Dead Center

We're going to govern from the center," White House political director Doug Sosnik said in the immediate aftermath of the election, and no doubt they will. The question is, which center?

*There's the balanced budget center, which has demonstrable popular support. There's the preserve-universal-entitlements center, for which every poll shows majority backing. And there's the slash-universal-entitlements center, and the expand-NAFTA-to-all-the-Western-Hemisphere center—centers that don't have much mass support, positions for which you'd never have heard an encouraging word in the election just completed. Democrats and Republicans alike assured voters that cutting entitlements was the farthest thing from their minds, while expanding NAFTA went totally unmentioned.

And yet, there's every reason to think that the reduction of entitlements and the expansion of free trade have emerged from the Stalemate of 1996 at or near the top of the governing center's to-do list for the next four years. The election has assured that we will see no more either of the liberal Clinton of 1993-94 or the rabid Gingrich of 1995. In their stead, we have the center—but the center as defined by K Street and Wall Street rather than Main Street. It was a bad year and a bad election for the yahoo wing of business, the small business lobbies seeking the repeal of every regulation back to the child labor laws; they rose and fell with the Gingrich tide. But elite business—globalist, not crudely antistatist but surely anti-entitlement growth—awoke the morning after the election to find a world wholly to their liking: a government with no branch under liberal control, and inclined to give bipartisan support to business's otherwise not hugely popular agenda. (Indeed, in the first week after the election, the quintessential K Street idea was that Bill Clinton should ask Bob Dole to head a bipartisan entitlement review commission. Crude populists might point out that Clinton had just carried 31 states insisting that he had fought to save Medicare while Dole could not be trusted to, but a true Beltway Bipartisan cannot be deterred by a mere election outcome.)

Besides, the election outcome was centrist, if not entirely centrist as the Beltway Bipartisans defined it. Some small, moderately progressive advances may yet be possible during Clinton II—pension portability, mild reforms of HMOs and campaign finance. But the changes that loom large over Clinton's second term— a balanced budget, a scaling back of Medicare, the possible privatization of Social Security, and the acceleration of global free trade—portend not merely a wrenching transformation of the economy, but also a widening of the split between progressive and centrist members of Clinton's own party. By and large, the election of 1996 leaves American liberals facing two (and likely four) years spent struggling for small-scale victories and trying to stave off epochal defeats.

No wonder the most important liberals of Clinton's first term—Robert Reich, George Stephanopoulos, Harold Ickes—are leaving (though Ickes may merely be downwardly mobile within the administration). Their centrist rivals who chiefly crafted the campaign that returned Clinton to power succeeded all too well—producing a centrist victory that looks to isolate liberals during Clinton's second term.



Since there can't be much of a market for a book on campaign 1996 (a year so utterly without interest that Theodore White, had he been alive, might have preferred covering smallmouth bass for Field and Stream), the postelection specials of Time and Newsweek will have to provide our definitive inside looks at the campaign just completed. In both sagas, the heroes are pollster-strategists Mark Penn and Doug Schoen, whom consultant Dick Morris brought into the White House inner circle. Reich, Ickes, and Stephanopoulos, along with Clinton's former pollster, Stan Greenberg, are the heavies—liberals replaying the campaign of 1992, tiresomely arguing that Clinton address the economic angst haunting millions of Americans. The magazines solemnly recount Penn and Schoen's epiphany on a sweltering July evening in 1995—pouring over poll numbers, realizing that economic anxiety wasn't all it was cracked up to be. "Values!" Penn cries (with all the assurance of the guy in The Graduate who tells Dustin Hoffman, "Plastics!"). "It's about values."

Thus a new strategic premise was born—that the economic anxiety that turned up in Greenberg's and other Democrats' polls had subsided, that the Pat Buchanan boomlet was an epiphenomenon signifying nothing, that Clinton should concentrate chiefly on allaying the largely noneconomic anxieties of suburban moms. Clinton didn't discard the liberals entirely—it was they, not Penn, Schoen, and Morris, who persuaded him he would win public support by standing up for Medicare rather than cutting a budget deal. But with that one major course correction, he gleefully trundled down the path that Morris & Co. had charted, hailing the V-chip, ignoring issues of corporate accountability, and winning a smashing victory.

