conservatives. Each situation is different and would have to be handcrafted on-site. In most areas a local committee would be formed of interested elected officials and leaders from labor, minority and women's groups, and other activists. Activities would include publicly holding conservative office holders accountable for their votes, challenging right-wing talk show hosts, talking to local journalists, and waging letter-to-the-editor campaigns on issues that illustrate Democratic themes. Regional speakers' bureaus would be formed to hammer away at the harm done by the Republican contract to the locality.

Another function would be to monitor and influence the national media's treatment of the debate over economic issues. The right devotes time and energy to tracking the major news programs. The elimination of the Fairness Doctrine provided an enormous opportunity for well-financed conservatives to influence the electronic press, which is the source of most people's learning about politics. They have succeeded in putting more conservatives on the air and intimidating the press with charges that it is too liberal. The liberal coalition does not have the resources to match the Christian right's media network. But it can do more to put countervailing pressure on the media to get a fair share of media time.

A related task is to identify the political possibilities of the Internet and other electronic technologies that the conservatives are using to support face-to-face encounters at meetings and rallies and church suppers.

Finally, liberals also need to show more courage and fight in combating conservatives within the Democratic Party. The Democratic Leadership Council has waged a relentless ideological attack on liberals that largely goes unanswered. Indeed, it spends more time attacking Democrats than Republicans, more time criticizing Clinton than Gingrich. Yet it has privileged access to the White House and influence on the national debate through the militantly middle-of-the-road Washington press. An honest debate within the Democratic Party about its future is long overdue. It might even lead, as it has in the Republican Party, to more, rather than less, unity.

As a separate combatant in the historic battle of political ideas, liberal Democrats are in danger, if not of extinction then of dwindling relevance. The idea that salvation will come if only they wait for Newt Gingrich to go too far, or for the president to get reelected, has been shattered by the Clinton experience. Liberals waited 12 years in the wilderness for the chance once again to have access to the White House. Two years later, their political fortress is overrun, the administration's banners are emblazoned with the slogans and policies of their enemies, and they are threatened with banishment if they don't lower their already meager expectations. Liberals now have no choice. No one is coming to their rescue. They will return to power only after they have earned it in the fire of debate over the country's future.

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