An Insider's View of the Election
Our author visits the political pros in four battleground states and is
reminded that the swing vote in the November election is not conservative
or liberal, northern or southern, young or old, black or Hispanic--it's
the white middle class.
by William Schneider
There are two theories about the 1988 presidential election. One is that
the Democrats can't lose unless they do everything wrong. The other is
that they can't win even if they do everything right.
According to the first theory, the Democrats hold all the trump cards--the
Iran-contra scandal, the stock-market crash, public disenchantment with
Ronald Reagan, and George Bush's high negatives in the polls. All they
have to do is play their cards right. The other theory says that the
Democratic Party is in such a parlous condition that none of these
advantages really matters. "The unpleasant truth is this," the political
consultant Patrick H. Caddell wrote in a memorandum to major party
contributors last year. "The party has never been weaker in our lifetime
and the array of obstacles and trends never more alarming." Horace W.
Busby, formerly a confidant of Lyndon B. Johnson's and now a Washington
consultant, offered this prophecy one month before the 1980 election: "The
hard-to-accept truth is that Democratic candidacies for the White House
may no longer be viable. The Republican lock is about to close; it will be
hard for anyone to open over the four elections between now and the year
2000." I interviewed Busby late last year and asked him if he saw any
prospect that the Democrats could break the Republican lock in 1988. "No,
I don't," he replied. Who did he think would be the strongest Democratic
bearer in 1988? "Michael Dukakis," he said. "Why Dukakis?" I asked.
"Because," Busby replied, "he is the Democrat most likely to carry his own
It's fairly easy to find evidence for the theory that the Democrats are
headed for a victory. Just look at the polls--and not only the "horserace"
polls, showing Dukakis with a healthy lead over Bush. Gallup polls taken
earlier this year showed the Democrats regaining a lead, of 42 to 29
percent, over the Republicans in party affiliation. In 1985, shortly after
President Reagan's re-election victory, the parties were nearly equal in
strength. In October of 1987 a Time magazine poll asked people which party
would handle various issues better. The Democrats were rated five points
ahead on "keeping the country out of war." Two years earlier the
Republicans had been five points ahead. On "keeping inflation under
control" the Republican advantage had shrunk from 10 points in 1985 to an
insignificant one point by 1987. The Republicans were still ahead on
"keeping the country strong and prosperous," but the margin was six points
in 1987, down from 18 points in 1985. And this was before the stock
The revolt against government is over. According to a CBS-New York Times
poll taken in May, the American public is now evenly divided when asked
whether it prefers a "bigger government providing more services" or a
"smaller government providing fewer services." The Times reported, "Bigger
government has not been this popular since November 1976, which is also
the last time the Democrats won a presidential election." Moreover, tax
resentment, a key source of public support for the Reagan revolution, has
clearly diminished. From 1978 to 1986, according to polls taken by the
Roper Organization, the percentage of Americans who felt that their
federal income taxes were "excessively high" dropped from 41 to 26
Americans are in a mood for change. When people are asked in various ways
whether they want the next President to continue Ronald Reagan's policies
or change direction and follow different policies, a majority consistently
opts for change.
If the evidence for Democratic optimism comes from the polls, the
electoral college provides ample support for Democratic pessimism. "The
electoral college, which Democrats prefer to ignore, is a Republican
institution," Horace Busby wrote in 1980. "If a Democratic incumbency
cannot hold it, it must be considered unlikely that a Democratic challenge
can retake it." In Busby's view, the Republicans dominated the electoral
college from the Civil War through the 1920s (the "Lincoln lock"); the
Democrats held the advantage briefly, during the 1930s and 1940s (the
"Roosevelt lock"); and the Republicans have dominated presidential
politics since the 1950s (the "Eisenhower lock"). In the nine presidential
elections from 1952 to 1984, thirty-nine states have gone Republican at
least five times. Those states account for 441 electoral votes, or 171
more than the majority needed to win the presidency. "So long as the GOP
holds that lock, Democrats are not competitive at the presidential
That does not mean the Democrats are not competitive at all. The
Republican presidential lock coexists with a Democratic lock on the House
of Representatives, which has had a Democratic majority for all but four
years since 1930, and on state and local offices, where Democrats continue
to predominate. Busby observed that "nearly anything you look at in
American politics turns out to be sixty-forty." The Democratic percentages
in Congress hover around 60 percent, while the Democrats can count on
winning only about 40 percent of the presidential vote (43 percent in
1968, 38 percent in 1972, 41 percent in 1980 and 1984). "If you have a
credible opposition, it's likely to get about forty percent of the vote,"
Busby explained. Americans, it seems, are governed by one-party rule--but
by different parties at different levels.
In his memorandum, which was widely circulated, Caddell described the
electoral college as "nothing less than an electoral Matterhorn" for
Democrats. Caddell examined statistics from the past five presidential
elections and came up with a startling conclusion: the national Democratic
Party has no base. Only the District of Columbia, with three electoral
votes, has voted for the Democratic ticket every time. Twenty-three states
with a total of 202 electoral votes have voted Republican every time. One
of those states, California, is the biggest prize of all, with forty-seven
electoral votes. Add to this Republican base those states that have
supported the party four out of the past five times, and the Republicans
end up with thirty-six states and 354 electoral votes. That is well over
the 270 votes needed for an electoral-college majority. Only one state,
Minnesota, has voted Democratic four out of the past five times. A
Minnesotan was on the Democratic ticket each of those times.
What can the Democrats do? Caddell's rule of thumb is that in order to be
electorally viable, the Democratic ticket has to be able to "compete to
win" California, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, and North Carolina. In the
past five presidential elections the Democrats have won exactly three
victories (North Carolina in 1976, Texas in 1968 and 1976) out of the
twenty-five contests in these states.
The Democrats are the victims of demographic change and ideological
change. The movement of population to the Sun Belt has shifted the balance
in the electoral college decisively. In 1932 the Northeast and the Midwest
accounted for 54 percent of the nation's electoral votes. By 1960 the Sun
Belt states of the South and West had pulled even in population with the
Northeast and the Midwest. Now the balance has reversed: this year the
South and West hold 54 percent of the electoral votes.
Moreover, as the Sun Belt has gotten more populous, it has become more
Republican. In the two Eisenhower elections, 1952 and 1956, about twice as
many votes were cast in the Northeast and Midwest as in the South and
West. In those days the South and West voted more Democratic than the
Northeast and Midwest. By the time of the two Reagan elections, 1980 and
1984, the Sun Belt and the Snow Belt were casting about the same number of
votes, but the party advantages had reversed. Republicans were now doing
better in the Sun Belt than in the Snow Belt.
Population shifts within states have been as important as population
shifts among states. In the northern industrial states population has
shifted decisively from the cities to the suburbs--which is to say, from
core Democratic to core Republican areas. Back in 1940 the urban
population in these states outweighed the suburban population by more than
two to one. By the 1970 census the suburbs were larger than the cities
they surrounded. And as the suburbs got larger, they became more
Republican. From 1960 to 1984 the Democratic share of the big-city vote
remained roughly constant, at about two thirds. But the Democratic share
of the suburban vote fell steadily, from just under half in 1960 to about
one third in 1984. In other words, the Republican Party's base has been
shifting with the population, to the fastest-growing states and the
fastest-growing areas within each state.
Ideologically the Democrats have become more and more isolated on the
left. Two broad streams of voters have been leaving the party since the
1950s--white southerners and white "ethnics" outside the South. Walter
Mondale carried only 28 percent of the white southern vote in 1984.
Mondale's Catholic vote, at 44 percent, was the worst showing by any
Democratic presidential candidate since 1924. Beginning in the 1960s the
Democrats made it clear that the party did not welcome the support of
racists, hawks, and religious conservatives--voters who had felt at home
in the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. These
losses would not have been devastating if the Democrats had managed to
hold on to the economic issue. But Carter's failure and Reagan's perceived
success in managing the economy had the effect of seriously damaging the
party's economic credibility. Thus social and foreign-policy liberalism
has driven the conservatives out, and the economic issue no longer brings
them back in--at least it doesn't in the absence of a major recession.
In order to win the presidency this year, the Democrats have to gain nine
percentage points over the party's 1984 showing. An increase of that
magnitude for a party out of power is relatively rare in American
politics. It has happened four times in this century. The largest gain
came in 1932, when the Democrats' share of the popular vote went up 17
points and Franklin D. Roosevelt was swept into office. The big issue was
the Great Depression. The next largest gain was in 1920, when the
Republican vote went up 14 percent. The big issue was the return to
normalcy after the Great War. The Democrats picked up 13 points in 1976,
when Jimmy Carter was elected. The big issues were Watergate and the
economy. The Republican vote went up 10 points when Eisenhower led the
ticket in 1952. The big issue was the Korean War, with a dose of communism
and corruption thrown in. If George Wallace had not been on the ballot,
the Republican vote probably would have gone up by at least 10 points in
1968 as well (the Democratic vote fell by 18 points). The big issue in
1968 was Vietnam, along with racial violence and student protest.
There's a message here. If the Democrats want to score a gain of nine
percent or more in 1988, they need a big issue. The Iran-contra scandal?
It certainly looked like one when the scandal broke, at the end of 1986.
Now it is not so clear. Congress and the press went into their Watergate
mode and spent the better part of last year looking for the "smoking gun"
that would tie President Reagan to the contra fund diversion. Not only did
the smoking gun never turn up but the whole investigation diverted public
attention from the one issue that really hurt the President--the fact that
he sold arms to Iran. With Bush at the top of the Republican ticket, the
issue may hurt. But not nearly so much as Watergate or Vietnam or Korea or
the Great Depression did.
The stock-market crash is another candidate for the big issue of 1988.
Here, too, the damage seems to be insufficient for the Democrats'
purposes. The public did not show any sense of a crisis. According to the
polls, most Americans felt unaffected by the October 19 crash. A survey
taken by the Confidence Board, a business-research organization, found
that consumer confidence dropped by only five percent after the stock
market plunge. In contrast, consumer confidence dropped 33 percent after
the 1973 surge in oil prices. The principal effect of Black Monday was to
create more pessimism about the economy. But the economic issue is still a
brush fire in the hills to most Americans. They know there is danger out
there, and the stock-market crash suggested that it is getting closer. But
it is not here yet.
The stock-market crash was not a crisis. It was a warning. And by forcing
both candidates to talk about the deficit, it does not play to the
Democratic Party's strength. The instability of the world's financial
markets does lend further support to the view that the United States must
change its economic policies. And the desire for change always helps the
party out of power. But to gain nine percentage points in 1988 the
Democrats will need more than a national case of the jitters.
According to Horace Busby, "When electoral-college locks have been broken,
as in 1932 and 1952, the winning party has benefited from a large infusion
of new voters. FDR's 1932 popular vote was 51 percent larger than Al
Smith's in 1928; Eisenhower's 1952 popular vote exceeded Dewey's 1948
level by 54 percent." Caddell made a similar point. "Both Eisenhower and
Carter won by bringing over millions of 'new' voters--weak Democrats,
Independents and war veterans for Eisenhower, and white Southern
Protestants for Carter." What new voters are available in 1988? The Baby
Boomers are one possibility. In Busby's view, both the Republican lock on
the electoral college and the Democratic lock on lower offices "were set
and maintained by those voters born before the 1940s." Younger voters
could break those locks. In fact, Busby expects that to happen--but not in
1988. There is no issue like the Vietnam War around which Baby Boomers can
rally this year.
The generation that is flexing its political muscle most conspicuously in
1988 is not the Baby Boom but the Senior Boom. Elderly voters have a real
generational issue--the protection of federal entitlement programs that
are under threat because of the deficit. Seniors are mobilizing to meet
that threat. They might break the Republican lock if the Republicans are
foolish enough to propose serious entitlement cuts.
Every election offers voters two kinds of choices: an ideological choice
("Which candidate is closer to my beliefs and values?") and a referendum
on the incumbent ("Am I satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are
going?"). The Democrats cannot win an ideological election anymore. That
is the message conveyed by the electoral-college data. In moving south and
west and out to the suburbs, too many voters have shifted from the
pro-government to the anti-government side. They identify as taxpayers,
not as beneficiaries of public spending, and they are more likely to see
government as interfering with them than as protecting them. They can get
what they need from government by keeping the Democrats in charge at the
legislative level. The Republicans seem to have the edge on executive
qualities--leading and directing--while the Democrats are better suited to
the legislative tasks of protecting and providing.
The Democrats can, however, win a referendum. That is the message conveyed
by the polls. American voters want change, as long as it is not too much
change. They want to preserve the two leading accomplishments of the
Reagan presidency--lower inflation and a greater sense of military
security. But they want the new Administration to correct Reagan's
mistakes--the deficit, the Iran-contra approach to foreign policy, the
sleaze factor--and to pay more attention to social and economic justice.
What the Democrats have to do in 1988 is turn themselves into a usable
opposition. If they present themselves as a liberal party, the electoral
college will do to them exactly what it did in 1968, 1972, and 1984. But
they can't become a conservative party either. Liberals are right when
they say that faced with a choice between two Republican parties, the
voters will choose the real thing every time. The answer is for the
Democrats to define themselves as the party of change. Instead of posing
an ideological choice, in which people are asked to vote their beliefs and
values, the Democrats must do exactly what Ronald Reagan did in 1980-
forget ideology and turn the election into a referendum, a choice between
continuity and change. Once the Democrats win, they will have ample
opportunity to convince the voters that their principles are correct. All
they have to do is show that they work.
