The People Vs. the Parties

Massachusetts pundits and periodicals like to pour great debates from parochial pitchers. The big question of 1992 was whether Democratic ex-Senator Paul Tsongas could merchandise his hairshirt economics west of New England (no, as it turned out). Looking ahead to 1996, the wonderment is whether a cultural moderate liberal and fiscal conservative like GOP Governor William Weld can sell his own Eastern elite ideology to a nominating convention dominated by Indianapolis and Oklahoma City. Probably not.

These questions suggest a broader one: Can the current party system nominate anybody interesting or useful? Can either the Republicans or Democrats plausibly choose a nominee who will openly offer the elite viewpoint on a critical public policy smorgasbord: moderate liberalism on cultural issues, a budget-cutting approach to middle-class entitlements, sophisticated internationalism, and distrust of popular or plebiscitary politics and government? If not, isn't that limitation a deficiency of the system?

Now consider two other variations. Can a libertarian triumph in either Democratic or Republican clothing? Could either side nominate a committed theorist of a lesser role for government? Then, in another vein, can the case for rule by the people be offered and heard? Would either party put an establishment-baiting populist at the top of the ticket? Would the Republicans or Demo- crats willingly embrace a practitioner of cultural and institutional outsiderism (Religious Right activism, anti-Washington sentiment, or both), someone who also endorses middle-class economic interests or tax revolts, nationalism or neo-isolationism, and a wide range of populist mechanisms like term limits, recalls, initiatives and referenda, and ballot propositions to allow the public to vote on tax increases? I can't imagine any such candidate, even though national polls show the electorate tilting in many (even most) of these populist directions and in some libertarian ones. In fact, politicians who begin to embrace two or three of these populist views or any comparable libertarian ideas usually become pariahs in establishment circles.

So it is not surprising that artifice is emerging as the best White House qualification. The typical Democratic presidential nominee, based on 1988 and 1992, can be described as a technocrat or meritocrat with elite tendencies. The caveat is that such a person can't win in November's general election without muting his cultural liberalism and internationalism, reaffirming his party's traditional economic commitment to growth, labor, and middle-class entitlements, yet simultaneously deploring bureaucrats and special interests and donning at least a partial mask of populism and outsiderism. Dukakis couldn't handle the mix and lost. Clinton, who understood better, shaded in these various directions and won the White House. The Republican version of this quadrennial deception is to placate the Religious Right and their social-issue allies with cultural commitments unlikely to be fulfilled, while also beating tax-revolt and nationalist drums and likewise assuming some mask of populism and outsiderism. Tsongas couldn't perform the right Democratic dance steps in 1992; the odds are that Weld probably won't be able to do the GOP waltz in 1996, either.


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The bipartisan irony is that once the populist rhetoric and pretension of the campaign has subsided, most presidents of both parties govern on the elite model or close to it. Not surprisingly, they lose credibility with voters for broken promises. Bush did, and the same thing is now happening to Clinton. Back in the 1960s, George Wallace overstated by contending that there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the parties. There most certainly is. On a penny-to-dollar scale, the "difference" can be pegged at about 30 to 45 cents. This is hardly a strict tweedle-dum/tweedle-dee situation; rather, it results from shared lackluster thinking and intermittent collusion that provides no basis for serious innovation or for purge-Washington-every-decade-or-so government. The unproductive dynamics are all too simple. Popular frustration blocks elite remedies, and the elites block populist or libertarian prescriptions.


Party Poopers

Over the last several decades, the entrenchment of Washington's political classes arguably have made the two-party system part of America's late 20th century problem and probably not part of any 21st century solution, which is a focus of my new book (Arrogant Capital, published by Little, Brown, and Company). My purpose here is to pursue a different point: that the present U.S. party system cannot serve as a vehicle for the wisdom, such as it is, of the U.S. political, economic, and cultural elites, or for the populist anger or reformism of the masses. What the current system now produces under either party is shifty, back-stage bipartisanship and failed presidencies. Ronald Reagan was a partial exception, but both major opportunities of which he took advantage in the early 1980s -- to proclaim "Morning Again in America" and to do so on a credit card -- have been used up.

Scoffers will dispute the notion that the U.S. elites lack the political wherewithal to get their way. To be sure, they have enormous access to the media. And, yes, in this era of semi-corrupt politics, the hard and soft dollars of their campaign contributions buy massive influence in the executive and legislative branches alike. Their lobbyists throng Washington, winning quiet favors through obscure regulations or legislative amendments. However, with so much cynicism and frustration abroad in the land, both major parties, each standing for so little that excites public loyalty, are obliged to heed America's swing electorate of angry and suspicious independents. Furthermore, while both parties rely on powerful elites, they also rely on powerful anti-elites. These anti-elites are not comfortable with pin-striped Gucci centrism, and this is where much of the 30-45 cents worth of party difference originates.

