The Center Folds

High noon for the New Democrats


Barely two years after their greatest triumph—the election of Bill Clinton as president—the "New Democrats" find themselves outflanked by conservatives and liberals alike. On the right, Newt Gingrich's radicals have stolen much of their idea-driven reformist thunder; on the left, the increasingly dominant redistributionist wing of the Democratic Party has effectively isolated the New Democrats and their major organ of influence, the Democratic Leadership Council.

For the past decade, the New Democrats worked to construct a new paradigm in American politics. Focusing on the values of family, community, and responsibility, they built a home for Democrats tired of the anti-capitalist victim politics of the party's constituencies in academia, labor, and the minority community. To voters, they promised to reinvent government, streamline bureaucracy, and promote a socially tolerant, economically robust America. To elected officials, they promised a centrist-sounding strategy that could win national elections.

Today's sinking fortunes stem, first and foremost, from the fundamental betrayal of the New Democrat agenda by the very president whose ascendancy was thought to put the movement's ideas on the political fast track. By running as a New Democrat but governing as an old one, Bill Clinton, former chairman of the DLC, has left the movement defenseless against both intra-party boat-rockers and the swelling conservative tsunami.

The New Democrats' problems with Clinton began early in his presidency. Even as he directed the presidential transition, former DLC chairman Al From noted with horror: "I saw all around the people I thought we beat in the election." Although a handful of DLCers—notably Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck—snagged relatively high positions in the administration, the balance of power remained firmly in the hands of Clinton's left-leaning intimates, especially Hillary Rodham Clinton, George Stephanopoulos, and Harold Ickes.

The result has been to place the DLC and the New Democrats in an untenable position. Tied by personal relationships and past associations to the president, they nevertheless have found themselves forced to oppose the administration both on tactics and long-term strategy.

The key split took place over health care. The decision to back the Hillary Clinton-Ira Magaziner perpetual-motion machine over all other alternatives and priorities (especially welfare reform) signaled the White House's traditionalist notions of how to build a national majority. Rather than reach out to taxpayers and families disgusted with the failures of the federal government, the administration, egged on by pollster Stanley Greenberg, instead tried to win the hearts and minds of the middle class by expanding the welfare state. This strategy meant hooking up with liberal Democrats in Congress rather than forging alliances with independents and moderates in the hinterlands beyond the Beltway.

That choice was a major mistake. By opting to play Washington insider rather than down-home outsider, Clinton essentially destroyed the credibility of the very people who joined him at the beginning of his 1992 campaign. This year, some of Clinton's closest New Democrat allies, such as current DLC Chairman Dave McCurdy, found their own moderation no hedge against the anti-Clinton animus. McCurdy, who gave up his Oklahoma congressional seat to run for senator, got skunked after his opponent derided him as "McClinton."

"Bill Clinton has managed to decimate the very New Democrat foot soldiers who brought him to power," complained one embittered New Democrat strategist on the morning after the fall elections. "A lot of the hard-core New Democrats—the people with Clinton back in 1991—are now gone."

Clinton's betrayal leaves the New Democrats with little short-range hope of taking over—or even significantly influencing—the party. In the South, the historic base of the New Democrats, the 1994 elections were a barely mitigated bloodbath, with only a handful of moderate-to-conservative Democrats still in power after the ballot tallies. Except for its preeminence during the presidential primaries, the South has all but stopped serving as a serious center for Democratic politics.

Originally, the DLC grew out of the desire of elected officials such as Rep. Gillis Long (La.) to overcome the weaknesses of the national Democratic Party that resulted in huge Republican gains in 1980. The DLC, in its first incarnation, the Committee on Party Effectiveness, attempted to begin what Long called a struggle to get the party "to redefine itself" along less-pacifistic, less-interventionist lines.

Although this early move helped solidify party unity, it proved far less successful in "changing the party's message and agenda," notes University of Oklahoma political scientist Jon Hale, a leading student of the DLC. To some extent, the failure to significantly alter policy reflected the broadness of the group, which included moderates as well as unreconstructed liberals, such as then-New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro.