That, at least, is the hypothesis. In order to see whether it made sense,
I spent two months recently traveling to key battleground
states--Illinois, New York, Texas, and California. Together they will cast
136 electoral votes, or more than half of the 270 needed for an
electoral-college majority. The four states include seven of the nation's
ten largest cities. They exemplify the political cultures of their
respective regions--the Midwest (Illinois), the East (New York), the South
(Texas), and the West (California). If American politics turns on a Sun
Belt-Snow Belt axis, then New York and Illinois will be allied against
Texas and California. Then again, the economic trends of the 1980s seem to
have split the booming coast states, like New York and California, from
the troubled heartland areas, like Illinois and Texas. Together the four
states capture all variations of the national condition in 1988.
Moreover, the four states I visited all have strong and intensely local
political cultures. Chicago and New York City are famous for swallowing up
national candidates and treating national issues as secondary to local
concerns. It happened to Gary Hart in the 1984 Illinois primary, and it
happened to Albert Gore, Jr., this year in New York. As for Texas and
California, they are famous for seeing themselves as virtually different
countries (in fact, Texas and California were different countries for
brief periods in the nineteenth century). There is a reason why local
factors may be unusually important in the 1988 presidential election: the
election is expected to be a close one.
During 1984, according to Public Opinion magazine, Ronald Reagan and
Walter Mondale were matched against each other in 101 "trial heats"
published by various polling organizations. A hundred of these polls
showed Reagan ahead; Mondale was ahead just once, by two points, in a
Newsweek poll taken on the day after the Democratic National Convention.
In March and April of this year seven polling organizations published
trial heats between George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Dukakis led in two
polls, Bush led in two, and the other three were too close to call. In May
the CBS-New York Times poll showed Dukakis beating Bush by 10 points,
while the Gallup poll, which showed Bush ahead in April, gave Dukakis a
16-point lead. "It will come down to gut feelings a few days before the
election of whether we stick with good old George or make a change to a
guy who seems competent and may do a little good," Edward J. Rollins,
Reagan's 1984 campaign manager, told The Washington Post in April. In
landslide elections, like those of 1964, 1972, and 1984, local factors are
virtually irrelevant. The winning ticket does well everywhere. In close
elections, like those of 1960 and 1976, everything matters--a candidate's
appearance in a debate, a foreign-policy gaffe like Gerald Ford's
liberation of Poland, what kind of local support each campaign has going
for it in the key battleground states. With this in mind, I interviewed
officeholders, party officials, consultants and commentators to see how
they assessed the outlook for November 8, 1988, in their state.
New York and Texas are supposed to be "core" Democratic states. Since 1952
their voting profiles in presidential races have been exactly the same.
Both states voted Republican in 1952 and 1956; Democratic in 1960, 1964,
and 1968; Republican in 1972; Democratic in 1976; and Republican in 1980
and 1984. Illinois and California have been less kind to the Democrats.
Except for the 1964 Johnson landslide, both states have sustained almost
perfect Republican loyalty since 1952. The one exception was the 1960
election in Illinois, when John F. Kennedy carried the state by fewer than
9,000 votes out of 4.75 million cast. That outcome, more than a few people
suspect, had more to do with the way the votes were counted than the way
the votes were cast.
Over the past twenty-five years American politics has become more and more
ideological. The moderate eastern establishment that used to run the
Republican Party has been overthrown by a vigorous and populist
conservative movement. The regulars who used to run the Democratic
Party--politicians like the late Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley--were
forced to accommodate to the highly principled, reform-minded liberalism
that emerged with the New Politics movement in 1968 and 1972. In national
politics, conflicts of interests (business versus labor) have largely
given way to conflicts of values (liberal versus conservative).
The politics of values is probably more alien to Illinois than to any
other state. Illinois politics has never been primarily about ideas and
values. It is about interests--jobs, money, and power. Illinois politicos
are not comfortable with the drift of American politics away from meat-and
potatoes issues and toward airier concerns, which they associate with East
Coast and West Coast activists.
Tom Roeser, a Republican activist and the president of the City Club of
Chicago, offered Representative Dan Rostenkowski as "a pretty good model"
of the kind of regular Democrat who does well in Illinois. "He's a
blue-collar guy. He's strong for labor. He's not running around to 'I am
guilty' meetings of the black community. He talks about hiking taxes, but
he also talks about fiscal responsibility. He certainly doesn't have an
exotic foreign policy. He understands business. He could be a model for a
lot of people who want to get the Illinois vote."
I spoke to James M. Wall, a former liberal activist and an ordained
Methodist minister who now edits The Christian Century. Wall chaired the
McGovern delegation at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, in Miami.
He served as Illinois chairman of the Carter campaign in 1976 and 1980 and
managed Paul Simon's 1984 Democratic primary campaign for the U.S. Senate.
According to Wall, Carter lost Illinois twice because "he was still seen
as a liberal Democrat." The problem with being a liberal Democrat, Wall
explained, is that it entails a moralistic approach to politics that does
not go down very well in Illinois.
Wall told me, "I interviewed George McGovern after the 1972 election, and
he said to me, 'We made a terrible mistake casting this campaign in moral
terms. The fact that we called the Vietnam War immoral said to anybody who
supports the war or fights in the war that they were immoral.' Ever since
then we've been in trouble."
Wall said that his views changed on the floor of the 1972 convention. "I
had to confront a badly wounded bunch of Chicago regulars," he told me. "I
realized that McGovern now had to win the election and would need the help
of Richard J. Daley. I was confronted by a young woman who came on the
floor of the convention in bare feet, wearing a granny dress and demanding
to sit in the chair that belonged to the chairman of the delegation, a
gray-haired, dignified old gentleman named John Tuohey.
"He came to me one morning and said, 'Would you look over there in my
chair? She's sitting in it.' I went over to her and I said, 'That's his
chair.' She answered, in the egalitarian style of the sixties, 'If I was
elected, I can sit in any chair I want to sit in.' That's what changed
me," Wall explained. "The arrogance of the sixties told me that we're not
going to rule a pluralistic country with that kind of elitist attitude."
"Have the Democrats changed since 1972?" I asked. "The damn party did it
again with Mondale in '84," Wall replied, "making him take a woman for
Vice President. Bad mistake. Making him do it. He had to do it. He looked
like a wimp to do it. He did it."
Two of the most popular vote-getters in Illinois exemplify the moderate,
pragmatic style of Illinois politics: the fourth-term Republican governor
Jim Thompson, currently the nation's longest-serving chief executive, and
the second-term Democratic senator Alan Dixon.
Almost everyone I spoke to described Jim Thompson as a lucky politician.
"He's remarkably successful and remarkably lucky," Tom Rouser said. In
1982 Thompson barely defeated Adlai Stevenson III, by about 5,000 votes
out of 3.6 million cast. In 1986 he defeated Stevenson again, this time by
a somewhat more comfortable margin, though the strength of his victory was
widely attributed to Stevenson's problems in the Democratic primary
(Democratic voters nominated Lyndon LaRouche followers for lieutenant
governor and attorney general, forcing Stevenson to resign from the
Democratic ticket and run on a third-party line).
"Thompson has not been a fluke," said Vincent Demuzio, the chairman of the
state Democratic Party. "He has been a hard worker. He's done very well
with patronage." According to Rouser, Thompson "makes his deals with the
Democrats in the Senate, and he gives them patronage." Roeser added, "The
governor has been very much like a Nelson Rockefeller. He worships bigness
and big government. He's not burdened with convictions particularly, so
that consequently he can turn on a dime." It is precisely those attributes
that make Thompson effective in the world of Illinois politics.
Senator Alan Dixon also succeeds in Illinois by steering clear of
ideology. "Dixon understands how to address this split-party state," said
Basil Talbott, Jr., a Washington correspondent for the Chicago Sun Times.
"He's neither a conservative nor a liberal." Talbott, like several others
I spoke to, contrasted Dixon with Paul Simon, his colleague in the U.S.
Senate, who mounted an unsuccessful presidential campaign earlier this
year. When Dixon and Simon were in the state senate together, both
representing downstate districts, "they were both fairly progressive,"
Talbott said. "They would have called themselves liberals without
objection. Over the years, however, Simon has maintained his ideology, and
Dixon has changed as the state has changed. He now describes himself as
moderate to conservative."
In discussing the national Democratic Party, Ed Murnane, a former Reagan
activist and now the deputy director of the Bush campaign in Illinois,
observed that "Alan Dixon is not really a factor in what the Democratic
Party is." But he is a lot stronger in Illinois than Paul Simon. "Al is
called Al the Pal," Murnane said. "Everybody likes Al Dixon. He's going to
elected. Dixon was up two years ago and nobody wanted to run against him.
They are lining up to run against Paul Simon right now." Illinois
Democrats could not have been impressed with Simon's performance as a
presidential candidate this year. He carried no states but Illinois.
Moreover, by suspending his presidential campaign and holding on to his
delegates, Simon offended Jesse Jackson and created resentment among
Illinois's grand master of skillful, shrewd, pragmatic politics was, of
course, Mayor Richard Daley. What Chicagoans have discovered in the twelve
years since Daley's death is that his power was essentially personal. He
did not leave much of an institutional legacy. "There was not a Democratic
Party machine," one of the late Mayor Harold Washington's top aides told
The Washington Post last year. "It was a Daley machine. It was almost a
cult of personality. Once you removed the personality, it was all over."
"The Democratic machine had fallen apart by the time Harold Washington
came along," Basil Talbott observed. He cited a number of factors that
contributed to its demise. During the 1970s the courts ruled that the city
could no longer fire people for political reasons. Urban crime increased.
"A precinct captain doesn't want to go down the street and knock on the
door anymore," Talbott said. Television also made a difference. Candidates
could now communicate with voters directly instead of through a political
The key factor in the death of the machine was the rise of racial
politics. Machines work best in an issueless environment. Machine
politicians are concerned with material resources, such as jobs,
contracts, and benefits. Once divisions over issues emerge, groups begin
to see one another as opponents rather than competitors. Their goals
become mutually exclusive.
The black-power movement introduced the politics of polarization into
American cities during the 1960s. That made it difficult for political
machines to survive. Blacks could no longer be bought off. They challenged
the machines that had excluded them from power, and whites responded
fearfully and aggressively. In a polarized environment candidates
typically win overwhelming majorities from one race and almost no votes
from the other. The days of across-the-board machine majorities are over.
Racial politics destroyed the Chicago machine, and it endangers the
presidential candidacies of both George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Neither
is a particularly ideological politician, and so both ought to do well in
Illinois. But racial politics creates pitfalls for each of them.
When Harold Washington was first elected mayor, in 1983, Chicago
experienced something new. Tom Roeser, who describes himself as a movement
conservative, called it "movement politics." Movement politics is the
politics of a cause. "There is a strong, militant, black-activist movement
in Chicago," said Bruce DuMont, a leading Chicago political commentator.
"Harold Washington was picked up and swept into office by that
Washington's mobilization of black voters sparked a countermobilization of
white ethnics, the people who had been the backbone of the Daley machine.
The symbol of their resentment was "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak, the leader of
the anti-Washington movement in the so-called council wars of 1983-1986.
Once the Cook County Democratic Party chairman, Vrdolyak left the party to
run (unsuccessfully) against Washington for mayor in 1987. He has now
joined the Republican Party, which nominated him for clerk of the Cook
County circuit court this year, an important patronage position.
Vrdolyak symbolizes the white-ethnic problem that Democrats have been
having in cities all over the country for the past twenty years. The rise
of the black-power movement and the outbreak of urban violence in the late
1960s stimulated a law-and-order backlash among urban working-class
whites. While conservatives and racist whites were leaving the Democratic
Party in the South, "urban populists" were drifting toward the Republican
Party in the North: George Wallace, meet Archie Bunker.
"There was no future for Ed Vrdolyak in the Democratic Party," David
Axelrod, a Democratic political consultant from Chicago, told me. "The
question is whether he can persuade ethnic whites that his case is
exemplary, that there's no place for them in the Democratic Party either."
Roeser described "a hemorrhage of white voters in the Democratic Party,"
adding that "Harold Washington and his followers really didn't cry at all
when whites left the party. They saw it as strengthening their own
The trend seems to be for white ethnics to vote Republican, particularly
in national and statewide elections. But they rarely become Republicans,
because the action in local races is still on the Democratic ballot. "It
is still incredibly difficult for a Republican to get elected to anything
in Cook County," Axelrod said. He noted that Vrdolyak did not bring any
major white-ethnic committeemen with him into the Republican Party, even
though Washington had cut off their patronage. They had their revenge,
however, after Washington's death, last November. Twenty-four white
aldermen joined with five blacks to make Eugene Sawyer Chicago's acting
mayor. Sawyer, a black, was a staunch ally of the Daley machine who
sometimes consorted with Mayor Washington's enemies during the council
wars. Sawyer is the kind of black politician white ethnics feel they can
Like Washington, Vrdolyak thrives on racial polarization. Republicans are
actually of two minds about that. Ed Murnane is a good example of white
ethnic realignment. "I grew up in a Democratic family," he told me. "My
father is a Democrat. I'm an Irish Catholic. The first campaign I was ever
involved in was in 1960, when I delivered literature for Jack Kennedy. My
family is an Irish, union, blue-collar family with a couple of priests and
nuns, a typical Irish Catholic family. Everyone in my family, with the
exception of my father, was an avid Ronald Reagan supporter in 1980 and
again in 1984."
I asked Murnane whether he considered Vrdolyak a racist. "Well, he left
the Democratic Party because he didn't get along with Harold
Washington--so maybe," Murnane replied. Then he said, "Even if he is a
racist, I'm not sure it's a negative issue in the Republican Party,
because there are a lot of other people who feel the same way. A lot of
people who moved from Chicago out to the suburbs did it for that reason.
