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Race, Money and the Meaningless Search for the Center

Who really won the election of 1996 and why

US President, Bill Clinton, campaign, speech

US President Bill Clinton delivering a campaign speech in Minneapolis, Michigan on October 28th, 1996.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty

The Election of 1996 ought to have provoked greater celebration on both sides: Bill Clinton, after all, is the first Democrat to win a second term in the White House since Franklin Roosevelt, and the Republicans held Congress through two elections for the first time since 1928. But the cheering is muted, not only because these victories were predicted ad nauseam but because the voters watched candidates muddle their messages and morph into one another. The president liberally borrowed themes from the right, while the spent forces of Newt Gingrich’s revolution repackaged themselves as “common sense” pragmatists eager to deliver pork and moderation. The choice was so dispiriting that more than half of the electorate stayed home.

Both parties will now assume that the people’s mandate is: Think small. At least that is how most of the winners, Republicans and Democrats alike, will interpret the election returns. Don’t attempt anything grand or fundamental. It probably won’t succeed, given the divided government. And big ideas only get you in trouble with the voters. Clinton was punished for tackling health-care reform. Then Gingrich and Co. were disciplined for their grandiose plans to dismantle Washington. Lesson: Stick to the mushy middle and avoid the hard, divisive questions.

If you believe the conventional wisdom about the American condition, this makes sense for politicians and, as the re-elected president suggested, describes a “vital center” where bipartisan consensus can form. I don’t buy it. Neither, it seems, does the disenchanted half of the electorate that didn’t even bother to vote. Our political stalemate, I think, reflects the rudderless state of public life at this moment in our history – a country with accumulating symptoms of social and economic distress and no convincing vision of how to deal with them. So the political establishment will bicker and drift for a while longer, pretending that things are more or less OK, ignoring the large questions bearing down on us.

Is there any bright side? In the campaigns of 1996, for the first time in roughly 30 years, the Republican presidential candidate did not play the race card. Since Richard Nixon ran in 1968, the GOP has skillfully exploited racial animosities with a series of coded campaign messages about crime or welfare cheats, or intrusive federal courts that enforce such unworthy causes as school desegregation or the civil rights of the accused. Everyone understood, especially in the South, that the real subject was black people. The federal government, the Democratic Party and liberals were demonized for coddling them.

These themes did not entirely disappear from this year’s campaigns, of course; Bob Dole, after initial resistance, did embrace California’s anti-affirmative-action bill, Proposition 209. Nevertheless, I think it is meaningful, and maybe hopeful, that the Republican presidential strategists chose not to agitate racial resentments with a new Willie Horton image or recycled attacks on Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.” The question is why this occurred.

Bob Dole and Jack Kemp surely deserve some credit for the shift in tactics. Late in his career, Dole evidently couldn’t stomach turning to the coded messages that Nixon, Reagan and George Bush all had used to win the White House. Kemp, furthermore, has always refused to take the low road on race and has always argued fervently for an inclusive Republican Party. The rise of Gen. Colin Powell as a leading Republican figure provided further impetus for backing off the issue of race.

Perhaps, and more to the point, Bill Clinton made it happen –— both by his dedicated preaching on the subject of racial harmony and by his own tactical morphing and muddling on the hot-button issues. Clinton’s slippery style can be infuriating –— especially his capitulation on the harsh welfare-reform legislation – but one is compelled to concede that it did succeed in defusing many of the Republicans’ race-charged weapons.

Clinton embraced the death penalty and talked up the idea of more cops (while, coincidentally, urban crime rates declined). He borrowed Jesse Jackson’s rhyming rhetoric to defend affirmative action: “Mend it; don’t end it.” The welfare bill that Clinton signed will punish many innocents among the poor and promises no genuine remedy for their economic plight, but it did indeed rob Republicans of a favorite scapegoat.

Still, there is another, more practical explanation for why the GOP folded its race cards this time: Race and associated social issues have maxed out for the Republicans. They have won a lot of elections by using these themes, especially in the South. But the tactic may no longer deliver much in terms of new converts. Indeed, as Colin Powell implicitly warned the party, the use of race-coded attacks may drive away more moderate Republicans and independents, including younger voters, than it gains. Middle-class blacks with conservative economic values are written off when millions of them might be willing to rejoin the party of Lincoln. Principle and pragmatism, in other words, may have combined to produce therapeutic change.

Or is this just my wishful thinking? After all, a majority of Californians voted to abolish state and local affirmative-action programs, and its action will no doubt be mimicked around the country (at least until the courts decide whether the measure is unconstitutional). Jesse Helms won again in North Carolina, employing his own not-so-subtle race card against a black opponent. Across most of the South, with a few exceptions, the voting patterns were still sharply divided along racial lines.

Race is not going to disappear from American political campaigns, for sure, and we may conclude four years from now that 1996 was only an aberration. The Republicans might decide they still need this issue to win the White House and devise new ways to exploit racial resentments, especially if economic prospects continue to grow bleaker for many folks. I prefer to be hopeful.