After successive defeats in the 1980 and 1984 presidential races, the largely southern moderates in Congress felt the need for a more formal structure to take on the left-oriented factions within the Democratic Party. Led by such figures as then-Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb, Georgia's Sam Nunn, and Florida's Lawton Chiles, the newly formed DLC pledged to put the party back in "the mainstream of American political life," as Nunn put it. Soon enough, Democrats in border and western states also began to rally to the DLC banner.

Yet even as the group gained partywide acceptance, it was riven with contradictions. Indeed, those problems were there from the very beginning: The naming of arch-protectionist Richard Gephardt as the DLC's first chairman sums up the group's longstanding ideological confusion. It soon became clear that the DLC represented, in microcosmic form, the unwieldy coalition of the larger Democratic Party.

At the core of the leadership stood the southerners, including a young governor named Bill Clinton, who favored moving the party to a more middle-of-the-road position. Joining the southerners were a host of pragmatic operators—investment bankers, defense industry executives, and other corporate bag-men—who saw in a moderately pro-defense, pro-business Democratic Party a way to hedge their bets against an eventual GOP loss of the White House. At the same time, many traditional liberals saw the New Democrats as a way to disguise their politics in more moderate garb. As one prominent San Diego financier and DLC fund-raiser put it: "I'm really for Walter Mondale, but we can't elect people like him. So we need the DLC."

For such pragmatic hardcore liberals, as well as the southern Democrats and corporate bagmen, Clinton proved the ultimate political vehicle. By nominating the former DLC chairman, the party had placed on the ballot an identifiable "New Democrat" who might carry some of the South, California, and other swing states. Yet at the same time, the left cognoscenti among the media and political class all knew the truth: Behind his DLC guise, Clinton was at heart an old-fashioned, big-government liberal who would try his best to fulfill their deepest social-democratic urges.

In the end, however, the electorate wasn't fooled by what proved to be essentially an exercise in deception. In political terms, the chickens came home to roost in a big way: The southerners in the DLC suffered the most punishing defeats. The 1994 landslide against Clintonism means, among other things, that the South has now shifted, probably for the next generation, into the Republican camp. The old DLC dream of building a truly national party with a strong southern base is now as much a lost cause as the Confederate States of America.

In the rest of the country, where the battle for the future of the Democratic Party lies, some DLCers, such as Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, withstood the onslaught (as did centrists such as New York's Pat Moynihan, California's Dianne Feinstein, and Nebraska's Bob Kerrey). But the bulk of the survivors by far were those from the party's ultra-left wing, particularly House members from safe, often heavily minority districts. Because they are relatively insulated from the country's overwhelming rejection of the state, they feel no compulsion to move from their hard and fast neosocialist world view.

The survival of the left suggests that the New Democrats' problems extend well beyond the White House to the very essence of Democratic constituencies and fundamental ideology. Until New Democrats are willing to take on the party itself, even to the point of breaking ranks, the Democratic Party will continue in its great leap leftward.

That's because the party itself, both in Washington and most key states, remains unreformed. As it has for at least a generation, the party draws most of its finances and institutional support from government-dependent corporate interests, union bosses, poverty warlords, feminists, and environmental zealots.

This pattern is particularly clear in the Clinton administration's appointment process. It's true that Supreme Court and other high-profile nominees have had a vaguely New Democrat flavor. But the regional bureaucracies at places such as the Department of Labor, Housing and Urban Develoment, and the Environmental Protection Agency are perhaps at their most left-leaning since the New Deal. Unable to get new policies through an increasingly conservative legislature, these bureaucrats are likely to prove more determined than ever to impose a left-leaning agenda through administrative means.