Take the Democratic Party. Its economic policy is strongly influenced by anti-elite blue-collar workers, farmers, pensioners, critics of business and finance, and those ordinary folk who support rapid economic growth even at some risk of inflation. It's in cultural policy that the Democratic Party leans towards the views of what can fairly be called elites: the secular, nonchurchgoing intelligentsia, the glitterati of Hollywood, fashion and the arts, gays, journalists and communicators, foundation and think-tank executives, and so forth. The Republicans more or less reverse the equation. They represent the elite upper-income and business viewpoint in economic policy, but to flesh out the party coalition, on cultural issues the national GOP has to bow to social-issue conservative and Religious Right constituencies. All of this is well known. Less attention is paid to another central truth: both parties are elite-dominated, which is why they find it so hard to represent ordinary Americans.

This overlapping of elites is where the not-a-dime's-worth-of-difference thesis deserves serious attention. Each party has well-known figures who take a moderate or centrist approach that combines relatively elite (in this case, somewhat conservative) economics with relatively elite (here somewhat liberal) cultural positions. These worthies are usually staunch internationalists, and rarely do they advocate populism. On the Republican side, the last 30 years have produced presidential ambitions in this vein from the likes of Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton (1964), New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (1968), Representative John Anderson (1980), and now the minor wannabe crop of 1996 -- Weld and Senator Arlen Specter, for example. Politicians who represent a kindred mix have emerged on the Democratic side, too, and it is no ideological coincidence that some of the most prominent were once Republicans or came from Republican families: Massachusetts' Tsongas, Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, White House chief of staff and former Congressman Leon Panetta, New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, and even ex-Colorado Senator Gary Hart.

We should consider why this brand of Democrat hasn't been any more successful in reaching the Oval Office than were the old moderate Republicans of 1960 to 1980. In a nutshell, their media attention exceeds their intra-party popular support. Their principal socioeconomic appeal is to upper-bracket suburbanites, college students, venture capitalists, white-collar professionals, and the financial community -- instead of core Democratic voters interested in bread-and-butter economic growth and distribution issues. Economically, they verge on crypto-Republicanism; this kind of New Democrat would rather meet with money managers or central bankers than with labor leaders (which, of course, isn't as "new" as it seems). At the same time, liberal leanings on culture and lifestyle issues make these politicos much less interested than the average Republican officeholder in upholding the fiscal and cultural interests of run-of-the-mall suburban constituencies. Indeed, fiscal new Democrats, epitomized by Tsongas and Kerrey, are particularly likely to deplore federal "pandering" to the middle class and to blame the middle class and its federal benefits programs for the nation's problems.

This fiscal revisionism hasn't exactly been a road to the White House. Hart didn't pan out in 1984; neither did Dukakis four years later. Dukakis, who didn't want to use the term "country club" as a pejorative, insisted the election was about competence, not ideology. (He also came from a Republican family.) Then in 1992, Kerrey and Tsongas both miscarried with their early-stage, blame-the-middle-class themes. Tsongas did well in New England, with its tradition of puritanism and guilt, but as the campaign moved south and west, toward heavy industry, minorities, farmers, and pensioners, the Tsongas vote shrank with the ratio of Volvos and home delivery of the New York Times. By the Maryland, Florida, and Illinois primaries, Tsongas support shriveled towards a small affluent core. Clinton tapped the dominant Democratic anti-elite by lauding the middle class, defending pensioners and entitlements, and reiterating his attacks on the rich.

In 1996, Tsongas will not run against Clinton, but Kerrey might; if he does, it will be an interesting campaign. As a Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam, Kerrey could spotlight Clinton's foreign policy weakness. He might also run to Clinton's right on other issues, such as health care, on which he's already done an about-face. The centerpiece of Kerrey's 1992 presidential bid was a national health insurance plan that was to the left of Clinton's. Though his plan included a 5 percent payroll tax with no phase-in or exclusions, he now opposes Senator George Mitchell's delayed, contingent, 50 percent employer mandate, which excludes small firms.

Kerrey's weakness is his mix of neo-Republican economics and scapegoating of middle-class benefits. Recent reports also have had him getting his tax policy advice from billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Unless Clinton is a political basket case by 1996, the outline of a primary counterattack against a Kerrey candidacy is obvious. Although the president no longer has the credibility with the middle class that he enjoyed in 1992, he should be able to rally the majority of the Democratic electorate that responds to anti-elite economics.

If the prospect of an openly elite-oriented Democrat winning the White House in 1996 on a platform of ending Social Security as we know it is slim, the prospect of one of their GOP cousins gaining the Republican nomination is even thinner. Here the elite that rank-and-file voters reject is cultural. Weld is already changing some of his colors and re-attuning his 1994 Massachusetts reelection campaign to Catholic big-city swing Democrats, but it's hard to see his nomination playing west of Williamstown and Great Barrington. Weld's place on the national ticket probably depends on an acceptable GOP presidential nominee following in the footsteps of William McKinley and Richard Nixon by choosing a Cabot Lodge or Teddy Roosevelt-like running mate.

