Big-Tent Democrats

Big-Tent Democrats

Big-Tent Democrats

Politics and policy.
Oct. 31 1997 3:30 AM

Big-Tent Democrats

The party has lost its taste for fratricide. Why?

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Last week I noted that while Republicans are quarreling in a self-destructive way, like old-fashioned Democrats, Democrats appear to have learned Ronald Reagan's lesson about submerging internal differences for the sake of victory. Can this be true?

Jacob Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

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If Democrats are doing less infighting, it isn't because they've reached some sort of ideological consensus. On the main issues of domestic and economic policy, the disagreements among Democrats are greater than the gap between Bill Clinton and the Republicans in Congress. Traditional Democrats think balancing the budget is a big mistake. Self-styled "New" Democrats regard it as Clinton's proudest accomplishment. Liberals are still smarting over the fact that he signed the welfare-reform bill. To centrists, it was a moral and political leap forward. Labor unions are intent on stopping trade liberalization. Globalizing Democrats think it's curtains if Chile doesn't get to join NAFTA.

In the House, the trade fight is getting pretty nasty. The AFL-CIO and the Teamsters feel unappreciated for the role they played in Clinton's re-election, and the UPS strike left them in a truculent mood. But even with its new militancy, labor seems to recognize that the half-loaf of an impure Democratic administration is vastly preferable to no loaf--a Republican one.

Others on the party's left manifest an even more striking change in attitude. Take a look at The New Majority, a recent collection of essays by left-wing economic populists. As recently as a couple of years ago, many of these left Democrats couldn't go a paragraph without denouncing the moderating tendencies of the Democratic Leadership Council. These days, most offer only a gentle tug in the opposite direction. Paul Starr, a sociology professor at Princeton who was once a harsh critic of the New Democrats, writes that "the party won't fly without both of its wings." Building the Bridge, a collection put out earlier this year by the DLC-affiliated Progressive Policy Institute, omits the usual DLC tirades against the paleolibs. Note, however, that the motivation in both cases is pragmatic agreement-to-disagree (what Lee Atwater, as Republican chairman, used to call "the big tent") rather than any genuine ideological convergence.

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P art of the explanation for the warming trend is that the most divisive issues of the 1970s and '80s have faded. There's no Democratic fratricide on defense and foreign policy because after the Cold War there's little to get fratricidal about. On cultural issues, many of the scabs Democrats used to love to pick have healed. George Stephanopoulos offers a wonderful example of how Democrats used to act. After the bruising Kennedy-Carter convention fight in 1980, the National Organization for Women refused to endorse Jimmy Carter--over Ronald Reagan! That wouldn't happen today, largely because the issue of women's rights no longer divides either the Democrats or the larger society. (And that is because on this issue, among others, the left has carried the day--despite the bromide that ideology has ended because conservative ideas have won.)

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Of course, there still are divisive social issues. But Bill Clinton has done a shrewd job of abandoning the losing issues while turning the rest to the party's advantage. He surrendered on the death penalty, welfare, and civil liberties while sticking with abortion, gun control, and affirmative action. This solution offers something to centrist reformers and something to the party's interest-group base.

But the chief reason for relative harmony is the object lesson of the last few elections. Democrats have seen the fruit of their Yugoslav tendencies, and they have decided they'd better learn to live together. In 1992, they were more or less tricked into making common cause. Bill Clinton touched all the party's erogenous zones, wooing each faction into the illusion that he loved it alone. After the Inauguration, each awoke to the realization that the president was a policy polygamist. Disappointed by Clinton's too-sweeping health-care-reform plan and his failure to cut spending, the DLC trashed him openly and, at one point, even considered breaking off from the party. Disenchanted by Clinton's pursuit of free-trade expansion, labor largely sat out the 1994 midterm.

That election taught all of them that there are things worse than partial victory. In Newt Gingrich and the Republican radicals, Democrats new and old found the unifying force of a common enemy. Whether you wanted charter schools and tradable pollution credits or higher pay for teachers and EPA mandates, you didn't want the federal government to abdicate all responsibility for education and the environment. And with the president defending against an anti-government assault wave, there was no need to settle on a Democratic agenda. The question of what new programs to support would be a largely theoretical exercise, at least for a while.

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B ut as the Newt peril fades, Democratic differences are becoming clearer. The first thing the party disagrees about is why Clinton recovered and won re-election. Old Democrats point to a poll by Stanley Greenberg, Clinton's 1992 pollster. It showed that 59 percent of those who voted for Clinton in 1996 did so because of his support for domestic programs--his defense of Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. Only 31 percent of those who voted for Clinton did so because of his "centrist" positions--a balanced budget and welfare reform. New Democrats, on the other hand, point to a post-election study by Mark Penn, Clinton's 1996 pollster. According to Penn, Clinton won because of his centrism and his emphasis on values issues. Where Greenberg contends that "downscale" voters provided Clinton's margin of victory, Penn argues it was middle-income, middle-of-the-road suburban voters who swung the election.

Each analysis supports a political ideology. Greenberg and the contributors to The New Majority think Democrats can win future elections by identifying with the concerns of working people. Those in the bottom half are threatened by globalization and technological change. They look to Washington to mitigate the new economy's negative consequences. The party should thus support, and not in any way privatize or drastically reform, the successful social-insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security that made it popular with downscale voters in the first place. Beyond that, the Democratic agenda should be to extend new benefits like universal health care and child care.

Penn and the New Democrats disagree with all this. They think the Democrats must identify with the moral and economic concerns of a largely suburban middle class. For these people, the New Economy offers more promise than hazard. New Democrats don't want any expensive new federal programs, and they want to remake most of the old ones with market-based ideas.

Bill Clinton has developed a rhetoric and a series of positions that span this divide. He supports "families" and the "future" without specifying which families or what future. Initiatives like community policing and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit appeal to all parties in the debate. But what happens after Clinton? Many on both sides anticipate that the Democratic primary of 2000 will be a showdown, with Dick Gephardt representing the old Dems and Al Gore standing in for the new. But it may not shake out that way. Gephardt might or might not emerge as a serious challenger to Gore. The election could just as easily be a contest among several candidates--such as Bob Kerrey, Bill Bradley, Tom Daschle, and Gore--all of them trying to emulate Clinton's flight on both wings. That was what George Bush tried to do after Reagan. It worked well for a while, until it didn't work at all.