They see the city changing and they say, 'Let's move out.' So even if
Vrdolyak said, 'I am becoming a Republican because there are too many
blacks in the Democratic Party,' is that being a racist? Absolutely. Is
that going to hurt him in the Republican Party? Maybe. Maybe not."
In the end, the race issue works both ways for Republicans. According to
Bruce DuMont, Republican leaders were a little nervous about putting a
candidate like Vrdolyak on the party ticket. "Vrdolyak's being on the
ticket will increase black turnout in the general election. That will
increase the likelihood of Democrats' carrying the state. The Bush people
were not happy with Vrdolyak, because in their view, it will only ignite
the black vote, and that will go against him."
Northern white ethnics and white southerners are the swing voters of
American politics. "Take a look at the swing votes in the South that went
for Reagan in 1980 and stayed there in 1984," DuMont said. "They're very
much like the ethnic votes on the northwest and southwest sides of
Chicago." In fact, the South and urban areas like Chicago have developed
similar two-tiered political systems. People continue to vote Democratic
in local elections, where ideological conflicts are muted. But they leave
the Democratic Party in large numbers when they vote for higher offices,
where ideology is more salient. DuMont predicted that "just as the
southern swing voters of 1980 and '84 aren't ready to move back to the
Democrats for President, you'll find the same pattern in Chicago."
I asked DuMont if he thought the Republican Party was going to look more
and more like Ed Vrdolyak, and the Democratic Party more and more like
Harold Washington. "Yes," he replied. "It is already true in the city. I
think it will now move to Cook County." In other words, the Chicago model
of racial politics is not being contained. It is spreading. It has already
spread to presidential politics. Racial antagonism was very close to the
surface in this year's Illinois Democratic presidential primary. According
to a CBS News-New York Times exit poll, Illinois Democrats who voted for
Paul Simon and those who voted for Michael Dukakis had a two-to-one
negative opinion of Jesse Jackson. Jackson voters were slightly positive
toward Simon and slightly negative toward Dukakis. As in most of this
year's Democratic primaries, the Illinois vote was deeply polarized along
racial lines. Jackson carried more than 90 percent of the black vote but
only seven percent of the white vote in his home state. In fact, a pattern
became evident in the Democratic primaries this year: the higher the
percentage of blacks in a state, the worse Jackson did among white voters.
Thus Jackson did better among white voters in Wisconsin than in Illinois;
he did better among whites in Connecticut than in New York. As an urban
white ethnic, Michael Dukakis ought to have more appeal for white
ethnic voters in Illinois than George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, or Walter
Mondale did. But those voters will be watching very carefully to see how
his relationship with Jesse Jackson develops, especially at the Democratic
I asked the New York political consultant David Garth whether as a result
of the 1986 tax-reform bill and the 1987 Wall Street crash, the Reagan
Administration could be portrayed as anti-New York. The question provoked
"We in New York, we're the fucking country. You understand? We are not one
of these small states. We're the power boys. We can't be hurt by some
schmuck actor from California. We were not threatened by Jimmy Carter.
We're New York. Hey, New York's got big balls. Koch has a big pair and so
does Mario. I started to smile when you talked about Ronald Reagan hurting
New York. That old fart's not going to hurt New York. He can't do a thing
to us. Any way he turns, he needs us."
Welcome to New York.
No one would deny that New York is still the money center of the United
States. But it is hard to argue that New York is what it once was, the
imperial center of American culture and politics. Not after the narrowly
averted fiscal collapse of New York City in the mid-1970s. Most revealing,
perhaps, is what has happened to the Republican Party of New York. As the
political consultant David Sawyer observed, "The Republican Party in this
state was for generations the leader of the moderate establishment wing of
the national Republican Party. That position has eroded completely."
Nelson Rockefeller, who dominated New York politics for thirty years, is
gone. So is Jacob Javits, the U.S. senator whom Rockefeller nurtured and
protected. And almost gone is the kind of moderate Republican politics
they represented. New York Republicans have moved away from the George
Bush style and toward the Ronald Reagan style. But then, so has George
There was no great mystery to how Nelson Rockefeller dominated the
Republican Party. He did it with money. "One time we analyzed what each
Republican county chairman in New York got from Rockefeller," John Burns,
the chairman of the New York state Democratic Party from 1965 to 1971,
told me. "They all got something--not necessarily out of the public
payroll. Many were on the public payroll, but a lot of them were in other
things that the Rockefeller family had control of. He owned the Republican
Party." Rockefeller's power base was personal, not institutional or
ideological. Did he leave a political legacy? Timothy Russert, a former
aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo, said,
"Rockefeller probably extended the run of moderate Republicanism in New
York and other places, and for that he deserves credit. Could he have
stopped the tidal wave of conservatism? There's no way."
There are two Republican parties in New York now. One is the legislative
party that controls the state senate in Albany, which has its base in the
rural areas of upstate New York. "That's where most of the control and the
patronage and jobs and prestige come from," Joseph Crangle, the Erie
County (Buffalo) Democratic chairman, told me. The state senate is the
last refuge of Rockefeller Republicanism. Its leader, Warren Anderson, "is
really a Rockefeller Republican," said Ken Auletta, an author and a
columnist for the Daily News. "Those Republicans up there are really very
moderate. Who passes tax increases? Who passes school aid every year?
They're really not a Reagan party."
The other is the Republican Party in the New York suburbs, which is far
more ethnic and conservative and activist. That is the Reagan party.
Richard Rosenbaum, the state party chairman from 1973 to 1977 and one of
Rockefeller's chief lieutenants, acknowledged that since the days of
Nelson Rockefeller "there has been an erosion of the center of the party
and a movement to the right," although, he added, the right-wing social
issues like abortion and school prayer which "are near and dear to the
hearts of true conservatives are not really part of the dogma of the
Republican Party of this state." Kemp Hannon, a young Republican
legislator from Nassau County, who is the minority leader pro tem in the
state assembly, described what happened: "When the Republicans got wiped
out at a number of levels, the people who came in had nothing to lose.
They were like myself--younger, brighter, more educated, more concerned
about the issues." What was the agenda of this new Republican Party? "It
was the Reagan agenda," Hannon said, although he was careful to point out
that in his view it was Reagan's economic and foreign-policy agenda, not
his social agenda, that revitalized the party in New York.
Auletta observed that politicians who were regarded as right-wingers
twenty years ago--John Marchi, who beat John Lindsay in the Republican
primary for mayor of New York in 1969, and Alfonse D'Amato, who beat
Javits in 1980--are seen as moderate Republicans today. D'Amato's election
seemed to signal a sharp shift of the Republican Party to the right. But
D'Amato moved quickly to the center and became a pragmatist. "He
delivers," David Garth said, "much better than Federal Express." In
Garth's view, the Republicans of New York have not exactly been
Reaganized. "They've mostly been D'Amatoed." In other words, new forces in
the Republican coalition have pulled the party to the right. But the
inexorable logic of New York politics pulls those Republicans who get
elected back to the center.
The new forces are mostly white-ethnic voters. Russert remarked that "all
the ethnics who fled [Buffalo] and went to the suburbs became Republican."
That is less true of the ethnics who fled New York City, a great many of
whom were Jews who retained their Democratic loyalty. Among white
Catholics, however, the trend is clear. "We've got to watch ourselves,"
said John Marino, the executive director of the New York state Democratic
Party "We've lost the Irish and Italian ethnic votes." Italian voters in
particular have become a new and important Republican constituency. They
tend to dominate the party in the New York suburbs.
In several interviews I advanced the hypothesis that Italian voters are
now a core Republican constituency, just as Jewish voters are a core
Democratic group. Auletta agreed with me, but Russert, who is a close
observer of the polls in New York, cautioned that Italian voters are still
split fifty-fifty in party registration, whereas Jews remain
overwhelmingly Democratic. Nonetheless, he agreed that it is "becoming
more and more true that Italian ethnics are likely to vote Republican."
Mario Cuomo clearly cuts into the Republicans' Italian vote. But it took
some time even for him to establish his base. In his first race for
governor, in 1982, Cuomo lost the white Catholic vote to the Republican
Lewis Lehrman, who was Jewish at that time (he has since converted to
Roman Catholicism). Cuomo carried Italian voters only narrowly that year.
As Auletta recalled, Lehrman sent out millions of pieces of direct mail on
the subjects of the death penalty and abortion during the last few days of
the 1982 campaign. "He was playing right to the Catholics," Auletta said.
"I spent the day with Cuomo. He was scared, literally scared, that the
Lehrman thing would shift the tide and he could lose the race. Clearly, it
was moving. The polls the previous week indicated a huge gap. No one
expected Lehrman to do as well as he did. The only thing that would
account for it was those mailings."
The 1969 Republican primary, in which Marchi defeated Lindsay for mayor,
turned out to be prophetic. Conservative Italian voters have largely
displaced old-line WASP liberals in the Republican Party. (When Lindsay
eventually ran for President, in 1972, it was as a Democrat.) I asked
Richard Rosenbaum whom else he would associate with the liberal wing of
the Republican Party. "Have you ever heard of the dodo bird?" he
Kemp Hannon insisted that the Republicans' success with ethnic voters has
more to do with economic than with social issues. In fact, his advice to
Republicans was "Avoid social issues." He explained, "We do not have a
backlash effect in the Republican Party. I have not seen that." I
presented this argument to one longtime observer of the New York political
scene. I pointed out that most of the Republicans I had spoken to insisted
that Republican gains in New York were due more to economics than to race.
"The people you spoke to have to say those things," he replied. The
reality, he said, was more complicated. In his opinion, Republicans are
beneficiaries of racial tensions within the Democratic Party.
"Politically, that's what the Republicans are living off, those tensions
within the Democratic Party. " He called the Republican Party in New York
a "purely reactive" party. "I don't believe there has been a Republican
who could carry New York with a positive appeal since Eisenhower," he
said. "Republicans in New York are only 'not Democrats.'" That is why
Republicans can pretend that race is irrelevant. In his view, "For
Republicans to run a campaign that was anti-black would be a terrible
error. The point is, they don't have to."
In Presidential elections New York is still more Democratic than most
states (Democrats have averaged 46 percent of the New York vote in the
past five presidential elections, compared with 44 percent for Illinois
and 42 percent for the nation as a whole). But it has trouble accepting
liberal Democrats like George McGovern and Walter Mondale.
As Tim Russert observed, "New York is disposed to vote for a moderate or
even a moderately liberal Democrat, but not a liberal Democrat. If
candidates are viewed as isolationist in foreign policy, soft on crime,
big spenders on domestic programs, and activist liberals on social issues,
they're dead. They may lose New York by only ten points, as opposed to
thirty points in Utah, but they lose." Foreign policy, he noted, is
probably a more important issue in New York than it is in other states,
because of the internationalist outlook of New York's ethnic
constituencies. And that is where liberal Democrats have been most
vulnerable. In fact, this spring the polls showed Dukakis leading Bush by
six to eight points. "Dukakis has a very good chance of carrying New York
against Bush," Russert said, "as long as he doesn't get trapped into a
neo-isolationist foreign policy."
Joe Crangle, the Erie County Democratic chairman, complained about the
tendency of outsiders to "Manhattanize" the New York Democratic Party. In
Manhattan ideology is everything. "If you go down to Manhattan," Crangle
told me in his Buffalo office, "people tell you immediately that they're a
liberal Democrat or a conservative Democrat. If you went around here and
asked people what kind of Democrat they are, they'd say, 'What do you
mean? I'm a Democrat.' In upstate New York we're unhyphenated Democrats."
He noted that George McGovern carried Buffalo in 1972 because he was
simply "the Democrat."
Upstate New York in many ways resembles downstate Illinois. They are
economically distressed regions (Crangle remarked that Buffalo has never
climbed out of the 1958 recession). They are insulated from the racial and
ideological conflicts of New York City and Chicago. And the Democrats
continue to do pretty well in both places, particularly in comparison with
the suburbs. The problem is that these areas are declining in population
and remain largely outside the mainstream of Democratic Party debate.
Crangle told me with some pride that in general elections upstate New York
now casts slightly more votes on the Democratic line than New York City
does. But he acknowledged that 70 percent of the state's Democratic
primary vote still comes from the New York City area. The reason is
turnout. New York City still has basically a one-party system, and so
Democratic primaries are where the action is. New York City still chooses
the candidates. Upstate "unhyphenated" Democrats have no choice but to
vote for them.
In New York, unlike Illinois, race is an issue that people seemed
uncomfortable dealing with--at least on the record. Off the record,
however, they discussed the race issue as if it were a dirty secret. A
disillusioned liberal I met with brought up "a central fact about American
politics that is like having an elephant in the room." I asked him what he
meant. "The central fact of American politics is race," he said. "The
Democrats have black people, and the Republicans don't."
He explained that Democrats began to lose people's trust "in the late
sixties and seventies, when we were pretending that the riots weren't
really going on, that people weren't really getting hit over the head. You
look at the slide in the Democratic vote. It is directly correlated with
the crime indices." I asked him about the anti-government revolt of the
1970s, which brought Ronald Reagan to power. "What is it that people don't
like about government?" he asked rhetorically. "Who is it that people
don't want to pay taxes for?"
In his view, the Republicans don't even have to talk about "the social
issue." "All they have to do is say to the Democrats, 'Jesse Jackson is
with you.'" I asked him whether the Democrats could say back to the
Republicans, "Well, Pat Robertson is with you." "How many evangelicals are
committing robberies in Flatbush every day?" he retorted.