For New Democrats, those appointments—the last tool for imposing Clinton's own personal political agenda—will make it difficult to show even the slightest "loyalty" to the White House. In California, for example, no political leader interested in economic growth could possibly do anything but fight draconian EPA edicts which threaten the future of everything from the state's ports to the continued prosperity of its huge agribusiness complex. Other administrative policies have sought to block popular measures aimed at curbing panhandlers who have chased away business and commerce from the heart of cities across the country. Even more disastrously, Democratic appointees are likely to continue pursuing their quota-oriented "racial justice" agenda, something that seems to guarantee the party permanent minority status, both in terms of its core constituency and its electoral status.

The leftward cast of Clinton commissars has natural allies in remnants of the Democratic congressional presence. The Congressional Black Caucus—representing largely black and poor welfare-oriented constituencies—now stands as a veritable colossus in the House delegation, comprising roughly one-fifth of the Democratic delegation. At the same time, left-wing senators such as Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Paul Wellstone (Minn.), and Ted Kennedy (Mass.) now face a diminished number of moderate Democrats.

As a result, the internal debate in the party is likely to be dominated by those who explain the 1994 catastrophe as essentially a failure to motivate the party's "base" around expanded social welfare. Electorally, this is nonsense—as evidenced by the three-to-one defeat of a California ballot measure calling for a single-payer health plan—but that hardly means that the left won't continue stumping for its neosocialist policies.

Indeed, new disasters for the party, particularly in California, seem almost inevitable. Democrats generally opposed Proposition 187, which would cut off schooling and non-emergency medical services for illegal immigrants, but the measure passed overwhelmingly. The anti-quota California Civil Rights Initiative, scheduled for the March 1996 ballot, will lead the left even further out on the racialist fringe. The Democrats are likely to be in the unpopular position of defending minority quotas even though Prop. 187's passage shows California's predominately Anglo electorate is far from persuaded by those who wave the "bloody shirt" of racism.

Given a chance to let their fantasies run wild, the left wing of the Democratic Party can only serve to destroy the party as a serious national force. The politics that work in safe districts in Manhattan, Madison, or Marin County cannot possibly work in the edge cities, small towns, and expanding suburbs where most of the electorate now resides.

Ultimately, to survive as a movement, the New Democrats can only hope to combat such party elements by spelling out clearly their own sweeping ideological agenda. Although they can ally with the White House on such things as tough welfare reform and GATT, they must also unveil a muscular, centrist philosophy and platform capable of rallying moderate Republicans, independents, and disaffected Democrats into a powerful political force, perhaps even laying the foundation for a new political party.

This new ideology must go well beyond the kind of ameliorative approaches often associated with New Democrats. It is no longer enough simply to strive to make Washington's bureaucracies more effective. This tendency, notes political scientist Hale, has cast the DLC as little more than advocates for a "reconstruction of liberalism," or to paraphrase an old beer commercial, everything you want from a Democrat—and less.

The rise to power of clever ideologues such as Newt Gingrich necessitates an intellectually radical alternative perspective that goes well beyond soft-selling liberal dogma. More than simply "reinventing government," New Democrats must take up the potent issue of devolution of government services away from Washington toward state and local governments. The natural resistance of some big-government Republicans, who will want to prop up Washington now that they are finally in power, could provide a tremendous opening to outflank the GOP.

At the same time, New Democrats must also begin to fashion an economic program attuned to the needs of the emerging entrepreneurial economy, particularly in California and the Northeast, where the party is still competitive. Breaking with the old class base of union members and government-dependent industries such as construction and aerospace, the New Democrats must develop tax and regulatory strategies critical to entrepreneurial ventures in high-tech industries such as software and multimedia, specialized manufacturing in fields as diverse as medical instruments, computers, textiles, and machine tools, and high-value-added services such as entertainment.

This strategy demands a dramatic shift from the tactics taken by the Democratic Party—and even some DLCers—under the disastrous stewardship of Clinton. While White House (and occasional DLC) pollster Stan Greenberg advises the party to target largely older, lower-middle-class Perotistas, its largest potential constituency actually lies among the mostly affluent baby boomers working in the new information-age economy, particularly in metropolitan urban regions. This new constituency is made up largely of people whose experiences have been shaped in the post-bureaucratic economic environment of the late 1980s and early 1990s. They are natural supporters of a program built around political decentralization, deregulation, free trade, and public secularism.

