Jfk's Children: The Class of '74
Their moment on the national stage has come (Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis are both members), but it has not yet gone. In this article The Atlantic’s political analyst looks at the appeal, as well as the limits, of a political style—one that represents the Democratic Party’s attempt to speak to the haves without losing its base among the have-nots
BY WILLIAM SCHNEIDER
We ARE NOT A BENCH OF LITTLE HEBERT HIMphreys,” Gary Hart said shortly after he was elected to the United States Senate from Colorado in 1974. With that remark Hart raised the battle Hag for a new generation of Democrats. The “we” he was referring to were the “Watergate babies,” the enormous cohort of new Democrats elected to public office in the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s resignation in August, 1974, and his pardon by Gerald Ford a month later.
Hart subsequently apologized to Senator Humphrey tor the remark, which he now acknowledges was in bad taste. What he meant, Hart told me last year, was that the Democrats in the Watergate group “were not automatic regulators, new-agency creators, and higher-tax-and-spend people.” He added, “I think that turned out to be true.” Hart had announced the emergence of a post-ideological generation of Democrats. Fourteen years later the class of '74 had its first presidential nominee. “ I his election is not about ideology,” Michael Dukakis told the Democratic National Convention last year. “It’s about competence.”
Dukakis’s defeat last year had a larger significance. It was not just a personal failure. It was the failure of a political movement that has come to power in the Democratic Party. Walter Mondale’s loss in 1984 taught the Democrats a lesson: the New Deal was old, and they had to come up with something new. And so by 1988 the new generation was ready to take over. Most of the party’s presidential candidates looked and sounded a lot like Gary Hart—so much so that when Hart decided to get back into the race, he found that other candidates were already saying what he had to say. He wasn’t needed. The party had already adopted his style and his message.
The class of ‘74 has purged the Democratic Party of its past: no more high-taxing, big-spending, New Deal liberalism. What have they replaced it with? Problem-solving. That works just fine in Congress and in the nation’s statehouses. But the message of 1988 was that the Democrats can’t win the presidency, or govern the country, without a vision—or a political base.
The “neoliberals,” as the members of the class of '74 are sometimes called, have set out to free the Democratic Party from the grip of special interests. But in their quest for an interest-free politics they have tailed to grasp a basic truth: that conflicts of interest are a legitimate part of political life. Moreover, a party that sets itself above interest politics has no secure lifeline to the electorate. The class of ‘74 is right about one thing. The Democrats cannot simply go back to the old politics. The problem is, the new politics doesn’t seem to have anything to say. Now that the neotiberals are a dominant force in the Democratic Party, where do they want to go? That’s what I tried to find out when I interviewed twenty-five of them recently.
DUKAKIS IS A WATERGATE BABY. HE WAS FIRST ELECTed governor of Massachusetts in 1974, when the Democrats made a net gain of four statehouses. Among the gubernatorial talent swept into office that year were Jerry Brown, in California; Hugh Carey, in New York; Richard Lamm, in Colorado; Ella Grasso, in Connecticut; and David Pryor, in Arkansas.
The Democrats also increased their margin in the l .S. Senate by four scats in 1974. Besides Hart, the new Senate Democrats included John Glenn, of Ohio; Patrick Leahy, of Vermont; John Culver, of Iowa; and Dale Bumpers, of Arkansas. But nowhere was the impact of 1974 greater than in the House of Representatives, where the Democrats’ astonishing net gain was forty-nine seats. Seventyfive freshman Democrats entered the House in 1975, almost two thirds of them having won seats previously held by Republicans. The new Democratic talent in the House included Stephen Solarz, Matt McHugh, Edward Pattison, and Tom Downey, of New York; Henry Waxman, Norman Mineta, and George Miller, of California; Christopher Dodd and Toby Moffett, of Connecticut; Andrew Maguire and James Elorio, of New Jersey; Paul Simon and Martin Russo, of Illinois; William Brodhead and James Blanchard, of Michigan; Berkley Bedell and Tom Markin, of Iowa; Elliott Levitas, of Georgia; Max Baucus, of Montana; Paul Tsongas, of Massachusetts; Bob Edgar, of Pennsylvania; Les AuCoin, of Oregon; and Tim Wirth, of Colorado. The historic moment was lost. In the late 1970s, as the national agenda shifted from foreign policy to economics, the old and the new Democrats began to move apart again. The tax revolt, the energy crisis, and the great inflation made big government the principal issue of the late 1970s. The national debate was over taxes, spending, and regulation. And on these issues the class of ‘74 was to the right of other Democrats. The New Politics liberalism of the early 1970s turned into the neoliberalism of the 1980s. Governor Jerry Brown lost his base in California in 1982. Liberals abandoned him after the “Medfly crisis,” because he had never cultivated their loyalty. When Brown ran for the Senate in 1982, the anti-Brown backlash not only elected a Republican senator but also helped to elect a Republican governor, George Deukmejian, on the same day. So there are two distinctions to be made—one between problem-solvers and advocates and another between establishment and anti-establishment politicians. In 1984 the party establishment nominated a presidential candidate from the advocacy school, a skilled and experienced proponent of interestgroup liberalism. He lost. In 1988 the party establishment turned to a candidate from the problem-solving school, one who promised competence, not ideology, and who won the nomination without making any commitments to special interests. He, too, lost. Only once has the Democratic Party nominated an anti-establishment candidate. That was Jimmy Carter, in 1976. He won. Despite what has happened to his own career, Hart feels that he succeeded in transforming the Democratic Farts’. “What happened after ‘84 was that my argument won,” he said. “My argument was, we’re going to have to find new leadership and new approaches. In 1988 that’s what the party did. If you look at the cast of characters in ‘84 and the cast of characters in ‘88, it’s a revolution. It’s a generational revolution.”
The class of ‘74 in the House of Representatives was a remarkable group, and it had a remarkable impact on Congress. “We had a real sense of urgency,” George Miller told me. “We thought we were special. We thought we were different. We came here to take the Bastille.”At first the class had two major goals, several members recalled. One was to end what remained of the war in Vietnam. The other was to reform Congress. “We found that almost all of us were talking about the seniority system, the fact that Congress had been dominated by Dixiecrat Democrats,” Les AuCoin said. “We needed to shake things up.”
They did. By April of 1975 the war was over, although it is hard to argue that the new Democrats in Congress were primarily responsible. What they clearly were responsible for was casting the votes that revolutionized congressional procedures. New members made up more than a quarter of House Democrats in 1975. Veteran reformers finally had the votes to end the seniority system and make committee chairmen responsible to the party caucus.
“We realized we were a large enough group to make a difference,” Tom Downey told me. “The older, more experienced political hands molded this very large lump of clay into the effective tool they wanted to modify the seniority system.” Toby Moffett recalled, “When I walked into the first meeting and started raising points of order my first day there, Bella Abzug looked over and said, ‘My God, reinforcements have arrived.’ I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Thus reinforced, the reformers took control of the House Democratic Caucus. They passed a rule requiring that committee chairmen be confirmed by secret ballot in the caucus. They took the power to make committee assignments away from the Ways and Means Committee and gave it to the party leadership. They democratized the subcommittee system. And in a dramatic show of strength, the freshman bloc was instrumental in ousting three powerful southern committee chairmen.
“I can still remember sitting in that room over on the House side,” Senator Tom Harkin said. “The committee chairmen came in to talk to us. It had just been unheard of before. They came in obsequiously and sat down and talked to the freshman Democrats, asking for our votes. That was incredible. It was quite a thing to see that happen.” Some chairmen were not obsequious enough. The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, F. Edward Hebert, of Louisiana, for instance, made a fatal mistake. As Moffett recalled, “Eddie Hebert came in and said, ‘Now, boys and girls.’ He actually called us ‘boys and girls.’ That was the end of him.”
The class of '74 did more than vote for procedural reforms. Its members discovered their shared backgrounds and shared experiences. Many of them had never held elective office before. Referring to new House members from both parties, the political scientist Burdett Loomis has written, “Considerably fewer than half of the 1974 class had any legislative experience, the lowest percentage in more than twenty-five years.” Many members, however, had grass-roots organizing experience as activists in various liberal movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. “We were the sixties generation that didn’t drop out,” Bob Edgar said.
Edgar’s career is an interesting case in point. He told me, “I had been a minister and a street activist in the city of Philadelphia. In 1972 I co-founded a service called the People’s Emergency Center, which was a shelter for women and families. I spent the late 1960s and early 1970s dealing with racial issues, gang-related issues, and housing issues in the city.
