Good Old Boy II


Last week, I addressed the intellectual and moral case against
Clintonism: that it lacked principle and accomplished little. But,
among activist liberals today, that intellectual and moral critique
is inseparable from a political one: that Bill Clinton destroyed
the Democratic Party. Constructing a Democratic majority, critics
like blogger Markos Moulitsas and author Thomas Frank allege, does
not require building on the Clinton legacy; it requires escaping
it.The argument starts by noting that Clinton never won a majority of
the vote. But the statistic is less damning than the critics
assume. In three- or four- way presidential elections, the winner
rarely cracks 50 percent. Woodrow Wilson failed to do so twice; so
did Harry Truman in 1948 and Richard Nixon in 1968. In 1980, with
John Anderson running as an Independent, Ronald Reagan squeaked by
with 50.75 percent. Measured in electoral votes (which often factor
out third-party candidates because they don't win a plurality in
any state), Clinton's victories look impressive. He won 370
electoral votes in 1992 and 379 in 1996--more than Wilson in 1916,
Truman in 1948, John F. Kennedy in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Jimmy
Carter in 1976, or George W. Bush in 2000 or 2004.

Some critics acknowledge that Clinton was personally popular, but
attribute it to his freakish political skill. Clintonism, they
insist, was not--and thus cannot be the basis for a Democratic
revival. But the truth is closer to the reverse. As early as 1992,
when revelations about Gennifer Flowers and draft- dodging nearly
derailed his primary bid, Americans had huge doubts about Clinton's
character. But they divorced those qualms from their assessment of
Clinton's policies--which they grew to love. By December 1998, after
the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit, a majority of Americans disliked
Clinton personally, but over 70 percent liked what he was doing for
the country. Today's activists blame Clintonism for leaving
grassroots Democrats demoralized. But the demoralization began
after Clinton left office. According to the Pew Research Center, 63
percent of Democrats said their party was doing a good job standing
up for its core beliefs in 2000--compared with only 33 percent by
the end of 2004.

How, then, do you account for the great electoral disaster of
Clinton's tenure: the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress? The
answer is something that Clinton's critics generally ignore:
history. For more than a half-century, Democratic strength in
Congress had been anchored by the party's dominance in the South.
At the presidential level, Dixie began deserting the party as early
as 1964. But, in Congress--where incumbents rarely lose--the
transformation lagged far behind. As late as 1988, Democrats still
controlled roughly two- thirds of the region's House and Senate
seats. But it couldn't last. "Eventually, the massive political
realignment at the top of the ticket," warned party strategists
Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck in 1989, "will affect races at the
bottom of the ticket."

"Eventually" came in 1994, sparked by a wave of retirements and
race-based redistricting that created new black districts and left
white ones whiter. Did Clinton exacerbate the problem? Sure. The
assault-weapons ban, gays in the military, the health care push,
and the 1993 tax hike fueled Republican turnout, while nafta kept
some labor voters from the polls. But, while Clinton accentuated
and hastened the change, it would probably have happened anyway. To
keep Congress, Democrats needed the South, and, given the
ideological distance-- especially on cultural issues--between the
white South and the national Democratic Party, the hammer was bound
to fall.

And it wasn't just the South. For more than two decades prior to
Clinton's election, the national Democratic Party had been in
decline. Clinton's liberal detractors blame him for not creating a
Democratic majority. But partisan majorities take decades to build,
and Clinton took the critical first step: He smashed the existing,
Republican majority that had taken shape under Ronald Reagan. (In
this way, he was like Richard Nixon, who smashed a preexisting
Democratic majority but didn't create a Republican one in its
place.) The Reagan majority was based on three things: militant
anti-communism, public suspicion of government, and the divide
between blacks and the white working class. Mikhail Gorbachev took
care of the first, but Clinton overcame the others. The percentage
of Americans identifying as Democrats, which dropped like a stone
in the '70s and '80s, hit bottom in the early '90s, and the spread
versus the GOP inched up. Even more importantly, public perceptions
of government, which had also been in freefall since the mid-'80s,
began to improve--which is logical, given that government policies
were markedly improving the lives of average Americans,
particularly the poor.

Clinton's liberal critics savage him for gobbling up big money
contributions rather than developing a small donor base (something
Democrats began doing in the '80s). And they are right that, in the
long term, a small donor base is critical to a Democratic majority.
But the emergence of that base since 2004 owes largely to factors
that did not exist in the '90s-- campaign finance reform, liberal
rage over Bush and Iraq, and, above all, the Internet.
Organizationally, Clinton could have done more to hasten its rise.
But, ideologically, he did something even more important: He
convinced blue-collar whites--who had grown cynical about
government--that it could improve their lives.

In 1992 and 1996, Clinton did something no national Democrat had
done in decades: He won the white working class. And, by restoring
the public's faith in government, he laid the ideological (if not
the organizational) foundation for a Democratic majority. That
emerging majority was derailed by two things. First, the Lewinsky
scandal, which made character a dominant issue in the 2000
presidential race and sliced Al Gore's popular-vote victory so thin
that the election ended in the Supreme Court. And second, September
11, which gave Bush a Republican Congress and a second term.

But, with those two factors receding, the Democratic Party's
prospects once again look bright. The party's new "netroots" base
deserves some credit for that. But, even more importantly,
Americans are turning to the Democratic Party because, under Bush,
they have seen government fail, and they remember a time when it
worked--under Bill Clinton. Liberal activists should remember as

By peter beinart

For more stories, like the New Republic on Facebook:

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools