The Washington Times
In what way is the 2000 Gore campaign different from the Clinton campaigns of 1992 and 1996? The answer to that question provides some insight into the political odyssey of the Democrats over the past decade and where their party may be trying to go now.
Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 and 1996 as a New Democrat – a centrist who was no longer a captive of the party’s increasingly unpopular ideological liberalism. Is Al Gore a New Democrat? In certain respects, absolutely. You don’t need a GOP president to reappoint Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve. The Democratic nominee has said he’d do it, too. We’re all monetarists now.
But that doesn’t seem to be all there is to Mr. Gore – Clinton III. As Vice President Bush, running to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988, sought to distinguish himself (at least rhetorically) with his appeal for a “kinder, gentler” nation, so Mr. Gore, now his “own man,” has articulated a difference in emphasis. He’s standing up for working families, he says; he’s going to “fight” for them against the “powerful forces” working against them.
Bill Clinton, that rake, may have seduced the “soccer moms” – those affluent suburban Volvo drivers. But they were hardly the real reason behind his two electoral victories. And in any case, for a party not wholly unmoored from its progressive days and its commitment to those less well-off, persuading the affluent that it is now safe to vote Democratic is hardly the political calling at its noblest.
Mr. Gore is not acting solely out of noblesse oblige, however. He also thinks he is going where the votes are. A theoretical justification for the political utility of Mr. Gore’s course correction to New Democrat politics can be found in an interesting book by two avowed partisans of activist government, “America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters” (Basic Books).
White folks who haven’t graduated from college are a huge subset of the electorate, and Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers think their behavior at the polls explains a lot of election results. They are the “forgotten majority,” and a college degree is the “Great Divide” in America. For those who have one, the good times have been rolling for years. For those without, only very recently has the economic growth of the past two decades started lifting their boats, as the authors see it.
Americans, including the “forgotten majority,” have increasingly identified themselves as “conservative.” The authors think they have discovered the true meaning of this self-portrait. Americans, they say, are “pragmatic” conservatives. They distrust Washington not out of an ideological conviction in favor of smaller government but as a result of having reached the wholly rational conclusion that government has nothing to offer them.
Their conservatism, in the authors’ view, is merely their way of articulating their long-frustrated desire for the assistance of activist government. Beneath the distrust and the cynicism of the “forgotten majority” beats a progressive heart. You can tell from people’s responses to pollsters’ specific question about government, the ones in which majorities say government should do more about education, protecting the environment, ensuring access to health care, etc.
The current “partisan stalemate and policy paralysis” of Washington is largely a product of disaffection of the “forgotten majority” from the Democratic Party at the congressional level. At the presidential level, the authors attempt to rewrite the New Democrats’ narrative of Bill Clinton’s success by ascribing it not to his centrism but to the populist energy of “Putting People First” in 1992 and in 1996, his vigorous defense of “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment” – that is, traditional Democratic issues.
The current narrow division of the electorate between Democratic and Republican supporters persists, the authors say, only because neither party has yet realized that it could win itself an enduring majority by winning over the “forgotten majority.” The way to do this, in their view, is to break through the “New Austerity” climate in Washington (which is to say, the top priority of paying off the national debt) and devote resources on a massive scale to the concerns of the working class. The means have never been more abundant for activist government. Although they present their project as something theoretically embraceable by either major party, that’s mainly for show.
This is an agenda for the New New Democrat.
That’s perhaps where Mr. Gore comes in. He has, at a minimum, dipped his toe into the waters of the “forgotten majority.” At least as a matter of rhetoric, he is their man. (The whiteness of the “forgotten majority” to which he is appealing perhaps accounts for his solicitude toward black voters, lest a key element of the Democratic base feel bypassed.)
At the policy level, it’s a different story. Mr. Gore has hardly gone as far as Messrs. Teixeira and Rogers want. But he has taken some steps. Mr. Gore is clearly trying to find a way to turn his market-friendly New Democrat inheritance from Mr. Clinton into the predicate for a new kind of progressivism for his party.