Of Our Time: Fearful Symmetry

The 1994 election, more than any in recent memory, "nationalized"
politics. That is, the Republicans ran on a coherent ideology and program; Newt
Gingrich's Contract with America became the manifesto. Even though the actual
swing in the popular vote was small, it was consistent across the
country--enough to give Republicans control of both houses of Congress and most
statehouses. Given the drama of the Democrats losing the U.S. House for the
first time in 40 years, the Republican ferocity, and rare party unity under
Gingrich, the result was almost parliamentary. The Republicans, despite slender
numerical margins in the House and Senate, took their victory as a mandate for
radical change.

However, ours is not a parliamentary system. And the president happens to be of
the opposite party. In claiming a mandate, the Republicans have made much of the
fact that Clinton was elected 36 months ago, while they were elected 12 months
ago. But the fact remains that he is president--in a system with very careful
checks and balances, designed specifically to cool the passions of temporary
majorities. And lately, he has been acting like one.

For most of 1995, Clinton attempted to accommodate himself to the Republicans'
congressional majority and presumed mandate by meeting them more than
halfway--embracing budget balance, major program cuts, more delegation to the
states, and a partial regulatory relief. He even supported a welfare reform plan
only slightly less harsh than the Republicans'.

Beyond this programmatic accommodation was a tactical theory, one put forth by
Clinton's latest strategist, the sometime Republican Dick Morris. The idea was
to position the president above the squabbling two parties, to differentiate him
both from old Democrats too wedded to government and new Republicans who would
cut too deeply. But with the Republican refusal to meet Clinton halfway, and the
polls showing that Republicans mistakenly located themselves far to the right of
most voters, triangulation collapsed. Clinton suddenly found himself a tough
partisan Democrat again, almost in spite of himself, drawing bright lines in the
sand.

My last piece for The American Prospect, in our Summer 1995 issue, was
titled "A Pile of Vetoes." The reference was to Clinton's repeated
declaration, back in his conciliatory phase, that he wasn't elected to deliver a
pile of vetoes. But given the plain radicalism of the Republican program, a pile
of vetoes was precisely indicated. Lo, by November, Clinton found himself piling
up the vetoes, cheered on by leading editorialists and public opinion. Dick
Morris should join David Gergen in the graveyard of Republican Clinton advisers
who had counselled extra-partisanship and appeasement.

Despite their zeal, it is evident that the Republicans will fall short of
enacting their entire Contract this legislative session, though depending on
Clinton's resolve, they will give voters a big taste of it. And that sets in
motion the 1996 election as a kind of grand plebiscite on the direction of the
country. Now that Clinton is once again behaving like a partisan Democrat, the
voters will have a full year to consider the contending philosophies. Do they
really want Gingrich's Contract, with its massive cuts in Medicare; its form of
"devolution" that mainly sticks states with the liability for social
ills (see Lenny Goldberg, "Come the Devolution," page 66); its
rollback of consumer and environmental regulation (see Robert Dreyfuss, "Toxic
Cash," page 59); and its shifting of the tax burden onto working families?
The polls indicate not. It may well be that the Republicans have overreached,
and that in a fair fight the pendulum will swing back to the Democrats. Either
way, it would be better to elect a president and a Congress of the same party,
and then to hold that party accountable for the results, rather than having four
more years of divided government and public sourness.

The problem, however, is that 1996 may not be a fair
fight. Electoral politics in this era has been nationalized--but not
symmetrically. The first asymmetry is money. Democrats, for the past several
decades, used the power of congressional incumbency to raise money from business
interest groups who didn't share the Democratic philosophy but needed to buy "access."
The process was corrupting, even if the money didn't take the form of literal
bribes. It caused Democrats to spend inordinate time raising money from people
with little in common with the Democratic base and to ignore the less
remunerative (and more crucial) task of rebuilding the party's grass roots. Even
worse, it created a kind of affinity between many Democrats and the well-heeled
financiers they cultivated.

Pro-business center-right Democrats seemed modern and sensible; their maturity
was validated and rewarded by generous checks. Liberals, by contrast, seemed
archaic and conflictual. Their "class warfare" was punished, both
editorially and in their inability to raise funds. Indeed, while the Democratic
Leadership Council was partly a principled and strategic search for a new
center, it was also a plain move to where the money was. While more liberal
groups scrambled for money, the DLC with its antiliberal message found it had no
trouble selling out thousand-dollar-a-plate fundraisers to Washington business
lobbyists.

The Clinton administration had a rare shot at serious campaign finance reform,
limiting PAC money and replacing it with substantial public funding. It is
tempting to say, charitably, that the bill went down in the end-of-session
confusion and the Republican tactical shift to just-say-no hardball. In ugly
reality, the bill kept getting delayed both because the White House never made
it a top priority and because too many congressional Democrats were not sure
they really wanted to give up their privileged access to special interest money.

Now, however, the Democrats have the worst of both worlds. With the Republican
takeover of Congress, the Democrats no longer have incumbency to sell. Gingrich,
as tactically ruthless here as elsewhere, has proven the master of the
shakedown. Business PAC money that used to go to Democratic Committee chairmen
and their allies now goes disproportionately to Republicans. While Clinton has
used his own incumbency to raise a pile of "soft" (unregulated) money
for his re-election campaign, Democratic Senate and House candidates will be
strapped. A few incumbents such as John Kerry, recently remarried to the widow
Heinz, will be able to draw on substantial private fortunes. But in the typical
contested race, the Republican will outspend the Democrat by three or four to
one.