Edward Koch has been elected and re-elected mayor of New York by appealing
to racial resentment. Mario Cuomo also has gotten elected and re-elected,
and so has Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, although neither has made an
explicit appeal to racial resentment. All three of these white-ethnic
Democrats--a Jew, an Italian Catholic, and an Irish Catholic--have defied
the trends. They have managed to hold on to the support of white
middle-class voters who have otherwise been drifting away from the
Democratic Party. Have they all done it the same way, or in different
New York is a tough town, and one of the things New Yorkers like about
Mario Cuomo is his toughness. "Cuomo scares the shit out of people," Ken
Auletta said. I asked a New York political consultant if he had ever
worked for or against Mario Cuomo in a political campaign. "God, I
wouldn't be living here if I worked against him," he replied.
Cuomo does not present the conventional image of a liberal. In fact, Joe
Crangle remarked to me that one reason the 1982 governor's race between
Cuomo and Lehrman was so close was that the voters really didn't know much
about Cuomo. "There was a real question about whether he was some sort of
superliberal from New York. Governor Cuomo will never have that kind of a
close race again." Equally rare among liberals these days is Cuomo's moral
traditionalism. He projects a sense of values shared with middle-class
voters. Ken Auletta told me about the time he invited Cuomo to attend the
course he was giving on the Cuomo governorship. "I asked him, 'What would
you do, Governor, if money were no object and you had to solve the problem
of teenage pregnancy in this state? You've experimented with support
services and other programs, but they haven't had an appreciable effect.
What do you do about this problem?' Cuomo's instinctive response was 'Tell
them not to have sex.'" Auletta added, "That's Cuomo the Queens
blue-collar Italian immigrant talking."
On some issues, of course, the governor's views are a little "advanced"-
notably abortion and the death penalty. He defuses his vulnerability on
these issues, however, by analyzing them publicly as moral and
intellectual problems and as matters of conscience.
Cuomo's 1984 keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention was a
ringing affirmation of Democratic values. As Laurence Kirwan, the state's
Democratic Party chairman, put it, "When people ask what the Democratic
Party stands for, you can turn right to Mario's speech." But his approach
to governing has not been that of a liberal ideologue. Auletta, one of the
leading experts on the Cuomo record, calls him an "incrementalist" and a
"tinkerer." "He's not a guy who throws long touchdown bombs." Auletta
argues that while state spending has grown at an alarming rate under
Cuomo, the governor has been much more fiscally conservative in his
approach to the state debt. Moreover, in his dealings with the state
legislature "he has been more conciliatory than combative."
Tim Russert, who worked as Governor Cuomo's general counsel, agrees that
"when national Democrats heard the keynote speech, they believed it was a
call to arms. But when Cuomo quells a prison riot, when he refuses to
raise broad-based taxes, he is the quintessential centrist to New
Yorkers." Joe Crangle contrasted Cuomo's style with that of a typical
"Manhattan Democrat." "Cuomo," he says, "is tolerant of another person's
viewpoint. The liberal Manhattan Democrat is not tolerant and is not
understanding of a person's social and cultural background. Many liberal
Democrats think that if you don't agree with their viewpoint, you're not a
Democrat." Crangle offered another contrast, between two kinds of
politicians. "There's a person who goes into politics because of his need
to pontificate about what is right and wrong and his own theories of
government"--in other words, an ideologue. Then "there's the person who
goes into politics because he really wants to help people, he gets turned
on by people"--in other words, a pragmatist. In Crangle's view, "Carter
didn't really enjoy people. Kennedy enjoyed people. Governor Cuomo enjoys
Mayor Koch is much more of a controversialist. According to Auletta, "Koch
personalizes things to a great extent. He is a hater" That is one reason
why Koch got into trouble with corruption, Auletta believes. "He was so
geared up to fighting his enemies, whom he identified as reform liberal
Democrats, that he assumed, 'Anyone who is an enemy of my enemy must be my
Koch's behavior in this year's New York Democratic presidential primary
was widely criticized as disgraceful. In his attacks on Jesse Jackson he
deliberately stirred up tensions between blacks and Jews. More precisely,
as the Manhattan borough president, David Dinkins, put it to The New York
Times, Koch "exacerbated tensions that already existed." The racial
politics of the New York primary suggested that New York was not far from
becoming another Illinois. But there was one big difference: Democrats in
New York responded negatively to Koch's confrontationalism. His candidate,
Senator Albert Gore, Jr., was trounced in the primary. New Yorkers gave a
decisive victory to Dukakis, who stayed as far away from racial politics
Senator Moynihan's appeal is based on something quite different--more like
stature. Kirwan called him "a world-class senator and one of the most
significant thinkers in Congress." David Sawyer, who is working on
Moynihan's re-election campaign this year, called him "an icon." He said,
"New York occasionally has senators, like Lehman and Javits, who are
national figures, whom you can respect. Moynihan is one of them." In
perhaps his strongest accolade Crangle called Moynihan "an unhyphenated
Cuomo, Koch, and Moynihan appear to have solved the problem that looms
largest over the national Democratic Party--holding on to the white middle
class. Russert said, "There is a middle class that was part of the New
Deal Democratic coalition. These are people who moved to the suburbs and
became moderately affluent, whose hearts are Democratic but whose minds
have become Republican. But they can return to the Democratic fold."
"Race is very important," he added. "That's the reason they fled the Bronx
and Brooklyn and Queens. But economics is real too. They're on the
margins. They take care of their mothers and fathers who still live in the
city, and they're paying for their kids' going to college. They don't want
to be hurt in their pocketbooks. If they have a sense that someone's too
radical, liberal, or conservative, they punish him. All other things being
equal, their instincts are to vote Democratic, but in most presidential
races all things haven't been equal. They saw no equality between Reagan
Cuomo, Koch, and Moynihan appeal to this constituency in different ways.
As one Democrat put it to me, "Cuomo appeals to their hopes and Koch
appeals to their fears." And Moynihan, it might be added, appeals to their
sense of pride. Not only do the three different approaches work but they
work with the same voters. And the national Democratic Party has been
unable to use any of them.
David Garth told me the story of a "big money guy" from the South with
whom he was discussing politicians. "He says, 'You know, the two guys we
like are Cuomo and Nunn.' I say, 'Cuomo? Why do you want a liberal from
New York?' The money guy says, 'Well, he's the one candidate that the guy
in the bar figures looks like them, talks like them, but is smarter than
them.'" Garth elaborated, "Every other candidate went to Harvard Business
School. Ordinary people can't relate to them. Mario, with the big nose and
the big chest, even when he talks big words, he's talking to us." Koch has
a similar appeal: "When Koch opens his mouth, he's a lower-middle-class
white. He's one of them. They can relate to him."
How much of the appeal that these men hold for white middle-class voters
has to do with race? A lot, clearly, in Koch's case. "Koch in a certain
way is very gutsy," Garth observed. "Even though he is distrusted by black
voters and hated by the black press, nobody has spent as much time in the
black community as Koch. He'll fight with them, and they like it, because
they figure it's not pandering." In fact, when Koch won re-election, in
1985, he carried the black vote. Many observers surmised that Koch's
attacks on Jackson in the primary this year represented a calculated shift
in tactics. His objective might have been to provoke the black community
into running a Jackson-endorsed black candidate against him for mayor next
year. Koch may be betting that he could win a straightforward racial
contest--but at the possible cost of turning New York City into Chicago.
Moynihan was widely criticized in the black community twenty years ago,
when he published his views on the breakdown of the black family, and even
more when, as an adviser to President Nixon, he remarked that blacks might
benefit from a period of "benign neglect." But he, too, draws heavy
support from black voters.
Cuomo initially made his reputation resolving a racial dispute over a
public-housing project in Queens. He has acted as a moderator and a
conciliator on racial issues. But, my disillusioned liberal said, "Ask
people what policy in Cuomo's six years in office has been addressed
directly to the problems of black people. You can't find any. The first
year he was governor, Mario announced that they would provide five million
dollars for a study. That's it." The lesson seemed clear, at least to this
informant: "The Democratic Party of New York has been successful
electorally precisely by learning the lesson of the elephant in the room.
They flee, as from the plague, from any suggestion that racial problems
should be addressed."
What they are in fact fleeing from is the lesson of John Lindsay. Lindsay
polarized the city in the late 1960s by appearing to cave in to black
demands. It all comes down to values. Lindsay's values were those of a
cosmopolitan WASP elite. Cuomo and Koch are definitely not of that
persuasion. The values question seems to be what Joe Crangle was talking
about when he complained about the Manhattanization of the New York
Democratic Party. I asked him whether he felt the same thing was true of
the national Democratic Party--that its image has been Manhattanized.
"Yes," he answered, adding that "the great advantage we have here in New
York with Governor Cuomo" is that he counteracts that image. David Sawyer
asserted that New Yorkers would also feel comfortable with Michael
Dukakis, because he shares some of Cuomo's appeal. "He's a northeastern,
centrist-to-liberal governor with an ethnic background. And he has the
Massachusetts model. We're comfortable with him."
Sawyer said that Dukakis was a "consensus-type character," as opposed to
an adversarial figure, like Cuomo. He felt this could be a problem for
Dukakis. "The people are going to look for strong leadership," Sawyer
said. "They have to feel the person has strength, vision, toughness.
That's a huge weakness Mike Dukakis has." In fact, toughness may be
regarded as the national Democratic Party's principal problem--and the
main reason why New York Democrats like Cuomo and Koch do so well.
Democrats win when they nominate "tough liberals" like Harry Truman, John
Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. They lose when they nominate "soft liberals"
like Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Walter
Mondale, each of whom might have been a preacher if he hadn't gone into
politics. It is impossible to imagine Truman, Kennedy, or Johnson as a
preacher. The Democrats won just once, in 1976, when they nominated a
preacher for President. That was because after Watergate the voters wanted
someone of unimpeachable character and integrity who would never lie to
them. The experience with Jimmy Carter seemed to many to prove the rule:
If you elect a preacher, you will probably get someone who isn't tough
enough for the job.
Cuomo appears to have the requisite toughness, although he also has a
monkish streak (he keeps introspective diaries) and a more than casual
interest in religion (he argues theology with archbishops). Dukakis's
toughness is not so readily apparent. Like Cuomo's, it has never really
been tested. The two politicians seem more similar when it comes to
values. Both hold traditional ones--what Sawyer calls "the immigrant saga,
better future for my kids, my father working his way up." Cuomo, however,
has made a specialty of defending, at least rhetorically, the old
Democratic politics: sharing, family, compassion, mutuality, and the
aggressive use of government to protect people against adversity. That is
the Democratic Party's old-time religion, and Cuomo gives a terrific
revival speech. Dukakis cannot give that revival speech. Jesse Jackson
can, which is one reason why he gave Dukakis trouble in the early
primaries and caucuses.
In the end, however, Dukakis's pragmatism could be a great advantage.
Dukakis is not tied to the old politics as firmly as Cuomo is, and so he
is less likely to frighten voters who think the old-time religion sounds
like taxing, spending, and inflation. Sawyer zeroed in on this difference
when he observed that "the Democrat has got to have the overlay of the
more pragmatic, sensible, and even-handed approach--not New Deal spending
or deficits." He continued, "That is why Dukakis, in one sense, is almost
a better model than Cuomo. He combines traditional Democratic values with
modern, technocratic abilities and with pragmatism--the ability to get
government, business, and labor to work together and solve problems."
Cuomo supporters were apparently attracted to Dukakis's modernized version
of the Democratic message. The exit polls from the New York primary showed
that most Democrats who really wanted to vote for Cuomo ended up
supporting Dukakis for President.
Sawyer warned that pragmatism and consensus politics can be taken too far.
Nevertheless, he said, "that kind of thing is exactly the right position
for this part of the country." Sawyer then articulated a rule that
summarizes the reasons for the Democrats' success in New York: "You've got
to have the old values but not the old politics." If the rule holds
nationally and the Democrats follow it, they could find themselves back in
the White House.
But first the democrats are going to have to figure out what to do about
Texas. Since Texas became a state, in 1845, no Democrat has won the
presidency without carrying it. Since 1952 Texas has gone Democratic four
times--1960, 1964, 1968, and 1976. It obviously helped that Lyndon Johnson
was on the ticket in 1960 and 1964. Johnson's influence, along with that
of his then-Democratic ally Governor John Connally, probably made the
difference in 1968 as well, when Hubert Humphrey carried the state by a
What will not help the Democrats this year is George Bush at the top of
the Republican ticket. Texas is one of the states that Bush claims as his
home (he maintains an address at a Houston hotel). Until he won this
year's Republican presidential primary, Bush on his own had been on a
losing streak in Texas. He was rejected in three statewide elections: for
senator in 1964 and 1970, and the 1980 Republican presidential primary.
Like thousands of others, Bush came to Texas to make his fortune in the
oil business. He ended up representing a Houston district in Congress for
two terms. In Texas, where chauvinism is a time-honored tradition, that
may be enough to qualify him as a favorite son. What do the Democrats have
to compete with that? The fact that Michael Dukakis speaks Spanish, for
And something else: an oil bust that has nearly caused the collapse of the
Texas economy. Banks are failing, or teetering on the brink. Great
fortunes have disappeared. Austin, Houston, and other Texas cities,
overdeveloped in the 1970s and early 1980s, have the highest
office-vacancy rates in the country. Unemployment in Texas has been at
recession levels since 1983. "We're a Third World economy," said Tim
Richardson, the editor of The Quorum Report, a Texas political newsletter.
