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Requiem for a Heavyweight

The Democratic Party may be down for the count. Can it get up?


American political buttons

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EVERYBODY WAS A DEMOCRAT,” says Rep. Billy Tauzin of his home state of Louisiana, a pillar of what Democratic regulars once called the Solid South. “The Democratic primaries were where everybody got elected. You didn’t necessarily have to be alive in order to vote, you understand, but you had to be a Democrat.”

If Tauzin’s affable manner and conservative politics mark him as a quintessential, old school Southern Democrat, he must have found himself increasingly at odds with his party’s support for corporate regulation, big government and gun control during the ’80s. At a meeting of like-minded Southern Democrats – “the Blue Dogs” – after Republicans took control of the House in 1994, Tauzin realized that the time had come to find a new political home. “Someone said, ‘Is there anyone in this room who really wants to see the Democrats back in power,” Tauzin says, “who wants to see the old leadership in charge again? Raise your hands.’ And not a hand went up. And that was a telling moment for me. You know it’s time to leave when you don’t want your own leadership in charge.”

In his newfound allegiance to the Republican Party, Tauzin is hardly alone. State after state in the South has elected Republicans to governors’ mansions, state legislatures and congressional seats that they hadn’t occupied since just after the Civil War. Yet if the South has seen the Democrats’ decline reach epidemic proportions, the region is hardly an isolated case: During the past three years, 21 state legislative bodies, from Maine to South Carolina, have been taken over by Republicans, thanks in part to the record 137 Democratic officeholders who have switched their political allegiance since Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992.

With Republicans in firm control of the House and the Senate for the first time in almost 50 years, and with eight incumbent Democratic senators – including one-time presidential hopefuls Bill Bradley and Sam Nunn – having declined to seek re-election in 1996, the Democrats’ future prospects do not appear promising. “There’s no doubt that there’s been a collapse of confidence in the Democratic Party over the last two years,” says former Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg in an unusually blunt appraisal of the nationwide state of the party. “The loss of control in Congress and of many state legislative chambers across the country represents the end of the Democratic hold on the legislative process.” Former White House pollster Pat Caddell is blunter still. “The Republicans are crazy, but at least they have some energy and ideas,” says Caddell, who sampled opinions and plotted strategy for Democratic presidential candidates, including George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart and Jerry Brown. “The Democrats don’t stand for anything – they’re pathetic. They embarrass me. I have to turn the TV off.”

Even more troubling is the performance of the Democrats’ leaders, who appear on the evening news to lip-sync the greatest hits of the New Deal and the New Frontier – historic successes like Social Security and Medicare – that Americans now take for granted. The party may gain an occasional lift in opinion polls by bashing Republicans as the enemies of senior citizens and the poor during the current wrangling over the budget and Medicare. But such one-note partisan attacks, whether issued from the Democratic leaders in Congress or from a Democratic president anxious to save his political skin in 1996, do not amount to a compelling vision of the country’s future. Even liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who served as a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, is struck by the failure of the party leadership. “I was talking to [former Carter Cabinet member] Joe Califano the other day,” Schlesinger says, “and Joe said, ‘Remember in 1960 in Los Angeles when the Democrats were choosing a candidate for president? There was John Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington and Henry Jackson, any one of whom would have been a defensible candidate.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ ” Schlesinger loyally adds, “But that’s not confined to the Democratic Party. The Republican Party – with the exception of [Newt] Gingrich – is equally a collection of mediocrities.”

Mediocre or not, it is the Republicans, not the Democrats, who have the legislative majorities and the Democrats, not the Republicans, who must climb on for yet another ride on the merry-go-round of soul-searching and finger pointing that caused the eyes of so many party loyalists to glaze over during the ’80s. “Our revolutions have been incomplete,” Greenberg says, pointing to a string of failed attempts to remodel the Democrats, going back almost 20 years. “Carter was new and outside, but he was purifying the government after Watergate. In ’84, Gary Hart fell short. And President Clinton’s agenda was interrupted sharply by the Republican wins in ’94. I think we’ve had a very incomplete renewal of the Democratic Party, so whatever happens in ’96, we’ll see a major debate within the party about its future.”

