Election Returns

By Buell, John | The Humanist, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

Election Returns


Buell, John, The Humanist


The only people busier than politicians over the past couple of months were the pundits eager to explain President Clinton's amazing comeback. How did a president left for dead in November 1994 achieve so substantial a victory two years later? The popular explanation is that the president jettisoned his earlier commitment to "big government liberalism" and finally became a genuine New Democrat. Resisting the excesses of progressives within his party and the arch-conservatives of the Republican Party, Clinton "triangulated" his way to victory. To borrow the language of an earlier era, he discovered the "vital center" of American politics.

I find this explanation very misleading, especially as portraits of Clinton as a liberal in his first two years will hardly bear detailed examination. After quickly abandoning a modest stimulus package, the president embraced the classical Republican priority of deficit reduction. He spent far more time courting Alan Greenspan than labor or the middle class. The capstone "success" of his first two years was congressiohal approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement - an act that deeply embittered traditional Democratic constituencies.

Clinton's failures during these first two years are equally instructive. His health-care initiative is often cited as the kind of liberalism that troubled voters. But the vast majority of Americans wanted and still wants government-sponsored health-care reform. One could just as easily argue that the package he offered became so convoluted and unpersuasive precisely because he wished to preserve a major role for the large insurance companies. Ironically, the Canadian-style alternatives that the Clinton administration refused to consider would have required less intrusion into medical-practice decisions and delivered health care more efficiently.

Clinton's party went into the 1994 election having failed to improve the quality of life for most working- and middle-class Americans. Nor did most Democrats have a plausible scenario for future progress. During the administration's first two years, real wages continued to fall for 80 percent of working men and 70 percent of working women. Studies by Jeff Faux, president of the Economic Policy Institute, provide cogent reasons for attributing Republican gains in the 1994 election to "the decline in real wages and opportunities for the vast majority of those who made up the traditional Democratic coalition," While some of these voters switched to the Republican Party, many others just stayed home, contributing to the exceptionally low voter turnout in 1994.

Clinton's triangulation, in short, began shortly after he took office and contributed to his first electoral setback. That setback, paradoxically, may have been his salvation. The new leadership of the House, advocates of an unregulated corporate economy, interpreted 1994 as a mandate to return to the 1920s. Moves to cut Medicare drastically and to virtually liquidate a range of programs on the environment, education, and even small business became the daily talk of the Capitol.

Clinton, always the cautious New Democrat, was slow to see his opening. Privately in the thrall of Concord Coalition types, who regard "middle-class entitlements" as our major economic problem, he embraced the cause of protecting these only when it became clear how popular they were. Similarly, after two years of failing to act on the minimum wage when Democrats controlled Congress, the president became a defender of minimal economic rights for the most exploited elements of the working class. As with Medicare, Clinton acted only once he was convinced that the idea was popular and that many Republicans would oppose it.

Republican attacks on universal and highly regarded forms of income and bealth security excited enough of the traditional Democratic coalition to assure Clinton's reelection. Even so, half of all eligible voters - disproportionately concentrated among poor and working-class Americans - could not see any reason to vote at all. …

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