“It was the day Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox that I began to pursue the possibility of running for office. I ended up running nine months after I looked Democratic up in the telephone book. When I went to the Democrats in my community and asked them whom they planned to run, they said, ‘Well, the last time we won an election was in 1858, and the candidate we ran in 1972 lost by 42,000 votes.’ So the likelihood of winning was slim.
“They were convinced they had to find a lawyer who needed some publicity, and the party expected him to lose. I spent November to January of 1973-1974 looking for another candidate to run. I couldn’t find anybody, so I announced in February and then got elected in November. We put together a people’s campaign. In 1974 being a minister and not a lawyer wras an advantage.”
Edgar was re-elected five times. In 1986 he gave up his seat to run, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate. He now works for an arms-control organization in Washington.
Or take Toby Moffett. He and his wife had enlisted in the Peace Corps. When she became pregnant, they moved to Washington, where Moffett joined Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. “I was the guy dealing with street gangs, trying to get them to do storefront-school training projects,” he said. As a civil servant during the Nixon Administration, Moffett was put in charge of the Office of Students and Youth at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He left that position after calling a news conference to protest Kent State and the invasion of Cambodia. He then went to work for Senator Walter Mondale.
In that capacity Moffett set up hearings for the Select Committee on Children and Youth. “Ralph Nader had been after me to come back to Connecticut and start a citizen-action group statewide,” he told me. “So I finally left Mondale and started the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, ran it for three years, and then ran for Congress.”
Moffett served four terms in Congress before giving up his seat to run, unsuccessfully, for the Senate in 198Z. He is now a news anchor in Hartford—a fact that is not without significance. Media savvy was important in getting the class of '74 elected. As Norm Mineta put it, “They had grown up with TV. Over half of them were challenging incumbents. The incumbents had been in for ten, twenty, or thirty years and were not accustomed to dealing with television, whereas the new, young upstarts were very media conscious.”
The new House members were forty years old, on the average, in 1974. Their youth gave them a common generational experience. Former Senator Paul Tsongas observed, “Our generation did not know the Depression. The kinds of things that would motivate, say, Tip O’Neill were not part of our experience. We were a generation that was much more questioning, because of Vietnam.” This common background also produced an unusual class spirit. Tsongas said, “You got there and you saw all these other people next to you who shared the same philosophy. A remarkable number of friendships developed in that group. Most of my friends are former classmates.”
Moffett recalled one of the first meetings of the class of '74, at the old Congressional Hotel. “We went around the room and each of us took four or five minutes and said, ‘Here’s the way I ran, and here’s what I want to accomplish.’ Suddenly we realized that we were a force and that we had run on the same things, even though we had never had a meeting before or plotted the strategy. There was this tremendous spirit.”
Moffett wrote in his diary, “God, there’s something going on here.” He observes now, however, that “most of it was process stuff—anti-establishment, antiWatergate, let’s open up the system. It was glasnost, not perestroika. ”
Marty Russo recalled going to orientation meetings where “a couple of the real hard-nosed senior members would say, If you look to your right and to your left, two of you are going to be gone. Only one of you will survive. This was a fluke election.’” Russo added, “It was a challenge thrown down at our feet. We would say, ‘Baloney, this ain’t going to happen. We’re going to get re-elected. We’re going to work together and share ideas. What can we do? How can we do it better?’ We were a very close class in terms of things like that.”
George Miller and Toby Moffett organized a weekend retreat for the class in February of 1975. “I would say eighty percent of the class attended,” Moffett told me. “It was amazing. It’s not easy to get all those people to go away for a weekend.” He went on, “I remember Sam Donaldson and Lesley Stahl were outside the gates of Airlie House, waiting to see what we were going to do next, because we had toppled those chairmen and changed the caucus rules. What they didn’t know is that the conversation turned immediately to incumbency protection. That’s what the weekend was spent on. Out of that weekend came congressional town meetings all over the country, issue forums, more sophisticated ways to target direct mail. We had workshops on how to handle the press.” He added, “There were workshops on issues, but those were not nearly as popular. Everybody wanted to know how to get re-elected.”
It worked. Only two members lost their seats in 1976, and one of them was embroiled in a scandal. Altogether, twenty-three members of the class of ‘74—fewer than one in three—lost bids for re-election to the House between 1976 and 1988. Those who remained in the House have done extremely well, retaining their seats even during the Reagan years and advancing rapidly to positions of power in Congress. Their survival is all the more remarkable because so many of them were elected in strongly Republican constituencies. Les AuCoin was the first Democrat to hold his seat in Oregon. Pat Leahy is the only Democrat to have been elected to the Senate from Vermont in the state’s two-hundred-year history.
Tim Wirth said he survived in Colorado “by an enormous amount of hard work, and probably by a lot of luck.” He won his House seat by one percent of the vote in 1974. In 1976 he survived three recounts. He told me, “I used to wake up during every election campaign driven by fear, enveloped in fear, fear of survival. I could have been eliminated in any one of those moments.” Instead, he was elected to the Senate in 1986—with just over 50 percent of the vote.
“So many of us came from districts that were marginal at best and fully Republican in many cases,” Tom Harkin said. “So we knew we couldn’t rely on the party structure. We had to do something ourselves, individually, if we wanted to get re-elected.”The Democratic class of ‘74 initiated a new era of constituency politics in the House. George Miller goes home to California every weekend. Pat Leahy estimates that he met a third to a half of all the voters in Vermont during his first term.
Marty Russo said, “I was always around. If there were two people in a room. I’d show up.”
He said that a lot of members made “cold calls” to voters in their districts. “We’d call back to the district every night, ‘cold call’ people on the phone and say. ‘How are your This is Marty Russo. Just called to see how you’re doing.’ We found that it worked very well. People would be stunned to know their congressman was calling.”
The political environment got hostile for Democrats after 1976. The tax revolt broke out in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13 in California. The great inflation of the late 1970s produced a revolt against government, which brought Ronald Reagan to the White House and a Republican majority to the Senate in 1980. Democrats had no popular President to hang on to. I asked Paul Tsongas why so many Democrats from the class of '74 survived and even prospered in the face of such adversity. His answer: “We were not seen as the Democrats they were revolting against.”
The class of ‘74 was dominated by politicians whose inclinations were anti-establishment, whose careers were independent of political party, and who had to survive in unfriendly political territory. A new kind of liberal emerged out of this context: unorthodox, reform-minded, iconoclastic, and staunchly independent of Democratic Party tradition.
Many of the Democrats I spoke to told me that the Kennedy’s had served as their inspiration. Moffett said. “One of the things that really moved me was going to visit my colleagues in the course of business and finding a picture of John Kennedy and usually Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., in every office. It was unbelievable. It was like we were members of the same religion.”Former Governor Richard Lamm told me, “Like so many other people of my generation, I was apolitical. If you had taken a vote of my high school or college class, I would have been among the least likely to become a politician. But I got out of college the year John Kennedy was elected President. That was a siren call to a whole generation.”
What these Democrats associated with Kennedy was not ideology. It was idealism. Their idealism motivated many of them to engage in grass-roots activism. In fact, a disproportionate number were veterans of the Peace Corps, the symbol of Kennedy-era idealism. Their approach to politics was not rooted in party loyalty or interest-group advocacy. They were Kennedy’s children, and, like him. they were committed to a new kind of politics—a politics of ideas.
‘More Reformers Than Liberals”
P OLITICAL OBSERVERS DIO NOT know quite what to make of these new Democrats. David Broder wrote about “the economic and social-policy revisionism of many of the young Democrats elected to Congress in that Watergate year.”He added, “They have been far less sympathetic to organized labor, and far more concerned about middleincome taxpayers, than many had expected.” In 1978 Henry Fairlie commented in The New Republic, “It is universally agreed that the 1974 and 1976 crops of Democratic freshmen in the House are strikingly conservative.”
Conservative? These guys? “I have always considered myself a liberal,” Chris Dodd told me. I asked Andrew Maguire whether he had thought of himself as a liberal when he first came to Congress. “Yes,” he said, adding, “We were always trying to redefine the word. We were always trying to say that the words liberal and conservative were more misleading than illuminating. What is somebody who wants every CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] dollar to be accounted for and doesn’t want any political payoffs in the program? You were conservative in the sense that you wanted the program to work efficiently, you wanted financial accountability. But you were a liberal, I suppose, if you went anywhere near the CETA program.”
