In my last post I suggested that the apparent inevitability of a Hillary Clinton presidential nomination shouldn’t be met with acquiescence or resignation by committed progressives. Yes, she can get the nomination if she wants it, and yes, her election would then be an absolute necessity. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do what we can—including supporting a challenger to Hilary in the presidential primaries—to nudge her to the left.
Ah, but haven’t the Democrats had problems when they wandered too far to the left? Wasn’t it Bill Clinton who, in charting a more centrist course for the party, led Democrats finally to success after three successive defeats in national presidential elections? Can Democrats risk departing from Clintonian centrism? These questions reflect what I call the myth of centrist success: the notion that Democrats succeed only when they campaign and govern from the center.
The mythical narrative goes basically like this: ever since the Vietnam War and the McGovern disaster of 1972, the Democrats had been steadily becoming too liberal and therefore out of touch with ordinary American voters. The liberal excesses were closely linked to the party’s identification with a variety of “special interests”: blacks, organized labor and feminists, among others (but really, first and foremost, blacks). The party’s problems were diagnosed by the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of self-styled “New Democrats.” The DLC’s leader, Bill Clinton, effectively used the New Democrats’ diagnosis to find cures for the party’s ills. Clinton succeeded in recapturing the allegiance of a sufficient chunk of middle America to win election and re-election. He did so by emphasizing themes that the Democrats had long since neglected–personal responsibility, toughness on crime and national security, and an appreciation of the advantages of markets over government action.
One problem with the centrist narrative is that the Democrats’ defeats in the ‘80s were hardly a reflection of liberal excess. Jimmy Carter, often regarded as the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland, lost mainly because of a combination of soaring inflation combined with the Iran hostage-taking debacle. Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign emphasized cutting the budget deficit through higher taxes; anyway, no Democrat could have beaten the popular Reagan. Michael Dukakis, not the most charismatic candidate, steered carefully clear of populist rhetoric, pledging to make competence, not ideology the hallmark of his campaign. His defeat can be attributed in large part to the most shamelessly demagogic, racist campaign in 20th century presidential elections. Public opinion polls actually showed the electorate becoming gradually more liberal on many issues during the course of the ’80s.
Another problem with the centrist narrative is that it rests heavily on one very contingent event: Clinton’s 1992 election as president. (His re-election can more or less be folded into the same event–presidents usually get re-elected, Carter and Bush I notwithstanding.) Suppose we entertain a counterfactual scenario. Suppose that that quintessential “old Democrat,” Mario Cuomo, had entered the field of presidential candidates in 1992. There is a good chance that Cuomo would have triumphed over Clinton in the primaries and then, for the same reasons Clinton beat Bush (“the economy, stupid”), gone on to the White House. In that case, the New Democrat narrative would be exactly nowhere today. The DLC’s diagnosis of the Dems’ problems would have gone down the memory hole, along with the whole mythology of success through centrism.
“Aha!” you say: but facts are more powerful than counterfactuals, and the fact is that Clinton did get elected and re-elected to the presidency, after three successive Democratic failures. Fair enough. But let’s consider some facts that the DLC and their admirers tend to gloss over. One fact is that there had already been a New Democrat in the White House. His name was Jimmy Carter. Carter’s centrism didn’t work out so well, which is undoubtedly why his name is almost invariably missing from the New Democrats’ narrative. The New Democrats also can’t easily account for the election of 2000, in which irreproachably centrist Al Gore, one of the very early favorites of the New Dems, barely managed to fight George W. Bush to a draw despite a booming economy that should have favored the incumbent party. (Gore was actually behind in the polls until he set aside New Democrat orthodoxy and adopted a more populist stance in the closing weeks of the campaign.)
Did the New Democrats’ work finally bear fruit in 2008, when the Democrats again re-took the White House? We can answer that question with another question: was the Democratic Party that won with the glamorous centrist liberal, Barack Obama, really that different from the Democratic Party that lost with the dull centrist liberal, Michael Dukakis, 20 years earlier? The electoral coalition was pretty much the same in both years: all the old “special interests” that had lined up behind Dukakis–minorities, women, labor, etc.– were there for Obama. What changed was the demography, which now favored the Dems, and the circumstances. (There’s nothing like a cataclysmic financial crisis to make the incumbent party look bad.) Obama, like Dukakis and every other Democrat after Lyndon Johnson, lost the white working class.
That’s not to say that Bill Clinton didn’t make some significant changes in Democratic Party politics: he changed the mix of “special interests” in the Democrats’ corner. Organized labor was off-sided while the party’s longstanding alliance with important sectors of Wall Street and international business was solidified and deepened. This achievement–if you want to call it that–opened spigots for Democrats’ campaign financing. In policy terms, Clinton’s achievement was reflected in his administration’s strong support for financial de-regulation and “free trade.” (I often put that phrase in quotes because free trade agreements are almost never just about free trade—see Joseph Stiglitz’s excellent op-ed in today’s New York Times.)
Bill Clinton’s legacy has persisted: witness the banker-friendly economic team that Obama (Wall Street’s favored candidate in 2008) brought into office with him, and the administration’s continued push for “free trade” agreements. The Democrats’ centrist legacy is also reflected in Obama’s repeatedly expressed willingness (though recently rescinded) to cut Social Security and Medicare in the search for a grand bargain with the Republicans.
But I don’t think anyone can argue that financial de-regulation or free trade or “entitlement reform”* have been popular issues for the Democrats; quite the contrary. More plausible is the argument for a populist Democratic Party that is tough on Wall Street, appropriately skeptical of free trade and stalwart in defense of the safety net. A party that takes explicit aim at the growing inequality in America could, I think, realistically hope to recoup some support from non-affluent Americans who have concluded, not without reason, that both parties are beholden, more or less, to corporate interests. That would be a Democratic Party that stands somewhere to the left of where Hillary stands now.
*another phrase I often put in quotes—see my post of 10/29/13