The Protean President

Changed, changed utterly

Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States on the promise that he would reform and restore order to Democratic liberalism. For his re-election campaign Clinton has established a new purpose: to reform and restore order to Republican conservatism. The Clinton agenda of 1992 required a level of will and determination seen in recent years only on the right, in such figures as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Once in office, Clinton largely abandoned that mission, and in the election of 1994 the bottom fell out for the Democratic Party. What he did not do for the left, he will do for the right. His bid to lead a reborn Democratic Party into the twenty-first century may have imploded on November 8, 1994, but his responsiveness to an ever-changing electorate has found new means of expression--as a brake on the excesses of an ascendant right.

With the Republican Congress claiming a mandate to end spiraling deficits, subsidies for the undeserving poor, and violence and illegitimacy in the underclass, Clinton now stands apart from both parties, accepting the shift to the right but determined to protect the elderly and the innocent. To establish his new persona and purpose, Clinton has acquired a fresh set of advisers. The 1992 team of deeply partisan Democrats--James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, Paul Begala, and Mandy Grunwald--has been replaced largely by a crew of the politically ambidextrous: Dick Morris, a Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat who does not think in terms of partisan gain; Morris's favored pollsters, Doug Schoen and Mark Penn, who, with roots in New York rather than Washington, are less mired than other pollsters in the partisan battleground; and the media consultant Robert Squier, who has watched his clientele of centrist Democratic senators become roadkill for the new Republican majority.

politics picture The 1996 campaign will test whether it is possible to win re-election amid the wreckage of the lost opportunity of 1992. Clinton's victorious drive to the White House--a campaign infused with explicit and symbolic messages on race, values, taxes, responsibility, and the work ethic--laid the groundwork for a revival of a competitive Democratic Party. Clinton drove home the message that the party, embroiled in the upheavals of multiple rights revolutions, had allowed liberalism to become a constrictive orthodoxy, unable to set priorities or to foster responsibility.

The politics of identity--of race, ethnicity, sex, and sexual orientation--had taken over the moral core of liberalism. The Clinton campaign sought to subordinate identity politics to more broadly held beliefs and goals. The genius of Clinton's confrontation with Jesse Jackson over Sister Souljah, in June of 1992, for example, lay in his use of the event to affirm integrationist principle, not to reject it.

Clinton's opportunity upon election was to relocate Democratic liberalism within a distinctive and resonant American ethic, and to stanch the bleeding of a political left that had come to stand increasingly in opposition to the culture and values of a crucial Democratic constituency: working men and women without college degrees, with incomes at or below the median. In the 1992 campaign Clinton had taken a first step toward bringing white working- and lower-middle-class voters back to the Democratic Party. These voters stand at the fulcrum of American politics. When they lean to the right, they empower a conservative, top-down majority. When they shift to the left, they make possible a restoration of the bottom-up coalition that led the Democratic Party to victory for two generations.

These voters determine the shape of the majority coalition in American elections. When they are persuaded, as they were by the brand of liberalism that arose in the mid-1960s, that the function of government is to collect tax dollars in order to finance an agenda tilting private and public workplaces and schools away from their interests, these voters become a powerful ally of the Republican Party. When they are persuaded that government can work to take care of their future and their families, to foster a workplace with the potential for security and advancement, and to enlarge educational opportunity for their children, these voters become the mainstay of the Democratic Party. Republicans scare these voters away when their policies are seen as favoring the rich at the expense of the working and middle classes. Democrats lose these voters when they focus on the politics of redistribution on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

The rhetoric of Clinton's 1992 campaign reads like a prose poem directed to this crucial constituency:

"As President, I'll see that [young people] get the same deal everyone should have: [they've got to] play by the rules, stay off drugs, stay in school, and stay off the streets. Don't have children if you're not prepared to support them, because governments don't raise children, people do."

"I can't be for quotas. . . . I'm for responsibility at every turn."

"I do want to say something to the fathers in this country who have chosen to abandon their children by neglecting their child support. Take responsibility for your children or we will force you to do so."

There is a wealth of poll data to document that Clinton, despite winning with 43 percent of the vote, was positioned in the period immediately after the 1992 election to transform American policy. In January of 1993 the Republican Ed Goeas and the Democrat Celinda Lake together conducted one of a series of "battleground" polls on a wide range of issues, testing the relative strength of Clinton and the Democratic Party on one side, and Republicans in Congress on the other. By huge margins the public favored Clinton and the Democrats over the Republicans on reforming welfare (by 39 points), on reducing the deficit (28 points), on improving health care (55 points), and on improving education (46 points). Clinton and the Democrats even held an eight-point advantage on the traditionally Republican issue of "holding the line on taxes."

The climate was ideal for an incoming Democratic President. The real opportunity awaiting Clinton lay in the potential his campaign had established to break the racial logjam that has become the defining quandary of American politics. An important subtext of the election had been the preliminary formation of a black leadership structure committed to policies, rhetoric, and coalition strategies far less confrontational than those of Jesse Jackson. Prominent among the new black leadership were the Democratic U.S. Representatives John Lewis, of Georgia, Mike Espy, of Mississippi, and Bill Jefferson, of Louisiana; an emerging generation of black mayors, including Michael White, of Cleveland, and Norm Rice, of Seattle, who were winning office just as such past leaders as Wilson Goode, David Dinkins, Eugene Sawyer, and Coleman Young faced defeat or retirement; and growing numbers of state legislators and city-council members. The new leaders were acutely aware that Democratic majorities were dependent on biracial coalitions, and that holding too tightly to liberal social and racial orthodoxies often alienated white supporters. In addition, these blacks were the linchpins of any Democratic strategy to enact substantial welfare reform.

In the weeks before the 1992 election the black political community was undergoing constructive upheaval. "I think what we are witnessing is what I call a quiet revolution in American politics," John Lewis said. "In the communities I deal with, people want to win; they want to see a Democrat in the White House. . . . They understand that in order to win, it is necessary to bring back those [white] individuals who had left the party." Kay Patterson, a state senator from South Carolina, praised Clinton for his confrontation with Jesse Jackson over Sister Souljah. "I think it helped him," Patterson said. "He didn't have to bow down and kowtow to Jesse, and personally I like that. Hell, be your own man, not bowing and scraping, getting splinters in your head. . . . Jesse Jackson can shake the apples from the tree, but he doesn't know how to make the jelly from the apples." Arthur Blackwell, then the chairman of the Wayne County [Detroit] Commission, who differed with Clinton on trade policy and the death penalty, asked, "Is it more important for him to appeal on every single thing and lose, or sixty to seventy percent and win? I would argue the latter. Having someone like Mondale and Dukakis say exactly what you want them to say and losing? You should never compromise your integrity or principles, but you are in the business to win. You have to evaluate how to win."

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Thomas Byrne Edsall

Thomas B. Edsall is the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. He covered national politics for the Washington Post for 25 years and currently writes a weekly online column for the New York Times. He is the author of The Age of Austerity.

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