Paul Tsongas explained, “A lot of us were instinctively more reformers than liberals. Watergate was tailor-made for that kind of instinct. Michael Dukakis and I came to power by fighting the hack politicians. I see myself and always did as a reformer first and a liberal second.” I asked him to explain what he meant by “liberal.” He said, “I call myself a liberal on social issues. But I am pro-business and turned off by a lot of liberal doctrine on economics.”
“It was very suburban,” Toby Moffett said in describing the class of '74 phenomenon. Suburban voters could tolerate socialand foreign-policy liberalism. Indeed, many upper-middle-class voters were attracted to candidates w ho were reform-minded, libertarian in their social views, and anti-military. But these voters had no interest in bigspending, high-taxing, pro-labor Democrats.
The generational fissure in the Democratic Party actually goes back to 1968, when the party divided between the regulars, who controlled the convention and nominated Hubert Humphrey, and the New Politics liberals, who protested Humphrey’s nomination on the streets of Chicago.
Chris Dodd explained to me how Vietnam divided the old and the new Democrats. For him, the division was a deeply personal one, involving his father, a U.S. senator from Connecticut. “The old liberal, the old ADA [Americans for Democratic Action] member, was progressive on health-care and workplace issues but fairly conservative on foreign policy. Like Hubert Humphrey, my father was a classic example of the New Deal Democrat—guns and money. But the sixties and seventies defined a new liberalism. [Anti-war Senator William] Fulbright became a liberal, even though he had signed the Southern Manifesto. My father became a conservative. Vietnam was the event that changed the definition of conservative and liberal.”
The fight over the war raged on into 1972, when the outsiders, seeking revenge, seized control of the Democratic Party and nominated George McGovern. The 1968 election proved that the regulars could not win without the New Politics liberals. The 1972 election proved that the liberals could not win without the party regulars. When the Vietnam War ended, in 1975, the Democrats had a historic opportunity to reconcile the party. A kind of deal would have to be made: the regulars would admit their error in Vietnam and accept a less interventionist foreign policy, and the liberals, who came in with no attachment to the old politics, would endorse the big-government, prolabor, social-welfare liberalism of the party establishment.
The moment came in 1976. One Democrat embodied this consensus and had legitimacy among both liberals and regulars. Senator Edward M. Kennedy had a strong antiwar record and a deep commitment to economic populism. But he chose not to run in 1976. So the liberals gravitated to Morris Udall, the regulars supported Scoop Jackson, and George Wallace had his last hurrah. Jimmy Carter, who was neither a liberal nor a regular nor a racist, managed to defeat each wing of the party on its own turf: Wallace in Florida, Jackson in Pennsylvania, and Tdall in Wisconsin. It worked, as long as he faced his opponents one at a time.
Late in the 1976 primaries the liberals and the regulars realized that if they pooled their strength, they could defeat Carter. They rallied to a ‘74 Democrat, Governor Jerry Brown, of California, who upset Carter in Maryland. But it was too late—Carter had the delegates.
Fhe split at this point was between two different approaches to politics, not two different ideologies. James Florio describes the views of his generation of Democrats as “pragmatic liberalism,” a phrase that he explained as follows: ”It was a sense that, on balance, there was an activist role for government to play. But it did not mean that government solutions were necessarily the appropriate solutions. We stepped back from the idea that government programs were per se desirable.”
I asked Florio what motivated this skepticism about government. “I think it was a response among some of us to having been burned by Great Society programs,” he replied. “I am a product of the War on Poverty and the Model Cities program. I was in legal services at one point. There were some good things there, but we were naive in believing that the creation of these programs was going to enable us to address those problems. We had to be smarter and less naive about what government can do.” The idea was to infuse the liberal tradition with the values of pragmatism, effectiveness, and good management—with a commitment to making things work. The things they wanted to make work were the things liberals had always wanted: equal opportunity and economic justice.
What the class of ‘74 rejected was the notion of a fixed ideology. “We didn’t take our marching orders from organized labor, nor did we take them wholly from business,”Les AuCoin said. “One of the marks of our class has been—and still is, to some extent—a search for the best practical ideas in a number of ideological camps to put together something that works in a rapidly changing world.” He and his colleagues, he said, had been aware that “something new was coming—the new global economy and the changes it was going to bring to the United States socially, economically, and politically.”
And so they deliberately broke with the past. “We were not just marching forward with New Deal formulas for our answers,” AuCoin explained. “I think it was refreshing for a lot of constituency groups that had not supported Democrats before to see that in this new class of congressional and senatorial and gubernatorial Democrats there was something different: different from Carter, different from Mondale, and different from the demons Reagan campaigned against.”
In The New American Politician, Burdett Loomis uses the term “entrepreneurial” to describe the class of '74. “Their prevailing legislative philosophy emphasized problem solving by individual legislators,” he writes. “The new pols by and large developed into policy entrepreneurs who hooked their careers to ideas, issues, and problems—and prospective solutions.” They adopted the view that political issues are problems that have right answers, as opposed to conflicts of interest that have to be reconciled.
This approach can be traced directly back to John F. Kennedy. Kennedy articulated his philosophy in a speech he delivered in 1962 at Yale University. “The central domestic problems of our time,” Kennedy said, “do not relate to basic clashes of philosophy and ideology, but to ways and means . . . sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate problems.” The President continued,
What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion but the practical management of a modern economy. W hat we need are not labels and clichés but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead. . . . Political labels and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solutions. . . . Technical answers—not political answers—must be provided.
The most devastating critique of this approach to government was made by David Halberstam in his book The Pest arid the Brightest. Halberstam accused the Kennedy Administration of ignoring the moral and political dimensions of the Vietnam conflict and treating it instead as a problem in counterinsurgency warfare. This was the new challenge of communism, and Kennedy intended to solve it. How? By bringing the best and the brightest minds to Washington—men like McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara, tough-minded, hard-nosed, clear-thinking experts whose minds were unclouded by passion and ideology. The President intended to rely on an elite force of Green Berets and other advisers who were specially trained in counterinsurgency warfare. It is not clear that Kennedy would have ever made a large-scale commitment of American troops the way Lyndon Johnson did, particularly given his experience with the Bay of Pigs. But the mind-set of the administration was to treat Vietnam as a problem to which there was a right answer.
Problem-solvers live in a highly intellectualized political culture that respects expertise and competence. This does not mean that they practice a value-free politics. Several members of the class of ‘74 I interviewed took offense at being called technocrats, and virtually every one of them placed great emphasis on his commitment to liberal values. What is distinctive about them is not their values, however. It is their approach to politics. Problem-solvers practice a polities of ideas. More-traditional Democrats see themselves as advocates; theirs is a politics of interests.
I asked Tom Downey how Democrats of his persuasion deal with constituencies like blacks, labor unions, and cities. He answered, “We tell them that if we deal with you as separate, individual constituencies, we will fail you and ourselves. The problems of the working poor, for instance, apply to both black and white working poor. The infrastructure problems do not occur only in the cities. They also exist in the suburbs and throughout the country. They require an approach that allows the cities and the other constituencies to get their share without dealing with each of them separately, in isolation. You do a version of Ronald Reagan’s idea: A strong economy is best for the poor. You don’t want it to appear as though you have been hog-tied or collared by those groups because they voted for you in the last election.”
Paul Tsongas made the same point. He said, “You tell them that if the L.S. falls apart, if we become a secondrate economic power like Great Britain in the last decade, then we all suffer. If the L.S. economy does well, a rising tide lifts all boats.” Les AuCoin said, “We brought a commitment to traditional Democratic values without putting them into a class-warfare context.”
THE SPLIT BETWEEN ADVOCATES AND PROBLEMsolvers in the Democratic Party has widened during the 1980s. There were early signs of it in the 1980 contest between Jimmy Carter and Edward Kennedy. Several of the people I spoke to recognized a similarity between Carter’s style of politics and their own. Norm Mineta told me, “Carter was considered part of the new generation. He wasn’t part of an old political machine. To a great extent, 1976 was the leading edge of the new approach to politics and governing.” Edward Kennedy, of course, is the consummate advocate, the spokesman for the great Democratic tradition. Kennedy won the 1980 convention’s approval for several platform amendments, including a $12 billion anti-recession jobs program, a measure that captures perfectly the spirit of traditional New Deal politics.
In 1984 Walter Mondale represented the old Democratic faith, which is to say, interest politics: you support organized interests and they support you. Gary Hart offered “new ideas.” Like others in the class of 74, he was disdainful of special interests and treated issues as problems susceptible to rational solutions. Thus he accused Mondale of trying to find a fairer, more compassionate way to divide up the economic pie, while his announced goal was to stimulate growth and get a bigger pie.