But what makes this latest debate different is that even the talk of renewal sounds stale. Where the grand strategies of reformers like those of the Democratic Leadership Council – bring Southern Democrats back into the fold; no more pandering to unions, blacks and other minorities; streamline the federal government – held out the promise of a rejuvenated party a decade ago, even the Democrats’ “new ideas” now seem old. Perhaps fresh blueprints for American liberalism have been through the Xerox machine so many times that liberalism itself has gone permanently blurry. Or as some analysts suggest, perhaps the electorate is simply tired of liberalism no matter what shiny new oratorical wrappers the party provides. “People did not vote for the Republicans in 1994,” says Frank Luntz, the pollster behind the “Contract With America.” “They voted against the Democrats, against liberalism. The Democrats really and truly are outside the mainstream of public opinion on too many points that people actually vote on. It’s not enough to beat up the Republicans on assault weapons and the pro-life position. That’s not going to win you the majority.” Racial politics has also played a role: With Democrats supporting racially oriented redistricting schemes and the GOP willing and able to play on the resentments of white voters, the Democratic Party seems doomed to permanent minority status in the South – and, perhaps, permanent minority status in Congress.

Nationwide public support for government spending on infrastructure, education, social insurance and environmental protection, however, suggests that voters are not so much philosophically opposed to liberalism as they are sick and tired of liberals. With their degrees from Harvard and Yale and 10,000-page orchestral plans for government interference in everything from health care to school choice, liberals – in the popular imagination, at least – seem less dedicated to the well-being of ordinary Americans than they are to the interests of the bureaucracies they serve. Republican attacks on Democrats as Perrier-sipping elitists have proven effective in part because Democrats have abandoned their working-class roots in some fundamental ways. As Republicans took control of the White House and then the Senate during the 1980s, House Democrats led by Tony Coehlo – the powerful congressman from California whose hollow cheeks and unsmiling gaze earned him the portentous nickname “the Undertaker” – were busy transforming Democrats into the eager servants of the same corporate interests championed by Republicans. By stuffing their political pockets with $10,000 contributions from corporate lobbyists, lawyers and bankers, the Democratic party leadership reasoned, they could preserve the beleaguered party to fight another day.

One immediate effect of the big-money strategy was to deprive the party of priceless political ammunition. When the savings-and-loan industry collapsed in the late ’80s, costing American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, Democrats were silent. The limited hearings on the S&L scandals held by Congress after the 1988 elections proved the Democrats were as guilty as the Republicans. Where the Democrats once stood before the nation as the defenders of working- and middle-class Americans against moneyed interests, such rhetoric carried less weight with an electorate rightly convinced that the Democrats were just as bad if not worse than the GOP. If Republicans were corrupt, then the Democrats labored under the additional disadvantage of insulting, in-your-face hypocrisy. “The Democrats just sold their souls for money; it’s that simple,” says Caddell. “I was there when they did it.

“When Republicans serve those kinds of interests,” Caddell continues, “it’s a different kind of corruption, because at least it is in service to a cause in which Republicans believe. Democrats sell their souls when they do it, and now they’re paying the price. Why should anyone support them?”

When Bill Clinton and the new Democratic congressional majority took office in 1992, they promptly combined to bury promised legislation to restrict special-interest lobbying and reform campaign finance so deeply that it was all but forgotten one year later. Clinton’s election, it turned out, only whetted Democratic appetites for political spoils nurtured by the likes of Coehlo. This time around the price was the loss of Democratic majorities in the 1994 midterm elections.

Have the Democrats learned their lesson? Forget it. After retiring from Congress in disgrace to pursue a career in investment banking, Coehlo is reportedly serving as a kind of acting chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Ron Brown, deputy chairman of the committee during the big-money ’80s and a former partner in the notorious insider Washington lobbying firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow, is Bill Clinton’s secretary of commerce. He is also the target of repeated government investigations.

SO ARE THE DEMOCRATS REALLY DEAD? The parallels between the Democrats and the Whig Party, which effectively disbanded in the 1850s – the last major party to disappear from the American political map – are hard to ignore. Like the Democrats, the 19th-century Whigs favored a strong central government and offered liberal-minded answers to questions of race while practicing a moralizing and often elitist politics that divided voters in the East and West from those in the conservative South. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of once powerful (and corrupt) political parties throughout the Western-style democracies – the Liberal Democrats in Japan, the Christian Democrats in Italy and the Conservatives in Canada – the wholesale collapse of the Democratic Party in the United States now seems, if not likely, at least surprisingly within the realm of the possible. In poll after poll, Americans have declared a willingness to cast their ballots in 1996 for a third party, such as the Reform Party, backed by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, or for a political outsider like military hero Colin Powell, hailed as a savior by voters disenchanted with both parties. The American political system may be formally rigged to encourage electoral contests between two parties, but after all, there is no guarantee that the two parties involved will always be Democratic and Republican.

