As I write, John Kerry, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee for President, is running even with a Republican incumbent with unprecedented amounts of money. The Congress is very closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, and two key swing states—Michigan and Pennsylvania—are now governed by Democratic governors. (For anyone who has ever been in a presidential campaign, governors—with their grass-roots organizations, their ability to reward and punish, and their ear constantly to the ground—are infinitely more important than senators.) After four years in office and admirable leadership throughout the historic tragedy of September 11, President Bush finds himself right back where he was in the 2000 election: facing a country that is almost exactly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
And yet some Democrats like Rick Perlstein persist in seeing a weak and “hollowed out” party. In 1997 this weak and “hollowed out” party managed to survive the third impeachment of a sitting president in American history; in 1998 it managed to reverse the trend for incumbent presidents by picking up congressional seats; and, were it not for the intervention of the Supreme Court, this party would likely have taken the presidency again in 2000.
Perlstein, like others, persists in interpreting the Clinton era as an era of small, rightward tactics invented by a pretty unsavory fellow named Dick Morris. No wonder he misses the big successes of that era and the dominant themes that have transformed the party and will guide it into the future.
To illustrate those themes let me begin with two stories from the first term of the Clinton administration. In the midst of the health-care battles, the political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “Mr. Clinton, Meet Mr. Gore.” Wilson, an eminent scholar of government, made a simple point: to enact comprehensive health-care reform the country would have to believe that government could be trusted to get it right; it would have to believe that government had already been “reinvented.” Instead the administration was moving simultaneously on health-care reform and “reinventing government,” and, Wilson warned, the country was not likely to trust the government to reform health care when the government had not yet reformed itself.
The second story was told to many of us by President Clinton. During the health-care debates, he was working a rope line when an old woman came up to him, pressed his hands in hers, and said, “Mr. President, please don’t let the government ruin my Medicare.”
Both stories speak to the same reality. In the early 1990s Americans wanted the security and compassion associated with the New Deal but they did not trust the government to provide it. The Democratic Party had to prove itself competent to manage the apparatus of the government before the people would allow it to fulfill its historic mission of creating a secure safety net. To accomplish this the Clinton administration spent enormous amounts of political capital to pass two major deficit-reduction bills in 1993 and 1997. At the same time the administration’s “reinventing government” efforts, led by Vice President Al Gore (and staffed by the author) helped create a reality within huge portions of the government that would allow them to do more with less.
Slowly and surely, public-opinion polls registered the approval of the voters. Initially, only 17 percent trusted the government to do the right thing; by 1997 that number had risen to 38 percent. Clinton and Gore had begun to make progress on the major policy conundrum of the late 20th century: how do you govern in an era in which people hate the government? What do you do when the public tells people in government, “Fix this now!,” but then says, “Oh, and by the way, don’t let the government do it!”
The massive deficit-reduction efforts of the Clinton years showed Democrats and the country two things. First of all, that low long-term interest rates and strong economic growth could create more jobs than any government program ever dreamed of, and second, that a government that managed its money and resources wisely was a government worthy of being trusted with greater efforts such as preserving Social Security and Medicare.
Reinventing government and balancing budgets barely show up in public-opinion polls. But to read these polls literally is to misunderstand the presidency profoundly. The great tragedy of the Clinton Administration was not that the Democrats looked like the Republicans—anyone who remembers the showdown surrounding the government shutdown in 1995 and 1996 could not possibly think the differences between the two parties were minor. The great tragedy of the Clinton administration was that just when Clinton had begun to get Americans to trust the government again, just when he could have taken on the “superjumbo” issues of Social Security, Medicare and health care, he was involved in a scandal and an impeachment fight over an affair with an intern.
If the Rick Perlsteins of the world are confused about the meaning and future of the Democratic Party it is partly understandable. The second term of the Clinton administration was wasted because of a scandal that should not have happened and an impeachment that should not have happened either. Before Monica Lewinsky became a household name the second Clinton term—buoyed by shrinking deficits, a great economy, and a sense that this team could manage change—was supposed to be about entitlement reform. It never happened.
The reason to “reinvent government” and work toward balanced budgets was not to follow the advice of one or more political consultants. The reason to do these things was to have the trust and the financial wherewithal to repair and strengthen the social safety net—the most important and most enduring legacy of the Democratic Party. That Clinton missed this opportunity for a dalliance with a young woman is something that he has to live with, but it does not mean that the Democratic Party has lost its soul, or that it is bereft of big ideas.
The social safety net—the Democratic Party’s legacy to America—is more important in a global information age than it was even in the industrial age. But it is fraying badly. The fiscal crisis is real, and four years of reckless spending and irresponsible tax cutting by the Bush Administration have made it fray even more badly and have weakened our nation’s ability to cope with it. John Kerry is talking about the fiscal mess the Bush administration has created. Perlstein’s own data show that this is way down on people’s list of priorities. So why bother? Because preserving and expanding the great social legacy of the Democratic Party in the 21st century requires a citizenry that will trust the government to do it and a fiscal policy that will give the government the wherewithal to do it. This may or may not be good politics. But it is most decidedly good government.
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Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.