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Problem is, the safe-'n'-centrist campaign Clinton waged produced a safe-'n'-centrist electorate, markedly smaller and more upscale than the one that had voted in 1992, when Clinton had waged a more progressive-populist campaign—too small and upscale, in fact, to elect a Democratic Congress. Voter participation declined by about seven million Americans from 1992 to 1996, with almost all that decline coming from Americans in households with annual incomes under $50,000. (Their share of the electorate was 6 percent smaller than it had been in 1992.) Americans with annual household incomes over $50,000, by contrast, represented 6 percent more of the turnout, with all but 1 percent of that increase coming among those with incomes over $75,000.

Democrats poll worse with each step up the economic ladder. Clinton carried those voters from households making under $15,000 by a 31 percent margin, and every category under $75,000 by a successively smaller margin (those making between $50,000 and $75,000 by a scant 2 percent). Dole carried only those voters with household incomes over $75,000, by a hefty 10 percent.

Historically, when turnout falls from one election to the next, it generally falls disproportionately among the non-affluent. This year was no exception: a postelection poll for the Campaign for America's Future showed that voters of 1992 who were nonvoters in 1996 were overwhelmingly downscale and inclined to vote Democratic. Had these vanishing voters shown up at the polls, the popular vote for House candidates would have shifted from a tie between the two parties to a 51-49 advantage for the Democrats—quite possibly enough to restore the House to Democratic control.

The famous victory devised by Penn, Schoen, and Morris, then, came at a price. One could imagine a campaign that at least mixed Penn and Schoen's helpful tips for busy moms with more of Greenberg's emphasis on issues of economic security. Postelection polling Greenberg conducted for the Campaign for America's Future showed considerably more Clinton supporters were drawn to him by his support for domestic programs—Medicare, education, and environmental protections in particular—than by his espousal of such centrist evergreens as a balanced budget, crime prevention, and welfare reform. (The margin was 59 to 31.) Among moderate and conservative Democrats, and first-time voters, the margin was just as wide. More tellingly, both Greenberg's polling and midsummer polling conducted for the Preamble Center showed widespread support for government intervention to make corporations more accountable to the workers they employ and the communities they inhabit—even at the risk of making the corporations less competitive.

That, however, was the campaign Clinton didn't run. At least partly as a consequence of the one he did run, centrist advisers like domestic policy chief Bruce Reed are busily devising microprograms for a gridlocked second term, while liberals flee the administration. As far back as late 1994, Dick Morris was explicit in his preference that Clinton govern from the center and isolate the left. In 1997 (and in absentia), Morris may yet get his wish. Clinton will here and there align with congressional progressives, but chiefly on discrete issues that may be unwinnable: health insurance for uninsured children, restoring food stamps to legal immigrants, creating $3.4 billion in tax credits for jobs for former AFDC recipients.

But progressive Democrats are likely to find themselves arrayed against their centrist colleagues—and against the Republicans, and the administration—on the major items, much as they were pushed into opposition during Clinton's first term by welfare reform and NAFTA. On the highest-stakes game of all, entitlement reform, congressional Democrats are certainly beholden to labor, which opposes major reductions in benefits, to a far greater degree than the administration is. The Clinton White House could make common cause with congressional liberals in defending entitlements, but that would require it to buck the establishment consensus—a chancy course it generally eschewed during its first term.

With the specter of Gingrichism considerably diminished, the imperative of Democratic solidarity has dwindled as well. The factions in the next intra-party battle can already be glimpsed. During Clinton's first term, House minority leader Dick Gephardt broke with the administration over welfare reform and NAFTA (he even advocated a trade zone with an advanced economy, the European Union, which the administration instantly dismissed); Vice President Al Gore led the charge for both. In the second term, such rifts are likely only to widen, particularly if the Sweeney-ized AFL-CIO has the courage to reward its friends and punish its opponents at the highest levels of the Democratic Party. In general, the era of government retrenchment all but ensures that the Democrats, absent a unifying threat like Gingrich, will increasingly become a house divided.