Without fashioning a program to attract this group, the Democrats could well find themselves in electoral limbo for years to come. One critical factor lies in the decline of the union movement. Once the bulwark of the party, unions are clearly on the wane, even though they maintain enormous clout within the Democratic Party apparatus itself. Nationwide, unionization, outside of public employment, has been dropping precipitously for over a decade, most notably among the young. Today fewer than 6 percent of workers aged 18 to 24 are in unions. Ten years ago, that percentage was nearly twice as high.

The collapse of traditional working-class politics reflects a wider trend toward smaller, more decentralized organizations in the private sector. Since the late 1980s, the number of business owners has eclipsed the number of union members. Close to two-thirds of the workforce is now employed in smaller enterprises that have historically been non-unionized, including representatives of the most advanced parts of the economy, such as the computer hardware and software industries.

The boom in smaller firms is particularly true in California, a state which may well determine whether the post-1994 Democrats have any future at all. Rather than the economic dystopia portrayed in local media and, even more so, by the national press, California's current reality reflects the emergence of an economy that can survive and even thrive as the developing nations, notably in East Asia and Latin America, assume more of the traditional mass-manufacturing role.

The workers in California's new economy represent one of the largest new constituencies in the state. In 1994, nearly 80 percent of all California voters had at least some college education. Those making over $60,000 represented nearly 40 percent of the actual voters in California, while 30-49 years olds represented 45 percent of all those casting ballots. And, even in a Republican year, they proved quite willing to return to the Senate a pro-business, centrist Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, who reached out beyond the traditional Democratic base.

For New Democrats, in California and elsewhere, the lessons of 1994 should be fairly obvious. By building a base around emerging economic constituencies, the New Democrats can forge a 21st-century alliance that fits into developing class dynamics. Although such a strategy is denounced as heresy by leftoid Democrats, such a shift in emphasis is not at all unprecedented.

During the 1920s, for example, the Democrats shifted away from their dependence on southern and midwestern agrarians and embraced the new, heavily immigrant working class that emerged with the rise of corporate capitalism. An embrace of smaller firms and entrepreneurs would essentially return the party to its historic roots and class base. Although this offends the neo-Marxist analysis popular on the Democratic Party's left, the number of self-employed people now exceeds that of union membership. The grassroots action now has clearly shifted to the small proprietor, just as it had to unionized workers in the previous industrial epoch.

In California and other states, the DLC has begun, if slowly, building a New Democrat base. Members of the organization, for example, include many professionals, entrepreneurs, and others distinct from the old class base of the Democratic Party. Many of them are active in fields—such as biomedical or communications industries—where big government is seen less as a lever for advantage than a suppressor of wealth generation and creativity. Many also come from highly entrepreneurial recent immigrant groups who recognize that their future lies in expanding their role in the private, not the public, sector.

This does not mean that New Democrats need to be, as Jesse Jackson and others assert, little more than Republicans in drag. Unlike a large portion of the GOP, particularly the part shaped by religious right and nativist constituencies, New Democrats still believe in the basic principles of effective government, tolerance, equal rights under the law, and maintaining a strict separation of church and state. And rather than relying purely on markets, most New Democrats also believe that capitalist impulses should be targeted to help ensure that residents of ghettos and barrios have a chance to participate in the system.

By linking opportunity with responsibility, entrepreneurship with concern for social commonweal, New Democrats have the potential to fashion a message and program that could transform future American politics. That, not coddling an administration hostile to or uncomprehending of the changes sweeping the country, should be the highest priority of the movement if it seeks something other than a historical footnote.

Joel Kotkin is a Los Angeles-based senior fellow with the Center for the New West and a contributing editor to The New Democrat, the official magazine of the Democratic Leadership Council. He is also an international fellow at Pepperdine University.