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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Who Lost America?

Over at TAPPED, Dr. Tom Schaller has suggested that Barack Obama and John Edwards should supplement their attacks on Hillary Clinton’s policy positions by making a parallel political argument: that “the Clintons” presided over the destruction of the Democratic Party during the 1990s:

On her health care debacle and war vote, Edwards and Obama are making the case that she used bad policy and/or personal judgment, but they ought to try a new, politically-themed tack: Hillary and (they should be more careful here) Bill Clinton fought the Republicans but the GOP was stronger, not weaker, when they left office in 2001 than the Republicans were when the Clintons arrived in 1993.

Also at TAPPED, Dana Goldstein doubts that actual Democratic voters will be persuaded by a political narrative of the 1990s that doesn’t accord with their own memories. I agree.
But the discussion of the political viability of Schaller’s hypothesis avoids a more fundamental question: Is it true?
This question isn’t just a matter of historical interest. Schaller is faithfully expressing a revisionist take on the 1990s that has become an article of faith in many Left-netroots circles, with an implication that is of immediate importance to Democrats. The idea is the Clinton-style centrism was an electoral as well as an ideological disaster, producing at best two less-than-majority presidential wins at the price of the erosion of Democratic support in congressional and state elections. The 2006 Democratic comeback, according to this theory, proves that a more base-oriented, left-bent Democratic strategy is the key to a long-term Democratic majority.
But what really happened to Democrats in the Clinton years? And why?
The first essential step in answering that question is to isolate the effects of the 1994 Republican landslide. In the three Clinton administration elections after that (plus some off-year state elections), it’s hard to argue there was any significant erosion of Democratic support. After the 1994 elections, there were 204 Democratic House members and 47 Democratic Senators. After the 2000 elections, there were 212 Democratic House members and 50 Democratic Senators. Between 1995 and 2000, Democrats made a net gain of one governorship, and a net loss of one state legislative chamber.
So the case for Clinton’s disastrous effect on the Democratic Party’s national standing–if you are willing to overlook or minimize his two presidential wins–really comes down to the one calamitous election of 1994, when Democrats lost 54 House seats, 8 Senate seats, 10 governorships, and 18 state legislative chambers.
There are, of course, two divergent narratives that hold Clinton partially or wholly responsible for the 1994 debacle. One often heard on the Left is that his support for deficit reduction and NAFTA, and an insufficiently progressive health care plan, “discouraged the Democratic base” and gave Republicans a victory by default. Another, often heard among party centrists, is that Clinton disappointed voters–most notably 1992 Perot voters–looking for a “different kind of Democrat” with unpopular early-term positons on gays-in-the-military and fetal tissue research, and above all, a decision to devote much of his second year in office pursuing what looked like a vast new health care entitlement instead of welfare reform.
Aside from the inherent improbability that Clinton’s brief record in office could have alone produced this kind of adverse landslide, the intensity of the pro-GOP wave in state elections undermined both blame-Clinton narratives. After all, Democrats had managed to hold their own at the state level through periods of national GOP victories in the 1980s, and going back further, even in the vast Nixon landslide of 1972. Something deeper must have been going on that had little to do with Clinton or perceptions of “Clintonism.”
The two theories most often accepted by analysts at the time were (1) an unusually toxic “wrong-track” feeling in the electorate, which helped boost both Clinton and Perot in 1992, was taken out on the dominant congressional and state party of the previous two decades; and (2) a slow but steady realignment of the two parties on sharper left-right ideological lines finally “flipped” conservative Democrats towards the GOP, and reduced split-ticket voting, particularly in the South, where the 1994 losses were particularly large. Ephemeral circumstances, particularly a record number of U.S. House retirements and a pattern of racial gerrymandering in the South, intensified both effects in U.S. House races.
It’s entirely possible that structural issues that Bill Clinton had little control over, and administration policies he did control, both played a role in the 1994 debacle, just as it’s possible that both “blame-Clinton” interpretations had some truth with respect to different categories of voters. But it’s hardly a simple story, and hardly provides any clear ideological direction for Democrats today, much less an effective talking-point against Hillary Clinton.
What about the one Clintonian episode that obviously did have an impact on post-1994 dynamics, the Lewinsky scandal? Aside from the fact that the scandal had no obvious ideological underpinnings, other than to bond Republicans to a hard-right cultural message, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in the end, the scandal didn’t hurt Democrats, unless you believe that’s what kept Al Gore from being inaugurated as president. In that connection, Schaller’s post suggests that the political case against the Clintons includes the “legacy election” of 2000, wherein their failure to “fight” for Al Gore made a crucial difference. Well, it’s hard to “fight” for a candidate who is doing everything possible to distance himself from you, and one of the most commonly heard complaints about the Gore-Lieberman campaign at the time is that it largely refused to deploy Clinton or his record.
Schaller makes one additional argument in his post that bears some discussion: The Clintons failed to build the sort of ideological institutions (e.g., CAP, Media Matters) necessary to combat the right-wing uprising of the 1990s. For one thing, the White House itself was a stronger pro-Democratic message-purveyor than any private-sector institution could have ever managed; indeed, it was the loss of the White House that made the construction of an alternative infrastructure so important. And for another, Clintonians have played a pretty conspicuous role in the Bush Era progressive “noise machine” scene. It’s a bit hard to cite John Podesta’s work as evidence of a general Clintonian lack of interest in institution-building.
All in all, I think Dr. Schaller’s barking up the wrong tree, but he is certainly fostering an important discussion of a set of beliefs about the recent political past that lurks just under the surface of most intra-party disputes.

One comment on “Who Lost America?

  1. ducdebrabant on

    I don’t know about the governorship losses, but what I mainly recall impacting the Congressional elections under Clinton was (a.) the perception of — if not corruption — a very loosey-goosey arrogance in the running of Congress, crystalized by the Post Office scandal, and (b.) a serious sense that Congressional Democrats weren’t doing enough to support their own President. Why be a Democrat when your victor, having campaigned on a promise to let gays serve openly in the military, and won, runs into a brick wall of opposition in his own party, competely heedless of what the national electorate has just voted for? Exactly the same thing happened later on health care. The Republicans had nothing if not party discipline, and though they may have been a mess ideologically, there’s something to be said for people who don’t seem out only for themselves and their own prerogatives (the GOP of Tom DeLay totally squandered any such perception of themselves). Also, Democrats (in an act of statesmanship) did vote to repeal part of the Reagan/Bush tax cuts to balance the budget. I’m sure that hurt some of them at the polls, but it certainly hasn’t left the party in a weaker condition now to be able to say that we are the last party to balance the federal budget.

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