Republicans emerged from the 1996 elections in even worse shape than the Democrats. After all, the central factor in both Clinton's comeback and the Democrats' gains at the congressional level was public revulsion at the Republican ascendancy—specifically, at the control of the Republican South and Mountain West over the legislative agenda. More succinctly, at Newt.

At the level of presidential politics, the South swung into the GOP's column decades ago. But the Republicanization of the South at the presidential level didn't fully polarize the nation along geographic and cultural lines. Republican presidents, after all, won by carrying nationwide coalitions and espousing fairly broad agendas. The Republicanization of the South at the congressional level, however, has proved far more polarizing. The new leadership—Gingrich, Armey, DeLay, Lott, Nickles—advocated antigovernment positions that threatened middle-class entitlements, aid to education, and the environment. These positions played well in the South and Mountain West but repelled unmarried women and swing groups that had been drifting Republican for a quarter century.

Thus Clinton became the first Democrat in 20 years, for instance, to carry a majority of the Catholic vote (53 percent), running strongest in the most Catholic states in the nation—Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York—while Dole's states tended to be among the least Catholic. Clinton also carried 25 of the 30 most heavily unionized states; Dole, 16 of the 21 least unionized.

In general, the election marked an intensification of regional political alignments. Of the 19 congressional seats the Democrats picked up, 17 were in states Clinton carried. Of the 12 Republicans picked up, 9 were in states won by Dole. New England emerged from the election with 18 Democratic House members and just four Republicans, with Bernie Sanders thrown in for good measure. And in the vast quadrant of Dole's greatest strength, running from North Dakota south through Oklahoma, west across the Texas Panhandle all the way through the California desert, and north through the Sierras up to central Washington, the Republicans now hold 49 House seats to the Democrats' five.

But Republicans won outside the South and Mountain West (and sometimes within) only by repudiating the Gingrich agenda. Indeed, Republicans emerged from the election in full flight from their antistatism of 1995, beset by doubts as to the viability of the kind of antitax jihad their presidential candidate had waged, and bereft of their historic advantage on foreign and defense issues as a result of communism's untimely demise. Only their insistence on a balanced budget remained to define them—and even here, there were Republican supply-siders in opposition, and, more problematically, Democratic opportunists, the President most especially, in support.

Neither side returns to power, then, with a mandate of its own; indeed, this may have been the most mandateless of American elections. An electorate that turned out at a record-low rate of 49 percent returned the Republicans to the House with 49 percent of their vote and Clinton to the White House with 49 percent of their vote. A minority electorate has given us a minority president and a minority Congress.

Nor does this electorate tend toward activist government. In 1992, after 12 years of Reagan-Bush, exit polls found voters preferring a government that did more to one that did less by a margin of 49 percent to 41 percent. That was both Clinton's and the liberals' moment of opportunity, but both made strategic blunders and neither could overcome the opposition from various sectors of business. In the Gingrich landslide of 1994, the polling on this question reversed itself; just 41 percent favored a government that did more while 56 percent favored a government that did less. Nothing in the 1996 campaign turned this dynamic around: Still only 41 percent favored a more activist government this November, while 52 percent favored a government that did less. This does not mean that Americans want to dismantle existing programs that meet their needs, like Medicare or Social Security. It does mean that a balanced budget amendment has widespread support and that the basic terrain of American politics is largely inhospitable to progressive reform.

So what are the prospects for changing that terrain?



The short list of reasons why the 1996 elections weren't entirely bleak begins not only with the gender gap but also with the emergence of the Hispanic vote.