Weld's maneuvers also speak volumes about the unacceptability of politicos with libertarian leanings as nominees in either of the major parties. True, both sides have an overlap with part of the libertarian viewpoint. Reagan-type Republicans have broad streaks of what could be called Marlboro Man libertarianism: cap taxes and roll back government so that its regulations and taxes don't get in the way of ranchers, loggers, miners, and other entrepreneurs. But such Republicans, unlike full-menu libertarians, often favor government involvement in promoting defense industries, conservative morality, and religion in the schools. Liberal Democrats, in turn, have elements of what could be called Marijuana Man libertarianism: free up morality, grow what you want, and keep government out of the bedroom. But such liberals generally favor an activist government in other areas from affirmative action to stronger enforcement of environmental laws and regulations and higher taxes. The result is that each party can take a flavoring of libertarian thinking in a nominee, but no more. Across-the-board libertarianism is anathema to central constituencies.

Harvard man Weld, for example, captured favor in elite circles with a libertarian mix that blended tolerance on social issues with an Old Money investment banker's enthusiasm for reductions in estate and capital gains taxes. The power of the Religious Right in the GOP all but rules out any such 1996 candidate profile.


Moderate Variations

Former New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman, who also blends social liberalism and fiscal conservatism, has tried to organize moderate Republicans to stymie the Religious Right. In 1992 he suggested that if the deficit were not brought under control there would soon be a new party. Probably not, because the issue is losing oomph.

But a broader new movement to limit government could come in three flavors. The first would repackage Perot centrism: tough on fiscal policy, fairly liberal on social issues, nationalist rather than internationalist, and populist on questions like town meetings and national referendums. The second would be the bipartisan elite version: liberal on social issues, budget-minded with a preference for sandblasting middle-class entitlements, internationalist and skeptical of populist mechanisms. If Tsongas and Rudman, who do bipartisan speeches together, formed a new party together, they would take this second option, although their mixture would probably not do as well as Perot's. Indeed, a Tsongas-Rudman ticket might well draw no more than the 7 percent that rallied around John Anderson's 1980 campaign, likewise maximizing in the Volvo and high-tech suburbs from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, with detours to include university towns and upper-bracket playgrounds from Aspen to Nantucket. A third possibility for defunding big government would have a Pat Buchanan-type coloration and display the trappings of cultural war, America First nationalism, and various populist ideas.

So many varieties exist because so many of these viewpoints now find little real voice. This suggests a valid concern: the present party system fails not only to provide any effective public showcase for a bipartisan elite viewpoint, but also to offer any platform for serious libertarianism or populism because of the enormous private influence of the elites. Politicos like Perot and Buchanan, with their nationalism, culture wars, anti-Washington crusades, and support for bypassing the elites and going to the people are anathema to the establishments of both parties. So are the left-populist insurgencies of Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, and Jerry Brown. Even a more sophisticated version of populist or reformist insurgency may have to go outside the Republican-Democratic framework.

Which helps explain why the party system so shaky. America's bipartisan centrist elites are frustrated, and legitimately, at how neither party can showcase their ideas because of seething populism and the role of anti-elites within both parties. The bipartisan centrists find themselves obliged to use bipartisan commissions or summits to pursue policies that they presumably would prefer to press directly with the electorate. Unfortunately (and undemocratically), these mechanisms are designed to suspend the ordinary rules and retributions of politics to let the elites in both parties team up to recommend and often enact measures that have little public support. Prior examples range from the Greenspan Commission's 1983 insistence on major Social Security tax increases to the early 1990s deal between the parties to raise congressional salaries with as much camouflage as possible. The Bipartisan Commission on Entitlements, chaired by Kerrey, is the latest in this long line. Those who give it bipartisan cheer and a steady flow of memos see it as a way to make the middle class pay for deficit reduction with entitlement cuts, consumption taxes, and spending cuts, while promoting tax changes friendly to investorsþin short, more self-serving policy-making by the upper bracket.

No wonder voters think that the interests of ordinary Americans are not represented in Washington. Their economic interests certainly aren't. Whenever bipartisan elites meet backstage in Washington, they are usually seeking to sidestep public opinion, not uphold it. Critics of Rush Limbaugh should broaden their concern. Precious few talk-show hosts can match the effect of senior members of our two-party system in breeding national cynicism.

A second related failure of this party system is the bipartisan need to pander. George Bush and Bill Clinton, while miles apart in their socioeconomic and ideological origins, reached the White House the same way: by promising the American people they would do things either that they never intended to do or that required populist battles for which they lacked the stomach. How could such governance not breed widespread popular contempt?

In 1988 and thereafter during the Bush administration, and in 1992 and then during the Clinton administration, the U.S. electorate has seen these shortcomings dominate each party in turn. Small wonder that voters are beginning to wonder about how well the two-party system serves the public interest. It is a debate that is likely to grow in 1995-96 as we watch what is rapidly becoming the saddest spectacle in American democracy: how so few, if any, of our Republican and Democratic wannabes are also oughtabes.

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