Chins Up, Liberals

Americans are ideological conservatives and operational liberals. That was the finding of social psychologists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril, who based much of The Political Beliefs of Americans, their classic work about public opinion, on a massive survey they conducted during the fall of 1964. As ideological conservatives, Americans are skeptical about the "role and sphere of government in general and of the Federal Government in particular," the authors discovered. Yet as operational liberals, citizens have favored just about every "government program to accomplish social objectives since at least the days of the New Deal."

Republican Senator Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election, Free and Cantril argued, because he was an in-your-face operational conservative. He traveled to Tennessee, for example, to make a speech blasting the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). "As long as Goldwater could talk ideology alone, he was high, wide, and handsome," they wrote. "But the moment he discussed issues and programs, he was finished." Although Free and Cantril didn't say so, it surely did not help Goldwater's cause that he was so relentlessly pessimistic about America. His view, which was shared by many conservative thinkers at the time, was that the United States and the other Western nations were in decline, the only uncertainty being the rate of their descent into a Soviet-dominated abyss.

One of the 45 states that Goldwater lost in 1964 was California, which President Lyndon B. Johnson carried by a margin of 1.3 million votes. Two years later, the man whom Goldwater had described as the likely heir to his political mantle, Ronald Reagan, was elected governor of California over two-term Democratic incumbent Pat Brown by nearly a million votes. Sixteen years after that, in 1980, Reagan was elected president in a 44-state landslide and promptly proclaimed in his inaugural address that "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." And in 1996 Bill Clinton, the only Democratic president elected in the post-Reagan era, was handily re-elected after kicking off the year by declaring in his State of the Union address that "the era of big government is over."

What explains Reagan's political success? And what explains Clinton's? The answer to the first question, it turns out, is not much different from the answer to the second.

The story of Reagan's election as governor of California in 1966 is told engagingly by historian Matthew Dallek in The Right Moment. It's a familiar story in its main outline, but Dallek is masterful at providing the telling detail. For instance, although everyone knows that Reagan used to be a liberal Democrat, it will be news to most that he once made anti-Republican radio commercials for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Dallek also has an eye for the revealing memo. As an indicator of just how ideologically liberal California's Democratic activists were in the 1960s, consider this list of "magic words" that Brown campaign aide Fred Dutton told the governor would make the California Democratic Council swoon when he spoke at its convention: "sacrifice; India; people in need in the world; dangers of atomic testing."

Arcana aside, Dallek's thorough account provides the raw material for an explanation of Reagan's political success that might be called "Free and Cantrilplus." Reagan's first appearance in national politics came in October 1964, when he delivered a half-hour televised speech for Goldwater that columnist David Broder called at the time "the most successful national political debut since William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention with the 'Cross of Gold' speech." As soon as Reagan was done speaking, thousands of small donors sent contributions to the Goldwater campaign totaling $8 million.

"The Speech," as it came to be known among Reaganites, was one that Reagan had written, rewritten, and learned by heart in the course of delivering it dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times as an after-dinner speaker for General Electric. It resonated with Americans' ideological conservatism by celebrating the virtues of the free market and excoriating big-government planners. Nothing special about that: Goldwater could ring those chimes too. What Reagan left out that Goldwater usually put in, however, were attacks on Social Security and the TVA and the other federal programs that Americans cherished. What Reagan put in that Goldwater left out was optimism. We don't have to "choose between a left or right," Reagan declared. "There is only up or down: up to man's age-old dream--the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order--or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism."

Reagan's speech spurred several major backers of the California Republican Party--most of them firstgeneration Americans who had become successful self-made businessmen--to recruit him to run for governor in 1966. The surest sign that Reagan would not repeat Goldwater's mistakes was that he hired the political consulting firm of Spencer-Roberts to direct his campaign. That was the firm that had managed liberal New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller's near-miss challenge to Goldwater in the 1964 California presidential primary. When Goldwater volunteered to help out in 1966, Reagan deftly replied with a private letter that thanked and praised the senator at length but said not a word about his offer.

Reagan had many things going for him in 1966. Brown may have scored a few points by charging that all Reagan had ever done was act in the movies and on television, but Reagan had the screen actor's gift of connecting with a mass audience through the lens of a camera. (Besides, movies and television are a major industry in California.) Brown's media advisers had little ability of their own, and less to work with in their candidate: One offered to lend the portly governor an exercise bike; another urged him to take off his glasses. More important, Californians were unimpressed with Brown's recent handling of student demonstrators at Berkeley and rioters in Watts. Indeed, Dallek argues that the key to Reagan's victory--and "the decisive turning point in American politics"--was his effective use of the law-and-order issue.

