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.


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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.

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