To put it mildly, I don’t agree with Perlstein’s essay. Indeed, I hardly know where to start disagreeing.
But start I must. So let’s consider the question of party identification. Contrary to what Perlstein says, the Democrats today continue to enjoy an advantage on party ID roughly equal to their average advantage in the period since 1984. Republicans closed the gap in party ID briefly after 9/11, when Bush’s popularity surged, but things are now back to normal. Data that show the gap being eliminated generally include that abnormal period and prove nothing other than the well-known political-science finding that when a president’s popularity spikes, there is movement in party ID toward the president’s party.
I mentioned “the period since 1984.” But let’s dwell on 1984 itself a bit, since what happened then is important to understanding where Perlstein’s analysis goes awry. In 1984, of course, Ronald Reagan obliterated Walter Mondale in the presidential race, receiving 59 percent of the popular vote and winning every state but Minnesota (he also lost in the District of Columbia). In so doing, he won 65 percent of white working voters, carrying this group—formerly the heart of the New Deal coalition—by a stunning 30 points. Moreover, 1984 is the year political scientists generally view as the break point in Democrats’ party ID advantage; before 1984, it was very large, surpassing 20 points in most years; after that it was much smaller, generally in the low to mid teens or even the single digits. In fact, if you compare the 1964–1982 period to the 1984–2002 period, their advantage is cut almost precisely in half.
Clearly this election was a debacle of immense proportions for the Democrats. What happened? The best way to think about it is that it was the culmination of a process that had been unfolding since the late 1960s. One part of the process was driven by white opposition to civil rights and, more broadly, white opposition to various programs associated with blacks, including welfare, busing, and affirmative action. Another part of the process was driven by Democrats’ association with the stagflation—combined inflation and unemployment with slow economic growth—of the late 1970s. Stagflation fed resentments about race (about high taxes for welfare, which was assumed to go primarily to minorities, and about affirmative action) even as it sowed doubts about Democrats’ ability to manage the economy and made the causes that Republicans and business interests proposed for stagflation (government regulation, high taxes, and spending) more plausible.
A third part of the process was driven by a perception of Democratic weakness on foreign policy and standing up to the Soviet Union; the late 1970’s saw Soviet allied regimes take power in Angola, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Nicaragua, and almost get there in El Salvador—not to mention the Iran hostage crisis. Just as many Americans believed Carter and the Democrats had become incapable of managing the economy, they also began to doubt their ability to represent America in the world. The final part of the process was driven by Democrats’ association with the counterculture of the ’60s, including feminism, gay rights, abortion rights, decriminalization of drugs, and sexual freedom.
That multi-pronged process was what produced 1984, where, as described above, a stunning collapse in white working-class support for Democrats was matched by a sharp decline in the Democrats’ party-ID advantage. Oddly, Perlstein does note some of the changes described above and acknowledges that they hurt the Democrats. But when it comes to the 1984 election, he chooses to focus on Mondale’s deficit reduction and tax hike promises as proof that he did not run on a particularly liberal platform that would have reinforced these image problems and therefore suggests that his loss can’t be attributed to the Democrats’ negative image. He makes much the same claim about Dukakis’s losing campaign in 1988; he didn’t really run as a liberal, so the Democrats’ negative image couldn’t have been what killed him.
But choosing not to run as George McGovern did is not the same thing as actually repairing the Democrats’ image, and this what both the Mondale and Dukakis campaigns failed to do. And it is what Bill Clinton, to a significant extent, did manage to do in the 1990s. His two election victories, in which he managed not only to win Democrats’ emerging constituencies, such as women, professionals, and minorities, by healthy margins but also carried white working-class voters (albeit by a single point) were testaments to his success. I certainly agree with Perlstein that his populist approach, particularly in 1992, was part of his success, but so was his New Democrat approach to mending many of the image problems sketched above. Focusing on one without the other won’t do; Clinton’s success depended on a synthesis of the two approaches. As for Perlstein’s claim that his dog Buster could have beaten George H.W. Bush in 1992, I will let this unusually silly—but revealing—observation slide by without further comment.
Perlstein’s focus on the populist side of Bill Clinton without giving due credit to the New Democrat side shows he does not understand the depth of the political problems Clinton needed to deal with and that Democrats still have to deal with today. This is still a country where there is serious concern about the effectiveness of government spending, serious resistance to taxes even for worthy causes, serious concern about Democrats’ foreign policy toughness, and serious worries about Democrats’ association with non-mainstream social values. Democrats cannot overcome these problems simply by wishing them away (let’s not worry about winning, says Perlstein, let’s focus on . . . 2018).
The good news is that Democrats are gradually overcoming these problems. They are making good progress on eliminating Democratic defections to the Republican Party (a huge problem in the 1980s) and winning over political independents (who voted Republican in the 1980s but are now leaning Democratic). Building up the Democratic party-ID advantage is a longer-range project, but I believe progress can be made here too (though I am doubtful, for various reasons, that Democrats will be able to regain their pre-1984 advantage in full). But doing so depends on combining the Clinton synthesis Perlstein disdains with some of the broad, large-scale thinking he so clearly favors. But since he did not take such a nuanced approach, his call for large-scale thinking winds up seeming impractical rather than inspirational. As someone who shares his interest in big ideas and long-range strategizing, I think that’s a shame.
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Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.