"We're debt-ridden, we're commodity-based, we're exporters." Indeed, the
boom-bust cycle in Texas has run counter to the national economy. High oil
prices in the 1970s and early 1980s created a boom in Texas but threw the
nation's economy into turmoil. The process reversed in 1983. As oil prices
collapsed, Texas went into a dizzying tailspin. Bumper stickers that read
LET THE YANKEES FREEZE IN THE DARK were succeeded by LET THE TEXANS ROT IN
The effect of the oil bust on politics has been confused. Back in 1978
Texas Republicans scored a big breakthrough when they elected William
Clements, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction (by a margin
of eight tenths of one percent), and re-elected U.S. Senator John Tower
(by a margin of one half of one percent). The Democrats came back in 1982,
when Mark White defeated Clements for the governorship and a whole slate
of progressive Democrats was elected to statewide office. Then, in 1984
and 1986, in the teeth of the oil bust, it was the Republicans who made
the big gains.
Texas was one of the few states where Reagan had strong coattails in 1984.
The party picked up five congressional seats, made significant gains in
the state legislature, and increased its share of county-level offices by
half. Two years later, in one of the great grudge matches of Texas
history, Clements came back to defeat White and regain the governorship
for the Republicans. "Normally, when we vote pocketbook, we move left,"
said Molly Ivins, a columnist for the Dallas Times Herald. "But the first
thing we did when we had a chance to prove it was to elect this rich,
right-wing Republican governor." Anti-incumbent voting had a lot to do
with it. "We threw out the ins and put in the outs," Ivins said.
The Republicans have not exactly had an easy time of it, however. Last
year the Texas legislature passed the largest tax increase in Texas
history. In fact, it is reported to be the largest tax increase in any
state's history. Governor Clements, who was already in trouble because of
his involvement in a Southern Methodist University football scandal,
infuriated Republicans by signing off on the tax bill, thereby violating
his campaign pledge not to raise taxes. "He is a dead weight on the
Republicans in Texas," said Ronnie Dugger, the publisher of the Texas
Observer. Dugger called it "a Mecham problem," referring to the ex
governor of Arizona who was impeached and removed from office this year.
Virtually every Republican I spoke to talked about the falloff in
Republican fund-raising. Texas used to be an abundant source of support
for right-wing campaigns all over the country--sort of the Republican
Party's Malibu. No more. John Kelsey, a key operative in Texas Republican
politics, explained that the oil bust hurt Republicans in two ways.
"First," he said, "money has disappeared. Wealth has been eroded, which
cuts down on discretionary political giving." The second problem stems
from the grievances of people in the oil and gas business. "People think,
I didn't get any support so I'm not going to give any support," Kelsey
For years now the Texas Republican Party has been making spectacular
gains. Texas voted for Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. The Republicans gained
a U.S. Senate seat in 1961 and have held it ever since. From 1978 to 1986
the number of Republican congressional seats rose from four to ten. The
party's holdings have grown from four to six state senate seats, from
twenty-two to fifty-six state house seats, and from eighty-seven to 410
Lance Tarrance, a Houston Republican pollster, noted that Texas
Republicans have done particularly well with two constituencies. One is
young voters. "The Republican Party is driven today by a young vote," he
told me. "That's why we have so many young state representatives and young
members of Congress." The other is recent arrivals. According to Tarrance,
about a quarter of Texas voters have moved to the state since 1970. His
polls show that native Texans now compose less than half the electorate.
"Most of these new Texans didn't know Sam Rayburn or Lyndon Johnson,"
Tarrance observed. "They've known Jimmy Carter." According to Tarrance, if
you ask Texans today how they normally vote, Democrats are only slightly
ahead of Republicans. The Democratic political consultant George Shipley
said, "Texas is like California and New York. It's a media state. It's a
In Tarrance's view, the oil recession has ended the Republican surge, at
least for the time being. What is over, he argued, is the bandwagon
effect: "People said, 'The economy's great, Reagan's great, the Democrats
are in bad shape. Maybe we ought to get on the bandwagon.' That sort of
cheap vote we were getting has disappeared." I talked to Jack Martin, the
chief operative for Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who sensed "a shift
back." He said, "Every time Reagan gets on television and says the
nation's in better shape than it has been economically in years, you've
got these huge groups of Texans who say, 'What! Where?'"
This is not to say that Reagan--or Bush--is in deep trouble in Texas. As
George Christian, formerly Lyndon Johnson's press secretary and now a
political consultant in Austin, observed, "People don't really blame
Reagan. They blame Saudi Arabia. They blame OPEC. We had a lot of problems
in agriculture even before the oil collapse. But Reagan didn't get the
flak for that. I think he deserved it." Tarrance noted that there has been
some slippage in Reagan's job-approval rating in Texas, but it's still
above the national average. The biggest complaint is that the Reagan
Administration has no energy policy. "There is a perception that Ronald
Reagan has neglected Texas," Shipley said. "Democrats talk about the
national Republican policy of 'dismantling domestic producers' for the
sake of 'cheap imported crude from nations that harbor terrorism.'" What
oil people want, Shipley said, is "a stabilized and managed price of oil."
But the federal government will have to do the stabilizing and managing,
and that is anathema to Reaganites. The result is disappointment with
Reagan but not large-scale political backlash.
Although Texas may be as bad off economically as Iowa, Texans are not
voting like Iowans. That was clear in this year's Republican presidential
primaries. George Bush was humiliated by his third-place finish in Iowa,
where the Reagan Administration's farm policy was widely denounced. One
month later Bush wiped out Bob Dole and Pat Robertson in Texas, where the
Reagan Administration's energy policy was hardly discussed. George Bush
does not strike most voters as a stereotypical Texan. Still, no Texan I
spoke to seemed to begrudge Bush his favorite-son status, even though he
was born and bred in New England and has no real track record in Texas
politics. "It's kind of like the definition of bastard," Jack Raines, the
Republican secretary of state of Texas, said. "Some of them are accidents
of birth, and others are self-made. We define Texans the same way." Tim
Richardson called Bush "a founding father" of the modern Texas Republican
Party. "He literally was one of the first people to get it started. Of the
three people who came to that first Republican meeting, George Bush was
one of them."
"Moderate, conservative, or whatnot," George Christian said, "it's just
socially acceptable to be for Bush." However Texans may feel about the
Reagan Administration's energy policy--and Bush's opposition to an oil
import fee--everyone knows that Bush made his fortune in the Texas oil
business. Tom Loeffler, a former Republican congressman and a candidate
for governor in 1986, said, "Texans know there's only one man in the
presidential race right now that understands the industry." Bill Miller, a
Republican political consultant, put it more succinctly: "In the clutch,
That Texans accept a transplant like Bush as a favorite son says less
about Bush than it does about Texas. Texas has changed. In fact, everyone
I spoke to there was eager to tell me how much it has changed. Ronnie
Dugger, who founded the Texas Observer in 1954, described the changes this
way: "The first fifteen years I was watching Texas politics, liberals were
like rocks on the plain. You just saw a plain of conservatives that was
powerful, deeply organized, and dominated by the oil industry and racism.
You had a state that was totally predictable and utterly one-party. Then
it changed. Texas has become like the rest of the country. You've got a
feminist movement, you've got a black movement, you've got a Hispanic
movement, you've got a gay movement, you've got women running cities.
You've got a majority of progressives in the top state offices. You've got
Republicans winning congressional seats all over the state, and the
Democrats holding on. Overall," Dugger concluded, "it's a much more
Molly Ivins had a different take on these developments. "The biggest
change is that we're now a two-party state," she said. "I disapprove. I
went off to Minnesota when I was a young reporter, and I thought that I
had landed in heaven. I just went around going, 'Look, there are two
political parties here, and they are both progressive and there is no
corruption and it's all like my high school civics textbook. This is the
most wonderful place in the world. Gosh, if we could only have two
political parties in Texas, it would just be happiness.' Then I came back
and noticed that someone had actually thought of starting another
political party in this state--one that was to the right of Texas
Democrats! That is ground I thought didn't even exist."
But the emergence of a competitive Republican Party did not end up pulling
the Democrats to the right, as Ivins feared. Instead, it freed the
Democratic Party to become more progressive. What the Republicans did was
pull a lot of conservative voters out of the Democratic Party. The action
began to shift to the Republican primaries and to general elections,
events that had had little meaning when Texas was a one-party state.
"As people have left the Democratic primaries," Christian said, "it has
tended to make the Democratic Party more liberal. It has given labor more
power. It has certainly given Hispanics and blacks more power. And it has
given card-carrying liberals more power. The net result is that a liberal
can be nominated for high office in the Democratic primary." One such is
Michael Dukakis, who proved his national appeal by winning the Democratic
presidential primary in Texas this year. According to a Los Angeles Times
exit poll, Texas Democratic primary voters were 14 percent Hispanic and 13
percent black. Self-described conservatives barely outnumbered
self-described liberals, 33 to 29 percent. Tim Richardson described a new
coalition of blacks, Hispanics, gays, labor, feminists, and white liberals
that has come to power in Texas cities. "The mayor of Houston is a woman,
the mayor of Dallas is a woman, the mayor of San Antonio is Hispanic.
They've all been elected by this coalition. The Democratic coalition in
the urban centers will become the Democratic coalition statewide." He
added, however, "It will take some time; 1988 may not be the year."
I met with Bob Brischetto, of the Southwest Voter Research Institute, in
San Antonio, the nation's principal center for research on the politics of
Hispanic Americans, to discuss their key swing vote in Texas. Brischetto
noted that the voting-age Hispanic population in Texas had virtually
doubled in the 1970s. As of 1986 Hispanics composed 25.5 percent of the
total state population. Their electoral power is diminished, however,
because an especially high proportion of them are under voting age and
because they have a low citizenship rate (about half of voting-age Texas
Hispanics are American citizens), low voter registration, and low turnout.
While Hispanics constituted 22 percent of the total voting-age population
in 1986, they made up 20 percent of voting-age citizens, 13.5 percent of
registered voters, and only eight percent of actual voters.
Brischetto observed that "Hispanic turnout rates in general elections lag
behind the state average by twenty percentage points." In primaries,
however, the situation is reversed. "When you look at Democratic primary
elections, Mexican-American turnout has exceeded the state average since
1980." In part this voting pattern is due to an overall decline in
Democratic primary participation. "Hispanics have maintained their
participation in primaries more than non-Hispanics," Brischetto said. It
is also due to strong local organizations that get out the Hispanic vote,
particularly in San Antonio, where Democratic primaries are highly
competitive and where there are also many Hispanic candidates on the
ballot. In fact, Michael Dukakis built his Texas primary victory on the
support of Hispanic voters, who, according to the exit polls, gave him 54
percent of their vote, as compared with 15 percent for Jesse Jackson.
Virtually every Republican I spoke to expressed the view that the party
could win Hispanic votes on the basis of intense patriotism and "family
values." "Republicans philosophically have more affinity toward Hispanic
culture than they do toward black culture," Lance Tarrance said. As a
result, "Republicans are getting competitive with the Hispanic vote." They
still have a long way to go, however. Exit polls taken by the Southwest
Voter Registration Education Project show Reagan getting 25 percent of the
Texas Hispanic vote in 1984 and Clements getting 19 percent in 1986. In
the 1986 race for attorney general the Republicans nominated a
Mexican-American candidate, but even he managed to win only 39 percent of
the Hispanic vote.
According to Brischetto's polls, Mexican-Americans are more conservative
than Anglo voters on issues related to religion, such as abortion and
school prayer. On an issue that relates to discrimination, however, such
as the Equal Rights Amendment, they are more liberal than Anglos. As for
foreign policy, Hispanic views on military aid to the contras were exactly
the same as Anglo views; the two groups were equally opposed. On the issue
of increasing defense spending, Hispanic voters were more negative than
Anglo voters in both 1984 and 1986.
Some of the biggest differences occur on economic issues. Compared with
Anglo voters, Hispanics were far less approving of cuts in social programs
and of President Reagan's economic policies than were Anglo voters. In
Brischetto's opinion, the Republican Party's social- and foreign-policy
conservatism probably works with Cuban-Americans but not with
Mexican-Americans. The reason is that Mexican-American voters are
motivated primarily by economic concerns. "We always ask, 'What are the
most important problems facing Mexican-Americans in your community?'"
Brischetto said. "Unemployment comes up. Inflation came up in 1984. For
Mexican-Americans, the issues that really count are the economic ones."
That is why they continue to vote heavily Democratic. It is also why, as
Tarrance pointed out, Republicans are making inroads "among upwardly
mobile, urban Hispanic voters, those in the second or third generation
from entry--the small businessman, the small insurance agent, the small
doctor." What the data suggest is that Hispanics are behaving more or less
like traditional American ethnic groups. Those who are moving in vote
Democratic. Those who are moving up vote increasingly Republican.
Tarrance described Texas's leading Hispanic politician, the San Antonio
mayor Henry Cisneros, as "a very precious commodity." He explained, "He
talks like a Republican, he has the air of a Republican, but he's a
Democrat." Ronnie Dugger described Cisneros as "a moderate liberal with
strong connections to the Anglo business community." Dugger added, "He's a
technocrat. He's a compromiser. He's a consensus-seeker." "I always knew
the first Chicano governor of Texas would be an 'Aggie,' " Molly Ivins
said, referring to Texas A&M, Cisneros's alma mater and a bastion of good
ole-boy Texas conservatism. The political consultant George Shipley called
Cisneros "a Tory Democrat" who has been "elevated to the status of an
What could be more appealing to national Democrats than a Hispanic
politician who doesn't frighten the white establishment? In fact, Cisneros
was one of the candidates Walter Mondale interviewed for the vice
presidential nomination in 1984. "He is the anointed," Ivins said, "as
Barbara Jordan was once the anointed black woman."