Another issue that divides Americans surfaced with scandalous clarity in 1996: money. Those who have lots of it, including corporations and other economic interests, deluged the two parties and presidential candidates with bundles of cash. This money effectively deranges democracy, both by keeping certain ideas and grievances out of the political debate and by financing the high-decibel TV blather that passes for communication with citizens. It wasn’t just that the dimensions of private money exploded in 1996 or that both parties (with help from the Supreme Court) blew gaping holes in the campaign-finance laws. Americans also learned that the buying and selling of political influence has become globalized – like the economy itself.

When Bill Clinton’s agents harvested contributions from multinational corporate interests in Indonesia, Taiwan and elsewhere, these fund-raisers may or may not have broken any laws (and they certainly did not invent the practice). These donations may or may not have influenced Clinton’s decisions on trade and labor rights in foreign countries, since he also got big donations from American multinationals. But all of this begs the question: How can a president (or a senator, for example) be expected to defend American economic interests in the global economy when his campaign is financed by global firms, both foreign and American?

A few weeks before the election, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake conducted a revealing survey for The Nation magazine and the Institute for America’s Future that contrasted the views of major political donors – people who each gave $5,000 or more – with those of the public at large. Question: Do free-trade agreements create more U.S. jobs than they cost? The big-money patrons, 65 percent of them, said yes. Only 25 percent of the public believes that, and 59 percent thinks the opposite. On question after question, this same divide appeared between the well-heeled elite that finances American politics and those who are mere citizens. The distorting presence of big money helps explain why so many Americans believe that politics is not about them.

The scandal of Indonesian-Taiwanese dirty money prompted Clinton to promise, once again, that he will try for reform, while the Republicans promised, once again, to investigate Clinton. Since both parties are mired in this swamp together, don’t expect fast action. The next year or so will be filled with purposeful rhetoric, but most incumbents have no incentive to abolish the money system as we know it, since, on the whole, it works for them.

The idealistic citizen groups that champion campaign-finance reform are mobilizing for another crusade, but frankly, I fear their lobbying efforts will prove futile, too. It’s not simply that they are outgunned by powerful forces. They are marching up the wrong mountain.

The history of campaign-finance laws, going back to 1907, is a story of gross failure for two fundamental reasons: First, money is simply too liquid to contain and has always found a way around the rules, whatever barriers are erected; second, the First Amendment guarantees free political expression – for rich people, too – and nobody has yet figured out how to curb the overbearing influence of private money without depriving individual citizens of their rights or giving the government dictatorial powers over free speech. Reformers believe that this dilemma can be solved by providing public financing for campaigns, but presidential candidates have received public funds for 20 years. Does anyone imagine that campaigns are any cleaner?

A different approach might actually redress the imbalance of power in favor of citizens: Democratize campaign financing by giving every citizen a federal tax credit of $100 or $200 for political donations. Everyone, rich or poor or middle class, could write a check to a party or candidate or, for that matter, any independent organization they wished to help – then get the money back as an income-tax refund. Collectively, citizens of modest means would then be able to mobilize support for candidates and campaigns or promote issues and causes. That might liberate politics and politicians from the present stranglehold.

This reform would not eliminate the flow of cash from the rich and powerful, but it would provide an alternative stream of influence for people at the grassroots level. Candidates and political parties would then have a strong incentive to re-connect with the public, both to finance campaigns and educational efforts, and also to get free of the corrupting dependency on a handful of major givers. The political advantage would shift to those groups in politics –— whether it is the Christian Coalition or a labor union, a political party or an environmental organization — that really represent a broad base of citizens at large. The campaign operators who know only how to siphon off big bucks from a few very fat cats would lose some of their leverage.

The appeal of the idea could be sweetened further with this condition: A citizen could collect the tax credit only by proving that he or she actually voted in the last federal election. In other words, this device would encourage people to vote while also encouraging them to engage in the ongoing flow of political activities. Under these terms, a $100 tax credit would cost the Treasury a relative pittance – less than $5 billion a year, based on 1996’s lousy turnout of voters. That doesn’t seem like too much to spend on reviving our troubled democracy.

The truth about the 1996 election is that disbelief and cynicism won. Only about 49 percent of adult citizens voted, the lowest turnout in 70 years, despite the Motor Voter law, which succeeded in increasing registration substantially. Since Clinton got only 49 percent of the popular vote, he will be trying to govern from a very small base of supporters —– less than a quarter of the citizenry. The Republican majority in Congress will have an even smaller base, since voting typically falls off in congressional contests.

Of course, it is true that some citizens stayed home in contentment, but history teaches that political participation rises on hope (as it did briefly in 1992), and declines on resignation and despair (as it has since the 1960s). No one who genuinely believes in democracy can believe that this decaying political system is healthy for the nation. Self-government works only if most of the governed believe in it.

For the newly elected politicians, it makes practical good sense to think small, to evade the most difficult problems and avoid the risks of pushing large ideas. Given the fragile condition of both parties, one can understand those responses. The problem for the country and for democracy is that timidity will only make things worse.

In This Article: Bill Clinton, Coverwall

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