Academic journal article Policy Review

The Democrats' Divide

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Democrats' Divide

Article excerpt

Left-Labor v. the New Democrats

AFTER ANY SIGNIFICANT ELECTION, factions within our political parties compete to lay claim to electoral victory or to disown defeat. In the case of our most recent presidential election, the closeness of the popular vote, the controversy surrounding the electoral college result, and the shifting political postures of the candidates -- the Democratic candidate in particular -- made the evidence especially malleable. Shortly after the election, therefore, a debate began about what lessons could be drawn from Al Gore's unsuccessful campaign. It took place -- is taking place -- between the two dominant ideological groups within the Democratic Party, one avowedly "centrist" in outlook, the other self-described as "progressive."

The centrist "New Democrat" argument was submitted by Al From, founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC); Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), a DLC-affiliated think tank; the New Democrats' official pollster, Mark Penn; and their top intellectual, William Galston. On the other, progressive or "left-labor" side were Stanley Greenberg, the pollster Gore substituted for Mark Penn last summer; Ruy Teixeira, author of America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters; and Robert Borosage, founder of the Campaign for America's Future, an organization created as a counterweight to the DLC. This was highly formalized debate, in which different combinations of these advocates squared off in a series of venues -- a DLC-sponsored conference at the National Press Club, two consecutive issues of the progressive wing's magazine the American Prospect, and an issue of Blueprint, the DLG magazine, in which the left-labor faction made its case, and was reb utted, in absentia.

The New Democrats proposed that Gore made a fatal blunder when, beginning at the Democratic convention in August, he adopted a more populist stance, captured neatly in the slogan "the people vs. the powerful," and promised to fight to protect the public against overweening corporate power. They argued that this message smacked of an outdated "Industrial Age" appeal which had little resonance for today's electorate -- the growing numbers of suburban, upper-middle-class "wired workers" who fancied themselves neither the people nor the powerful and were wary of big-government solutions to their problems. In the New Democratic view, Gore failed to capitalize on the general prosperity of the Clinton years. Furthermore, he distanced himself from the success he and Clinton had in streamlining and "reinventing" government, instead offering a laundry list of new or expanded programs likely to create costly and irreversible entitlements.

The competing left-labor analysis began with the proposition that Gore did not actually lose the election, given the popular vote result, the Florida irregularities, and the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court. (In fact, those on the left often add the Gore and Ralph Nader votes together to claim a substantial popular majority for "progressive politics.") Left-laborites argued that Gore was running a lackluster campaign until his convention transformation -- that his populist turn gave him the only lead he held all year. They claimed that his promise to "fight for the people" was in large part responsible for the impressive turnout among the Democratic base -- union members and blacks in particular. They proposed that a majority of Americans felt that the much-trumpeted economic boom had passed them by and that these Americans suffered from substantial economic instability and, relatedly, insecurity about health, education, and retirement. To the extent that Gore did underperform expectations, the left ar gued, this was due to failings not with the message but with the medium -- Gore's apparent inability to seem "genuine" or to connect personally with voters -- and to the "moral drag" on his campaign created by Bill Clinton's many scandals. …

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