Cisneros might make an interesting choice for the Democratic ticket in
1988. After all, Texas is a critical state. His nomination as Vice
President would keep Jesse Jackson quiet. Jackson couldn't utter a word of
protest about putting a Hispanic on the ticket, any more than he could
complain about Mondale's choice of Geraldine Ferraro, in 1984: that's the
whole idea behind the Rainbow Coalition. Moreover, a Cisneros candidacy
could be the key to mobilizing the vast unregistered Hispanic electorate
concentrated in states of some electoral importance, like California, New
York, Illinois, Florida, and Texas. There is one big drawback to the idea,
however: even though, by disposition, Dukakis is really a New England
Yankee and Cisneros is a southern Tory (they both have degrees from
Harvard), a Dukakis-Cisneros ticket might be a little too spicy for the
American electorate to digest.
If you want evidence that Texas really has changed, consider this:
liberals are not winning just Democratic primaries in Texas. They are
winning general elections as well. The big breakthrough came in 1982, when
a whole slate of progressive Democrats won statewide office: Jim Mattox as
attorney general, Ann Richards as state treasurer, Jim Hightower as
agriculture commissioner, and Garry Mauro as land commissioner. The
Democratic sweep went all the way up to the top of the ballot--Lloyd
Bentsen for senator, William Hobby for lieutenant governor (both closer to
the mold of traditional Tory Democrats), and Mark White for governor (a
moderate). Not only were liberals elected but they were all re-elected in
1986, when White lost the governorship. Several of them have signaled an
intention to move up in 1990. Hightower intends to challenge Phil Gramm
for the Senate, while Mattox and Richards will be running against each
other in the Democratic primary for governor.
George Christian said, "1982 was the first time liberals won the down
ballot races." What explains their success? To begin with, 1982 was a good
year for Democrats nationwide. The country was experiencing the worst
recession since the 1930s, and the Democrats made a net gain of twenty-six
seats in the House of Representatives. There was also the fact that the
Texas liberals faced weak Republican opponents.
Lance Tarrance's theory is that "lower-level offices are not ideological.
It's hard to make an ideological statement about the land commissioner, or
even the state treasurer." He believes that liberals can win statewide
elections at the "administrative" level but not at the "representational"
level, the level at which political leaders have to represent the
"cultural life space" of Texas. No office is more representational than
the presidency. That is why it may be hard to infer from the success of
liberals in down-ballot races that a liberal presidential ticket can carry
Texas in 1988. In fact, Tarrance argues that presidential years are the
hardest on Texas liberals. "They have to run with the national party," he
said, "and they're unmasked by their colleagues up in Washington."
When I put Tarrance's theory to Molly Ivins, her response captured the
long-suffering nature of Texas liberalism. "During my entire lifetime in
this state," she said, "you could go along for year after year without a
single candidate on the ballot that a progressive Democrat could vote for
with any enthusiasm. Those of us who are liberal Democrats in this state
are simply artists at discerning the shades, the hairline differences that
prove that one sorry troglodyte is a trifle better than the next. We are
just the best people in the world at sorting out the lesser of two evils.
So for us to have this much talent in statewide political office is just
mind-boggling. To say they can't break through, hell, they never even broke
into office before. How do we know they can't go up? We have no idea."
There is one other reason why the Democrats did so well in 1982, and it is
one that is relevant to 1988 as well. In 1982 "you had Lloyd Bentsen and
Bill Hobby spending millions of dollars to turn the vote out for the whole
Democratic ticket," Christian explained. "It worked. They elected Mark
White. They elected the whole Democratic slate. It was the first time ever
that the Democrats mounted a well-financed get-out-the-vote effort."
Virtually every Texan I spoke to was in awe of what he or she called the
"Bentsen machine." George Shipley told me that he worked for Bentsen's
campaign in 1976, when Jimmy Carter carried Texas. "The Carter guys came
to us every morning and took their orders. Carter did not say a thing
impacting Texas without clearing it with Bentsen. It was very much a
subservient role. Bentsen called the shots, and Carter basically said,
'I'm for Lloyd Bentsen.'" Bentsen carried Texas with 57 percent. Carter
carried Texas with 51 percent.
Bentsen is up for re-election in 1988. I asked John Kelsey, the Republican
fund-raiser, whether Bentsen could pull a Democratic presidential ticket
through this year. "He would definitely have an effect, without any
question," Kelsey said. "He would have a significant effect on turnout. If
you had a man running against Bentsen, he wouldn't pull as many votes on
the Republican side as Bentsen would pull on the Democratic side." Kelsey
admitted that the Republicans would probably not give a lot of support to
Bentsen's opponent this year, "simply because a tough Bentsen race might
bring out a lot of Democratic voters and endanger the Republican
presidential ticket." "The presidential ticket has to be acceptable to
Bentsen," George Shipley said. "That's the bottom line in Texas. The
finest organization in this state is the one that's principally Lloyd
Bentsen's and is shared in part with Bill Hobby. It's the Tory Democratic
organization. The first guy who put it together was Lyndon Johnson. The
second generation was John Connally. The third and fourth generation has
been Lloyd Bentsen."
When I spoke to Jack Martin, the Bentsen operative, he confirmed what
Shipley had said. "Yes, there's a structure," Martin said. "Senator
Bentsen has maintained coordinators in all two hundred fifty-four counties
year in and year out. He keeps a well-oiled organization in place at the
grass roots level." I asked him about 1988. "If we have a serious, well-funded
opponent, we'll do everything we can not just to beat him but to beat him
soundly. One effect will be that voter turnout will increase. Lots of
people will be beneficiaries of that." Martin explained that that is
exactly what happened in 1982. "We put together one of the most
get-out-the-vote mechanisms in the country at that time. It had never been
done in Texas on the Democratic side. Clements had introduced it in 1978.
We took the same strategy and moved it over to the Democratic side. I
think it's fair to say that Senator Bentsen's organization and his phone
banks and his campaign pushed the turnout way up and caused everybody on
that ballot to benefit."
Bentsen's opponent this year, Representative Beau Boulter, from the Texas
Panhandle, does not look very formidable. But, Jack Martin acknowledged,
"we've got this presidential thing above us." A strong Bush vote could
very well endanger Bentsen's re-election, even against a weak opponent. As
Lance Tarrance put it, "If anybody should be scared, it ought to be
Bentsen, especially if the state goes for the national Republican ticket
by a margin of 500,000 votes or more." According to Shipley, a "united
front" campaign worked in 1982 and it could work again in 1988. "The day
Carter lost, Bentsen got very serious about his 1982 re-election," Shipley
said. "Bentsen and Hobby decided a year in advance that they were going to
run an integrated, united Democratic effort and that they were going to
bring a Democratic governor to Texas. The messages were tailored all the
way down. Fifteen congressmen participated in it, and we got the vote
"Dukakis could win Texas," Shipley said, "provided that during the
nominating campaign and immediately thereafter he communicates the proper
messages to the leadership of this state. He has to show Democrats in the
business community that he can do business in Texas. Maybe promise to have
a summit meeting on energy policy within the first thirty days of his
Administration. If the united-front scenario is there, it's do
For all the changes in Texas, certain themes remain constant. One is a
certain "meanness," a ten-gallon ferocity in Texas politics. You can find
throbbing veins of it in both parties. John Hildreth, of Common Cause,
sees it in the Democrat Jim Mattox and in the Republican Phil Gramm. "They
are so much alike in style," he said. "They don't just want to beat you.
They want to knock you down and then stomp on you." Shipley offered a
broader interpretation of the meanness of Texas politics. "There is more
tolerance for social inequality in Texas than in any other state," he
said. "What we do here for the mentally retarded and the mentally ill is a
disgrace. What we do in the way of health care for the poor and the
uninsured is a disgrace. What we do here in the way of our prison system
is a disgrace. Our supreme court is a national joke."
I got the flavor of what Shipley was talking about when I interviewed
George Strake, the chairman of the Texas Republican Party. Strake was
complaining that "if we don't learn to curtail some of our spending habits
in Texas, we're going to end up like the federal government." I reminded
him that the courts had condemned the Texas prison system and the system
for treating the mentally retarded as unconstitutional, and that they were
threatening to do the same with the system for funding public education.
"I'm not a prison expert," Strake said, "but I can tell you that the
Ferguson unit that houses the eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds has a
better cafeteria and a better chapel than I had when I was in college.
They have training facilities for auto repair, for road making, for TV
repair, for barbering, for law. I think we have gone overboard on
facilities for prisoners."
Meanness has deep roots in Texas politics, but so does another, quite
different quality--namely, populism. As Shipley pointed out, the populist
strain shows up in the structure of Texas government: "very divided
authority, very weak governor and so forth." The current master of Texas
populism is Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. "There's no doubt that
he's one of the most clever politicians around in terms of using the media
to attract attention," Hildreth said. "He's funny. Talk about people
laughing. But that's also how people notice you and respond to you. He has
a very faithful core of support around the state, primarily responding to
his populist message."
"What Hightower has done in the agriculture department," Hildreth
explained, "is take a lazy, good-for-nothing agency that checked scales
and eggs and killed fire ants and turned it into a center for economic
development. He's been very successful with the blue-collar redneck
voter." Hightower was also the only white statewide-elected official to
endorse Jesse Jackson for President this year. The 1990 Senate race will
determine whether left-wing populism is a serious force in Texas, or
whether Hightower is, as Jack Raines described him, "all boots and belt
buckle." In any case, the contest between Hightower and Gramm will be a
classic Texas showdown: the leading Texas populist versus the meanest
politician in Texas.
Tim Richardson argues that the populist economic theme could be a powerful
one for the Democrats in 1988. He thinks that the Republicans are
vulnerable in Texas because of their stubborn ideological insistence on
free-market policies. "Gramm calls a lot of the shots in the Republican
Party," Richardson said, "and I think he's out of step with one basic
thing: government has a role in rebuilding the state economy. That idea is
anathema to him. He refuses to offer any kind of governmental solution to
an economy that is in depression conditions in many parts of this state."
The Texas populist tradition goes back to Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn.
"There is a big constituency for government-assisted economic
development measures," Richardson says. "I think the constituency is there
for defending state services."
The Democrats could win an important prize if they offered an economic
development message. "The Republicans," Richardson says, "are alienating
the business community. Business realizes that the future labor force is
being shredded by rotten services, high dropout rates, crime, drugs, poor
education, and illiteracy." Let the Republicans run on low taxes. The
Democrats will run on making Texas a first-class state.
If Richardson's economic-development theme sounds familiar, it is because
that's exactly what Michael Dukakis says he did in Massachusetts
-use government in collaboration with business to direct resources and
manage economic growth. Can the Democrats sell a northeastern urban ethnic
liberal in Texas--against an oilman and a favorite son? The conventional
wisdom in Texas is no.
"Unless Bush falls on his face," George Christian said, "I can't imagine
him not carrying Texas." Lance Tarrance told me that Mark White once said
when he was governor that the Democrats could hold Texas with respect to
statewide offices. "But as for the Democrats holding Texas for the
national party, White said, 'I can't do that.'"
Shipley warned, however, that it would be a mistake for Democrats to write
Texas off as "an automatic Bush state." "The conventional wisdom might be
to do that. But Bush is not perceived as a winner in Texas." There are any
number of reasons why the Democrats have a chance to carry Texas this
year. Texas is no longer as parochial as it used to be. Jack Martin said,
"This state is capable of getting caught up in a national discussion of
the issues. That was clearly the case when Carter beat Ford here. And it
was clearly the case when Reagan beat Carter. Reagan beat a southerner in
this state. To me, that really had nothing to do with the campaign these
two men ran in Texas. It had to do with Texans being part of the national
discussion." It helps that Michael Dukakis is a relatively safe Democrat
with a non-ideological style and a strong economic
development message. It helps that the economic situation in Texas is
drastic. It helps that there is a strong national mood for change. And it
helps most of all that Lloyd Bentsen is up for re-election.
The Reagan revolution, it can be argued, began exactly ten years ago in
California. On June 6, 1978, California primary voters voted 65 to 35
percent in favor of Proposition 13, the Jarvis-Gann property-tax
limitation measure. It was an exhilarating experience. The voters
literally took the law into their own hands and, defying the ominous
predictions of the political establishment, voted themselves one of the
biggest tax cuts in American political history. Tax-revolt fever
immediately spread across the country, and state after state passed
measures explicitly imitative of Proposition 13. This wave of anti-tax,
anti-government sentiment culminated two years later in the election of
Ronald Reagan to the presidency and in the Republican takeover of the U.S.
Senate. Interestingly, Reagan himself had virtually nothing to do with
Proposition 13. His own tax initiative had failed at the California polls
in 1973, and he was wary of supporting the more radical 1978 measure.
One of Reagan's first actions as President, and the one with the most
decisive implications for the future, was the 1981 federal income-tax cut.
Reagan did to the federal government what Proposition 13 did to
California: he pulled the revenue plug. The result in both California and
the nation was a new era of government retrenchment. The symbol of the
Reagan era in American politics is the tremendous federal budget deficit.
The symbol of the Proposition 13 era in California is the steady
deterioration of public services. Both systems have been protected by
coalitions of voters sharing an interest in low taxes and limited
government. Reagan presides over this coalition in Washington, and George
Deukmejian, Reagan's loyal ally from his days as governor of California,
presides over the coalition back home. Even though both chief executives
were elected, and then reelected by bigger majorities, it is not clear
that their limited-government coalitions have put down deep roots. Both
Reagan and Deukmejian face hostile legislatures controlled by Democrats.
And both nationwide and in California a growing body of evidence suggests
that public sentiment is shifting. Because the Reagan revolution started
in California, any signs of backtracking there will have portentous
implications for its future.