That said, it is also worth noting that reports of the demise of one or the other of the major parties have been around for as long as anyone can remember. After the Democratic Party’s landslide defeat at the hands of Herbert Hoover in 1928, Silas Bent wrote a popular book that insisted the Democrats were dead and buried, a prediction that itself was soon buried beneath Franklin Roosevelt’s overwhelming re-election victory over Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon in 1936. Reports of the death of the Republican Party soon followed. If Newsweek and the New York Times have taken to comparing the Democrats to the Whig Party in recent weeks, Newsweek was making similar sounding comparisons in 1976: “[T]he ghost of Millard Fillmore, who presided over the demise of the Whigs in the 1850s, sometimes looked like an uninvited guest in Kansas City,” where the Republicans, battered by Watergate, were holding their national convention to nominate the hapless Gerald Ford for the presidency.

According to University of Virginia’s Michael Holt, an expert on American political history and the author of The Political Crisis of the 1850s, the odds of a Democratic disappearance are slim. While the rules of the political game encouraged the formation of powerful third parties in 19th-century America, Holt points out that the rules of the game today do not. “Political parties printed their own ballots,” Holt says, “which meant that all you needed was access to a printing press in order to start a new party that was as legal as anyone else’s. Party newspapers printed the ticket at the top of every editorial page, and people would cut that out and cast it. The point was that dissident groups could print their own ballots, and as long as they had the manpower to distribute them, they could challenge the major parties much more easily.” But today’s ballot-access rules range from the impossible to the arcane. Party politics have shifted decisively from the local to the national arena, and the cheap printing presses with which 19th-century political parties built their following have been replaced by multimillion-dollar organizing efforts and nationally televised campaigns.

If the Democrats are unlikely to disappear any time soon, the same cannot be said for the party’s leaders. From the Populists (Democrats) and Progressives (Republicans) at the turn of the century to the more recent Goldwater-Reagan revolution, in which the country-club Republican elite from the East was overthrown by a ragtag army of libertarian populists and born-again Christians from the West and the South, both the Democratic and Republican parties have been made and remade by insurgent activists within the party ranks. If the past is any fair guide, then the replacement for today’s worn-out Democratic Party will come from within it.

Who the leaders of the likely rebellion will be is anyone’s guess. The new Democratic vision is easier to imagine: Build a leaner, more efficient America that will invest a greater share of its resources in education and infrastructure; encourage corporate innovation by giving tax breaks to companies that invest in research and development, penalizing firms that spend their profits on shipping American jobs overseas or on enormous salaries for their executives; provide for swift and impartial enforcement of criminal law; provide portable health benefits and pensions for workers, who must compete in an increasingly insecure global economy. If Democrats and Republicans have championed elements of this platform, neither has yet succeeded in presenting a coherent vision of how the United States will compete in the 21st century while remaining a decent place to live. Black voters, who have been hit the hardest by crime, a failing educational system and the lack of decent jobs, will benefit most from a tough new nationalist program. In return they may have to forgo the less tangible benefits of the strident cultural politics that have alienated so many white voters.

If the politics of a strong state offers the Democrats a real chance at capturing the political center, it also makes good sense in a competitive global economy. The great irony of American politics today is that while Republicans attack the state, our global rivals – Germany, Japan and France – are busy expanding the role of their central government and investing in their people. “Government is really the scapegoat at the moment,” says Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who believes that America has historically swung between periods of conservative reaction and reforming zeal, usually in 30-year cycles. “I think in due course it will be evident that most of the big problems are not going to be solved by the free market and will require the role of government – and the role of national government – to protect the environment and to improve our system of health care and education and fight for civil rights. That’s not going to be done by local government or by the marketplace.”

Having won the Senate and the House on a program of dismantling the federal government and deep opposition to political reform on ideological grounds, antistatist Republicans appear ill-equipped to meet the real challenges of the next American century – or to hold on to the voters who elected them in ’94. “I don’t think Republicans are even close to addressing those issues,” says Stanley Greenberg. “They almost don’t bother raising the issue of living standards and the increasing instability that people face. And I think that will ultimately cost them. The problem with the Democrats right now is that they’re not very clear on how to address the needs of the common person.” Today, Democrats are ripe for the kind of internal revolution that transformed the Republicans into the dominant force in American politics. The GOP’s revolution began with the collapse of Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for president in 1964. Which is why Bill Clinton’s current standing in the polls, ahead of Dole, Gramm and Gingrich, is not cause for celebration but reason for concern. A Clinton victory in 1996, with the Republicans likely to remain in control of both houses of Congress, will ensure that the present Democratic leadership, hobbled by its lack of new ideas and corrupt dependence on corporate dollars, will retain its hold over the party. The result? Another four years of paralysis and decay, and the further decline of the party in the affections of an already unsettled electorate. After 20 years of waffling, hypocrisy, lies and greed, the definitive defeat of Bill Clinton and the party leadership in ’96 might very well be the best thing that has ever happened to the Democratic Party.


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