The 1996 election was the first in which the third wave of immigrants played an appreciable part nationally, and, remarkably enough, the Republicans seem to have knocked them into the Democratic column as thoroughly as they did the second immigrant wave 60 years earlier. Until this year, the Hispanic vote seemed increasingly up for grabs. Over the past decade, though the Hispanic population has been soaring, Hispanic turnout has stagnated, while Hispanics who did vote were moving in a Republican direction (though a majority still voted Democratic). This past November, though, the Latino backlash against Republican nativism suddenly emerged full blown at the polls. In California, the reaction against Republican support for 1994's anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and 1996's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 prompted unprecedented levels of naturalization and registration; and the Latino share of the electorate jumped from 7 percent (in 1992) to 10 percent. In Texas, where a Latino Democrat challenged Phil Gramm for his Senate seat, the Hispanic share of the turnout rose from 10 to 16 percent. In Florida, where even the Cuban-American community seethed at the Republican welfare bill's termination of aid to legal immigrants, turnout rose too. Nationally, Hispanics went from 3 percent of the electorate in 1992 to 5 percent in 1996.

And they came out to vote Democratic. Nationally, Hispanic support for Clinton rose from 61 percent in 1992 to 73 percent in 1996. In California, Clinton's support soared from 51 percent in 1992 to 75 percent in 1996. Conservatives have long argued that the relatively traditionalist stance of Latinos on cultural questions would incline them to the GOP. Sure enough, while Californians were approving the medical marijuana initiative on the 1996 ballot, Latinos opposed it, by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin in a Los Angeles Times exit poll. This had no measurable effect, however, on their other votes. They opposed Proposition 209, the affirmative action repeal, by a 76-24 percent margin. They supported Proposition 210, raising the state's minimum wage, by a whopping 86-14 percent margin, according to polls commissioned by the Southwest Voter Research Institute. In Los Angeles-area neighborhoods that had been Republican strongholds for six decades, they unseated Bob Dornan with a Latina challenger (in Northern Orange County), and ousted enough Republican legislative incumbents (in Long Beach, Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena) to shift the California Assembly to Democratic control.

The flaw in the Republicans' "traditionalist" argument was that it forgot to note that the Eastern and Southern European immigrants of the century's early years were conservative on cultural questions, too—but when confronted with a Republican Party espousing nativist policies and a Democratic Party that stood for progressive economics, they opted for the Democrats. Led by the wondrously shortsighted Pete Wilson, the Republicans seem bent on recreating that dynamic today. Their continued opposition to repealing the welfare bill's sanctions against legal immigrants will only intensify the Hispanic drift toward the Democrats. If this year's level of Hispanic mobilization can be maintained in future elections, it's conceivable the Hispanic share of the electorate could double in a little over a decade. In 1996, Clinton won nearly a majority of the total vote with support that was just 74 percent white. (Dole's vote, by contrast, was 94 percent white.) Early in the next century, a Democrat could win a majority with a vote just two-thirds white.

There's one other way in which the mobilization of the third immigrant wave parallels the mobilization of the second: In both cases, the immigrant mobilization was hastened by union mobilization. In 1936, Pennsylvania went Democratic for the first time since the Civil War as the state's ethnic steel and mining towns were finally mobilized—by the CIO. In 1996, historically Republican areas in California, ranging from Andrea Seastrand's Santa Barbara district to Bob Dornan's Santa Ana one, went Democratic at least partly because the Latino vote had been mobilized by John Sweeney's new model AFL-CIO.

Labor was the other bright spot for progressives in the 1996 election—although labor's greatest impact came well before the actual vote, when its advertisements last spring placed the Republicans on the defensive on issues like Medicare and the minimum wage. On election day, while working-class voting was falling generally, voting among union members rose. Union household voters constituted 23 percent of the 1996 turnout, up from 19 percent in 1992, and that turnout was heavily Democratic. A postelection poll of AFL-CIO members showed 68 percent to 32 percent support for Democratic over Republican House candidates. While women and nonwhites tend to favor the Democrats in any case, the gap between union and nonunion white males was huge. White male unionists supported Democratic House members by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin; nonunion white men gave Democrats just 36 percent of their vote and Republicans 64 percent.