The 1988 contest between Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson was yet another showdown between a problemsolver and an advocate. Like Hart, Dukakis made no promises to special interests. His program was directed at national needs and national priorities. And like Hart, Dukakis won about four percent of the black vote in the Democratic primaries. Jackson spoke the language of advocacy politics. ‘The good of our nation is at stake.” he told the Democratic Convention, its commitment to working men and women, to the poor and the vulnerable.
. . . When my name goes in nomination, your name goes in nomination.” Dukakis rarely talked like that. He spoke the language of regional economic development, centers of excellence, and employment and training-choice initiatives. Instead of defending interests, he offered solutions. Jackson spoke to Democrats’ hearts, Dukakis to their heads.
The distinction between the politics of interests and the politics of ideas has deep roots in American history. I saw it several years ago when I wrote an essay comparing the two great reform movements of the late-nineteenth and earlytwentieth centuries. Populism was a radical agrarian protest movement that reached its greatest strength during the depression decade of the 1890s. It took the advocacy of interests very seriously. Populist ideology was permeated by what the historian Richard Hofstadter called a “dualistic version of social struggles”: “us” against “them.” While its principal target was monopoly capital—“the money power”—many Populist leaders expressed a broader antagonism to the symbols of industrial civilization. The movement was widely perceived as anti-urban, anti-eastern, anti-immigrant, and, most damaging of all, anti-business.
The platforms of the People’s Party regularly called for government ownership of railroads and telegraph systems, a graduated income tax, currency expansion (“free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold at the present, legal ratio of 16 to 1”), the regulation of banking, and, sometimes, “a war on capital.” Populism wras both an economic protest movement and a moral crusade. It was infused with the spirit of radical agrarianism and evangelical Protestantism. William Jennings Bryan neatly packaged the two when he told the 1896 Democratic National Convention, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
There is a good deal of continuity between the populism of the 1890s and the progressivism of the early 1900s. Many Populist programs, including government regulation of railroad rates and government ownership of public utilities, found their way into Progressive platforms. In style and strategy, however, the movements were entirely different. Populism was a protest movement born in hard times. Progressivism was a reform movement that emerged in a period of prosperity. Scholars have had little difficulty defining the social basis of Populist support. Studies of voting behavior during the Progressive era show no clear correlation between class or ethnic background and Progressive sentiment.
Progressive intellectuals wrote and spoke in terms of “the public interest” and “the public good.” They sought to define values that all Americans could endorse: reform, progress, good government. The Progressives abhorred social division and refused to define the battle in class terms. Instead, they chose specific targets of protest—party bosses, corrupt industrialists, arrogant corporate leaders—and attacked their behavior, not their interests. No important group in society, including the business community, opposed the values that Progressives stood for.
The strategy of progressivism was to promote ideas, not to defend interests. Many of the ideas associated with populism, like free silver, seem antiquated today. Progressives, however, achieved an array of reforms at all levels of government. Their reforms remain significant: child-labor laws, regulatory agencies, nonpartisan municipal elections, professional city management, pure food and drug laws, initiatives, referenda, primary elections, and a host of other measures that have profoundly transformed American government. While Populists stirred up resentment, Progressives built coalitions. When a Populist-originated measure like railroad regulation was presented as a Progressive reform dramatized by tangible abuses—rather than an attack on capitalism—success was much easier to achieve.
Populism is an ideological tradition. Progressivism is a reform tradition. Both are visible in contemporary Democratic politics. Since the New Deal the Democrats have laid claim to the tradition of economic populism. They are the party of the poor, “the common man,” and the average American, the party that protects the economically vulnerable against adversity. For more than fifty years the class barrier has prevented Republicans from becoming a majority party. They are still the party of the rich and big business, of the country club and the boardroom. When Jesse Jackson and Richard Gephardt attack corporate greed and foreign competition, they are speaking the language of Democratic populism. When Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis talk about “new ideas” and good management, and when they attack Democratic interest-group politics and Republican corruption, they are squarely in the progressive tradition.
Progressive politicians faced one great difficulty. Because they didn’t speak the language of interest politics (“us” against “them”), they had trouble creating and retaining a political base. The Populist movement of the 1890s realigned the bases of Democratic and Republican support fora generation to come. Progressivism, however, was nonpartisan. There were progressive wings in both major parties before the First World War. (The Republican Theodore Roosevelt and the Democrat Woodrow Wilson were both progressive.) By pursuing a coalition strategy, the pre-war Progressives enjoyed considerable success on the issues. But their failure to exploit group antagonisms kept them from developing a distinctive social base with an ideology and a party loyalty.
“Your base,” Representative Barney Frank, of Massachusetts, once said, “is the people who are with you when you’re wrong.” Advocates like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Edward Kennedy, Mario Cuomo, and Jesse Jackson are closer to the Populist tradition. In their speeches they passionately defend the interests of the disadvantaged and the victims of discrimination. Politicians like Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, and Michael Dukakis are in the Progressive mold. They sell their ideas and offer their skills as problem-solvers. (To be sure, before he became governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis hosted a public-television show called The Advocates. But he was never an advocate; he was the moderator.) Carter, Hart, Brown, and Dukakis all had a similar experience. At some point each of them lost his political base.
Carter’s presidency was typical. He ran on a platform of integrity and competence (he once wrote a book titled Why Not the Best?). When his solutions worked, as they did in the Camp David negotiations with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, of Israel, and President Anwar Sadat, of Egypt, Carter was strong, effective, and popular. When his solutions failed, as they did in the energy crisis of 1979, everybody abandoned him. The whole premise of Carters presidency was competence, and when that image evaporated, there was nothing left.
Compare Carter’s experience with that of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was not a problem-solver. If anything, he was a problem-creator. But he did not premise his presidency on intellectual skills or managerial competence. He was a passionate advocate of conservative causes who never hesitated to depict political issues as “us” against “them.” When he got into trouble as President, his conservative base stood by him. In 1982, for instance, the nation suffered the most severe recession since the 1930s. Reagan argued, “Stay the course,” and millions of Americans responded. In the Iran-contra affair Reagan made a far worse mistake than anything Jimmy Carter did as President. His supporters were horrified when they found out that he had sold arms to Iran. But they stuck with him. He had stood up for them time and again in the past. He was their advocate, and he could call forth a great reserve of loyalty and commitment when he needed it. He had a base. Not only did it carry him through the crisis; it held together for his chosen successor, George Bush.
When Gary Hart got into trouble in 1987, the most conspicuous feature of that whole embarrassing episode was that nobody stood up for him. Even his staunchest supporters abandoned him. He called forth no great loyalty from the generation he claimed to lead. He was not really their advocate. They simply admired his ideas. When doubts were raised about Hart’s judgment and his authenticity, his support collapsed. He had no base. In 1984Jes.se Jackson was accused of a far more serious transgression than Hart’s. Most people would probably say that being suspected of anti-Semitism is a bigger problem than spending a weekend with a girl. Jackson weathered the crisis, however. Most of Jackson’s supporters were undoubtedly shocked by his lapse of judgment and did not endorse his anti-Semitic language. But he apologized and they forgave him, because he had championed their cause so many times in the past. He had a base.
Michael Dukakis, at the end of his first term as governor, w’as abandoned by his liberal supporters because, like Brown in California, he refused to champion their cause. Dukakis’s own party denied him renomination for a second term, in 1978—a rare humiliation in American politics. Even Jimmy Carter beat Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1980. Dukakis, however, was different in one respect. He turned out to be one of the few politicians who came back—to win a second term as governor, in 1982— after losing his base.
Again and again I heard members of the Class of ‘74 describe the trouble they have had acquiring their own base. “One of the problems the new Democrats have,” Bill Brodhead said, “is that they try to pander to Republican businesspeople and maybe even get their votes, but when push comes to shove, those people are not going to be with them. That’s one of the dangers facing the Democratic Party as it develops a new base. You let go of the old base but you don’t have any firm roots in a new one yet.”
’That is one reason why socialand foreign-policy liberalism is important to the class of ‘74. It gives them the only base they have. Paul Tsongas said, “I had a base among environmentalists and anti-war activists, because I was up front on those issues, as I was on gay rights and women’s rights. I had those groups in place, and then I moved on to the business community. If you don’t have a core constituency, you’re exposed.”