The real key to Reagan's political success, however, was a recipe that included massive doses of ideological conservatism and optimism while leaving all but a pinch of operational conservatism in the pantry. In his public appearances, Reagan waxed rhapsodic about the joys of free enterprise and California's bright future. When asked about changing abortion laws, however, he replied that he would wait until the legislature acted, then "go for the necessary advice to men of science, men of medicine, and men of God." He handled most other hotbutton issues the same way.

Just as Ronald Reagan inherited a Republican Party that was on the ropes in 1966 (and, again, in 1980), Bill Clinton won the nomination of a reeling Democratic Party in 1992. Like his recent predecessors among Democratic presidential candidates--George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis--Clinton ran as an operational liberal promising a host of new federal programs designed to make the economy grow. But unlike them, Clinton leavened his rhetoric with two buzzwords that he'd appropriated from conservatives: "opportunity" and "responsibility."

Clinton also ran an upbeat, optimistic campaign in 1992, painting a future filled with technological wonders and an expanding economic pie rather than gas lines, oil spills, and nuclear winter. (It was Al Gore, his running mate, who talked about global warming.) He realized that optimism is liberalism's main contribution to politics. The idea--starry-eyed, by historical standards--that human beings can create the society they want to live in is liberal to the core. Clinton knew that it is liberals whose chins, like FDR's, ought to be jutting upward when they talk about the future.

Michael Waldman, who worked in Clinton's domestic-policy shop for two years before serving as chief speechwriter from 1995 to 1999, is understandably fixated with words in POTUS Speaks. (POTUS is govspeak for president of the United States.) Hilarious as it is, given that he wrote the material, Waldman praises the president for "the effervescent power of his words" and marvels, "As I watched Clinton persuade [many fellow Democrats of the virtues of NAFTA], I found myself becoming persuaded too." But Waldman's larger point is correct: The president's political success was as much a function of what he said and how he said it as of what he did to change government.

The 1996 re-election campaign incorporated all the main elements of the Clinton formula for victory at the polls. Operational liberalism was one such element: Clinton demolished Republican congressional leaders in the battle over the 1996 budget by refusing to cut spending for popular domestic programs, even when that meant shutting down the government. On the campaign trail, he offered the litany of "Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment" so relentlessly that reporters began recording the phrase in their notebooks as "M2E2."

Optimism was another constant in the Clinton re-election campaign. On Clinton's behalf, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor instructed the speechwriters and his fellow cabinet members: "We're not the party of government; we're the party of the future." Clinton himself repeatedly referred to his presidency as a "bridge to the twenty-first century," promising the voters a bridge "big enough, strong enough, and wide enough for everybody to walk across" and asserting that "everyone has a right to walk on the bridge." Reporters and political junkies wearied of the image (by one count, Clinton uttered the word "bridge" nine times in an average campaign speech), but the voters liked hearing that the future was something to look forward to and that there was a place in it for them.

Clinton never forgot, however, that Americans are ideological conservatives. Waldman reports that in 1993 the new president ignored advice from George Stephanopoulos to answer Reagan's "government is the problem" pronouncement with a ringing defense of government in his own first inaugural address. Instead, three years later Clinton kicked off his campaign for re-election with the "big government is over" declaration. After he won, he began tempering that statement, but only by balancing it: "Government is not the problem, and government is not the solution," he said, in his second inaugural address). In the 1998 State of the Union speech, he proclaimed, "We have moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the enemy and those who say government is the answer." For Waldman, the "words that defined the Clinton presidency" most persuasively were those that defended government programs without defending government as a proposition.

Clinton is a controversial figure among liberals, and he is likely to remain so for many years--for all sorts of reasons. But surely all can agree that by reclaiming the cloak of optimism he did liberalism a great service. Gore's dreary 2000 campaign is a reminder that liberals can still sink into the dank morass inhabited by the political ghosts of McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis. "You've never had it so good, and I'm mad as hell about it" is not, as journalist Michael Kinsley pointed out, a theme likely to electrify the nation. The Democratic standard-bearer in 2004 will have more to learn from the party's only recent occupant of the White House than from its several recent failed contenders.