RALEIGH — I had a thought this weekend after having watched a series of candidate and media interviews, news coverage of the coming Democratic primaries in Tennessee and Virginia, and John Kerry overwhelm Howard Dean, again, in electoral territory supposedly congenial to the Vermonter.
The thought, which I admit resembles the unpopped kernel at the bottom of the microwave-popcorn bag, is this: the 2004 elections have revealed the continuing atrophy of the New Democrats as a part of the post-Cold War, Clinton and post-Clinton political landscape.
Republicans liked to ridicule the notion that President Bill Clinton was different from past Democratic leading lights. They called him a Carter-Mondale liberal, or a ’60s liberal, or the gratuitously lecherous husband of a ’60s liberal. Both anti-Clinton Democrats and Republicans ridiculed his claim to have made the party more competitive during the 1990s, since the GOP took control of Congress and a majority of state governorships during his tenure and held on to most of these gains through thick and thin.
But these attacks, from the Right and the Left, serve to demonstrate that Clinton and the Clintonista New Democrats — both those in office and those sprinkled throughout media and public policy circles — did represent something meaningful. In reaction to what was perceived to be significant Republican gains during the 1980s, including three successful presidential elections and steady gains in the U.S. House and state governments, the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party struggled to reshape the rhetoric and the reality of the party’s political appeal.
I don’t think the changes these New Democrats wrought brought the Republican Party to parity during the 1990s, as some leftists and populists suggest. I think they helped the Democrats stay competitive during what was already going to be an era of continued Republican growth.
During the 1992 campaign, Clinton recognized the GOP advantage on national security by essentially conceding the issue to the elder President Bush and picking what was then considered one of the most hawkish Democratic senators, Al Gore of Tennessee, as his running mate. The focus was to be on domestic policy. And there the Clinton-Gore message picked up some neo-liberal strands of the old Carter administration (Carter initiated much of the deregulatory push that Reagan later expanded and got credit for, it must be said) and added in some nods to Wall Street and Main Street on issues such as free trade, a middle-class tax cut, and promises to reduce the federal budget deficit.
Sure, the early Clinton administration also raised taxes on upper-income households, Social Security benefits, and gasoline, but contrary to GOP claims at the time the increases weren’t draconian and essentially fit within a set of public-policy assumptions about consumption, entitlements, and the environment that were not hard-left in the Teddy Kennedy sense. I didn’t agree with these ideas, mind you, but I do think they should be correctly labeled.
It is important to understand that even before the partisan situation in Washington changed in the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration engaged in quite a lot of tax cutting to go along with its tax increasing. You don’t remember that? Perhaps it is because we rarely talk about free trade as a tax-cut policy even though that it precisely what it usually consists of. Tariffs and quotas are taxes on consumers and on those engaged in businesses, foreign and domestic, that access the international market to deliver the goods and services consumers desire. The passage of NAFTA and subsequent trade agreements helped to reduce the cost imposed on business by government, as did sane monetary policies from the Federal Reserve that essentially eliminate inflation and thus led to lower costs across the economy.
On one issue, health care, Clinton and his wife did wrongly see an opportunity and a rationale for a major expansion of government, and disastrously yielded to the temptation. The legislative defeat helped paved the way for the Republican Revolution of 1994, which created the political world in which we still largely reside, and served to chasten the Clinton administration. Again, I suspect that the GOP would have made steady and solid electoral gains, anyway, but probably not all at once in a revolutionary election cycle.
For the rest of his tenure, Clinton focused on some small spending programs, worked with the Republican Congress to cut taxes and control spending growth, and let the burgeoning economy balance the federal budget. Perhaps more importantly, other New Democrats in Congress and across the country tried to recapture cultural and moral issues from the Republicans by stressing family and other traditional values and flirting with ideas such as reforming affirmative action, offering school vouchers to low-income children, and encouraging more Americans to participate in the stock market through tax-free savings accounts.
By 2000, however, Al Gore seemed determined to back away from the New Democrat line he had helped to fashion. He talked of “the people vs. the powerful,” got noticeably uncomfortable in defending free trade as he once had, and more or less forced his running mate Joe Lieberman to recant various New Democratic positions on issues. It almost worked, as we know from the popular-vote totals. But I think that it turned Democrats in fundamentally the wrong political direction. They — and Gore — just kept going in that direction afterward. John Kerry and the rest of the Democratic field of candidates now talk like protectionists who have never heard of Adam Smith, Smoot-Hawley, or comparative advantage. Their foreign policy is incoherent, while on the national stage only Bill and Hillary Clinton, of all people, are left to articulate a resolute, forceful, and credible Democratic foreign policy to voters and the rest of the world, their policy differing from Bush’s only on some particulars but not on general strategy or on decisions like the military campaign in Iraq.
There are lots of enthusiastic Democrats right now who, fooled by national polls warped by adverse events and a month of Democratic campaigning, believe they will beat Bush in November just by “working hard” and “bringing their people to the polls.” No, you win elections by working hard, bringing your people to the polls, and convincing swing voters in a closely divided country to trust you over the other guy. The New Democrat message was useful in that regard, while ’30s-style economic populism and ’60s-style peacenik-and-protest politics will not be.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.