Problem-Solving Is the Problem
AFTER MONDALE’S FAILURE IN 1984 THE DEMOCRATIC Party seemed to learn a lesson. It figured out that it couldn’t elect an old-fashioned advocate anymore. Interest-group liberalism had lost its appeal. The 1988 field was dominated by progressive liberals selling competence and new ideas, including four from the class of ‘74 (Dukakis, Hart, Simon, and Bruce Babbitt, who was elected attorney general of Arizona in 1974 and subsequently acceded to the governorship upon the death of the incumbent). It was apparent in the debates that the other Democrats were saying the same things Gary Hart was saying, only they didn’t have Hart’s personal liabilities.
At last year’s Democratic National Convention, in Atlanta, the problem-solvers were clearly in charge. For example, Lloyd Bentsen is a party regular who heads a powerful political organization. He is not a liberal or a conservative; in fact, he is not ideological at all. He fit in with Dukakis because they both saw the Democrats as a governing party, not a party of activists. Dukakis and Bentsen are pragmatists. The post-ideological tradition and the pre-ideological tradition joined forces on the 1988 ticket.
The theory behind the Dukakis nomination was that the Democrats can’t elect a traditional liberal anymore; the only way the party could win was by selling competence, not ideology. Competence was supposed to be an appealing theme. It offered the voters precisely what they were not getting from Ronald Reagan.
There were two problems with this theory. First, had he been elected, Dukakis would have been in the same situation as Jimmy Carter was. A problem-solver has no secure base. A politician who runs on competence is going to be judged on competence. His solutions have got to work.
But Dukakis couldn’t even manage to get elected. That was a devastating lesson for the class of ‘74. Problem-solving obviously works in Congress, and it may be an adequate approach to state government. As Bruce Babbitt pointed out, “In state government you’re not in this magnetic held of opposing philosophies. It is absolutely natural to say, ‘We’re problem-solvers.’ The philosophy books are irrelevant to ninety percent of what you’re doing.” But problem-solving is not enough to get you elected President of the United States, especially in a time of peace and prosperity. John F. Kennedy, the father of the '74 Democrats, did not run as a problem-solver in 1960; he had a strongly nationalistic theme—namely, C.S. military weakness and lagging economic growth. If things are going well in the country, why should the voters be concerned about competence? “They thought they could make this a valuefree election,” a Dukakis aide said, describing the Democratic campaign. Dukakis discovered that it is impossible to exclude values from a presidential contest. Values are exactly what gave him the most trouble.
Bush insisted that the election really was a contest of values. “Values are the thing the working man is going to decide on,” he said in October. “I’ve got those values on our side.” The values Bush was talking about were social, not economic. He used the Pledge of Allegiance issue and the “tank commercial” to portray Dukakis as soft on defense (and, some said, to send a subliminal message that a son of Greek immigrants is not a real American). He used the American Civil Liberties Union and criminal-furlough issues to portray Dukakis as soft on crime (and. some said, to send a subliminal message appealing to white racism).
During the last weeks of the campaign Dukakis countered by endorsing a warmed-over economic populism (“I’m on your side”). He started to pick up support, just as Richard Gephardt started to do better when he adopted a populist line in the early Democratic primaries (“It’s your fight too”). Gephardt’s theme was economic nationalism. Dukakis experimented with economic resentment. It is doubtful whether the audience for that kind of message is as large as it used to be, particularly in a period of prosperity. Economic populism worked for Harry Truman in 1948. It almost worked for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. But it didn’t work for Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Throughout American history populism has had two faces—left-wing on economic issues and right-wing on social issues. In other words, populism is consistently antielitist. These days liberal Democrats are vulnerable to attack as cultural elitists (“limousine liberals”), while conservative Republicans can be charged with economic elitism (“country-club conservatives”). In the 1890s southern conservatives used the race issue to divide the Populist movement and destroy the threat of economic insurgency. White supremacy displaced agrarian radicalism. Last year Bush’s social populism defeated Dukakis’s economic populism, even though neither candidate was remotely convincing as tribune of the people.
Dukakis’s experience does say something important about the class of ‘74. The Watergate babies entered politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s from the left, as liberals on civil rights and foreign policy. They continue to honor that heritage, even though they have moved to the right in their economic thinking. Dukakis chose not to run on his social values. But he could not escape them and was eventually forced to acknowledge his liberal roots.
Each of the leading progressive Democrats has failed. It is easy to explain their failures in personal terms. Jimmy Carter was overwhelmed by events. Gary Hart suffered from a tragic flaw of character, and he didn’t understand how to relate to constituencies (“Where’s the beef?”). Jerry Brown had a personality problem—flakiness and arrogance don’t mix. Michael Dukakis ran a timid campaign, refusing to defend his values and failing to convey any sense of vision or theme. But could there be something else going on here—a failure not of individuals but of an entire approach to politics? Is there something basically flawed in the political style of the class of '74?
Neoliberalism: The Triumph of Buzz Words?
IN 1984 RANDALL ROTHENBERG PUBLISHED THE NELIBerals, in which he identified the basic themes of the class of ‘74’s revisionist approach. Neoliberals believed in investment (creating a larger economic pie, to use their favorite metaphor) as opposed to redistribution (figuring out how to slice up a shrinking pie). They favored “appropriate technology,” meaning a mixture of governmental and private incentives, instead of government programs alone. And they believed in cooperative problem-solving (“the national interest”) rather than us-against-them politics (“special interests”).
What they were offering was a new methodology, one that was realistic, efficient, and, above all, politically feasible in the Reagan era. Michael Dukakis talked about tough choices; Hubert Humphrey never did.
Indeed, neoliberals defined themselves mostly by what they were against. According to Andy Maguire, the ‘74 Democrats felt that policy-making “was often corrupted by considerations other than what would make good public policy.”
Partisanship was suspect. “It was hard to paint one side as bad Republicans and the other side as good Democrats,” Bob Edgar said. “Party labels didn’t matter. I would jokingly say at meetings that we ought to have National Choose-Up-Sides-Again Day, because I got elected in a conservative Republican area. I never ran races from day one as Democratic versus Republican. It was good government versus bad government. It was reasonable, rational, targeted, fiscally responsible, spend-the-dollars-well-andwisely government.” Me acknowledged, “It sounds very conservative.”
What the new Democrats were really against was made clear when Charles Peters, the editor of The Washington Monthly and the godfather of neoliberalism, published his “Neo-Liberal’s Manifesto” in The Washington Post in 1982. What Peters and his followers rejected was the adversarial approach to politics. He condemned “a trend toward separatism, not only by race, but by class and interest group, that has divided the nation and produced the politics of selfishness. . . . The adversary approach to problems has come to dominate our national life, at a disastrous cost to all of us.” Two of the neoliberals’ strongest commitments were to resurrecting the public schools, which had become, in their opinion, “the principal instrument of class oppression in America,” and restoring some form of national-service obligation, so that “all classes would share equally in the burdens and risks of military service.” “We want,” Peters wrote, “to bring people together.”
How did they propose to do this? The neoliberals placed their faith in two principles: economic growth (which, Peters wrote, “is essential to almost everything else we want to achieve”) and education. Tim Wirth told me, “The single most important expenditure we have to make is investment in education. That’s top on the agenda.”
Not only did the class of ‘74 believe in education; its members put it to use in their careers. “Our class represented people who decided they could get power not through the leadership structure or the committee system but through information,” Bob Edgar said. In Rothenberg’s book Paul Tsongas offered this description of how the ‘74 Democrats approached issues: “Whether it was economics or defense posture or what have you, we’d sit around, bring in the experts, and say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ . . . That was very different from the traditional Democrat, who would say, ‘AH right, what do the unions want? What does constituency X want? ”
Even in early 1984 Rothenberg was critical of this bloodless approach to politics. In what could serve as a postmortem on both the Hart and Dukakis campaigns, Rothenberg wrote, “All the new ideas in the world will be to no avail without a context. A context for neoliberalism may be implicit in what its leading politicians and advisers do and say. Yet the neoliberals seem to fear the explicit revelation of their underlying ideology.”
INSTEAD OF IDEOLOGY, NEOLIBERALS HAVE CONCEPTS. Investment is good. Spending is bad. It is good to have priorities. It is bad to call for programs. We need partnership, not big government. Talk about national needs, not special-interest demands. Cali for growth, not redistribution. Above all, address the future. Reject the past. After a while neoliberal ideas begin to sound like random combinations of buzz words. How about a partnership for investment in future growth priorities? Or national investment priorities in a partnership for future growth? Or a national growth partnership for future investment priorities?
The politicians I interviewed were keenly aware of how these concepts made them different from the old Democrats.
