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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Clinton ’92 Approach: Tap Economic Anxiety and Instill Hope

By John Halpin
Quantitative data and historical evidence suggest that talking up the economy and seeking to downplay “security” policies to focus on ownership and opportunity issues alone is not a wise approach for Democrats to pursue. It has not worked for Republicans over the past few years and was not the successful model utilized by President Clinton in his 1992 victory. Voters across the income spectrum expect attention to both economic security and opportunity, particularly as the decades-old social contract between individuals, business and government continues to fall apart, leaving more middle-class voters out on their own.
According to Democracy Corps’ time series data, from March 2001 to the November 2002 midterm elections, the Republican Party held anywhere from a 1- to 9-point advantage over the Democrats on the economy. From the beginning of 2003 to the present, the GOP has steadily lost support on economic issues and now suffers a 14-point deficit on the economy–a net swing of 23-points since the GOP golden years in mid-2002. More importantly, Democrats currently hold a 23-point advantage on the economy among those with $50,000-$75,000 in total family income–a range encompassing Third Way’s conception of the typical middle class family.
What happened during this time period?
President Bush (like his father before him) and his GOP allies in Congress relentlessly talked up the economy for three years running. They passed numerous tax cuts, some of which arguably helped the shareholding voters at the upper end of the middle-class income range. They attacked the building blocks of the Democratic economic security agenda as wasteful and archaic and proposed to replace it with an “ownership society” built on education, tax cuts, private accounts and greater individual responsibility. All of this to no avail. Their economic numbers tanked and Republicans resorted to running on fear about national security.
Democrats, in contrast, acknowledged the economic truth facing the middle class over this same period and challenged Bush on his economic interpretation, his tax cuts, and his attempts to privatize key social programs. The party’s numbers rose considerably on multiple fronts, from the economy and taxes to health care and Social Security. There is scant survey evidence to suggest that the Democrats should suddenly reverse course, talk up the economy and embrace economic optimism as the best path forward.
On the historical front, the Third Way authors continually cite President Clinton as evidence for their thesis of optimism and opportunity. But as Jacob points out, Clinton got elected in 1992 by telling people the truth about the economy and “putting people first.” The 1992 campaign was won on a message of change and the issues of the economy and health care–obviously not about opportunity or middle-class optimism alone.
President Clinton in his recent autobiography described the enthusiasm for his campaign in 1992 as follows:

It represented both the common touch and forward progress. In 1992, Americans were worried but still hopeful. We spoke to their fears and validated their enduring optimism. Al and I developed a good routine. At each stop, he would list all of America’s problems and say, ‘Everything that should be down is up, and everything that should be up is down.’ Then he would introduce me and I’d tell people what we intended to do to fix it.

Worries and fears combined with optimism and hope; not one set of ideas over the other.
Clinton successfully united lower-and middle-income voters with a message that wisely recognized that economic truth can be a powerful form of identification with voters. Optimism and prescriptions for the future then helped to seal the deal for his election, but they did not replace Clinton’s emotional connection with people’s economic anxieties.
In his acceptance speech after winning the ’92 contest, Clinton stated, “This victory was more than a victory of party; it was a victory for those who work hard and play by the rules, a victory for people who felt left out and left behind and want to do better.” When the Democrats are out of power at multiple levels, why would the party want to avoid those who feel “left out and left behind” to focus solely on those seeking to do better?
Successful Democratic politics in the future will require a new version of both Al Gore’s truth-telling routine and Clinton’s optimism if the party is to address genuine concerns among middle-class voters about the fraying social contract in America.

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