Proposition 13 was not only the one measure. It was a movement. It gave
rise to cuts in inventory and inheritance taxes, and to the indexation of
state income-tax rates to inflation. According to Gray Davis, the state
comptroller, the aggregate revenue loss resulting from Proposition 13
amounts to $20 billion a year, or half the current state budget. It also
gave rise, in 1979, to the Gann initiative, which limits spending by state
and local governments to an amount equivalent to their 1978-1979 budgets
adjusted for inflation and population growth. The spending cap can be
overriden only through special local initiatives.
The Gann initiative seemed innocuous in 1979, because it had provisions
for inflation and population growth. There was no provision for the
expansion of public needs, however. As it turned out, the spending cap was
not a problem so long as inflation remained high. But inflation dropped,
and last year, for the first time, state spending bumped up against the
Gann limit. As a result, the state wrote rebate checks to California
taxpayers totaling more than $1 billion. According to the California
pollster Mervin Field, a large majority of Californians favored using the
money for education. In fact, an organized campaign asked taxpayers to
turn over their rebate checks to their local school districts. In the view
of Robert Naylor, the Republican state chairman, Governor Deukmejian
"risked looking insensitive" on the education issue by getting involved in
a dispute with the state superintendent of public instruction. The Gann
initiative would have permitted turning the money over to local districts
that had not hit their spending limits. The governor wouldn't hear of
Many Californians I spoke to believed that Proposition 13 has paralyzed
the political system and made it unresponsive to shifts in public
sentiment. "It was a psychological problem exacerbated by lack of
leadership," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a California political writer. "I
sense that public opinion has turned." According to Tom Quinn, who ran the
state's environmental regulatory services under Governor Jerry Brown,
"There have been major retrenchments in terms of any kind of planning for
the future. We're not building highways. We're not thinking about how
we're going to provide transportation twenty years from now. This is
becoming a lousy place to live." Field told me that, according to his
polls, the California public has increasingly come to acknowledge "a
gradual, obvious, palpable deterioration of public services." He saw no
evidence of a counterrevolution, however. "The public still likes
Proposition 13," Field said. "Any effort to repeal it would be
The key to California politics is, of course, the state's vast middle
class. It was their revolt, after all, that created Proposition 13, the
Gann initiative, and, ultimately, the Reagan revolution. The concerns of
middle-class Californians have clearly been drifting away from taxes and toward
public services, whose amount and quality inescapably impinge on the lives
of all Californians. But how far? Talking to Californians, one gets
different images of the middle-class voter. "The middle class feels
shortchanged," said Davis, who is contemplating making a run for governor
in 1990. "How can their children compete in an information society if
forty-six other states are investing more in the future than we are? At
some point that feeling will permit a more progressive use of the money
that comes into the state." A member of the California assembly offered a
slightly different image of the middle-class voter: "People are driving
around, frustrated, listening to their car radios, choking, spending two
and a half hours a day in an automobile to go to work for seven hours," he
said, "only to be told that it is a profile in courage to raise taxes and
take more money out of their checkbook." This defense of the middle-class
taxpayer came from none other than Tom Hayden, the former sixties radical
and now a Democratic assemblyman from Santa Monica.
It is a case of competing cliches. On the one hand, the California voter
is an individualist, suspicious and distrustful of government. Michael
Berman, a political consultant, told me, "Californians have a perfect
understanding that government is not a major factor in their lives. People
see their potential here as more a function of the individual and his
abilities and less a function of government doing something for them." On
the other hand, the pollster Richard Maullin said, "The great population
influx that occurred during and after World War Two has been of people
without tremendous means, who depend on the public sector for a lot of the
higher standard of living they enjoy here. The state's economy and its
good life have benefited from a willingness to tax itself and put money
into public enterprise."
I asked Kevin Starr, a noted California historian, to sort out the
inconsistent images for me. "The federal government was the midwife to the
western states," he said. "These states had no previous sovereignties, no
previous identifications, no cultural traditions." He described the
relationship of the federal government to westerners as "almost parental,"
adding, "The federal government is perceived with the apprehension of a
child to a parent, with all the possibilities of affirmation and
repudiation." In other words, Californians have an ambivalent attitude
toward government. They want government to provide for them but they
resent its control.
In Starr's view, the New Deal political culture never really caught on in
California. "The New Deal didn't settle in here in the same way, and it
was thrown off early." The New Deal culture is essentially collectivist
and redistributive: use my tax money to help those less fortunate. At its
best, it is Mario Cuomo's vision of a society based on sharing, family,
compassion, and mutuality. In California, however, the kind of government
people want and expect is the public-works culture that has its roots in
the older progressive tradition. The essential idea is that government
should provide universally available benefits and services like public
education, water resources, and highways. It is a uniquely middle-class
view of government: use my tax money in ways that will benefit me, along
with everybody else. It is this public-works culture, Starr argued, that
is reasserting itself ten years after Proposition 13.
Starr's theory helps to explain a prototypical Californian like George
Deukmejian. Sal Russo, a political consultant who has worked for
Deukmejian, said that "when he was elected, Deukmejian wanted to be known
as the governor who rebuilt California." But he got himself boxed in on
the issue of a tax increase. He cannot raise revenues because of his no
tax-increase pledge. The Democratic legislature "prevents him from cutting
things he might otherwise cut to put the money to better use." And the
costs of rebuilding the state's infrastructure would be astronomical. "We
started to cost it out," Russo said. "You couldn't figure out a way to pay
for all of it." Deukmejian is in the classic middle-class squeeze between
a commitment to low taxes and a commitment to public works.
Peter Kelly, the state Democratic Party chairman, put his finger on the
key difference between California under Proposition 13 and the federal
government under Ronald Reagan. "Here you had less money and you spent
less," Kelly said. "Nationally, you had less money and you spent more."
Sentiment in California has turned around to the extent that Democrats now
cautiously endorse the need for higher taxes. In former governor Jerry
Brown's view, "The tax implication of the plan must not be the salient
message, but rather the vision has to be powerful enough that the tax is
just a small piece of it, and not all that striking." Republicans now
cautiously endorse the need for higher spending. Naylor, the Republican
chairman, told me, "There is certainly a change of sentiment. But it isn't
for throwing money at problems. It's for saying, 'Here's a specific need.
We think money will solve this specific need.' It's not a search for more
social programs. People see certain kinds of services that don't have
I asked everyone I spoke to whether it is now safe for Democrats to talk
about more spending in California. Almost everyone gave the same answer:
"Yes, but..." The conditions all amounted to more or less the same thing.
"You have to talk about spending on things that benefit an awful lot of
people," Richard Maullin said. "You cannot spend money to take care of
small groups." Chip Nielsen, a Republican activist from San Francisco,
said, "If you could take your tax check and pay for particular services,
things you really get your return for, everyone would do it gladly." "Show
people what they're getting," Tom Quinn said. "It had better be pretty
specific. For instance, if I'm paying five cents more per gallon of
gasoline, show me how it's going to take me half an hour instead of an
hour to get to work five years from now." Clinton Reilly, a Democratic
political consultant, put it this way: "I pay my taxes, so what are you
going to do for me--not what are you going to do for someone else? Unless
we can give people something back for their tax money, the Republicans are
going to be stronger by saying, we're not going to take it in the first
Public works, like freeways, and public services, like fire fighting and
crime prevention, are fine. They serve a specific, visible need and are
universally available. "Social programs" are not fine. They are programs
aimed at creating social change and benefiting particular groups. That is
precisely the lesson that the national Democratic Party learned, or should
have learned, from the Reagan era. The only social programs that are
politically secure are Entitlements that benefit everybody, like Social
Security and Medicare. It is much harder to sustain support for targeted
programs, like welfare, urban mass transit, and student loans. The reverse
is true of taxes. It is dangerous to propose a general tax increase.
Instead, Democrats have to talk about user fees, designated revenues, and
requiring employers to pay mandated benefits.
The message to national Democrats is, if you want to sell your program in
California, keep spending as broad as possible and taxes as specific as
There are many contradictions in California politics. Registered Democrats
consistently outnumber registered Republicans; Democrats control both
houses of the state legislature, the California congressional delegation,
and almost all state offices below that of governor. But California has
voted Republican in every presidential election since Harry Truman, with
the exception of the Johnson landslide. Give the Republicans California's
forty-seven electoral votes and you boost them a sixth of the way to an
electoral-college majority. The national Democratic Party has a tendency
to do just that. Democratic strategists often look at California and see
that it is a state where the party can compete. California votes very much
like the rest of the country. Over the past five presidential elections
Republicans have won an average of 53 percent of the national vote and
Democrats have averaged 42 percent. The averages for California are
exactly the same. In 1960, when Kennedy beat Nixon by a national margin of
0.2 percent, Nixon carried California by 0.5 percent. Carter won the
nation's popular vote by 2.1 percent in 1976; he lost California by 1.7
Seeing that California is winnable, Democrats then try to figure out what
it would take to win it. The answer is, a lot of money and a lot of time.
David Townsend, a Sacramento political consultant, estimated that a
statewide campaign for governor can cost upwards of $10 million. Statewide
campaigns in California are conducted almost entirely on television, and
the state has several of the largest and most expensive television markets
in the country. A presidential candidate, moreover, has to spend a lot of
time traveling to and from what Richard Scammon, the election analyst,
calls "the trans-desert republic." Having taken a long, hard look at the
California numbers, Democrats usually decide to make a token effort there
and concentrate instead on, say, Ohio. They rationalize their decision by
pointing out that the Democratic nominee failed to win the California
primary--as was the case in 1976, 1980, and 1984.
Tom Hayden says, "The national Democratic Party will not invest in
California. They take money out as if it's a colony and put nothing back
in. In August they'll be out here with their phony advance men promising
us that they are going to go all the way in California. But privately we
know that they will do that only to keep up appearances long enough to rip
off more money. Then they'll yank the tent and call it quits in late
September. They don't understand California, they don't like California,
they don't want to even think of California as a Democratic state. It's
like they're run by the mind of Woody Allen."
If the Democrats make no serious effort and the Republicans have a decent
candidate, then the Republicans have an edge in California. Why, then, do
Democrats do so well in state elections? Because Democrats in California
often make an extraordinary effort and Republicans often put up terrible
candidates. Senator Alan Cranston, for example, beat extremely weak
right-wing opponents in 1968, 1974, and 1980. When the Republicans finally
nominated a serious opponent, in 1986, Cranston ran a tough, well
managed campaign that is widely acknowledged as one of the best in recent
California history. And he barely won, with 50.8 percent of the vote.
Almost every Republican I spoke to attributed the Democrats' advantage in
the state legislature and Congress to the Democrats' brilliant--and
controversial--reapportionment following the 1980 census.
Still, several factors have worked to the Republicans' advantage in recent
years. One is the anti-tax movement and the trend toward fiscal
conservatism. Another is the anti-crime backlash, which has led to
setbacks for liberals on issues like gun control and the death penalty.
George Deukmejian, more than any other politician, epitomizes the anti
tax, law-and-order mentality of the California middle class. Clint Reilly
told me, "The California electorate is primarily the upwardly mobile white
middle class. What do you offer voters who feel they already have
everything, except what Republicans offer, which is that they can have
more than they've got? The Democratic Party has no message for the
Reilly noted that the Democrats' lead in party registration has shifted
from five-to-three to about five-to-four in recent years. According to
Naylor, the Republican chairman, "Democratic registration is at its lowest
since the Great Depression. Republican registration is at its highest
since the early 1950s. We're closing the gap. The Democrats are now
registering only marginally more voters than we are." I asked Naylor what
he found were the best pools among which to recruit new Republican voters
in California. He named two. "New residents are by far the best,
particularly people who have bought houses in vast new residential
developments. Number two is new citizens, especially Iranians, Vietnamese,
and Central Americans." These new immigrant groups tend to be either
strongly middle class in outlook, strongly anticommunist, or both. As
Reilly observed about Asians, "They don't really look to government as the
source of their economic well-being. They're very skeptical and fearful of
On the other hand, being the son of Greek immigrants may help Michael
Dukakis to appeal to these voters. "Before the U.S. government's recent
offer of amnesty to illegal aliens ended," Mark Shields wrote recently in
The Washington Post,
"immigrants from 170 countries applied at the Los Angeles Immigration and
Naturalization Service office. That's right, 170! California is the
leading destination for the immigrants of the world. According to Rep. Bob
Matsui, Sacramento Democrat and early Dukakis endorser, his candidate will
do well because "we are a state of immigrants, not basically made up of
Western Europeans, but people from southern Europe, Southeast Asia and
Latin America who will relate a lot better to Dukakis than to Bush. "
The Republicans have had one other advantage in California presidential
races. A Californian has been on the ticket almost every time in the
postwar era--Nixon five times and Reagan twice. Kelly, the Democratic
chairman, called it "the cheapest insurance policy in America." If George
Bush wants a little insurance, all he needs to do is put Deukmejian on the
ticket as Vice President. The only problem is that Deukmejian has said
over and over again that he is not interested in running for Vice
President. If he won, he would have to turn the state over to the
Democrats. As Ken Kahachigian, a former Reagan speechwriter and Deukmejian
adviser, noted, "Right now the governor is the lone Republican state
constitutional officer. He's got judicial appointments and two thousand
patronage appointments. It would tear down whatever cachet he's built up
with the party here."
"He'd have a lot of explaining to do," said the Republican political
consultant Stu Spencer, pointing out that only by holding the governorship
will the Republicans be able to veto another Democratic gerrymander after
the 1990 census. "The Republicans would not forgive him," said Chip
Nielsen, a Republican activist. "They'd say, 'You're the guy who turned
California over to the Democrats. We didn't control reapportionment, and
because of that, we ended up with twelve Democratic congressmen who
shouldn't be there and a legislature still dominated by the Democrats.'"