George Miller, one of the more passionate members of the class, told me, “You replaced visions and dreams with questions like ‘How much does it cost?' There has been a decade here where, in some ways, you lost your voice. You really didn’t quite want to speak out for universal health care or child care.” In Miller’s view, “Reagan did it. When the Reagan drumbeat came on the scene, it completely wiped out every other bit of noise. There was this ten-ton gorilla walking around town.”
Naturally the new Democrats faced resistance, more often from labor and old-line Democrats than from Republicans. Referring to the capital-gains tax, Paul Tsongas said, “The traditional Democrat would take the position ‘If business is for it, I’m against it.’ Our position would be ‘It it generates wealth and helps the economy and makes us more competitive, we’re for it.’ That is a tremendous divide.” I asked Tsongas how he would respond to the charge that his was a “me too” philosophy. He answered. “If you look at economic issues, the ‘me too-ism’ charge is real. But I don’t give a damn, because if the economy works and the worst thing you can say about me is ‘me tooism,’ then I accept the charge.”He pointed out that he had sponsored a gay-rights bill. “On environmental issues, social issues, defense issues, and Third World issues,”Tsongas said, “we’re traditional liberals.”
John Durkin told me this story about the clash between the old and the new liberalism: “The very first markup session I went to in the Senate was the Youth Camp Safety Act. It was sort of an OSHA for summer camps. The son of a guy from Connecticut had been killed at a camp in Maine. He wanted to impose new rules. It was a tragedy that his son died. But I looked at Bill Hathaway, who sat to my left, and I said, ‘Any problem in Maine, Bill?’ He said, ‘No.’
“Bob Stafford sat to my right. I said, ‘Any problem in Vermont?’ He said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Well, what the hell are we voting for this for?’ So I voted for every crippling amendment and then voted against reporting it out.
“Walter Mondale blew up at me. He said, ‘I thought you were a liberal.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe I am, but I’m not a damn fool. We don’t need this.’ Then he snapped back and said, ‘You’re the type of guy that would send your kids to summer camp and not want them back on Labor Day.’ I said, ‘Look, I don’t know who elected—of, rather, appointed—you, but the people who elected me can’t afford to send their kids to summer camp. Your banker friends can call the banker where the camp is and find out whether it’s safe or not to send their kids.’ ”
“After that blowup,” Durkin added, “Mondale and I never hit it off.”
THE WATERGATE BABIES DID MORE THAN INTROduce buzz words. They created a new tradition of anti-establishment politics. They took on the congressional establishment, and the liberal establishment as well. In fact, their challenge to the party establishment may have a far more enduring impact than any of their specific problem-solving ideas. In Tom Harkins view, the class of ‘74 felt that “traditional liberals were just part of the institution, and the institution wasn’t working that well.” He added, “Traditional liberalism was patronizing. Traditional liberals always said, ‘Are you hurting? Have you got a problem? Well, we can get some program to take care of that.’ They didn’t ask, ‘Why are you hurting? What is wrong with the system that makes you hurt? Maybe wre have to change that system a little bit.’ That’s what we were asking.”
It was Richard Lamm, of Colorado, who refined the art of anti-establishment politics. “You’ve got to reform every institution that is out there,” he told me when we met last fall. “The health-care system. The education system. We’ve got too many farmers in America. And too many lawyers. The most dangerous animal in America is the sacred cow. It’s going to kill us.”
Lamm boasted, “I’ve taken on almost every constituency within the Democratic Party. I’ve taken on the labor unions. I’ve taken on the teachers. The Hispanics just go crazy because of immigration reform. The elderly are the most powerful political group in America, but they just have to be taken on. They’re already getting too much, not too little.”
“I took on death and dying,” he continued. “You know, every day in hospitals across America somebody is brought back from death and we spend a lot of taxpayers’ money on them so they can die again tomorrow.
There was not a Democratic constituency that was happy with me by 1982. And I won, by two to one.”
The 1988 Democratic contest looked a lot like the 1984 contest, but with a twist. Both campaigns ended up with two major contenders, an advocate and a problem-solver: Mondale and Hart in 1984, Jackson and Dukakis in 1988. The difference was in the positioning of the party establishment. Mondale, the advocate, was its candidate in 1984. Dukakis, the problem-solver, was its candidate in 1988. While Hart and Jackson had very different political messages, both their campaigns were energized by antiestablishment sentiment. That was exactly what was missing from the 1984 and 1988 Democratic tickets. Voting for either Mondale or Dukakis meant voting to restore the Democratic establishment to power. In short, the Democratic Party seems to have learned the wrong lesson from the class of ‘74’s experience. The party has gone from ideology to problem-solving, but that has made little difference. The anti-establishment lesson has not been learned.
Recently I had an extended conversation with Gary Hart concerning his role in the Democratic Party. Hart readily agreed with my characterization of him as an anti-
my establishment figure. He disagreed, however, with the notion that he and Dukakis represented a similar approach to politics. “I never advertised myself as a manager,” Hart contended. “The competence standard seems to me to say, ‘It doesn’t much matter what we’re doing—we can do it better.’ I care very much about what we’re doing. I just don’t believe what we’re doing ought to be more agencies, regulations, higher taxes, and more spending. That’s all.”
What he offered the Democratic Party, he said, was a new “conceptual framework.” “My approach to politics is that my party must totally rethink its big policies: its defense policy, its fiscal policy, its foreign policy. Not whether we buy the B-l bomber or not, or whether we provide arms to the contras or not.” Hart wanted to do something more than solve problems; he wanted to reconceptualize them.
Although he had a strongly liberal voting record, Hart never sold himself as an ideological spokesman. His call to reconceptualize problems was, in his words, “beyond management but short of ideology.” Nevertheless, it elicited an emotional commitment. “The reason I won twenty-six primaries and caucuses in 1984 wasn’t that I was a technocrat,” Hart said. “I beat Mondale in New Hampshire because I was intense. Those activists who get behind you early when you’re at one or two percent don’t do it because they like your mind. They knew l was out to save the Democratic Party.”The desire for change gave the Hart movement its passion and its energy. It was an anti-establishment passion. with Walter Mondale the symbol of everything stale and unchanging in the Democratic Party tradition.
Problem-solvers don’t offer change. Problem-reconceptualizers do. According to Hart, that is where he differed from others in the class of ‘74. “The Democrats from the class of '74 tend to be too micro,” Hart said. “They’ve got programs. I go back and ask how those programs fit into a conceptual framework.”
The ultimate objective of this conceptual whole was to stimulate growth, which, Hart felt, required reducing the deficit. “We cannot make the economy grow again in any responsible way without reducing the deficit,” he said. “That’s why additional revenues are necessary, and that’s why I’ve got them in there.”
Walter Mondale had them in there too. Hove did Hart expect to sell the idea of raising taxes?
“Give an alternative other than going back to more Democratic spending,”he replied. “The alternative is to use market forces: use new mechanisms to stimulate market forces to raise the revenues to pay for the programs that make us a more just society.” Essentially, Hart put forward the same liberal goals, but he had reconceptual-
ized the way of achieving them. Traditional Democrats say tax and spend. Supply-siders say cut taxes and grow. Hart offered a new idea— tax and grow.
At the core of Hart’s philosophy is a deep antipathy toward interest politics. I asked him about “fighting for people’s interests” as a political objective. “The word has always bothered me,” Hart said, “because it conjures up a rhetorical approach that only works when times are good.
Then the question is ‘Who cares about me the most?’ The dirty little secret now is that the pie is not grow - ing. Anybody who touches all the hot buttons of labor, blacks, and women, who makes those kinds of promises, is not going to be able to meet those promises.”
I COVERED MANY OF THE SAME ISSUES WHEN I MET JERRY Brown a few weeks later, in Los Angeles. He served eight years as governor of California, the nation’s most populous state, and he was the first member of the class of ‘74 to run for President—and to run twice (in 1976 and 1980). I asked him what new ideas he had brought to the Democratic Party.
Brown recalled that when he was elected governor, in 1974, “you had a lot of skepticism about education and the programs that had come out of the Great Society.” He said, “A lot of studies were coming out showing how difficult it was to prove that these programs were effective. Something new had to be developed.” Brown started out with a slogan. “The symbol of my campaign was, ‘California needs a new spirit.’ Of course, after a while people asked, ‘What is this new spirit? What does it consist of? Where’s the content?’” (In other words, “Where’s the beef?”) “Basically,” he said, “I had a feeling that the old politics was not working.” The theme he adopted was the Zeitgeist theme of his generation. “I talked about the era of limits,” Brown said. “We can’t do everything we want. You have to decide: freeways, child care, education, medical care. We have to look at it all, including salaries.” He added, “What that did w as create a lot of tension with traditional constituencies.”
Like Hart and other ‘74 Demo-
Like Hart and other ‘74 Democrats, Brown felt the need to formulate an alternative to traditional Democratic interest-group liberalism. Hart’s answer was severe rationalism. Jerry Brown’s alternative was different but no less severe. It was the politics of virtue. He told me, “I thought if you were virtuous, political success would follow, that if you didn’t make deals and if you brought in people who were left out, you could create a whole new coalition. My idea was that integrity is the most important thing.”
Brown noted that he’d had considerable success bringing in new constituencies. He encouraged farm workers to participate in politics through a new collective-bargaining law. He empowered women through his appointments: half of his cabinet was women, and he appointed a woman chief justice of the state supreme court. He brought in critics of government, including “a lot of public-interest lawyers who had worked against government.” Brown did everything except the one thing Democrats had always done in the past—spend money. As he put it. “My idea was that without raising taxes, by a careful use of the regulatory power, we could protect the environment, we could ensure equal opportunity, and we could bring new’ people into government, realizing that there were going to be limitations on resources.” He added, “The important thing was to avoid taxes and not spend too much money.”
Brown tried to change politics by his own example. “My sense was that sincerity was what government needed. I felt that there was a lot of baloney, a lot of artificiality, a lot of cynical manipulation. So I wouldn’t do that.” For example, Brown said, “I wouldn’t let them put my picture up in the motor-vehicle departments. 1 said, ‘We don’t need that. This is a government of laws, not of men."’
He told me of an instance in which his politics of sincerity backfired. “Reagan had a signature machine,” Brown said. “I thought that was counterfeit. I’m not going to give out my autograph because that’s silly. It’s for movie stars, not serious political leaders. I didn’t send out pictures either. The state would have to pay for it, and it would take up time. I said, ‘We’re a frugal government and w’e’re not going to waste money on nonsense.’
“What happened was that a young girl from upstate New York got a campaign going through the Associated Press. She had written to forty-nine governors and gotten autographed pictures from them. She said, ‘Jerry Brown is insensitive and doesn’t care. He’s the only governor who didn’t give me an autographed picture. I have all the other governors, and it’s for the eighth grade, and isn’t this terrible?’ So ultimately I had to capitulate. They were just heating me over the head.” He added, “I didn’t send her an autographed picture. I sent her a letter and said. ‘Well,
I guess you win.’ At that point I realized it was going to lie interpreted not as sincerity but as indifference and lack of concern.” Not to mention arrogance.
In Brown’s opinion, the technocratic approach is just a way for Democrats to hide from their ideological problems. He said, “Problem-solving is used to escape the dilemma that you’re on the wrong side of some of the social issues. You talk about competence when you don’t want to bite the bullet on tough issues, because they are too polarizing. You say there is no ideological issue, there’s just a problem making the machine work.” Brown’s answer to this dilemma was to look for ways to create new values.
Brown cited the example of the California Conservation Corps, the program that, he claimed, “expressed my philosophy the best.” He described the CCC as “an attempt to promote values.” He said, “My idea was to take kids, particularly from urban areas, and put them into the hills and get them making trails, planting trees, clearing streams, and living there . . . . to get them out of their environment and into a newr environment that would be tightly controlled.”
The purpose, he said, “was to counter the loss of values and inspire people with discipline.” He added, “They would be better citizens. Environmental values would expand their time horizons. They would learn to work with blacks, Hispanics, middle-class people, college students, people from a whole variety of backgrounds. It reflected the idea of inclusion, of environmental values, of community, and of serving some larger purpose.” Brown concluded, “That’s my idea of what we should be doing, but it should have a million people in it nationwide.”
There was one big problem. “The trouble with the idea,” Brown acknowledged, “is that nobody benefits immediately. If you talk about a new health program, there are health-care providers who make money from it—hospitals, doctors, nurses. If you talk about education, the people who do the collective bargaining know exactly how much money is going to go on the table when you adopt a certain program. If you talk about building power plants, you know exactly which building trades—electricians, boilermakers, pipefitters—are going to benefit. When you talk about the CCC, there’s no money going into anybody’s pocket. All you can say is that young people are going to be given an opportunity for a new start in life. There is no constituency around the political table that draws an immediate, tangible benefit.”
During his tenure Brown ran afoul of interest-group politics. He explained, “The pressure to spend and the pressure to conform to the political process was very powerful. The people standing in line for money are all worthy people. They’re disabled, they’re disadvantaged, they’re hardworking schoolteachers, they’re university professors, they’re doctors taking care of the poor, they’re nursing homes that take care of the elderly, they’re people who claim that a freeway is needed everywhere there’s a ‘blood alley.’” But he did not feel his policies had been a failure. In Brown’s opinion, “The idea of using sincerity and political virtue and making it an inclusive government and not spending money unless it was absolutely proven that it was necessary—that formula did work. After all, I beat Carter in five primaries.”
He has not given up. After spending time studying Buddhism in Japan and tending the sick and dying with Mother Teresa in India, Brown returned to California with some new ideas about what the Democratic Party could do. He announced his intention to run for state party chairman, normally a job with neither power nor glamour. He told The Washington Post, “The political parties have been very weak, in effect anti-parties. The result is that power has flowed to the special interests.” Brown’s alternative, as he explained it to me, was to turn the state Democratic Party into a grass-roots fund-raising and service organization.
Brown envisioned the state party as a kind of reverse political machine. “Instead of fighting over a lot of abstruse issues,” he explained, “I think we’re better off escorting seniors to the doctor or volunteering in a hospice or feeding the hungry or doing a constructive public service.” His purpose, he said, “was to empower the grass roots through grass-roots financing and with activities that are not just make-work but really contribute to the quality of life in people’s communities.” He observed, “It’s a powerful idea, and it’s an untried idea.”
But not an idea that has met with universal acclaim. Last fall forty local party officials who opposed his candidacy published an open “Dear Jerry” letter that said, “Our party has enough work to do without trying to explain why you have come back to lead the party you once shunned.”
ACCORDING TO BRCCE BABBITT, ADVOCACY IS A PROBlem for the Democratic Party. “The passion in our party simply narrows our base,” he said. “The culture of advocacy is directed toward ends that have been rejected by the majority of the American people.” In other words, you can’t win elections anymore by holding the Democratic base together. There aren’t enough people who identify as have-nots.
On the other hand, John Durkin had a simple but graphic explanation for why neoliberal problem-solvers have had so much trouble building a base. “They don’t like people,” he said. “They want to manage them but they don’t like them. And the people know they don’t like them. They put up with it as long as the guy isn’t making any mistakes and things are going well. But when he stubs his toe, people say, We never liked the guy anyway. To hell with him.’” For some politicians in the class of ‘74, Durkin observed, “their only strongly held belief is their unshakable belief in themselves.”
Several of my sources attributed the problems of Carter, Hart, Brown, and Dukakis to a failure of personality. “These men had something in common that caused them to find themselves alone when things went sour,” Les AuCoin noted. “That was their personality.” Bill Brodhead described the Humphrey-Mondale tradition as “warm— ‘We love everybody, more of everything for everybody, this is a big party, the tent’s big enough to hold everybody.’” By comparison, he said, “the Jerry Brown approach is, ‘You people are bastards, you don’t count.’” “There’s this coldness about it,” Brodhead declared. “Dukakis reminds me of that new bloodless liberal,” John Durkin remarked. “They want to help mankind as long as they don’t have to speak to them.”
About Gary Hart, Durkin said, “You always got the feeling he left part of himself outside the room.” As for Jerry Brown, “A curbstone psychologist once said, ‘Never support anyone for high office who doesn’t get along with his father.’” “The problem with Dukakis,”Durkin remarked, “is that in that photograph of him in the tank, the tank looked warmer than he did.”
Babbitt felt that Dukakis had at least solved part of the Democratic Party’s ideological problem. In his opinion, “Dukakis did a relatively good job on the one issue he anticipated, which was the big-government, big-spender stuff. He saw it coming and effectively inoculated himself.” Babbitt’s view, however, was that “he did not do that on the cultural issues, and he didn’t do it on foreign affairs.” Which could be taken as a judgment of an entire generation of Democrats.
Politicians from the class of ‘74 seem to succeed except when they have to defend their ideology. Then they don’t have much to say. As Durkin put it, “You can’t go around saving, ‘My opponent’s shoes aren’t comfortable, so I don’t want you to buy them. But I don’t have any shoes to sell you.’ That’s the position we’re in. ‘Don’t buy his. We just don’t have ours yet. Save your money until ours come along.’ It’s still inchoate what the new Democrats are talking about.”
The 1988 election results confirmed the split-level rule in American politics: The higher the office, the more ideology matters. And the more ideology matters, the worse Democrats do. The ‘74 Democrats have perfected the skills of incumbency protection and constituency service. They are efficient, effective, honest, intelligent, serious, and hardworking. They can solve problems, which is exactly what governors and members of Congress are supposed to do. But Presidents are supposed to do something else. They are supposed to develop a personal relationship with the voters, based on a sense of shared values. Americans identify with the President far more than with any other public figure. That is why “character" issues are more important in a presidential campaign than in any other contest. The President, and only the President, represents America. The President has to be an advocate. He can always hire problem-solvers.
In Search of a Theme
A GOOD DEAL HAS BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT THE DEMOcratic Party’s race problem. For instance, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white voters since Franklin Roosevelt, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 landslide. With the class of 74 a new difficulty has arisen. As a result of its success, progressive values have become dominant in the Democratic Party. Populist values have become subordinate. Class, rather than race, may now be the Democrats’ biggest problem.
In 1974 the Democratic Party expanded beyond its base among poor and working-class voters and established a new beachhead in the upper middle class, among voters who responded to the racial and foreign-policy liberalism of the 1960s and to the national outrage over Watergate. Many of them were Baby Boomers, but their loyalty has been difficult to sustain.
This New Politics vote helped keep the Democratic Party alive. The old base of the party was eroding quickly. Most voters no longer thought of themselves as have-nots. Moreover, Republicans were cutting into the white working-class vote by appealing to racial, religious, and foreignpolicy conservatism. The Democratic Party is now a crossclass coalition. The liberal upper-middle class responds to high-minded progressive values: political reform, an “educational” approach to issues. Poor and working-class voters continue to respond to populist themes: Whose side are you on?
The fact is, the Democrats cannot survive on the new — that is, class of ‘74—politics, and they cannot go back to the old politics. Both formulations leave out the nation’s vast middle class. Middle-class voters are threatened by economic populism, except when there is a serious recession. Under normal circumstances it is difficult to persuade them to go back to the bad old days of taxing, spending, and inflation—that is, to the 1970s. Moreover, middle-class voters do not share the social values of the liberal upper-middle class, except temporarily, at a time of scandal (Watergate), moral outrage (segregation), or foreign calamity (Vietnam). Under normal circumstances the Democrats seem to have little to offer. Except, perhaps, competence.
The 1988 election marked a great victory for the class of '74. They succeeded in doing something they have been trying to do for fifteen years—namely, discredit the party’s tradition of special-interest politics.
And the Democrats still lost. The 1988 election was a continuation of a long-term trend in American politics. The Democrats used to be a populist party. Now they are primarily a liberal party, especially on social and cultural issues. By refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of interests, the class of '74 has, in effect, completed the transformation of the party’s social base. In the past the Democrats offered protection against economic adversity to those who felt threatened or insecure. That they do so now is not so clear. Meanwhile, the Republicans are offering strong defense, a tough stand on crime, traditional religion, and oldfashioned morality—what George Bush calls “those values.” And low taxes besides.
“If one thing rings false in all the rhetoric of neoliberalism,” Randall Rothenberg wrote in 1984, “it is that the ‘national interest’ may be nothing more than the special interests of the liberal upper middle class.” The columnist Mark Shields has written about “Cotton Mather Democrats,” the contemporary American Puritans who call for increased “sin taxes” on beer, tobacco, and gasoline to help reduce the federal budget deficit. He asks, “When did the Democrats plunge into the fatal error that somehow it is acceptable to be rich, virtuous to be poor and that the only sin is to be a member of the middle class?” The answer is 1974.
The party needs a theme that will unite its populist and progressive constituencies and reach beyond them to the white middle class. My interviews revealed one potentially powerful Democratic theme. Virtually everyone I interviewed spoke of the challenge of international competitiveness and the need for a national economic revival.
Jerry Brown felt that in order for the Democrats to advance, “there has to be a challenge.” He said, “I see that challenge in the changing world, both economically and militarily, because we’re going to have to become more competitive. The lack of trained people, the threat of the environment—there’s a bundle of needs that translates into an opening for a Democratic initiative.” Paul Tsongas offered the most provocative idea. He said, “My campaign theme would be, ‘Make America No. 1 again.’ Talk about America’s wealth being dissipated by the deficits, foreigners buying up everything. Raise those issues in a very jingoistic fashion—America’s pride. Make no apology about how you feel. Say we’re going to get involved in basic education. We’re going to do whatever is necessary to make the United States competitive. We’re going to have a capital-gains differential based on holding periods. If that’s pro-business, let it be pro-business. If that means we do things Democrats have not traditionally liked, the hell with them. We’re going to do it. And I think people would respond.”
The “new nationalism” was a favorite theme of earlytwentieth-century progressives tike Theodore Roosevelt. Competitiveness captures the spirit of idealism, national revival, and sacrifice associated with John F. Kennedy (“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”). Finally, it addresses the problem that Americans today see as the most serious threat to our national security—our declining economic power.
There is only one thing wrong with the issue, it makes liberal opinion-makers and highly educated voters nervous. People who talk about economic nationalism often end up sounding like protectionists. And protectionism is not a respectable sentiment in the liberal upper-middle class. Whenever a mainstream politician makes a speech that sounds protectionist—as John Connally did in 1980, Walter Mondale did in 1983, and Richard Gephardt did in 1988—he is instantly condemned by the establishment. Editorials in 1’he Wall Street Journal and The New York Times attack the politician for catering to special interests (big business in the case of Connally, big labor in the case of Mondale and Gephardt) and for pandering to popular prejudice. As it happens, pandering to popidar prejudice is not a bad way to get votes. Even Michael Dukakis ended up showing commercials that featured a rising Japanese flag.
Moreover, ever since the Vietnam War liberals have been uncomfortable with nationalism. After all, John Kennedy got us into trouble by saying, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden ... to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Nationalism is a populist theme. It also has deep roots in the progressive tradition, and it worked for Kennedy. Nevertheless, it is hard music for presentday liberals to sing. Kennedy would have been comfortable with the idea of the American century. But delegates to the 1984 Democratic Convention, in San Francisco, looked a little embarrassed waving their tiny American flags for the television cameras. To the liberal upper-middle class, nationalism sounds like protectionism, and that threatens to raise the prices of the imports they consume. Even worse, nationalism reminds them of Vietnam, and that is an abomination.
Politicians from the class of ‘74 are willing to promote competitiveness as an intellectual principle. But they shy away from outright nationalism. They fear its darker implications. Moreover, it requires them to display passionate conviction, and that is not their political style. To make the competitiveness theme work, '74 Democrats would have to do something that none of them has quite succeeded in doing. They would have to become real populists. They are going to have to do exactly what Tsongas recommended and say, “To hell with those qualms. We’re going to do it.”
I ASKED LES AUCOIN HOW HE WOULD ANSWER THE ARGUment that the class of ‘74 has had its chance to lead the country and has failed. Jimmy Carter embodied some of its values, as did Jerry Brown, Gary Hart, and Michael Dukakis. Now what?
“We’ve only had part of the package,” AuCoin responded. “We haven’t had the great leader, the person who can say, ‘I’ve got new ideas,’ and who can reach out and lift a people to great goals. In none of those instances have we had that.”
The big shock to the Democratic Party came in 1980, not 1988, In 1980 the Democrats saw their own President turned out of office after one term. An avowed right-wing Republican came to power. And they lost the Senate. After 1980 rethinking became a major Democratic industry. The neoliberals found the party not just receptive to new ideas but desperate for them.
The 1988 election had no comparable shock effect. After all, Democrats gained ground in the Senate, the House of Representatives, and state governments. The party seemed to be in good shape. The problem, party leaders belie`ved, was with the presidential candidate. He had nothing much to say.
Dukakis’s defeat presents a more disturbing possibility, however. With the class of '74 now a dominant force, the Democrats are well prepared to compete in state and local races. But in presidential contests the party still does not have a vision or a compelling ideological message. While the Democrats have acquired a lot of shiny new ideas, they may have lost their soul. The party is going to have to face the painful question raised by the 1988 defeat: Was it just Michael Dukakis who had nothing much to say—or was it the class of ‘74? □