The problem for Democrats isn't the level of support they attain among unionists; it's the declining number of Americans who belong to unions. In its first year in power, though, the new Sweeney regime threw most of its resources into politics rather than organizing. Some member unions still had a passing acquaintance with how to do elections, though many others had to have their staffers and stewards trained and led gently from their offices to the streets for the first time in four decades. Nonetheless, Sweeney calculated, politics at least held some prospect for short-term success—a calculation that November's vote at least partly vindicated.

Organizing held no such prospects. Labor law had long since decayed to the point where organizing had to proceed around rather than through the law. In some parts of the country, there were three or four internationals that seemed to know how to organize despite the law; but for the rest—for the vast majority—organizing had long been a foreign country. The entire culture of the unions had to be changed—from one where staff serviced the existing membership to one where staff and members organized new members. Organizers and members had to be trained, new strategies developed, joint drives planned. None of this was the work of a single year. And organizing on a scale that could actually reverse the percentage decline in membership—a decline that has proceeded apace for 41 years now—was almost unimaginable.

But absent organizing on that scale, a change in the political terrain is equally hard to imagine. The Republicans will have to be spectacularly inept to have the gender gap widen beyond the historic 16 points it reached this year. The electorate will become more Hispanic (it will not become more black), but not in numbers that by themselves will be transformative, and even that development requires the help of the union movement. Both to shift the balance of forces on election day, and to provide some counter to the corporate domination of the national agenda between elections, progressives need a considerably larger union movement. For its part, the movement is looking at large-scale sectoral organizing drives in some major cities, where it is already helping out, and in some cases spearheading, "living wage" campaigns to require by municipal statute that city contractors increase their employees' pay. Sweeney's regime can already claim considerable success in addressing the subjective factors in labor's decline—issues of personnel, training, and morale. But the objective impediments to union growth—the globalization of the economy, the erosion of labor rights, the atomization of working America—remain in place.



If there's a message from the 1996 elections, it's that the second Progressive Era has yet to dawn. Even worse, the social compact of the postwar years is coming unstuck everywhere it was put in place. While progressives in both the United States and the United Kingdom search for models in the stakeholder capitalism and welfare states of Europe, the stakeholder capitalism and welfare states of Europe are being disassembled under the pressure of investment flight and a pending unification on terms dictated by financial markets. Instead, it is our model of capitalism, which maximizes profit and minimizes the rights of workers and communities, that seems to be rolling over Europe. We may be moving toward some grand level playing field, but largely by a leveling downward within the industrialized democracies.

And what of an economic downturn—will that at least alter the terrain? Most probably, but not necessarily in a progressive direction. In Europe, where unemployment is stubbornly high and an extensive range of services is being cut back, unionists take to the streets in unprecedented numbers, and right-wing nationalists go to the polls in still greater numbers. The parties of the mainstream Euroleft—the social democratic, socialist, and labor parties that have been in and out of western European governments for the past 50 years—seem oddly distanced from both protests. Maastricht looms before them as free trade looms before the Democrats here—a boon to some of their newer, more upscale supporters; a curse to more of their long-term, working-class supporters; a seeming inevitability to all. There as here, the oppositional impulse is forfeited, to unions on the streets, to the LePens and Haiders, Buchanans and Perots at the polls. The parties whose raison d'être was that they successfully built and managed a mixed economy at the national level for several decades after World War II are today so paralyzed they cannot even conceptualize a transnational mixed economy in the wake of the globalization of markets, corporations, and banks.

Clinton's solution, like Tony Blair's and that of an increasing number of leaders of Europe's historically left parties, is to go with the flow. For many of his supporters, Clinton is apparently convinced, the most he can deliver is retrenchment with a human face. Here and in Europe, labor is not sufficiently powerful—optimists among us may say not yet sufficiently powerful—to alter that equation. The result is a slow, sometimes wrenching downward drift that over time can only erode support for the onetime parties of government—and for government itself.

Markets are not "smart," nor government "dumb," as Dick Armey asserts; but markets are surely growing more powerful at government's—and politics', and democracy's—expense. It is not only progressives who should feel alarm at this prospect; it is chiefly progressives, though, who must begin to remedy it.

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