Money isn't everything in politics, of course, but it is a lot. A good example
is Representative Enid Waldholtz, freshman of Utah, lately in the papers because
of her sometime-fugitive husband, Joe. To beat the popular incumbent, Karen
Shepherd, Waldholtz, with a lot of dubious financial razzle-dazzle, pumped more
than a million dollars into TV spots in the campaign's final days, narrowly
ousting Shepherd in a three-way race. Waldholtz's spending was very likely
illegal. But given the kind of money the Republicans can raise legally, a great
many Republican freshman in marginal seats may literally buy their re-elections.
So, while there is a nominal symmetry in the newly nationalized political arena,
and while polls show Republicans on the losing side of many of their own chosen
issues, money may prevent 1996 from being a fair rematch.



Subscribe to The American Prospect



The antidote to money, surely, is people. In comforting
mythology, the GOP is the party of money and the Democrats the party of the
people. But in today's overheated political climate, a great many Democrats are
in hock to big money and a lot of the passion and popular activism is on the
conservative side. In the 1990s, who can boast of genuine grassroots activity,
rather than letterhead organizations and Potemkin villages? There's the
Christian right, the legions of Limbaugh ditto-heads, the right-to-lifers,
home-schoolers, gun-nuts, and a lot of yeasty local Republican parties.

To be sure, there is a lot of sham populism on the right, too. The New Women's
Forum, for example, is mainly a handful of intellectual antifeminists with op-ed
skills and a lot of conservative foundation money. The National Organization for
Women, by contrast, actually has 250,000 dues-paying members. As Jonathan Cohn
deliciously reveals in "Children's Crusade" (page 31), much of the
youth campaign for budget balance is sheer public relations. Still, the right
has enviable grass roots, many of them authentic and thriving.

What about the liberal side? Environmentalists, as Robert Dreyfuss demonstrates,
are a genuine mass movement--real enough to block the Republican stampede to
dismantle a quarter century of green regulation. The election of true activists
to the top offices of the AFL-CIO is likewise one of the most hopeful events in
this political era. (See Thomas Geoghegan, "Dear Brother Sweeney,"
page 72.) Labor is still the backbone of much local Democratic Party organizing,
and if labor cannot revive from the base, it is hard to imagine a revival of
progressive politics. To read Robert Putnam's "The Strange Disappearance of
Civic America" (page 34) is to grasp that the decay of grassroots life is
ubiquitous. Yet to offset what Charles E. Lindblom called the "privileged
position of business" in a capitalist democracy, liberals necessarily rely
on grassroots activism more than conservatives.

There are, of course, the other usual suspects of the New Deal-Great Society
coalition--civil rights activists, civil libertarians, beneficiaries of
welfare-state spending, and dozens of single-interest constituency groups. But
this is often more the problem than the solution. Though these groups depend on
activist government for supportive fiscal and regulatory polities, they don't
exactly constitute a Democratic Party base--and often can be found squabbling
with each other and cursing out the faithless liberals in Congress for failing
to deliver enough. A recent newspaper account of public cynicism quoted a black
nonvoter in an urban slum: Why should I vote for these people, he asked, what
have they done for me lately? Tellingly, the Million Man March was an
extra-politics event, led by an antisystem figure, Louis Farrakhan. It is hard
to imagine a black elected official bringing together such an event. Even Jesse
Jackson, a semi-establishment leader, could not have done it.

So the Democratic base is a mess. Indeed, the closer you look, the thinner it
is. And this does secondary damage. Not only does it mean there are fewer
liberal activists to offset conservative grassroots strength and money. It also
dries up the natural pools of candidate recruitment. To win back Congress and
statehouses, Democrats need not only volunteers and money, they need attractive
candidates. This year, they are having a hard time recruiting them. Worse, there
are a disproportionate number of retirements--not surprisingly. It's not much
fun to be a Democratic incumbent right now. And there are too few convincing
contenders to replace them.

Looking around at state legislators to move up to congressman, and congressmen
to move up to governor or senator, the Democratic farm clubs are pretty thin. A
few .290 hitters here and there, but not much bench strength. The whole problem,
of course, is interlinked--as is the solution. A more stirring message and more
presidential leadership would excite more grassroots activity; more grass roots
would provide a habitat for better candidates. More activism would at least
partly offset conservative big money. And taking back Congress would provide
another shot at meaningful campaign finance reform, to keep money in its place
once and for all.

There is the further risk of asymmetric campaign finance reform. Watch out this
spring for a nominally bipartisan "reform" package, supported by the
usual good-government naifs, that limits PAC spending but leaves lots of
loopholes for injecting personal wealth into electoral politics. By coincidence,
the one source of funding that this brand of reform would reliably squelch would
be labor PACs--the sole substantial organized counterweight to business
political finance.

Given all of the above, it will take a lot for the 1996
election to be a truly symmetrical plebiscite--a fair rematch. Of course, one
should never underestimate the capacity of Newt Gingrich to overreach, the
propensity of Bob Dole to turn nasty, and the potentially fratricidal schisms in
all that right-wing grassroots activism. Nor should one underestimate Bill
Clinton, who evidently has more political lives than a cat.

Our friend E.J. Dionne, in a flawlessly timed book to be published in February,
titled They Only Look Dead, argues that the pendulum is primed to swing
back to the Democrats. Dionne's text, which generously credits several articles
from this journal, argues that the voters really don't want the Gingrich brand
of laissez-faire. They recognize the need for a mixed economy and a competent
government. They voted for Republicans in 1994, Dionne argues, because the
Democrats didn't deliver it.

But, says Dionne, the laissez-faire solution has been rejected in American
history every time voters got a taste of it, because it doesn't work. This could
portend a swing back to the Democrats, but if government is still found wanting
it could also fuel more of an antisystem vote--to Ross Perot or worse. The fact
remains that to achieve progressive politics, there is no substitute for two
necessary complements: popular activism and competent governance.



You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement