The Democrats in '88
The party's possible candidates divide into four categories--rejuvenators,
revisionists, reconstructionists, and revivalists
by William Schneider
In the three-week period between November 4 and November 25, 1986, the
1988 Democratic nomination for President appreciated considerably in
First came the Senate. On November 4 the Democrats scored a net gain of
eight Senate seats, twice as many as they needed to regain majority
control of the Senate. Then came the Iran arms deal. Then the contra
connection. And then the twenty
one-point plummet of Ronald Reagan's approval rating, the sharpest
one-month drop ever recorded for any President. The message to Democrats
was, "Let cautious optimism be unconfined."
In 1983 the political scientists Richard A. Brody and Lee Sigelman
demonstrated that 50 percent is, historically, the break-even point for a
President's approval rating. Below 50 percent a President is unlikely to
be re-elected or succeeded by another President of the same party. The
early 1987 polls showed Reagan right at the 50 percent mark. The basis of
Democratic optimism is the mounting evidence that the 1988 electorate will
be in a mood to buy what the opposition party has to sell-
namely, change. Caution is advisable, however, because it is not yet clear
how much or what kind of change the voters will be interested in.
How much change the Democrats offer in 1988 may depend in large part on
what happens to the nation's economy. Recessions pull Democrats back to
the Old Politics; they want government to do what it did in the past,
which was protect people from economic adversity. Economic stability or a
renewed recovery would allow Democrats to feel more confident about the
future and might entice them to try a more "pragmatic" approach--pragmatic
being this season's Democratic code word of choice for market-oriented,
rather than government-oriented solutions.
Democrats will have a good number of pragmatic approaches to choose from.
Some prospective presidential candidates see the Baby Boom generation as
the Democratic Party's salvation. These Democrats--the rejuvenators--want
to reawaken the spirit of liberal idealism in younger voters while
appealing to their economic pragmatism. Another group of Democrats, many
of them associated with the Democratic Leadership Council, are
revisionists. They believe the party can survive only by regaining its
competitiveness in the South and West. And to do that, these Democrats
feel, the party must acquire a more centrist--that is, less ideological-
image. A third approach is that of the reconstructionists, who believe
that the party must offer the image of competence in 1988. After the
failures of the 1960s and 1970s the Democrats have to prove that they can
manage the economy and foreign policy. The reconstructionists, unlike the
revisionists, aren't interested in an ideological showdown with the left.
Their message is, "Forget ideology; the voters will be looking for a
candidate who has demonstrated an ability to 'make it work.'"
Finally, there are those Democrats who continue to preach the old party
sharing, equity, compassion, and fairness. These themes are often linked
to big government, although even Old Politics Democrats realize the
necessity of coming to terms with the Reagan revolution. What Jesse
Jackson and (non-candidates) Edward Kennedy and Mario Cuomo have in common
is that they turn conventions into revival meetings. They preach the
old-time religion, even if they don't always practice it. They reaffirm
the party's roots. They are revivalists.
The people who are attracted to Gary Hart speak their own rather special
language. Last year I sat in on a board meeting of Senator Hart's Center
for a New Democracy, which describes itself as "a nonpartisan, non-profit
educational organization...seeking answers that transcend traditional
liberal and conservative post-war orthodoxies." The following words kept
coming up: PARAMETER, INTERACTIVE, CONSENSUS, INSTRUMENTAL, MODERNIZE,
TRANSITION, DIALOGUE, STRATEGIC, AGENDA, INVESTMENT, DECENTRALIZE,
EMPOWERING, INITIATIVE, and ENTREPRENEUR. The word of the day, though, as
I discovered after keeping count for a couple of hours, was PRAGMATIC. "Be
pragmatic in all things" seemed to be the group's motto. "Be not
Hart himself would clearly rather reason things out. At one point in our
conversation he told me, "I am anti-political. I got into politics
resenting traditional politics." What he means by "traditional politics"
is interest politics, the use of bargaining and compromise to reconcile
conflicting claims. Hart sees politics as problem-solving. The role of
government is to stimulate innovation, not to advocate interests.
"Roosevelt never intended the New Deal to be a cathedral where Democrats
were to worship," he told me. "We are going to have to be as innovative
and experimental in terms of solving this new generation of problems as he
was in the 1930s."
According to Hart, "the best politics is the best policy." What the New
Politics means is, "You have to win votes the old-fashioned way. You have
to earn them. You earn them intellectually. You earn them by laying out
what your policies are. That is the key." He even became a little, well,
impassioned in discussing his rationalistic approach to poverty: "Talking
about the problems of the poor has never, never helped one poor person.
Getting up and giving these impassioned, red-faced, bulging-veined
speeches about poverty in America has never helped anybody out of poverty.
The question is, What are your programs? I would say this to Jesse
Jackson: 'Jesse, what are your policies? More of the same? More
maintenance? More handouts?' What are the programs that help people climb
the ladder? How do they work? How do you finance them?"
Since 1984 Hart has exerted no small amount of energy in defining what his
programs would be. "Where's the beef?" Walter Mondale taunted during the
1984 primaries. Hart has by now developed detailed proposals to reform the
conventional military forces; to improve education in mathematics,
science, and foreign languages; to make capital available to new and small
businesses; to rebuild the nation's public-works infrastructure; to create
a secondary market for industrial mortgages; and to finance retraining for
workers in declining industries. THERE'S the beef.
Hart's idea for industrial-modernization agreements illustrates his
approach. He calls for "an activist President being the broker among
management, labor, and private capital." Here is how the idea works:
"Management will direct a certain percentage of its profits, which the
government guarantees, into specific planned modernization, new equipment,
and worker training, according to a targeted strategy. Labor conditions
its wage demands, in exchange for long-term job guarantees, on
profitability and productivity. And private capital is induced to lend
based on the government guarantees. There is something in it for
What if everybody says no? That's where politics comes in. "I say the
President of the United States has only one recourse. That is to go on
national television and say, 'Folks, the management of the steel industry
in this country doesn't want to make steel anymore. I am not going to
protect their industry. We are as of tonight pulling down all trade
barriers, all trade restrictions, and, in effect, to hell with them.'"
Hart insists on complete intellectual honesty in himself and others. It is
his most attractive characteristic. In our discussion of tax reform, which
Hart supported, I pointed out that taxes are often used as an instrument
of social policy as well as a way to raise revenues. Could there have been
a hidden agenda behind President Reagan's tax-reform proposal--eliminating
taxation as a tool of social policy?
Hart said, "That presumes the only way you can get social change in the
country is through the tax laws. You don't have the courage to make the
case above the board. So you make the case, in effect, below the board." I
suggested that offering tax incentives to developers to build low-cost
housing is a good way to get housing built for low-income people. "The
acid test of the argument," Hart responded, "is whether there will be
Democrats in the future who go to the American people and say, 'We need a
housing program for this country and we are going to have to pay for it.'
The hand that can give the housing developers a tax incentive is also the
hand that can slip something in for an individual company or special
interest." Government, Hart says, "is going to require a kind of
intellectual honesty of politicians in the future. If it is good for the
society to do something, then take the case to the American people."
Hart's view of his place in the Democratic Party is revealing. According
to Hart, "there have been two liberal wings in the Democratic Party for
three or four decades." One is the "Eleanor Roosevelt wing," which
included Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, and Walter Mondale. "The other
liberal wing," Hart said, "is more pragmatic, less doctrinaire. It doesn't
worship at the cathedral of the New Deal. That was the wing that John F.
Kennedy created. He created it with my generation."
Moralistic, doctrinaire, ideological liberals who worship at the shrine of
the New Deal--Hart is not one of them. In fact, he is contemptuous of
ideology. He discounts it even in the case of Ronald Reagan. "No one
thinks Reagan believes that horse manure he puts out to the right wing all
the time. Everybody believes that he goes back to the White House, slams
the door, and says, 'God, I'm glad I got that out of the way.' Everybody
knows it is cynical. He is basically a pragmatic guy. Look at how he has
reversed himself on about twenty major issues."
Hart's anti-ideological vision is, he believes, the key to winning the
support of the Baby Boom generation, just as a pledge to "get the country
moving again" was the key to Kennedy's winning the Second World War
generation. Last year Hart characterized his generation of Democratic
leaders as "more market-oriented in economics" and less protectionist in
trade policies than traditional Democrats. He called them "pro-choice on
social issues" and said that they "have a new and different interest in
defense that hasn't quite jelled yet--pro-defense without giving the
Pentagon everything it wants." Hart sees the same generation gap in the
press. "The reporters who understood what I was saying were journalists
under forty years of age. Maybe even under thirty-five. The establishment
press, the old-timers, never quite understood."
I asked Hart about "Where's the beef?" Why did that crack revive Mondale's
candidacy just at the point when he was virtually down for the count? "My
problem was that I got famous too fast," Hart replied. "I think if I had
moved up gradually, that charge would not have worked." There may have
been more to it, I suggested. Mondale wasn't challenging Hart to come up
with detailed policy proposals. He was challenging him to tell Democrats
whose side he was on and what principles he stood for. In the end,
politics is more than problem-solving. There is also an element of moral
advocacy, of "us" versus "them." When Mondale voters asked, "Where's the
beef?" they were demanding to know, "Is this guy one of us? What's he
going to do for us?"
It is possible to believe that special interests have a legitimate place
in the political process. When I interviewed Walter Mondale during my
recent meetings with Democratic leaders, he offered a forceful defense of
advocacy politics. "I have a theory," he said. "It's not a theory, it's a
reality. Our nation is full of all kinds of powerful interests. They're
there, they're influential, they're working all the time. Labor,
minorities, women, the poor, and so on are in a disadvantageous position,
because they have inadequate power. I therefore felt honored by their
endorsement. I tried to shape a strategy that would not only help me get
nominated but would also provide a political base for the things I wanted
to do for those people. I'm proud of their support. I think they're
entitled to a voice." Hart rejects that approach and doesn't readily
acknowledge its legitimacy in others, even in Ronald Reagan, whose success
was greatly dependent on moral advocacy.
Reagan's ideology has now become the source of his undoing. By 1988 the
country may be exhausted with ideology and ready for a technocratic
regime. The winner may argue that there is no right-wing or left-wing way
to make the country strong and competitive again, only an effective way or
an ineffective way. John F. Kennedy was a problem-solver. He gathered "the
best and the brightest" and asked them to solve the nation's problems. It
is widely believed that this technocratic approach is what got us into the
Vietnam War. I pointed this out to Hart. His response was, "The difference
between my approach to government and Kennedy's is, Kennedy relied on the
Boston-Washington elite, the old-boy network. My sense is that the answers
to problems in this country are not primarily going to come from people in
the traditional corridors of power." "Isn't that what Jimmy Carter said?"
I persisted. "Yes," Hart replied. "He said the old elites are the problem.
I don't say they are the problem. I think they are simply irrelevant." The
ultimate put-down of the old by the young: they are not wrong, they are
Hart is sensitive to the charge that he is an isolationist, leveled by
critics who cite his anti-war background and anti-interventionist
positions. He delivered three detailed, heavily footnoted lectures at
Georgetown University last year elaborating a foreign policy of
"enlightened engagement," which he believes should replace what he calls
the outmoded containment policy of the Cold War era. In Hart's view, "the
diffusion of economic, political, and military power" is "the defining
reality of our age." The United States is no longer the preeminent world
power it was at the end of the Second World War. To act as if it were by
retreating into unilateralism is, Hart said, a form of isolationism. He
went on to outline seven guidelines for deciding how and when to use
military force; among them were protection of our security interests,
clear and achievable objectives, exhaustion of nonmilitary options, and
"the most important guideline...the support of the people." Conservatives
suspected that these conditions were just a way of guaranteeing inaction.
But Hart's speeches were taken seriously by many commentators and have
raised the level of the foreign-policy debate above the mindless
name-calling that took place during the 1984 campaign.
Hart is often accused of being aloof and bloodless. His speeches have an
abstract, analytical quality that can--and sometimes does--leave audiences
cold. That is the price he pays for being a rationalist. One to one,
however, he tends to open up. "In company he's a loner; alone, he's
gregarious" is the way I once heard someone put it. Hart strenuously
denies that he is a man without passions. "I am not a Democrat by
accident," he told me. "I could not be a Republican. I think I come across
more bloodless than I really am. I have some deep passions. I feel
strongly about some things. And I chose the Democratic Party because of
The problem is, he rarely talks about those passions. He told me of one
time he did, at the end of the 1984 campaign: "I interrupted my own speech
and said, 'Let me tell my friends in this audience who are for labor that
if I get to be President, I could be one of the best labor Presidents this
country has ever had.' And I meant it. I am going to have a very strong
NLRB. We are going to strengthen the collective
bargaining system. I am going to be a very strong environmental President.
We are going to clean up the toxic-waste dumps. I am going to be one
hundred percent for civil rights. We are going to have judges on the court
who do not pass litmus tests on abortion or school prayer, but who are
absolutely committed to upholding and enforcing equal rights and
He went on "You ask me, What do you feel passionately about? Those are the
things I feel passionately about. The difference is that other people TALK
about how passionate they feel. I will do it."
When Hart's passion does show, it tends to come out depersonalized. Hart's
passions don't seem to come from anywhere, because he is uncomfortable
talking about himself in public--unlike, say, Senator Joseph Biden, of
Delaware, a potential competitor who specializes in personal and emotional
speeches. Here is how Hart analyzed the difference between Biden and
himself: "He tries to do it directly, by talking about it. I am here to
reawaken their idealism. We are doing the same thing. But I do it
indirectly." Hart says he prefers that other people talk about him. "Go
back and find out how many times John Kennedy talked about himself, or
even his war experience. Others talked about him. They got the message
out. I want people talking about who I am."
That is exactly what happened in 1984, and it didn't help. The name
change, the questions regarding the date of birth, the signature problem,
the marital difficulties, were important because they seemed to symbolize
a lack of authenticity. To many democrats, Gary Hart was a mystery: the
self-invented person, the man who fell to earth. Hart has the true
academic temperament. He analyzes everything. I suggested to Hart that he
is perceived as having no roots. "You don't have roots," I said. Hart
replied, "Well, I have roots. I just don't talk about them." He has
decided to change that, however. He has written a 5,000-word
autobiographical essay. He asked the Library of Congress to research his
genealogy, and he intends to take his son on a trip retracing his family
history. "I will probably take a reporter along," Hart added. In other
words, he is offering an intellectual solution to a problem that isn't
Hart's advantages for the 1988 race are clear enough. He has name
recognition. He has cadres of supporters all over the country, ready to do
battle for the nomination that was "stolen" from him four years ago. And
he has an implicit moral standing among Democrats, as the man who can say
"I told you so." In 1984 Hart told Democrats, "If you nominate Walter
Mondale, it will be a disaster." They did, and it was.
Hart's greatest challenge may be to figure out how he can succeed in 1988
without Walter Mondale on the ballot. There is no question that most of
the votes Hart got, at least in the early primaries, were anti-Mondale
votes. When attention started to focus on Hart as a potential President,
he began to lose support. More than a few Democrats wondered, "Is this guy
Blacks seemed to feel that way. Carrying just three percent of the black
vote in 1984 suggests that Hart might have a problem with a group that has
become an essential part of the Democratic Party's base. According to the
conventional wisdom, Hart is invisible to black voters; they just don't
see anything there. Recent evidence suggests that Hart's black problem is
not so serious however. Last September the Gallup Poll ran a trial heat
between Hart and Jackson for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination.
"Perhaps surprisingly," the poll reported, "blacks in the new survey--as
in a similar test in June--split their votes evenly between Hart and
Jackson." A poll taken last July by The Los Angeles Times asked
respondents whether they would be "inclined" or "disinclined" to support
various candidates for President. By 42 to 12 percent, blacks polled
indicated that they would be inclined to support Gary Hart. Jesse Jackson
elicited a stronger positive response from blacks (61 percent) but also a
stronger negative response (25 percent). (As for Mario Cuomo,
interestingly, the black response was essentially indifferent--18 percent
positive, 16 percent negative.) Thus black Democrats seem to respond to
Hart more or less the same way that other Democrats do.
One thing Hart has going for him in 1988 is an impeccably liberal voting
record in Congress. Hart has always been ranked as a liberal, and
according to National Journal, his was the most liberal voting record in
the Senate in 1985. Having decided not to run for re-election in Colorado,
Hart was finally free to support gun-control legislation. Unlike many
liberals, including Edward Kennedy, Hart voted against the
Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction bill and became one of the leading
critics of the measure. Hart's record is clean on Reaganomics as well,
since he voted against the 1981 tax cut. In short, Gary Hart has no
litmus-test problems in competing for the Democratic nomination. Has the
pragmatist suddenly become an ideologue? Hart has been through two
presidential campaigns. He knows what kind of people participate in
Democratic caucuses and primaries. He knows he cannot leave himself
vulnerable to an attack from the left. That is not ideology; that is pure
Gary Hart, the self-described "anti-political" candidate, is something of
a policy wonk, the kind of person who loves to talk about
investment-training accounts. Senator Joseph Biden is just the opposite.
He is a completely political creature, in the best sense of the word. He
understands the poetry of politics. Like Mario Cuomo, Biden is an
accomplished speaker who knows how to use imagery and symbolism to move
his audiences. But talk to Washington insiders about Biden's record and
you will hear things like "a guy with unrealized potential," "unfocused,"
"has yet to demonstrate he's a political heavyweight," "questionable
attention span," and "jumps quickly from one hot issue to another." The
question "Is Joe Biden 'substantive' enough?" is, Biden himself
acknowledges, his political Achilles heel.
Biden's decision not to run in 1984 cleared the way for Hart to use the
generational theme, sold to him by Patrick Caddell, Biden's friend and
adviser. Biden's decision for 1988 is even more difficult. Not only does
Hart have a prior claim on the Baby Boom constituency but Biden would have
to give up his newly acquired chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary
Committee--in other words, sacrifice substance for politics. It is a
decision that Biden does not take lightly, and he has been wrestling with
it ever since the Democrats regained control of the Senate. Even if he
doesn't run in 1988 (at this writing he is still making up his mind), at
age forty-five and with a major Senate chairmanship in his grasp, Biden
seems destined to wrestle with the same decision in many presidential
elections to come.
On many issues Biden sounds a lot like Hart, particularly when he
criticizes the role of special interests in the Democratic Party. But
there is a lot more feeling in Biden's critique. Biden has become
something of a contrarian in the party. He goes before labor groups and
women's groups and peace groups and Democratic Party groups and says, "I
want to say some things to you today and some of it you may not like."
Sometimes it works, and he gets credit for being candid and outspoken.
Sometimes it doesn't work, and his audiences feel insulted. The most
widely publicized instance was when Biden criticized Jesse Jackson before
an NAACP convention in Baltimore last year. He urged the audience to
"reject the voices in the movement who tell black Americans to go it
alone...that whites and Catholics and Jews no longer care about the
problems of black Americans, that only blacks can represent blacks." Some
thought the criticism was too mild and indirect. Others thought it was
rude to criticize Jackson before a black audience. And others thought the
statement was just right. But it did what Biden does very well. It got
Like Hart, Biden puts arms control at the top of the Democratic agenda,
and he calls Reagan "the most anti-arms-control President since...Christ,
period." His analysis of the Strategic Defense Initiative reveals shrewd
political insight. "It was a conservative answer to the freeze movement,"
Biden told me when we talked recently. "They took the freeze movement,
oversimplified the arms-control debate for political reasons, caused a
great breach for the first time between popular support for arms control
and the arms-control community, and consequently guaranteed that no
reasonable opposition could be mounted politically to the President's lack
of foresight on nuclear weapons."
Again like Hart, Biden aims his pitch at the Baby Boom generation. His
appeal, repeated in almost every major speech, is moving and evocative:
"The cynics believe that my generation--having reached the conservative
age of mortgage payments, pediatricians' bills, and saving for our
children's education--are ripe for Republican picking. These experts
believe that, like the Democratic Party itself, the
less-than-forty-year-old voters are prepared to sell their souls for some
security, real or illusory. They have misjudged us. Just because our
political heroes were murdered does not mean that the dream does not still
live, buried deep within the broken hearts of tens of millions of
Americans." At more than one Democratic forum that passage has brought
down the house.
Biden says he was advised against making such a direct generational
appeal. His instinct, however, was that the feelings he was evoking were
universal ones. The basic experience of his generation, as Biden describes
it, is universal--a disillusionment with government. "My generation
started the process. I got involved in politics because of the
civil-rights movement. I was just one of thousands." What he and others
learned from the civil-rights movement was that government could make a
difference. "When bad things happen, you go to the government, you make
them change it. Going to the federal government was almost
anti-establishment." And then, he says, "It flipped. We really got bogged
down, beginning with Vietnam...Watergate...the energy crisis. Government
was making the wrong decisions." Inflation was the final straw. "As much
as five or six percentage points on the inflation rate were due to oil.
Another five percent was due to Vietnam. And so you have ten or eleven
percent on top of the inflation that had accumulated since 1932, as
conservatives had predicted, and BAM--everything's gone."
What Biden does, probably better than any other national Democrat, is
articulate issues from the ordinary voter's point of view. Reagan often
does that too, but very few liberals can do it anymore. Here, for instance
from a National Journal interview, is Biden on the Democratic
"There is a consistent pattern that crept into the Democratic Party
in the late 1960s and through the 1970s: We forgot who our people were.
Our main concern has been the poor. Our people were the middle class. The
moral business of this country is not the way liberals think of it. The
moral business of this country is securing the middle class as well as
taking care of the poor."
Or, as he told me, "The Democrats have miscalculated the American
character. All through the seventies they talked about how we've got to
live with a smaller world, that small is beautiful. Americans didn't buy
any of that stuff. They don't buy small. They don't buy no growth. They
don't buy limits."
Sometimes he talks too much the way people think, and one can't be sure,
as Steve Allen used to say, that his head knows what his mouth is saying.
"The Democratic Party succeeded as long as the pie kept growing and
everybody could participate in it. At one point, when the pie stopped
growing, some segments of the population began to eat the other segments'
piece. And the piece that was eaten continued to feed the appetite, if you
will, to keep this stupid analogy going..." Well, you get the point.
Still, as the Washington Post columnist Michael Barons wrote, "The
emotional outbursts, the intensity of his speaking seem not contrived or
cynical but to spring from his own conviction that he represents and must
articulate the deep feelings of the ordinary decent people he
Consider two issues that the democratic party is going to have to deal
with in 1988--protectionism and isolationism. Neither of these positions can be taken in
polite company. Any mainstream politician who makes a
protectionist-sounding speech--as John Connally did in 1980 and as Walter Mondale did in 1983--is
immediately pounced upon by the establishment press for catering to
special interests (big business in Connally's case, big labor in
Mondale's) or for pandering to popular prejudice. As it happens, the
public does support protectionism. Polls show that even if you explain
that tariffs and import quotas raise consumer prices, the public will say
that we should restrict foreign goods. The underlying sentiment seems to
be moral: I should not benefit as a consumer at the expense of American
jobs. The catch is that people's political views are affected by these
sentiments more than their economic behavior is.
Reagan's free-trade position is a definite political liability. But it is
not respectable for Democrats to be protectionist. Their solution has been
to talk about "competitiveness"--making American industry more competitive
with foreign industry. As Biden sees it, "You can do a lot without
becoming protectionist, but you're going to have to sing from a different
hymnal than the Republicans sing from. First of all, you have to
demonstrate to people that you care about what is happening to them. The
problem with my technocratic friends is that they have such an antiseptic
way of presenting what is, in large part, a correct answer.
Competitiveness doesn't mean a Goddamned thing to that guy in the small
textile town that's going to go belly-up. Really, what they're asking him
to do, in his mind, is to accept ninety-four cents an hour. You're going
to have to demonstrate to those folks that there are alternatives to
protectionism, that they have other options."
Interventionism is also a political liability for Republican candidates.
The public agrees that a Communist regime in Central America represents a
threat to the vital interests of the United States. But people refuse to
draw the conclusion that military support for the Nicaraguan "freedom
fighters" is the best way to counter such a threat. To most Americans,
that kind of policy does not sound like decisive action to protect our
national security. It sounds like getting involved in another country's
problems. That is one of the lessons of Vietnam and of Iran. When we get
involved in foreign conflicts, even with the noblest of intentions, we
usually end up making the situation worse and getting ourselves in
trouble--or so it is widely believed. Better to stay out unless our
national interests are directly threatened.
Biden articulates this view very effectively. "My generation comes out of
Vietnam scarred," he told me, "and learning the wrong lessons [by which
Biden means isolationism]. The right lesson from Vietnam is that when you
make an unwise investment, you should cut your losses and move on." Biden
has little patience with the left on this score. "We have an interest in
Latin America," he said. "We have a right to intervene if our legitimate
interests are put in jeopardy. But we have an obligation to act with some
sense." His criticism of Reagan's policy is on exactly that point. "Even
if you buy all of what Reagan says, his policy is not smart. It is not
going to accomplish what he sets out to do. At every opportunity where
there has been a chance to make a reasonable choice to mitigate the
difficulty we face in the region, he has made the wrong choice." Biden's
description of the current polarity in foreign policy is apt. "Today
Republicans are mobilized by simplicity and Democrats are immobilized by
complexity." Once the phrasemaker gets going, it's hard to shut him off.
With Jimmy Carter, "we ended up with a very smart man who was not
particularly bold," Biden said. "Then, with Reagan, we had a very bold man
who was not particularly smart. It would be nice to have a bold, smart
person," he added, flashing his Jack Nicholson smile.
As a student, Biden was a civil-rights activist. His relationship with the
anti-war movement was complex--and is revealing. He calls it his "problem
with Vietnam." "Was I against the war?" he asks rhetorically. "Yes, I was
against the war. Was I involved in the peace movement? No, I was not
involved in the peace movement. The reason I was against the war was that
it was stupid. But I could never bring myself to accept the proposition,
nor do I to this day, that we were on the wrong side." Biden's innate
populism came through when I asked him if he thought that the Vietnam War
was, as Reagan once described it, "a noble cause." "I think it is
inappropriate for me as a prospective political leader to go back and be
judgmental about a time when people genuinely and deeply believed in what
they were doing. They truly thought they were doing something noble. The
cause itself was much more cynical in terms of why people got us involved
Biden does not represent the activist element of the Baby Boom generation.
He identifies with the much larger constituency that was passive but not
untouched by the events of the late 1960s. "Most kids growing up in that
generation were like me," he says. "I'll never forget, my first year in
law school, when the students took over the chancellor's office and were
hanging out the windows. We were coming out of class for lunch and walking
by. There were seventy-five students in the building. There were three
hundred students around the building, cheering them on. There were
twenty-eight thousand of us walking by, saying, 'Look at those assholes.'
We were not moved by the same things that the activists in our generation
were moved by." The majority's view, he said, "did not have an ideological
or even a political thrust to it." I suggested calling it
anti-establishment, and Biden agreed.
"I wouldn't have thought of that," he said, "but that's exactly what I
would call it. It's an anti-establishment attitude but there is an
establishment cast to it now." Biden speaks for those Baby Boomers who
never caught the Big Chill.
Biden's relationship with liberals has always been a bit uneasy. He says
he found himself uncomfortable with the people he agreed with on the
Vietnam War--Eugene McCarthy and Allard Lowenstein and George McGovern. "I disagreed
with the people I felt culturally and politically more comfortable with."
Biden still espouses traditional values and criticizes the countercultural
influences in the Democratic Party as "intellectual snobbism." Having to
cope with profound personal tragedy in his life has added a depth of
conviction to his talk about family values. One month after he was first
elected to the Senate, in 1972, when he was twenty-nine, his wife and baby
daughter were killed and his two sons seriously
injured in an automobile accident. Since then he has commuted nearly four
hours every day between Wilmington and Washington in order to be with his
family (he remarried in 1977).
Biden has a strongly liberal voting record. During the Carter
Administration he led the fight in the Foreign Relations Committee for the
ratification of SALT II. As a member of the Judiciary committee, he fought
against the confirmation of Edwin Meese as Attorney general and of William
Bradford Reynolds as Associate Attorney general. But he is no litmus-test
liberal. On a number of key issues Biden has gone his own way. He is a
leading critic of school busing for purposes of racial integration. He
supports freedom of choice on abortion but opposes federal funding of
abortions for poor women ("If you say government should be out, then
government should be out"). He has supported a crackdown on crime, a
line-item veto for the President, an across-the board freeze in federal
spending, and the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings automatic deficit-reduction plan.
All these positions are closer to those of ordinary voters than to those
of Democratic activists.
In 1985 Biden made an impassioned plea to his fellow Democrats to allow
Edward Kennedy to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee (Kennedy was
already serving on two other committees, normally the maximum allowed).
Biden argued that Kennedy "IS civil rights" and the embodiment of hope to
millions of black and Hispanic Americans. Many people saw Biden's action
as selfless and somewhat foolish, since it would enable Kennedy to become
chairman of the Judiciary committee if the Democrats regained the Senate.
They did just that, but Kennedy chose to become chairman of the labor and
Human Resources Committee instead. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee,
Biden may now be able to make a name for himself as the Leader of the
resistance to Reagan's judicial nominees.
Biden is known less as a legislative leader than as a consensus-builder.
On several major issues he has played a key role in negotiating
compromises between liberals and conservatives and forging a winning
coalition Those issues include the rewriting of the federal criminal code
in 1984, the defeat of the U.S. District Court nominee Jefferson B.
Sessions in 1985, and last year's anti-drug bill. But Biden is not a
policy specialist and does not favor a programmatic approach to
presidential campaigns. In a thinly veiled dig at the front-runner, Biden
has said that the Democratic Party is "not a coalition of programmatic
initiatives. We are about opportunity, passion, excitement, and a sense of
adventure--and real heart."
In short, Joe Biden's virtues and faults are sometimes one and the same.
He is straightforward and blunt. (A Senate colleague reports that Biden
once said to Georgi Arbatov, the director of the Soviet Union's Institute
on the U.S.A. and Canada, "All right, Georgi cut the crap. Your economy is
in a desperate situation, your philosophy is dead, no one's buying that
song and dance anymore.") He is passionate and aggressive. (Many observers
thought that Biden's reprimand of Secretary of State George Shultz at a
Senate hearing on South Africa last summer was shrill and disrespectful.)
His loquacity is sometimes unintentionally self-revealing. (Referring to his controversial political adviser, Biden once
told The Washington Post, "Sometimes I don't know where Pat Caddell's
thinking stops and mine begins.") Still, in a straw poll taken last
December at a meeting of the American Association of Political
Consultants, Biden was rated the front-runner for the 1988 Democratic
In 1988 Baby Boomers will make up almost half of the electorate. For years
politicians, advertisers, and media programmers have known that winning
the Baby Boom means controlling the market. So far, no one in politics has
figured out how to reach the Pepsi generation. Many have tried, with
limited success: George McGovern, Jerry Brown, John Anderson, Gary Hart,
even Ronald Reagan. One of the most striking facts about the 1984
presidential election is how undistinctive younger voters were: they voted
59 to 41 percent for Reagan over Mondale, which is the same way everyone
Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have a particular advantage
among Baby Boomers. The Baby Boom generation parts company with the rest
of the electorate less over ideology than over political style. This
difference stems from the Baby Boomers' particular generational
experience. The simplest way to characterize that style is as
anti-establishment. Baby Boomers grew up in an era when nothing worked the
way it was supposed to--not government, not business, not labor, not the
military, not religion, not even education. To Baby Boomers, the great
Depression happened in the 1970s, not in the 1930s. That is one reason why
they responded with some enthusiasm to Ronald Reagan. He turned the
economy around. But Baby Boomers' distrust of government is not quite the
same as Reagan's ideological conservatism. The spark of idealism and the
passion for social justice are still there. They show up in all the polls.
But the bitter experiences of the 1960s and 1970s have created widespread
suspicion of traditional Democratic solutions. Baby Boomers became
distrustful of parties and ideologies. First their music and later their
politics gave them a sense of generational distinctiveness, of seeing the
world as "us" and "them." Both Hart and Biden claim to have roots in this
special generational experience, enabling each to say "I am one of you. I
experienced the same frustrations and failures that you did. I share your
longing for the idealism we once knew." To Baby Boomers, "they" have been
running the country for forty years now. Soon, perhaps very soon, a
politician will connect with them and lead them to power under the banner
"Now it's our turn."
REVISIONISTS AND RECONSTRUCTIONISTS
The Democratic Leadership Council was organized in 1985 to reclaim the
party from the liberal ideologues and interest groups who seemed to have
gotten a stranglehold on Democratic presidential nominations. Among the
founders were several Democrats with national aspirations of their own:
Governor Charles Robb, of Virginia; governor Bruce Babbitt, of Arizona;
Representative Richard Gephardt, of Missouri; and Senator Sam Nunn, of
Georgia, all of whom are on the organization's board of directors (Robb is
Nunn defined the DLC's mission as follows: "To lay a foundation,
intellectually and politically, on which a moderate Democrat can run for
President in 1988...[and] to make it safe for candidates at the state and
local level to run as Democrats." Accordingly, the DLC has tried to
involve state and local officials in an effort to define a new and more
pragmatic national program. DLC leaders also made campaign-style swings
through various Sun Belt states--Florida, Texas, California, North
Carolina--in order to persuade dubious local Democrats that there was some
vitality left in the national party. Predictably, the organization got
labeled "the white-male caucus" by party liberals, who saw it as an effort
to pull the party to the right and offer a "me-too" alternative to the
Charles Robb epitomizes the kind of Democrat the DLC is trying to appeal
to--and create. He won the statehouse after three Republican victories in
a row and had a markedly successful term in office. Robb was prohibited by
the state constitution from running for a second term, but in the wake of
his popularity the Democrats swept the three top state-wide offices in
1985; a black was elected lieutenant governor and a woman was elected
attorney general, both firsts in Virginia. His marriage to Lynda Bird
Johnson authenticates his Democratic heritage. And the fact that he is a
Vietnam War veteran locates him squarely within the experience of the Baby
Boom generation. That resume makes Robb the front-runner for the 1988 vice
presidential nomination, assuming the party doesn't nominate a southerner
Robb's revisionist notion, as he described it to me not long ago, was that
the Democratic Party should become "the party of change, the party of
economic opportunity and growth, the party of strength and resolve and
willingness to defend basic American values and freedom, and
hopefully--this might be a new part of the equation, one that has been
presented to us by the Republicans--the party of fiscal responsibility."
I asked him what he made of the criticism that fiscal responsibility,
economic growth, and the defense of American values and freedom was
essentially a "me too" platform. In his answer he explained centrism as a political
strategy. Robb said, "If you don't represent those values at least
credibly, then the electorate is going to turn elsewhere. We're competing
ultimately for the same turf, for the same value system." centrists define
their program in terms of CONSENSUAL values, values shared by the whole of
society--peace, prosperity, growth, national security, freedom. An
ideological program bases its strategy on CONFLICTING values, issues that
pit "us" against "them"--liberal versus conservative, populist versus
elitist, Sun Belt versus rust Belt, haves versus have-nots. The key
element in Robb's--and, by implication, the DLC's--political thinking is
resistance to conflict and division, to the ideological style of
The idea is to define a more inclusive politics of the whole. "We're not
abandoning constituencies as such, but we are going to appeal to
constituencies not on the basis of litmus tests or individual narrow
agendas but on the basis of a broad national agenda."
Robb's criticism of the Democratic nominating process was both insightful
and revealing. He voiced the standard complaint that Iowa and New
Hampshire play too prominent a role and supported the idea of a southern
regional primary, but not because the early states are too liberal. His
complaint was that a candidate "knows the players" when he goes into Iowa
and New Hampshire. "You don't present a broad national agenda. Every
single candidate that I've talked to tells me he goes into Iowa and gets
presented with these non-negotiable demands for support. It's small enough
and controllable enough and manipulable enough that they can get away with
it." What Robb wants is "a broad test--it doesn't have to be southern."
Although he supports a southern primary, he says, "It's not the South I'm
concerned about. You're really asking, 'Can this candidate win in a
general election in November?'" Southern Democrats range from blacks on
the left to fundamentalists and unreconstructed racists on the right,
along with some urban liberals, yuppies, union voters, farmers, and
country-club conservatives thrown in. As Bert Lance, President Carter's
budget director, and a key architect of the southern regional primary,
pointed out in a speech last year, "The South is diverse....If one could
hammer out a consensus of support in the South, then one could hammer out
a consensus in the West or the East or in the Midwest."
Before jumping to the conclusion that an early southern regional primary
will be decisive in 1988, consider these statistics: Turnout in southern
presidential primaries dropped from an average of 18 percent of the
voting-age population in 1980 to 14 percent in 1984. And blacks, who make
up a quarter of southern Democrats, were overrepresented among those who
voted in the 1984 southern primaries (averaging 30 percent, according to
Those figures suggest that white southerners had little interest in any of
the 1984 Democratic candidates and stayed home in droves. That was a blow
to Senator John Glenn, who presented himself as a centrist Democrat and
looked to the southern primaries to revive his candidacy. Actually,
southern Democrats voted just like non-southern Democrats in 1984, with
the three liberal candidates--Mondale, Jackson, and Hart--easily
outpolling Glenn. Democratic contenders who are thinking about pursuing a
moderate "southern strategy" in 1988 should take Glenn's experience as a
caution. Next time it may be even more difficult to get southern whites to
participate in the Democratic primaries, since there is likely to be a hot
contest on the Republican ballot.
The South is the poorest region of the country. Politically it is the most
populist. Southern populism has traditionally been radical on economic
issues but socially and culturally reactionary. Polls from the 1930s
reveal that New Deal economic policies were supported more strongly in the
South than in any other part of the country. During the 1960s, however,
the South was a hotbed of racial reaction and law-and-order backlash.
Since the 1960s two changes have moderated the profile of southern
Democrats. One was the departure of economic conservatives, the so
called Bourbon Democrats, who were never comfortable with the New Deal and
who have now found a secure base in the southern Republican Party. The
other was the departure, or reconstruction, of the hard-core racist
element formerly led by Alabama Governor George Wallace. Today white
racism has been reduced to a minor, dissident influence in southern
Democratic politics. But southern Democrats have retained their populist
Democratic centrists aren't nearly as much of a presence as they used to
be in southern Democratic primaries. And centrist candidates are not
likely to do much better than John Glenn did in 1984. Bert Lance put his
finger on Glenn's problem. "Glenn's problem was Ronald Reagan," Lance
explained to me recently. "When the people in the South looked at Glenn's
candidacy, those who were going to be for Glenn really preferred Ronald
Reagan." In other words, southern centrist voters may have drifted over to
the Republican Party, thereby leaving southern Democrats less distinctive
and less diverse. It is at least plausible to argue that economic
populism, not centrist may be the key to victory in the southern regional
primaries in 1988.
Nor will the southern regional primary necessarily diminish the influence
of Iowa and New Hampshire. Just the opposite in fact. A regional primary
is, by definition, a media primary. Candidates will need to do well in
Iowa and New Hampshire in order to raise the money they need to win a
serious campaign from Baltimore to El Paso. It should be recalled that
Gary Hart won the 1984 Florida Democratic primary just two weeks after New
Hampshire and with minimal organization and resources. It may turn out
that the best way to impress the South in 1988 is the old-fashioned
way--by first winning the New Hampshire primary.
Former Governor Bruce Babbitt, of Arizona, another DLC board member, can
make one compelling argument for attaining national leadership: he knows
how to govern in a Republican environment. He served almost nine years as
governor of Arizona, the quintessential Sun Belt state and one of the most
solidly Republican states in the country. Elected state attorney general
in 1974, Babbitt succeeded to the governorship upon the death of the
incumbent, in 1978. He won election by a narrow margin in 1978 and was
subsequently re-elected in 1982 with 62.5 percent of the vote--the highest
margin of any Arizona governor since the Second World War. Like other
western Democratic governors, Babbitt got along with a Republican
electorate and a Republican-controlled legislature by adopting a
distinctively non-ideological approach to politics.
Non-ideological but hardly quiet or unassuming. He has taken a provocative
stance toward the national Democratic Party. "Liberalism is in danger of
extinction because of its inability to make choices," he told me when we
spoke not long ago. "Liberals are simply defending everything and
therefore endangering everything. They're saying all programs are equal."
He elaborated his message in a Chubb lecture titled "The Soul of a
Democrat," delivered at Yale University in December of 1985. "I believe it
is time for a radical new look at the social goals of government," Babbitt
said. "First, we must set limits, and therefore priorities. That means we
must target our spending more closely on some measure of need. Second, we
must buy opportunity and not dependence. Third, we must affirm that the
benefits paid to our citizens bring reciprocal duties to the society which
foots the bill."
The most provocative of all Babbitt's ideas is means-testing, the notion
that all government support--Social Security and Medicare benefits, tax
deductions farm subsidies--be targeted on the basis of need. That is an
extraordinarily risky idea for Democrats, who have found over the years
that the most successful social programs--Social Security, Medicare--are those that provide universal coverage.
Many Democrats fear that Babbitt's policy would turn every federal social
program into "welfare" and alienate the middle-class constituencies whose
political support is essential. Babbitt's counterargument is simple: we,
as a society, cannot afford to continue buying off the middle class in
order to retain government subsidies for the "truly needy." When I
interviewed him, he said, "Targeting benefits allows us to move away from
the notion that the only way you can expand the safety net is by buying
everybody off in equal measure."
Babbitt argues for means-tested benefits through an analogy with
progressive taxation. "As we have progressive taxation," he explained, "we
will also have progressive benefits in society. The concepts are mirror
images of each other. You can paint a catastrophic picture of either one.
Progressive taxation carried to its limit would be confiscatory.
Progressive benefits carried to their limit would destroy popular support
because it would be reverse confiscation." Means-testing enables Babbitt
to be two things at once. Because it saves money (by cutting benefits to
people who don't need them), means-testing is fiscally conservative.
Because it targets benefits on the basis of need, means-testing is
socially progressive. Not surprisingly, that is how Babbitt describes
himself. "I would say I am made up of two halves," he explained. "My
economics are fairly conservative. But on the social welfare, equality,
and civil-rights issue, I am a liberal in the most traditional sense. Means
testing is a nice example of my effort to reconcile the two. Average the
two together and you get a centrist. I am a moderate of immoderate
Babbitt's record as governor shows him to be something of an innovator.
His groundwater-management program, developed in 1980, is generally
regarded as his most important achievement. To handle this delicate issue
he set up a special commission with himself as chairman, and then
presented it to the Republican legislature as a fait accompli. He is an
avid environmentalist and outdoorsman and the groundwater bill helped his
environmental credentials. Babbitt also designed an experimental Medicaid
program that signed recipients up for prepaid health
maintenance organizations at a fixed cost. Although there were problems in
administering the program--the private health-care contractor backed
out--Babbitt says that "our Medicaid program is the model of what will
happen in government health care." The Governor, who speaks fluent
Spanish, also brought members of Arizona's large Hispanic minority into
positions of power.
Babbitt's critique of liberal programs is based in part on experience. He
worked in social-action programs in Latin America and was active in the
civil-rights movement in this country. He was also a foot soldier in
Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, setting up community-action agencies under
the auspices of the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. Later Babbitt
became active in Arizona's legal
services movement and ended up working in behalf of Navajo Indians. "What
I learned was you can't force thoroughgoing social change from the top
down," Babbitt said in 1985. "The whole war on poverty had a certain kind
of arrogance." Babbitt had another sort of experience as governor, with
organized labor. In l983 he called out the National Guard to protect
non-union workers during a copper strike. Babbitt argues that he was
protecting public safety against the threat of mob violence. But labor
groups around the country have continued to boycott Babbitt's
Babbitt told me that as a Democrat he supports an activist role for
government. As a DLC Democrat he believes that "social justice and equity
are only on the table for discussion in the context of economic growth."
He believes that the top priority for Democrats must be "to reclaim the
flag of economic growth." Here however Babbitt rejects the typical
neo-liberal argument for a national industrial policy.
Instead Babbitt believes "the payoff is in the international economic
arena." What he wants to do is "step up to the chaos and reinvent the
international economy in the same way that Woodrow Wilson and JFK did with
the domestic economy when they put together the Federal Reserve System,
the FDIC, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and all of that."
Babbitt's ambition is to undertake "a grand re-examination" of international economic policy to correct the misalignment
of exchange rates and trade balances. Can a candidate really use
international economic reform as a main issue of his campaign? Babbitt
thinks so. The international economy "is just like the domestic economy
was in the nineteenth century," he explained to me. " The difference is
now we are directly affected by it. The survival of our social-welfare
system and the rules of equity are being put at risk in an international
economic jungle where there are no governing principles that relate the
countries that do business with each other."
Last year Babbitt raised eyebrows when he suggested that some members of
the Reagan Administration were hoping for a fatality among U.S. National
guardsmen training in Honduras in order to provide a pretext for a
full-scale invasion of Nicaragua. Babbitt has in fact been critical of
U.S. military aid to the Contras. But he is no left-winger on foreign
policy. "What is necessary," he said "is a clear rejection of
isolationism. Internationalism does require a conclusion. If not every
sparrow that falls out of a tree is our concern many of them are and we
must have an aggressive, vigorous view of how our interests are faring
around the world." Babbitt feels that Democrats have "a healthy sense of
limitation" about U.S. power and argues that "the world is not a bipolar
world of Russian surrogates and Americans allies; it is a pluralistic
world full of many different camps and national objectives." At the same
time he says he "wouldn't be too critical" of Reagan's interventionist
policies. "Our actions in Grenada and Libya have demonstrated that our
allies don't disappear forever when you take determined action," Babbitt
told me. "That's a useful lesson for Democrats."
When I spoke to him, a profile of Babbitt with the headline "BABBIT
DELIGHTS IN DETAILS" had recently been published in The Washington Post,
and he felt defensive about it. Babbitt told me, "If you belong to the
party of government you have to be interested in detail. You have to make
things work because the alternative to making them work is having them
discredited which is precisely what conservatives want." Sound familiar?
Jimmy Carter was also interested in details. Babbitt "reminds me of Carter
in a lot of ways " one Democratic operative told The New Republic. "The
negative ways are he's kind of sanctimonious--he acts as if he's the only
person in politics for the right reasons....But he's like Carter in some
good ways too. He's fresh and hasn't been beaten down. He comes with an
outside-Washington perspective which is always appealing." It may be
especially appealing if after the Iran-contra scandal the voters are
looking for another outsider to go to Washington and clean up the mess.
Babbitt's problem is that he has challenged the Democratic Party on its
most sacrosanct issues--namely Social Security and Medicare. In the
context of Democratic Party politics that's like committing murder in
order to get your name in the papers.
Michael Dukakis, of Massachusetts, another Democratic governor has a
message similar to those of Robb and Babbitt but with a difference in
emphasis. Dukakis is not a member of the Democratic Leadership Council. He
is a reconstructionist, not a revisionist. His argument is by example:
Look what we've done in Massachusetts. In just over ten years the
Massachusetts economy has lost its high-tax, slow-growth high-unemployment
stigma to become the most robust economy of any industrial state. And it
was done, Dukakis argues, through the aggressive and innovative use of
Both Massachusetts and Dukakis himself have undergone a dramatic
transformation. Dukakis was first elected governor in 1974, when the state
was in serious economic difficulty; the unemployment rate was almost 12
percent, several points higher than the national average. During his first
term he imposed the biggest tax increase in the state's history and
acquired the reputation of being arrogant and aloof. As a result he was
defeated for re-election in the 1978 primary by Edward King, a
Conservative Democrat of the anti-tax persuasion (1978 was the year of
Proposition 13 and the tax revolt). King subsequently became mired in a
series of scandals with the result that after a rematch in 1982, Dukakis
was returned for a second try.
Dukakis recently described his first term to me as "one of the most
painful periods I ever went through." He said, "I was destroying programs
that I myself had had a lot to do with in the legislature. It wasn't the
right that I antagonized. It was the left in a lot of ways." He said of
his four years out of office "I had a chance to reflect on how to work
effectively with people at a time when resources are limited. I think
these days I do that a lot better than I did the first time around."
Apparently so. Dukakis was re-elected to a third term last year with 69
percent of the vote. (Washington political observers duly noted that
Dukakis's margin was four points higher than Mario Cuomo's in New York.)
The transformation seems complete. Now he says "for the first time in my
adult lifetime, people are really proud of this place. We were our own
worst critics--we called the state Taxachusetts and all that." Not only
has the state's economy markedly improved but an aggressive program of
revenue enforcement (the collection of back taxes) has helped bring about
fiscal stability. "The revenue enforcement really turned things around,"
the Governor told me. "It has not only created a sense of fairness and
integrity about what's going on but also produced the revenue to wipe out
what would have been another deficit. I mean I was being urged by all
kinds of people in early '83 to put another tax on. Well I had gone down
that road once. I don't have to tell you I wasn't anxious to do it again."
And the income surtax imposed during his first term has been abolished.
Dukakis undertook what he describes as an "aggressive economic development
effort--a combination of aggressive salesmanship, substantial investment
of public resources, and infrastructure development."
Dukakis readily acknowledged to me that he and his administration are
activists. "We think there is an important role for political leadership
in building economic strength and creating economic opportunity." In that
respect Dukakis's style is classically Democratic. John Sasso, the
Governor's chief of staff explained, "When Jack Kemp talks about creating
opportunity, he's talking about a much different vision of opportunity
than Mike Dukakis is. With Dukakis it isn't 'Get government out of the way
and let it happen.' This ain't laissez-faire." No indeed. Rather it is a
sort of statewide industrial policy with state government acting as broker
for business, labor, and the academic community. Alden Raine, the
Governor's economic-development administrator, described it to me this
way: "The public role in all of this is to command three big pots of
investment: infrastructure development, capital formation for business and
human capital--education and training." Dukakis calls it "investing public
resources in combination with private initiative and private capital."
If all this sounds like a policy of huge state subsidies it should.
Dukakis told me "The policy entails very direct as well as indirect
subsidies. We have an industrial-science agency that has made over three billion dollars' worth of loans.
We have the only state development-action-grant program in the country.
There isn't much we won't do for a company that's willing either to expand
or to relocate in one of our target areas--heavy investments in older
downtowns, direct stuff in addition to financing. A lot of money. At any
one time we'll have a hundred and fifty or two hundred of these projects
going." David Broder of The Washington Post, has labeled it "New
Deal-Making politics." Dukakis explained to me, "If you're going to ask a
company to go to Lowell Massachusetts you've got to demonstrate a public
commitment to Lowell in the form of a first-rate infrastructure, good
schools, a regional university or local college. You've got to be able to
demonstrate to folks that the state is serious about asking them to come."
He concluded with astonishing candor "You can't ask people to take
This sort of thing drives conservatives crazy. A leader of the tax-revolt
movement in Massachusetts told me "I think government should stay out of
the way. The Dukakis Administration thinks they can give favors to
business and get them to go where they want them to go. It's the old
philosopher-king thing." Why do they put up with it in Massachusetts? For
three reasons. In the first place it works. The state is booming. In the
second place Republicans as opposed to supply-side conservatives have no
quarrel with a pro-business policy. In the third place there aren't many
Republicans in Massachusetts in the first place.
Another area where Dukakis has met with resounding success is fiscal
policy. In 1980 the state had its own tax revolt when a ballot measure
known popularly as Proposition 2 1/2 was passed. Like California's
Proposition 13, the measure sharply restricted increases in property-tax
rates. In 1983 Dukakis reversed King's policy and committed a substantial
proportion of the state's growth revenue to cities and towns in the form
of state aid to make up for the lost property-tax revenues. Dukakis says
"We made Two and a Half work the way it was supposed to work."
The state's economic boom has brought new, but not entirely unwelcome,
problems including a tight job market and a housing shortage. During an
evening I spent on the campaign trail with the Governor we came across a
remarkable number of people who had just moved to the state. A couple from
New York had moved to Massachusetts to open a beauty salon--"We heard
business was good up here." An engineer had just arrived from Arizona.
"What brings you to Massachusetts?" the governor asked. "Unemployment," he
answered. Most remarkable of all was a couple who had just moved from
Paris to Lynn, Massachusetts "I didn't set this up," the governor assured
The Governor talks with justifiable pride about his administration's
success in developing low-cost innovations such as the ET Choice program
which has moved 25,000 people off the welfare rolls and into jobs and a
prepaid health-care program for the elderly. "Using some good sense and
intelligence " Dukakis told me "we can do the kinds of things we have
always wanted to do and do them in a way that saves money."
Maybe. But the economy of the United States of America is far larger and
more complicated than the economy of Massachusetts. There are more diverse
interests involved, and a beggar-thy-neighbor policy would be difficult to
administer. It would be hard to target, say, Texas without offending, say,
Ohio. It is risky to favor one industry over another. There are real
Republicans in Washington who have strong views on government planning and
intervention. To be sure, neither Dukakis nor his aides press the argument
very hard. They know that the United States is not Massachusetts--or
Japan. Dukakis is simply riding on his success in managing the economy he
is responsible for and hoping that his image of competence will stand out
in the national party. (And that no one will remember his disastrous first
term when his tight-fisted policies offended many liberals.)
Nationally Dukakis is still an unknown. But he has two things going for
him. One is television experience. Before he became governor Dukakis
moderated The Advocates, a nationwide public-affairs debate program on
public television. He also has name recognition where it counts. New
Hampshire is next door to Massachusetts, receives Boston television, and
is populated by large numbers of former Massachusetts residents. A poll
taken by a Boston television station during the 1986 campaign tested
Dukakis against the incumbent Republican candidate for governor of New
Hampshire. Dukakis won 47 to 37 percent. And a poll taken last fall of New
Hampshire residents likely to be Democratic primary voters showed Dukakis
winning a close second to Gary Hart for the party's presidential
When I interviewed Richard Gephardt, of Missouri I found that he shares
Dukakis's obsession with effectiveness. He named the two people who had
had the greatest influence on his public career. One was Representative
Richard Bolling of Missouri: "What I have been impressed with about him is
his sense of what it takes to get the country to go somewhere, his sense
that it takes competence and effectiveness." The other was President Harry
Truman also of Missouri: "I felt he had tremendous courage and a
willingness to do something, get off the dime, move the country somewhere
and try to solve the problem."
Gephardt has done a good deal himself. He is an effective inside player in
the House of Representatives and has won the respect and confidence of his
colleagues. As chairman of the House Democratic caucus he is the House's
fourth-ranking Democrat. When I asked him about the achievements he felt
proudest of he mentioned his service on the Board of Aldermen in St.
Louis, where "the ultimate accomplishment was to convince people in the
city that they should stay in the city." He felt proud of his role in
Congress in helping to stabilize the Social Security system ("It's
probably one of the best examples of the effective use of government") and
of his efforts to get a tax-reform bill ("That's why I went into
government, to try to get things like that done").
Gephardt's philosophy really boils down to a simple formula for defining
the way government should be used. In a familiar DLC refrain Gephardt said
"We have to do what our governors have done. That's the model we have to
follow. It's right in front of us. We just walked past it. That is, use
government appropriately, use it efficiently; and make sure that when you
use it you're using it in the context of fiscal responsibility."
One area in which Gephardt has been particularly effective is health-care
policy, particularly hospital cost control. He is full of ideas about how
to approach the difficult health-care problems now looming ominously. For
instance he talks about a merger of Medicaid and Medicare as a way of
dealing with the problem of long-term care for the growing population of elderly people. He talks about
government help for the working poor who are left unsubsidized by the
current health-care system. And he wants to encourage competition in the
delivery of health-care services.
On the issue of drug abuse Gephardt believes "the greater promise is on
the demand side." He told me that the House leadership had met with the
heads of the television networks and talked about their "voluntarily
putting on a major prime-time, continuous, effective, sophisticated advertising campaign over the
long haul with sufficient rating points to deliver a strong, effective
message to the young people that they should not experiment with drugs."
But would such a campaign be effective? "I don't know," said the
One issue that Gephardt has had a difficult time with is abortion. He is
personally opposed to abortion but last year changed his position on a
constitutional amendment to ban abortions. Could this have had something
to do with his interest in running for President?
No, he says, what happened is "the facts have changed." "I am now
convinced that A it's not going to happen and B that if it did it would be
disruptive and would not obviate the need we have in our society to deal
with the underlying causes that drive people to need and want an
abortion," he told me. Gephardt thinks that our efforts to deal with
abortion should be concentrated on sex education and family planning
rather than on adding another amendment to the constitution. A
constitutional amendment he now believes would simply not be effective. "I
don't think it's practical and I don't think it's going to solve the
On the issue of protectionism Gephardt argues sensibly that it does little
good to talk about competitiveness without an aggressive policy to combat
unfair trade rules. "If you aren't aggressive, enthusiastic, and effective
on trade-rule issues," he says "you're in a poor position to advocate
changes in behavior, investment, and all the other things you will need to
be effective and competitive." To be "effective" in one area you have to
be "effective" in the other.
Gephardt is critical of aid to the Contras in Nicaragua because he feels
it is--you guessed it--ineffective. "You have to establish a foundation of
support with the American people about what the goal is, and why it's
appropriate to project military power to achieve that goal. It was never
done in Vietnam. It's not being done now in Nicaragua. People don't
understand what interests we're trying to satisfy. They don't know why
contra aid is the mechanism to achieve that goal."
I asked Gephardt to describe his ideological views and he replied "On some
issues I guess I am categorized as a liberal. On other issues I am not.
But to look at the totality of my beliefs and feelings and votes it may be
terribly inaccurate to say that I'm a liberal or I'm a Conservative--or
even that I'm a moderate. I don't think those terms get us very far."
Gephardt is a prince of the Congress. His not inconsiderable skills are
those of the legislative leader, the "effective" insider who knows how to
hammer out a compromise and get things done. Those kinds of skills do not
normally count for much in the presidential selection process where voters
are looking to be led and inspired. James Garfield is the only President
to have gone directly from the House of Representatives to the White
House. But that doesn't keep Gephardt from trying. I asked him how he
expected to relate to younger voters in his campaign.
"I find that they're more cynical " he said "less believing about the
ability of anybody including anybody in the government to be very
effective." I asked him how he expected to get through that wall of
cynicism. "By being believable," he replied. "By carrying out your
rhetoric with some concrete action."
Gephardt already has an extensive campaign operation in place in Iowa. At
an Iowa campaign rally before the 1986 election I heard him introduced as
a man who had given more speeches in Iowa that year than any candidate for
statewide office. Furthermore he is tireless in his campaign efforts for
fellow Democrats around the country. A good argument can be made that
effectiveness will be in great demand in 1988. Having witnessed the
excesses of zeal in the Reagan White House the voters may develop a taste
for non-ideological politics. If so Gephardt's earnest and hardworking
style may turn out to be, as it were, highly effective.
Two Senate democrats, Bill Bradley, of New Jersey and Sam Nunn of Georgia
have also acquired reputations for competence in the legislative arena.
Indeed, if American political parties nominated leaders the way European
parties do--in legislative caucuses--the Democrats would probably end up
with a Bradley-Nunn ticket. But our parties don't, and both men will have
problems with party activists if they decide to run for President in
Senator Bradley was the key Democratic figure in the passage of the
tax-reform bill last year. In an interview with me he defended tax reform
as "the best thing that could have happened to the Democratic Party in
terms of fulfilling its commitment to its historic voters, the
middle-income taxpayers. I reminded the Senator that most middle-income
voters were skeptical of tax reform and reluctant to support it. Bradley's
Defense of the measure was precise and persuasive. "What we did was marry
two ideas--lowering rates and eliminating loopholes," he said. "Both of
these have strong equity arguments. The middle-income person is a double
winner because he sees the rich having to pay their share now and he also
gets the reform of a lower rate. If you add what we've done on this bill
in terms of keeping the deductions that are used by middle-income
taxpayers--mortgage, child care, charitable contributions, et cetera--you
see they are triple winners."
Bradley sees tax reform as an issue with a future even if its present
political value to Democrats seems rather limited. "Democrats have an
opportunity to define the economic issue," he told me, "and I think we've
done that with tax reform. The value is two, three, four years down the
road when that middle-income family says, 'I'm still only paying fifteen
percent. Who's responsible for this?' That's when the Democrats will be
able to say, 'We did it for you.' The voters will be much more inclined to
believe Democrats than Republicans, who are Johnny-come-latelies to the
issue." What about the argument that tax reform is really Ronald Reagan's
issue? Bradley disagreed. "The idea was not Ronald Reagan's or Bill
Bradley's," he said. "It was Jack Kennedy's. We invigorated it and
challenged Reagan to join us. He did join us."
I asked Senator Bradley what sort of agenda he would propose for the
Democratic Party. He mentioned economic growth. He described his program
to restructure Third World debt and reform exchange-rate policy. He made
an eloquent plea for a strong environmental policy.
He also talked about greater caring and compassion. "You know," he told
me, "if you talk about compassion in the very next sentence you're talking
about a government program. In some cases that's essential and important,
but not in all cases." Bradley spoke somewhat vaguely about "what each
individual citizen has to decide he owes another human being and what he
will do to fulfill that commitment." Sometimes such obligations can be met
through a government program but they can also be met through charitable
giving or through personal effort. He added "One segment of the Republican
Party believes they have no responsibility whatsoever to anybody but
themselves and their immediate family." What Bradley seemed to be getting
at was a new sense of collective purpose, but one that did not necessarily
lead to more government programs. "We haven't challenged the individual
conscience as much as I think we can," he concluded.
Bradley's most controversial position is what he calls "a commitment to
use power in the world, a willingness to assert ourselves from time to
time." He shocked a good many Democrats last year by voting in favor of
aid to the contras. I asked him to explain the reasoning behind his vote.
It was, as usual, unconventional and interesting. He told me, "Basically,
I voted for the contras in order to give what I call the fledgling
democracies in the area some chance to consolidate their democracies. Most
of them come out of right-wing military dictatorships. If they're devoting
more of their resources to countering guerrillas that come out of
Nicaragua, they're not going to have a chance. My vote was cast as a way
of buying time for these countries. I said at the time it was a close
Right now Bradley says firmly that he has no intention of running for
President in 1988. There are a great many Democrats who wish he would
reconsider, mostly those who respect his intelligence and professionalism.
Would those qualities do Bradley much good in the primaries? There is
reason to be skeptical. Our nominating system is very good at testing
certain qualities--convictions about issues, character, temperament,
stamina and organizational ability. But primary and caucus voters have
never shown much inclination to vote for professionalism. That is the sort
of quality that insiders value, and insiders have less and less influence
over our nominating process. The likelihood is that if Bradley were at the
last minute to run for President, his litmus-test problem with liberals
over his support of contra aid would immediately become apparent and his
countervailing strengths would be difficult to sell. That is not a fault
of the candidate. It is a fault of the system. Parliamentary systems
overvalue competence and professionalism. Our more open system tends to
undervalue those qualities.
Another Senate insider whose stock has risen rapidly is Sam Nunn. Nunn is
regarded as an effective legislator. But Nunn would have even more
problems than Bradley as a presidential candidate. As chairman of the
Armed Services Committee, Nunn has become the Democrats' most visible
spokesman on defense and national security. He attracted notice after the
Reykjavik summit, last October, when he delivered a stinging critique of
the deal the President was prepared to make with the Soviets. As a member
of the Senate's select committee to investigate the Iranian scandal, Nunn
has emerged as a leading critic of the Administration's arms policies. (In
a February 20 speech Nunn said that he had decided to remove himself from
the race but he refused to rule out a late entry, saying that he wanted to
"leave a window open.")
Nunn is revered in Georgia. He was re-elected in 1984 with 80 percent of
the vote. But the question looming over a Nunn candidacy is, Would
Democrats nationwide nominate a supporter of the Strategic Defense
Initiative and contra aid, someone who has voted for the Reagan agenda
more than any other Senate Democrat?
Nunn described himself to me as a conservative Democrat. I asked him what
kind of support he thought a conservative Democrat could get in the
primaries. The answer was simple: financial support. "I don't think the
number of votes would be significant," he said. "I think the money would
be." As evidence he pointed out that "business people who are nominally
Republican" have been looking for a candidate, but not exclusively in the
Republican Party. "I've had some of them seek me out and say if I ran,
they'd support me," Nunn recounted. "Some of them even sent
contributions." Nunn's view was that the southern regional primary in 1988
would put a premium on early fund-raising. "A candidate who has not got a
very large bankroll by the end of this year, unless he gets very hot in
Iowa and New Hampshire, will be unable to compete," Nunn predicted.
In 1984 Nunn supported John Glenn for the Democratic nomination. Did he
see any lesson in Glenn's experience? Like Bert Lance, a fellow Georgian,
Nunn felt that moderate and conservative Democrats "had no reason to get
excited about voting in a Democratic primary, because they liked Reagan."
But "let's say Reagan had not run in 1984," he went on. "The Republicans
ran Bush, Kemp, and Dole. Assume less of an economic boom. I think under
those conditions John Glenn would have done much better." Those conditions
sound very much like a scenario for 1988. A Nunn scenario? The question is
how far a Democrat can get using nominally Republican money to appeal to
nominally Republican voters. "The fact that you get financial support does
not guarantee that you get voting support," Nunn acknowledged. "But the
absence of financial support for someone in the moderate-to-conservative
wing of the Democratic Party is fatal. Money doesn't make the nomination
of such a candidate inevitable. It makes it possible."
It could happen if, and only if, Nunn became the new Sam Ervin--that is,
if his criticism of the Administration's behavior in the Iranian arms
scandal turned him into a popular hero. In other words, Nunn needs a
powerful issue that would enable liberals and party activists to ignore
the great differences between their views and his. That is not impossible.
But it is not very likely, either. Nunn's style is anything but populist.
It is hard to see Nunn abiding the rigors of "retail politics." The
nomination would have to come to him. And these days that rarely
What the Democratic Party really needs is an authentic southern liberal.
But where can it find such a rare bird? In Arkansas. Senator Dale Bumpers,
who almost ran for President in 1984 and is contemplating running this
time, is not just a southern liberal. He is a real liberal. He has the
most liberal voting record of any southern senator, one comparable to that
of most northern Democrats. In 1985, for instance, Bumpers got a 70
percent liberal rating from the Americans for Democratic Action. Nunn's
rating was 30.
Bumpers is a leading advocate of arms control. His wife is a prominent
peace activist and an outspoken opponent of the religious right. He was
the only southern Democrat to vote against an anti-busing measure and a
constitutional amendment to allow voluntary prayer in the public schools.
Bumpers is an environmentalist and a critic of the oil industry and
nuclear power. He even voted against Reagan's tax cuts in 1981 (although
he supported the budget cuts). The one "blemish" on his record is a vote
against labor-law reform, which earned him the enduring enmity of
organized labor. Many liberals can live with that.
Bumpers defeated two giants of Arkansas politics--Republican Winthrop
Rockefeller, for governor in 1970, and Democrat J. William Fulbright, for
senator in 1974. He is widely respected in the Senate for his intellectual
ability and his debating skill. Too good to be true? Maybe. Bumpers has no
major legislative achievements and no national image. In 1984 he didn't
seem to have the "fire in his belly" to undertake a grueling national
campaign. His candidacy would make an important point, however: that there
is a vibrant populist tradition, as well as a conservative tradition, in
southern Democratic politics.
At every democratic convention, time must be set aside for a revival
speech--an occasion for Democrats to reaffirm their faith. With
impassioned rhetoric, and usually considerable eloquence, the speaker
exhorts the delegates to carry on the great party tradition, even though
the mood of the country may be against it for the time being. Democrats
must not forget who they are and what they stand for. They need not be
defensive or apologetic. "For all those whose cares have been our
concern," Senator Edward Kennedy said at the 1980 convention, "the work
goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall
never die." The delegates cry and cheer. Their souls have been purified.
The old-time religion is good enough for them.
The revival speech has two essential elements. One is compassion for the
less fortunate members of society--the poor, the handicapped, minorities,
the elderly, victims of discrimination, the have-nots, and the left-outs.
The other is faith in government as a force for the public good, the full
expression of which usually demands a recital of the great achievements of
the New Deal and the Great Society (Social Security, Medicare,
unemployment compensation, public works, aid to education, civil rights,
and so forth). What the revival speech rarely includes is a new idea.
Kennedy is the classic Democratic revivalist. For two decades he has been
the principal guardian of the party faith. Most Democrats are perfectly
well aware that revivalism does not sell as a party platform, not in these
days of low taxes and high deficits. They tend to have the same feeling
about Senator Kennedy as a presidential candidate--that he is
Kennedy is unelectable by the same logic that said Ronald Reagan was
unelectable. Reagan was too old, too extreme, and too risky to be elected
President under normal political circumstances. "The American people are
not going to elect a seventy-year-old, right-wing, ex-movie actor to be President," said Carter adviser
Hamilton Jordan in 1980.
But the 1980 election was not held under normal circumstances. The
electorate's strong desire for change overcame its usual inhibitions
against voting for ideologically extreme candidates. Given the right
circumstances--say, an economic recession as bad as the one in 1982 and
with a Republican in the White House--the logic could be suspended for
Kennedy as well. In the meantime Kennedy's chief function in the party is
to serve as the starting gun for each presidential campaign. Kennedy makes
his intentions known, and then all the other Democrats can figure out
where they stand. He withdrew from the last contest in December of 1982,
thereby giving the party two years to prepare for the 1984 race. This
time, however, the gun went off even earlier. Kennedy declared his
non-candidacy in December of 1985, with the result that we are now
enduring a three-year campaign for the 1988 Democratic nomination.
Walter Mondale lacked the oratorical skill to be a true Democratic
revivalist, but he did represent the revivalist strain in the Democratic
Party. His association with Hubert Humphrey and the Democratic
establishment created a powerful link with the Democratic past. He told me
last year, "Americans talk about wanting less from the federal government.
They sure want a smaller government at the moment. But when it comes to
real need, they still expect a President and a Congress to deliver."
Mondale tried to run on the deficit issue in 1984 but found that neither
he nor the Democratic Party had any real credibility. He claims that
"nobody understood" that the tax increase he was calling for in 1984 "all
went into a trust fund to reduce the deficit." But everybody knew that it
was impossible for a Democrat, particularly one of Mondale's persuasion,
to resist higher government spending.
"Our party cannot abandon the notion of compassion," Mondale told me. "I
think there's a kind of sharp-elbows philosophy among the
Republicans--boy, you can make it, but if you happen to get sick or old or
handicapped, or if you're black or Hispanic, or if you're good but down on
your luck, there's just a big black hole there for you. There's something
cold and brutal to that. I think we will abandon our efforts to speak for
some sort of shared humanity at enormous cost to our country and to our
party." There was something plaintive in Mondale's voice when he said, "I
think we forget how long my type ran this country. You know, civil rights,
the social legislation, all the things we were doing for the environment,
job safety, pension reform." He predicted that the mood would change again
in the Democrats' favor, especially since "thousands and thousands of
people are going to suffer horribly" from cuts in programs like Medicare.
"I don't think the Democrats ought to be unwilling to be seen as favoring
the use of government for these purposes," Mondale added.
The most recent and one of the most eloquent revival speeches was Governor
Mario Cuomo's keynote address at the 1984 Democratic Convention. "We
believe that we must be the family of America," Cuomo said, "recognizing
that at the heart of the matter we are bound to one another." Cuomo
offered an original twist on the traditional revival themes when he called
for "a government strong enough to use the words love and compassion."
Cuomo also appealed to the self-interest of middle-class voters, whom he
called "the heart of our constituency, the middle class, the people not
rich enough to be worry-free but not poor enough to be on welfare." He
accused the Republicans of dividing the nation "into those temporarily
better off and those worse off than before." The implication was that
middle-class voters had the same grievances as the poor and that the sense
of grievance could serve as the basis of an anti-Reagan coalition.
"President Reagan told us from the beginning that he believed in a kind of
social Darwinism, survival of the fittest," Cuomo said. "'Government can't
do everything,' we were told. 'So it should settle for taking care of the
strong and hope that economic ambition and charity will do the rest. Make
the rich richer and what falls from their table will be enough for the
middle class and those trying to make it into the middle class.'"
That speech and others like it confirmed Cuomo's image as the champion of
traditional Democratic verities. Democrats, one of his allies said, "want
someone who can distinguish the Democratic Party from the Republican
Party. Cuomo does that better than anyone." His keynote speech made him
the champion of the Old Believers in the Democratic Party. That was why
his statement on February 19 sent shock waves through the party: "In my
opinion, the Democratic Party offers a number of candidates who can prove
themselves capable of leading the nation toward a more sane, a more
progressive, a more humane future. I will not add my name to that number.
I will not be a candidate." A campaign strategist had observed last year,
"If Cuomo comes into this race, he takes up a huge amount of room."
Cuomo's withdrawal this year has left a large empty space in the party.
There is no one to carry the flag of the old party faith.
Cuomo apparently reached the same conclusion as Kennedy--namely, that
there was no payoff in being a spokesman for traditional liberalism in
1988. It is a message Democrats believe in but fear won't sell. Over the
past three years Cuomo has expended a good deal of energy resisting being
labeled as a New Deal Democrat. "They came in here after the keynote," he
said to me when we met in Albany not long ago. "They said, 'Well, we know
that you're an old-fashioned New Deal liberal.' And I go, 'What is an
old-fashioned New Deal liberal?' These labels are all jokes."
What will the Old Believers in the party do now? In past elections there
was always a Humphrey or a Muskie or a Henry Jackson or a Kennedy or a
Mondale to carry the flag. In 1988 they will have to take a good look at
some new and unfamiliar faces. Many people expect Massachusetts Governor
Michael Dukakis to pick up a large share of the Cuomo vote. He is, after
all, a similar type--urban, northeastern, ethnic. While the two governors'
constituencies may overlap, however, their styles do not. Dukakis is cool
and technocratic, probably far too much so for Cuomo fans. What Dukakis
sells is competence and efficiency, not soulfulness and passion.
One candidate who is likely to make a strong claim to the Cuomo
constituency is Joseph Biden. True, Biden is Irish Catholic, which is not
terribly ethnic these days. And he is from Delaware, which is not terribly
urban or northeastern. But he has soul. He can give a rousing Democratic
revival speech, even if what he preaches is not exactly the old-time
religion. If he is weak on substance, that just goes to prove he is not a
technocrat. For Democrats who really want soul, however, no candidate is
more authentic than Jesse Jackson. And no one is more practiced in the art
of revivalism. Some Cuomo admirers, particularly those on the left, will
end up in the Jackson camp. Watch for the editorial in The Village Voice
arguing that Jesse Jackson is the only candidate in the race who is really
offering a clear and coherent message.
The conventional wisdom says that Gary Hart is the most likely to benefit
from Cuomo's withdrawal. If you're number one, after all, it's always nice
to have number two drop out. In fact Hart may end up paying dearly for
Cuomo's withdrawal. Now Hart has no one to run against. As Hart proved in
the McGovern campaign in 1972 (which he managed) and in his own 1984
campaign, one of the best ways for a New Politics candidate to get votes
is to run against the Old Politics. McGovern needed Humphrey. Hart needed
Mondale. And next year Hart may discover that he desperately needs Mario
Cuomo. With no Cuomo vote, there can be no anti-Cuomo vote. And that makes
Gary Hart's campaign much harder to define.
This split in the Democratic Party between the Old Politics and the New
Politics goes back to 1968, when the two confronted each other on the
streets of Chicago. The division between Mondale and Hart in the 1984
Democratic primaries looked very much like the split between Hubert
Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy in 1968: the party establishment versus the
outsiders. The young versus the old. Blue-collar union voters versus
upper-middle-class professionals. What the two sides were fighting about
in 1968 was, of course, the Vietnam War. The party regulars were carrying
out the doctrine of anti-communist interventionism that had originated
with Harry Truman and been handed down to John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson,
and Hubert Humphrey. The New Politics movement not only broke with that
tradition but erupted in outrage against it.
As important as what the two sides fought about was what they didn't fight
about. Civil rights was not an issue between the Old Politics and the New
Politics. It was the party regulars, Kennedy, Johnson, and Humphrey, who
first embraced the civil rights movement; indeed, they became heroes in the civil-rights struggle.
The New Politics liberals had no quarrel with that commitment, although
many southern and blue-collar Democrats did. Today, on racial issues all
national Democrats are liberals.
Economics was something else Old Politics and New Politics Democrats used
not to fight about. But that was mostly because in the old days the
subject rarely came up. The political agenda of the 1960s and early 1970s
was dominated by race, foreign policy, and cultural conflict, not by
issues like taxes, trade, and government spending and regulation.
In the 1980s the principal issue between the Old and the New Politics has
been defining the proper role of government--how Democrats should respond
to the Reagan revolution. Mondale defended the traditional advocacy role
of government, in which it promotes equity and protects people against
adversity. "We're about to decide whether we are a generous party and a
caring nation, or whether we're not," Mondale said. Hart offered the New
Politics--rationality, problem-solving, and "new ideas"--and he accused
Mondale of being more concerned about dividing up "a stagnant economic pie
more fairly" than about policies to make the pie larger.
Polls of voters in the 1984 Democratic primaries revealed that Democrats
who felt most confident about the economy were attracted to Hart's New
Politics campaign, while economic pessimism was associated with support
for Mondale and Jesse Jackson. Hart's support was driven by the economic
recovery, while Mondale and Jackson got their votes from people who had
been most hurt by the recession. Mario Cuomo, who consulted with several
experienced Democratic strategists before deciding not to run, probably
made the same calculation that Edward Kennedy made about 1988: Without a
recession the Old Politics won't sell. Democrats will be looking for
On the other hand, a serious economic downturn during 1987 could generate
a call for Cuomo to enter the race and save the Democratic Party. (To get
Kennedy into the race, something on the order of a catastrophe would have
to occur.) In fact, the 1988 campaign calendar may offer an opportunity
for late entrants. The schedule is heavily front-loaded between February 8
(the Iowa caucuses) and March 8 (Super Tuesday). After March 8, however,
the nomination might still be in doubt--if no candidate has taken a
commanding lead, for example, or if Jesse Jackson holds the largest block
of delegates. What happens next is a four-month window between Super
Tuesday and the Atlanta convention. That gives voters, delegates, and
candidates plenty of time for second thoughts. Plenty of time to broker
votes. And plenty of time for new candidates to parachute into the race.
Is Mario Cuomo the kind of candidate who could save the Democratic Party?
Like Kennedy, Cuomo has important political assets--and serious personal
liabilities. Cuomo communicates a powerful sense of roots. "My
mama-and-papa speech that I've given a hundred times," he told me. "What
does it say? It says what a wonderful country this is. People came here
with nothing, seeking opportunity, and they found it." Cuomo embodies the
whole immigrant saga--the Statue of Liberty, living over the store, only
in America. As he put it in his keynote speech, "That [my parents] were
able to build a family and live in dignity and see one of their children
go from behind their little grocery store on the other side of the tracks,
in South Jamaica, where he was born, to occupy the highest seat in the
greatest state of the greatest nation in the only world we know is an
ineffably beautiful tribute to the democratic process."
Cuomo's rootedness comes across to some people as parochialism. He is a
very New York person--the ethnicity, the accent, the street-wise
toughness, the sharpness and cunning. As was discovered during the fiscal
crisis of the 1970s, New York City does not have a very positive image in
the rest of the country. Moreover, Cuomo has been criticized for seldom
venturing outside New York and having little first-hand knowledge of the
rest of the country, not to mention the rest of the world. The question
most often asked about his prospective candidacy was, "Could he be sold
outside New York?"
Cuomo's combativeness is legendary. Indeed, there is something admirable
about a politician who takes on his critics and never takes the easy route
out. His confrontations may have been unwise, but they were always
impressive. For instance, unique among Roman Catholic politicians, Cuomo
confronted the church with his liberal views on abortion, which he
articulated in a theological framework. "We [Catholics] are the church,
all of us together," he told The New York Times. The conventional wisdom
is that no politician has ever won an argument with an archbishop; even if
you win, you lose. But Cuomo may have reinforced his image as a man of
intellectual and moral seriousness. In addition, Cuomo attacked the Reagan
Administration last year for using ideological litmus tests to select
federal judges. "Cases should be decided in the courthouse," he said.
"They should not be decided in the Oval Office or the Senate chamber."
Cuomo's style is that of a trial lawyer. He constantly probes, banters,
argues even when he agrees with you. I told him that I had seen some
interesting polls dealing with people's views of the Democratic Party. The
following discussion ensued:
Interviewer: "Let me mention one particular finding, Governor."
Cuomo: "Give me the question and I'll give you the answer."
I: "The question is, 'Is there anything in particular that you like about
the Democratic Party?'"
C: "How does it get answered? Is it open-ended?"
I: "It is open-ended."
C: "The answer is, 'They care about people.'"
I: "That's the right answer."
C: "Thirty-one percent."
I: "Not bad. The figure is usually between twenty and thirty percent."
C: "What do you mean, 'Not bad'? That was sensational. What do you have to
do to be sensational?"
Cuomo has a prickly sensibility. He is hard on his enemies and tough on
his critics. He is jealous of his reputation and seems to trust few
people. A Cuomo supporter once said, "I sit in a meeting and I am stunned
by his intelligence and sensitivity. Yet I am also stunned by his seeming
insecurity " That is no small matter. The greatest tragedies as
Presidents--Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter-
were all deeply insecure men, who worried incessantly about their
reputations, made lists of enemies, and carried polls around in their
pockets. Psychological security may be the most important characteristic
to look for in a presidential candidate. The stories about Cuomo's
touchiness, which may have helped drive him from the race, raise questions
about his sense of personal security--and therefore about his stability as
For the time being, Cuomo has assumed the Kennedy role in the Democratic
Party. He deeply moves his fellow Democrats, but they fear making him
their party leader. His message may not be right for the times. And his
personal liabilities are substantial. Like Kennedy, Cuomo is the kind of
candidate who looks strongest, and therefore has the most power and
influence, when he is not running. In 1988, it seems, he is destined to be
the conscience of the Democratic Party.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Democratic Party's best-qualified
revivalist, is a Baptist preacher and a spell-binding orator. He defied
the black political establishment and ran for President in 1984. He ended
up doing what no other black leader has done: he ran a national political
campaign that activated the black constituency and defined black concerns
and aspirations. But he did so in a racially and ethnically divisive way.
According to Adam Clymer, of The New York Times, Jackson ended up carrying
more than three quarters of the black vote in the 1984 Democratic
primaries and a scant five percent of the white vote. He also antagonized
the Democratic establishment. Walter Mondale told me, I am convinced that
he hurt us a lot. He had a right to be a candidate as much as I did. But
if he had not been a candidate, I would have been nominated much earlier,
could have put the party together, raised money, and had a more unified
campaign--all those things I was denied. He stayed on months after he had
a chance. I believe that if he doesn't watch out, he's going to hurt the
Jackson threatens the political establishment because he talks about
issues that cautious politicians normally avoid. For instance, as a rule,
Democratic leaders, black and white alike, would rather not talk about
race. Issues like affirmative action, quotas, and busing divide the
Democratic Party just at a time when the party needs to construct a
multi-racial coalition of those opposed to the President's policies.
American politics is coalition politics, and Jesse Jackson is a difficult
man to coalesce with.
Jackson's past statements in praise of the Palestine Liberation
Organization, his anti-Semitic remarks (for which he has publicly apologized), and his refusal to
disavow the support of the black nationalist Louis Farrakhan have created
immense distrust in the Jewish community, a critical source of Democratic
funds and votes. Jackson has become a leader of some significance in the
movement to fight apartheid in South Africa and is one of the few American
figures to have established ties with black Africa. But he has also
embraced Fidel Castro and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. The problem
facing the party is that black political aspirations have become
identified with Jackson. Democrats can deal with those aspirations only if
they are separated from Jackson's personal ambitions.
Jackson's core constituency is the Democratic Party's base, the voters who
stick with the party no matter what. Blacks voted about 90 percent for
George McGovern in 1972 and about the same for Walter Mondale in 1984. But
Jackson is much more than an ethnic politician. In making his case for a
black presidential candidacy, he wrote in 1983, "A black candidate does
not mean an exclusive black agenda, but an inclusive agenda that grows out
of the black experience in America."
What Jackson advocates is an agenda of the left. He sees blacks as the
vanguard of the American proletariat. Because of their dispossessed status
and political consciousness, blacks are ideally positioned to pressure the
Democratic Party to become what Jackson calls "a coalition of the
rejected--the real silent majority." Jackson collects discontent. When we
talked recently, he told me with pride that his Rainbow Coalition has been
working with white unemployed shipbuilders, dispossessed farmers, and
several labor unions. Jackson has also been prominently associated with
striking communications workers, laid-off oil-field workers, and TWA
flight attendants. As one party strategist told Time magazine, "His is an
effort to take every political grievance that ever existed and make a
Jackson describes his coalition as "a new majority," but he is not, in
fact, playing majoritarian politics. Most Americans do not feel "damned,
disinherited, disrespected, and despised." While mainstream party
strategists are urging Democrats to trim their sails a bit in order to win
a majority in these conservative times, Jackson reminds Democrats of their
fundamental identity as the party of economic populism.
Religion was critical in enabling Jackson to consolidate his support among
black voters, many of whom do not share his leftist ideological views (or
his anti-Semitic inclinations). To older, more conservative blacks,
Jackson was not a dangerous radical. He spoke the language they heard in
church every Sunday. His religious vocation and his conservative, almost
Reaganite, views on self-help and personal improvement gave him
credibility in the black community--and beyond. He explained to me that
values are a key element of his political strategy. His visibility on the
issue of drug abuse, for example, has given him a broad legitimacy. He
told me, "For a long time many Democrats wanted to say, 'That's people's
personal habits, their personal values.' While they were avoiding the
values issue. I knew the values issue was the key. And so now it is said
that Mrs. Reagan and I have more visibility on the drug issue than anybody
because I have been on that case for ten years."
Jackson is a vociferous critic of centrist tendencies in the Democratic
Party. He is particularly critical of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Jackson calls the DLC "Democrats for the Leisure Class." Jackson is more
than a revivalist. He is the leader of what might be called the
fundamentalist wing of the Democratic Party, those who pledge eternal
vigilance against any drift to the right. The fundamentalists regard
themselves as the voice of principle in the party.
The $64 question is what Jackson and the fundamentalists will do if the
party goes in the direction of "unprincipled expediency" and nominates a
centrist. I asked him whether he would categorically rule out running on a
third-party ticket if the Democrats nominated "a DLC type." "It's
premature," Jackson replied. "I don't want to be in a position of shooting
blanks and threatening. If the party rationalizes a Gramm-Rudman-Hollings
approach and the continued partnership with South Africa, it will simply
pour cold water on the fires of many would-be Democrats. The question
becomes, 'How do we turn the embers into hot coals?'"
As he continued talking, his argument became more suggestive and his
imagery more vivid. "If nobody speaks to that crowd, then they are simply
there to affirm themselves another political channel, or they are there to
do nothing but watch a parade go by that they don't have any floats in.
People enjoy watching parades, but they really enjoy it when their float
passes by. The DLC will have a parade that a lot of Democrats won't have a
float in." The implication is that the people Jackson is talking about
could watch the parade and be disappointed. Or they could stay home. Or
they could organize their own parade, with a different grand marshal. A
third-party ticket would be devastating to Democrats, but it could also
discredit Jackson as a responsible black leader. Right now, one of his
supporters says, "It's clear that card is in his back pocket, and it
Will Jackson do as well in 1988 as he did in 1984? Aside from the novelty
of his candidacy, one thing he had going for him in 1984 was the recent
recession. Blacks suffered greatly during Reagan's first term, and they
turned out to vote in enormous numbers in 1982, before Jackson became a
candidate. In other words, a parade of black voters was already on the
march when Jackson stepped in front to lead it. Depending on what happens
to the economy, the edge of discontent may not be so strong in 1988. But
one thing in Jackson's favor next year is the fact that no prospective
white candidate has the civil-rights record and the long-standing
legitimacy in the black community that Walter Mondale enjoyed. And,
ironically, the southern regional primary, supported by many DLC activists
and now set for March 8, 1988, may end up working to Jackson's advantage.
If the white vote splinters among many different candidates and Jackson
runs a strong second or third in every southern state, he could wind up
with the largest number of delegates on a day when one third of the total
will be chosen. That fact virtually ensures that Jackson will try again in
How should the Democrats position themselves for 1988? The Republicans are
the "in" party, and, whoever they nominate, they are going to have to sell
continuity. The Republicans are the "out" party, and they are going to
have to sell change. If the incumbent Administration is popular and
successful, then it may be smart for the opposition to offer some change
but not too much: "We can do better." Frustrated partisans will complain
about "me-too" politics, but sometimes, as in 1952 and 1960, not too much
change is exactly what the voters want. However, facing a failed and
discredited Administration, the opposition may offer a fundamental change
of direction, as the Republicans did in 1980.
The problem for the Democrats in 1988 is that both arguments can be made.
In some respects the Reagan Administration is a failure: secretive and
misguided diplomacy, no progress on arms control, an enormous federal
budget deficit, the trade deficit. But the voters continue to acknowledge
Reagan's principal achievements: cutting taxes, reforming the nation's tax
system, curbing inflation, and restoring the public's sense of military
security. The failures of the Reagan Administration do not discredit its
achievements or give the Democrats a mandate to undo the Reagan
There are any number of things the voters may want in 1988 that they are
not getting from the Reagan Administration. Youth is certainly one
possibility, especially with a President who in recent months has appeared
out of touch with what is going on in his own government. Compassion,
always a weak area for Republicans, is another potential Democratic theme,
especially if the economy dips. Two qualities that used to be strong
selling points for the Reagan Administration, competence and integrity,
were thrown into doubt by the Iranian-arms scandal. In 1988 the voters may
once again look for an outsider and an anti-Washington candidate to go in
and "clean up the mess," just as they did in 1976 and 1980. The diversity
of potential Democratic candidates means that the party will be able to
offer just about anything the market wants in 1988, whether that is
compassion, character, competence, or experience.
The question may be raised whether it is in the Democrats' best interest
to win the presidency in 1988. A great many Democrats are predicting an
economic catastrophe after Reagan leaves office. Do they really want to be
in office when everything unravels? As many Presidents have discovered, it
is difficult to blame your problems on your predecessor if they happen on
your watch. And the federal budget deficit virtually ensures that Reagan's
successor will preside over a regime of austerity, requiring either
spending cuts or tax increases or both. Who needs it?
The Democrats need it. Serious politicians are not afraid of crisis. A
crisis offers the opportunity to demonstrate leadership and creativity.
Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan all accomplished what they did because they
came into office at a time of crisis. Moreover, austerity does not have to
result in unpopularity so long as a leader has the ability to define a
sense of common purpose. Many Democrats see the competitiveness issue as
giving a sense of purpose to a new Democratic Administration. They can
steal a little of Reagan's thunder: "Stand tall, America! We're number
one!" Only this time, the challenge is economic, not military, and the
threat comes from Japan, not Russia. A new Democratic Administration may
also have the opportunity to negotiate one of the most dramatic
arms-control agreements of the postwar era, and that in and of itself is
likely to relieve some of the pressure on the federal budget.
Winning the presidency in 1988 would undoubtedly create problems for the
Democrats. Only one thing would be worse: not winning the presidency. The
effect of losing another presidential election--five out of the past
six--would be devastating. A demoralized political party is vulnerable to
all sorts of pathologies. The Whigs split during the 1850s. The Democrats
fell apart during the 1920s. And after losing five elections in a row, the
Republican Party in the early 1950s was infected by an extremist reaction
in the form of McCarthyism, which argued that the political system was
being subverted. For a party to lose over and over again is just not
The Republicans got out of their dilemma by nominating Dwight D.
Eisenhower even though he had never held elective office before and was
not "a real Republican." The party was so desperate to win that it didn't
matter. If the Democrats lose in 1988, they, too, will begin to panic.
Litmus-testing will be suspended, and out of desperation the party may
well turn to a candidate who recently made the following statement when
asked what he would do in the event of an economic downturn: "I'll be
damned if I know. That's why I don't want to be President." The person who
said that was Chrysler Corporation Chairman Lee Iacocca. But wouldn't he
be too old to run for President? No: in January, 1993, Lee Iacocca will be
one year younger than Ronald Reagan was when he took
Copyright © 1987 by William Schneider. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1987; The Democrats in '88.