Nevertheless, Deukmejian is a Reagan loyalist, and if the President and
the Vice President made the case to him personally that the preservation
of the Reagan legacy is at stake, he might find it hard to refuse a spot
on the ticket. After all, if he lost, he would still be governor, and if
he won, he would be Vice President of the United States.
But how much would Deukmejian really help the ticket? He barely defeated a
black Democratic candidate in 1982 and has never acquired much of a
reputation outside the state--or much of a personal following inside the
state. "He doesn't enjoy the campaign," Sal Russo said. "He would not be a
happy campaigner. I don't think he'd do well on the stump." Moreover, the
California insurance policy does not always pay off. Thomas Dewey put the
governor of California, Earl Warren, on the ticket in 1948 and ended up
losing the state narrowly to Harry Truman. And Earl Warren was one of the
most popular governors in California history (he won both the Democratic
and Republican primaries for governor in 1946, when cross-filing was
allowed, and got re-elected with 92 percent of the vote).
If the election is as close as many observers expect, then it may all come
down to which way California goes. And California could go either way. The
Washington Post described George Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, as
voicing "the bipartisan consensus" when he said this spring that
"California will be critical." Recently the Post asked whether Michael
Dukakis could put together a winning coalition without carrying a single
southern or Rocky Mountain state. He could. By carrying the major
northeastern, midwestern, and West Coast states, the Democrats could end
up with 311 electoral votes, or forty-one more than a majority. But they
could not do it without California's forty-seven. "California has got to
be the Democrats' number-one target," said the Republican pollster Richard
Bush's strength in California can be summarized in a single word: Reagan.
The California Republican party is a shadow of Ronald Reagan, and Bush has
been careful to stay in Reagan's shadow. But California voters are
notoriously trendy. They got tired of Reagan once before, in 1974. After
Reagan's two terms as governor, Californians decided to try something
different. They elected Jerry Brown.
I asked the various Californians I spoke to what kind of message might
work for the Democrats in California. Clint Reilly said, "The message must
be for government to help business grow, to help the economy grow, to be a
partner with business in creating jobs and growth. They also need a strong
commonsense profile--tough on crime, for efficiency and economy in
government." In other words, a very middle-class message. I asked Reilly
how, with that kind of message, the Democrats could distinguish themselves
from the Republicans. "On the quality-of-life issues, like the environment
and education," he replied, "areas where government has to be active."
Kelly, the Democratic chairman, essentially agreed. "There are no great
ideological differences that the public perceives between the parties at
the moment," he said. "There will probably not be an ideological
difference over the deficit. It's not going to be the liberal plan versus
the conservative plan. It's going to be one person's idea over another's."
Therefore, he concluded, the election will be decided by "the appearance
of competence and the appearance of leadership."
In that case, Michael Dukakis should make a very nice appearance.
Competence is his issue, and his record in Massachusetts is one of
efficiency, economy, and partnership between government and business.
Indeed, the California Republicans I spoke to saw Dukakis as the most
formidable potential Democratic nominee. In a May Los Angeles Ames poll
Dukakis was running 17 points ahead of Bush. "I think Dukakis probably
knows how to communicate with California voters," Ken Kahachigian said.
"There would be a big-state affinity with his management of Massachusetts.
He is perceived as a good manager." Larry Thomas, a former press secretary
to Vice President Bush, described Dukakis as "a good communicator with a
conservative Democratic message. He's got something he can point to and
show that it worked. He's not just another fellow from the legislative
Bob Naylor, the Republican state chairman, went even further in praising
Dukakis. He told me, "Dukakis has some of the same appeal as Deukmejian.
With his record, I think, he would be able to tap into almost all the
themes that Deukmejian has tapped into in this state." "What themes?" I
asked. "He got his state's economy moving again," Naylor said. "He carried
out stringent tax-cutting measures. He also made the state live within its
means. He represents high tech and economic growth. Massachusetts is the
flagship economy for the East Coast, as California is for the West Coast."
"One more thing," he added, tying the two Dukes together: "in California
we're used to ethnics."
THE BATTLE FOR THE WHITE MIDDLE CLASS
The real battleground of American Politics is not a state. It is a
constituency--the white middle class. The white middle class is such a
vast and diffuse constituency that it is easier to characterize it by what
it is not than by what it is. It is not rich and it is not poor. Nor is it
conservative or liberal in any consistent way. Indeed, it is not
ideological at all, preferring to see issues in practical rather than
moralistic terms. White middle-class voters are capable of supporting a
moderate Republican like Governor Thompson, of Illinois, a conservative
Republican like Governor Deukmejian, of California, a moderate Democrat
like Senator Bentsen, of Texas, and a liberal Democrat like Governor
Cuomo, of New York. All these politicians succeed because they connect
with the needs and interests of white middle-class voters. The problem
facing any presidential candidate is that he has to connect with white
middle-class voters in all the states simultaneously. He has to be a
Thompson in Illinois, a Deukmejian in California, a Bentsen in Texas, and
a Cuomo in New York.
Two broad themes seem to characterize the politics of the white middle
class. One is pragmatism, the characteristically American notion that
whatever works must be right. Middle-class voters accepted the enormous
expansion of federal power under the New Deal because it was perceived to
work. Big government brought relief to millions of Americans and helped
bring the country out of the Great Depression--so long live big
government! Most middle-class voters have accepted the Reagan program in
the 1980s because it, too, has seemed to work. The popular view is that
Reagan's anti-government policies helped bring the country out of the
Great Inflation of the 1970s and produced more than five years of
sustained economic recovery--so down with big government!
The second theme of middle-class politics is populism. Not populism of the
left or populism of the right but a generalized resentment of elites and
establishments. It was the anti-Washington issue that helped elect the
past two Presidents of the United States, Jimmy Carter and Ronald
Both political parties have become more ideological and less populist over
the past twenty-five years. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern have
finally won. Their movements took control of the parties away from the old
bosses--the Democratic Party regulars, the Republican eastern
establishment--and turned it over to "the people," which is to say,
primary voters and caucus participants. But most people do not participate
in primaries and caucuses. Those who do tend to be upper-middle-class
activists with an ideological agenda. As a result, liberal Republicans and
conservative Democrats have become virtually extinct. More to the point,
middle-class voters no longer feel entirely comfortable in either party;
the Democrats are too liberal and the Republicans too conservative. In
every state I visited, politicians talked about how partisanship has been
declining since the 1960s. There are fewer and fewer reliable Republican
and Democratic voters. The white middle class has become a swing vote.
The big story of the past twenty-five years has been the Democratic
Party's loss of the white middle-class vote. Everett Ladd, a political
scientist, noticed it in the early 1970s, when he wrote about "the
inversion of the New Deal class order" "In the party system which FDR
built, the top had been decisively more Republican than the bottom," he
wrote. By the early 1970s he found evidence that "in many...instances,
groups at the top are now more Democratic than those at the bottom."
Indeed, he identified a new pattern, "with the top more Democratic than
the middle but the middle less Democratic than the bottom." The Democrats
have been losing northern white ethnics and southern conservatives. They
are becoming a top-down coalition of elite professionals and the dependent
poor. In the 1988 presidential primaries the Democratic Party seemed to be
reduced to two core constituencies--
blacks and white liberals. James A. Barnes, of National Journal, has
reported a sharp decline in the participation of lower-income voters,
particularly lower-income white voters, in this year's Democratic
primaries. In Chicago, for instance, Jesse Jackson's 1988 vote was 23
percent higher than his 1984 vote. But the vote for the other active
Democratic candidates this year was down 39 percent from the total of
votes cast for Gary Hart and Walter Mondale in 1984. The decline was
especially severe, Barnes reports, in the city's ethnic white working
class sections. Without those voters the Democrats will not have a
majority coalition in November.
If the Democrats are under pressure because they have been losing votes,
the Republicans have had problems because they have been gaining votes.
Old-line Republicans have had difficulty accepting some of the new groups
that have been moving into their party--urban populists, racists, and
religious fundamentalists. "The deal is, we will endorse your positions
and take your votes, but please don't try to challenge us for control of
our party," Republican leaders seem to be saying. Blacks didn't accept
that deal from the Democratic Party, and religious fundamentalists are not
likely to accept it from the Republican Party. The evidence from Illinois,
New York, Texas, and California suggests that the Republican Party has had
trouble establishing roots in the electorate. Big Republican gains in
presidential voting have not translated into a party base for state and
local elections, often because the party does not have a deep pool of
talent to draw from in recruiting candidates. White middle-class voters
may be leaving the Democratic Party and voting Republican, but most of
them have not become Republican partisans.
In order to compete for the white middle-class vote, the parties must
avoid seeming too ideological. In Illinois and New York the Democratic
Party has to figure out some way to accommodate rising black political
aspirations without becoming the black party. Similarly, Republicans have
to absorb the white ethnic vote without becoming the racist party. Neither
black power nor racism sells to the white middle class. In Texas the
Republicans are under pressure to be more flexible in their view of
government; otherwise they will violate the commonsense notion that
government has a role to play in restoring the state's economy. In
California, given the state's healthy economy, it is the Democrats who
must adapt. They have to accept the Proposition 13 consensus and prove to
suspicious middle-class voters that their taxing and spending policies are
reasonable and appropriate. The Democratic Party's core ideological
position is that the role of government is to protect people. The core
Republican position is that government interferes with people. Ask white
middle-class voters which position they agree with, and they are likely to
The Democrats got into trouble in the 1960s and early 1970s as a result of
racial conflict and the Vietnam War. Racists could not remain in a party
led by Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and foreign-policy conservatives could not
accept the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. The most devastating
blow to the Democrats came in the late 1970s, however, when Jimmy Carter
failed to manage the most serious economic crisis since the Depression.
The Democratic Party lost credibility on the one issue that had held it
together for fifty years, even when race and Vietnam had threatened to
tear it apart--namely, the commitment to protect people against economic
adversity. The good news for Democrats this year is that the divisive
issues are mostly in the past. Even with the Jackson campaign, social- and
foreign-policy tensions are far less acute than they were in the 1960s and
1970s. Moreover, the polls show renewed support for government activism.
So the Democrats have a real opportunity--if they don't run an ideological
campaign that frightens the middle class. Most voters do not want to
relive the conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s, and most will not vote for a
party whose platform is "We told you so." In fact, the hot theme of the
1988 campaign so far has nothing to do with ideology. It is good
management, which is one thing the voters are not getting from President
Reagan. Bush and Dukakis are selling themselves as competent, experienced
professionals. Bush is running on his resume. Dukakis is running on his
record. There is not a vision between them. After eight years of Reagan,
the voters seem to be saying, "We may have had enough vision for a while.
Let's get a President who can make things work." After all, if you want to
solve problems like the budget deficit and the trade imbalance, you don't
need a visionary. You need a manager.
According to the polls, Dukakis has a good chance of beating Bush.
Nevertheless, he got into trouble in the Democratic primaries. Democrats
criticized him because he was dull and bland and didn't have enough of a
message. But those very qualities may make him a strong Democratic
candidate in November. He can be sold as a manager, not as a liberal. The
rule is, the voters want one kind of candidate in a primary and another
kind of candidate in a general election. Primary voters are looking for
cheap thrills. General-election voters want security. Dukakis is not such
a great date, you might say, but he'd make a fine husband.
What the voters seem to want in 1988 is change, but not too much change.
They want the new President to deal with Reagan's mistakes. But they do
not want to endanger the two things Reagan is credited with having
achieved: lower inflation and a greater sense of military security. The
Democrats cannot do anything that threatens to put those achievements at
risk. To Jackson voters and liberal activists, Dukakis is a timid choice.
Instead of posing a direct ideological challenge to everything Reagan
stands for, Dukakis promises only to make government work better In Jesse
Jackson's words, "Dukakis will manage the damage." That is called "me too"
politics, and activists don't like it. On the Republican side, many
conservatives are critical of Bush for the same reason--"He's bland, he's
dull, he isn't saying anything." But conservatives, like liberals, get
into trouble when they say too much.
What both parties have to offer is a safe alternative for voters who are
unhappy with the status quo. Dwight Eisenhower was a safe alternative in
1952. Richard Nixon was believed to be safe in 1968, especially since
everywhere Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace went that year, riots broke
out. John F. Kennedy was not exactly a safe candidate in 1960: he was a
forty-three-year-old Roman Catholic. Nor was Jimmy Carter a safe nominee
in 1976: he was a born-again politician from the Deep South with no
experience in national politics. But neither Kennedy nor Carter was an
ideologue, and they ran cautious, moderate campaigns.
Both Dukakis and Bush are fairly safe candidates. In fact, they have
similar strengths. Both are pragmatists. As a result, they are distrusted
by ideological activists in their respective parties. But neither is
regarded as dangerous or divisive. They also share a weakness. Neither
Bush nor Dukakis has a populist bone in his body. Because Bush was born to
wealth and privilege, he has a serious "silver spoon" problem. Voters can
forgive that shortcoming in Democrats (FDR, JFK), but it is always a
problem for Republicans. Dukakis is a suburban reformer, a man who
believes in good government and high moral purpose. He is totally
committed to process. He will use government to manage economic growth,
and he will use Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government to manage
the government. Not for him the passionate advocacy politics of Hubert
Humphrey or Walter Mondale.
The voters face a choice this year between two establishment candidates,
both "safe," both pragmatic. One proposes to be chairman of the board, the
other sees himself as chief executive officer. What kind of contest is
this going to be? What the voters want is a Big Ten game. Instead, the
1988 election is shaping up as Harvard versus Yale.
Copyright © 1988 by William Schneider. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1988; An Insider's View of the Election; Vol. 262, No. 1 (p.29-57).