I was totally persuaded by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck’s 1989 study, The Politics of Evasion, when they wrote, “Too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments, and inattentive in defense of their national security.” At the time, I too was tired of winning only one presidential election over two decades, and averaging 42 percent of the vote.
In their new report, The New Politics of Evasion, I share their analysis on many of the same problems that keep the Democratic Party “in the grip of myths that block progress toward victory.” Count me in as an ally when they write now that Democrats have taken “stances on fraught social issues … that repel a majority of Americans,” and have failed to defuse the oft-repeated contention that they want to “defund the police.” Count me in when they write that “social, cultural, and religious issues” are at least as real as “economic considerations” in determining how people vote. And they are right that imposing a “politics of identity” on Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans put Democrats out of touch with the priorities of these populations: ending the COVID crisis, providing affordable health care, and reopening schools, getting higher pay, and checking big corporate power.
I thank Galston and Kamarck for raising these issues. But unfortunately, you don’t get any further help from them on removing the blinders that keep you from seeing America.
More from Stanley B. Greenberg
The subtitle of their report, “How Ignoring Swing Voters Could Reopen the Door for Donald Trump and Threaten American Democracy,” misses nearly six years of progressive analysts not ignoring them at all and trying to understand what happened to their vote in the past three elections.
Galston and Kamarck then proceed to construct a myth of their own that keeps them from seeing the working-class voter: “Most Americans want evolutionary, not revolutionary, change.” Really? As I argued in my piece in the Prospect, Democrats want their leaders to speak to the working class and address working-class discontent. I argued voters are hungry for big change, after decades of spiking economic and political inequality.
In the foreword to the report, the Progressive Policy Institute’s Will Marshall speaks to “the need for unflinching honesty about the party’s struggles to consolidate a broad and durable majority.” That should start with not creating your own myths about the role of the government and how much change people are looking for.
THE FIRST POLITICS OF EVASION contributed vitally to the strategizing of New Democrats who elected Bill Clinton. But Clinton’s actual campaign in 1992 is quite misunderstood, as I know firsthand as his chief pollster. When the campaign released its “Putting People First” plan, the accompanying ad promised “fundamental change.” The war room mantra posted by James Carville stated:
- The economy, Stupid!
- Change vs. More of the same
- Don’t forget health care
In the video with the plan’s launch, Clinton declared, “I asked the rich to pay their fair share, so the rest of America can finally get a break.” The middle class would get a tax cut. The lead policy offer was a plan for universal health care that showed all working people could gain from government.
Did Galston and Kamarck notice this bold offer, which far exceeded anything that had been proposed by Mondale, Dukakis, or Hart?
Many of his critics think Clinton running as “a different kind of Democrat” was a cynical tactic to win over “racist” white working-class voters who had defected to Ronald Reagan. But early in the Democratic primaries, Clinton’s base was in the Black community, and later he led the field in the white working-class suburbs. He pointed to their shared economic struggles and sense that hardworking people like themselves were not getting heard by government.
During the primaries, Clinton spoke at Macomb County Community College, and he offered a “people-first economics” that “rewards work and family … not just wealth and power.” He promised to give you “your values back, I’ll help you build the middle class back.” But then he added, “You’ve got to say: ‘Okay, let’s do it with everybody in this country.’”
The next morning, Clinton spoke at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Detroit and told them, “I went to Macomb County in Michigan, and I said some things politicians don’t normally say, [I want] folks to come home to the Democratic Party. [I want] to tell you that we didn’t do right by Middle America for a while, but I have a program that restores the middle class without regard to race. You have rewarded Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and they have punished you.” And he told the congregation to look north to Macomb because it “is basically full of people who did right and were done wrong, just like the rest of us.”
He was telling this diverse working class that he believed in a diverse country where all could hope for better. Clinton promised to change the economy so it worked for the middle class, but he also promised to change government to reward hard work and promote personal responsibility and community—values honored in these working-class communities. My focus groups for the Clinton campaign at the time showed that both Black and white working-class voters longed for those values to animate politics again.
Voters are hungry for big change, after decades of spiking economic and political inequality.
Clinton also had a plan to address soaring violent crime in America’s cities in the early 1990s, and to reform welfare—both high priorities at the time for the public and the Black community. Baptist ministers railed against this program for failing to honor responsibility. I asked at the time in The American Prospect, how can you justify some part of the working class paying taxes to subsidize mothers who choose not to work while raising children? The Prospect was full of articles by progressive academics, like William Julius Wilson, Christopher Jencks, and Theda Skocpol on how to reform welfare. Many came to the White House to discuss those ideas with President Clinton.
Clinton promised to reward hard work and personal responsibility, and his progressive plan to make work pay would greatly expand the social safety net. Clinton’s plan to “end welfare as we know it” also raised the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit, while expanding support for child care and offering health insurance for all.
My first work and recommendations in Macomb County did not endear me to the Democratic establishment. Clinton’s stances on crime and welfare did not endear him or his campaign to the Jesse Jackson wing of the Democratic Party either.
BILL CLINTON WON THE 1992 presidential election with the biggest Electoral College majority since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. When the polls closed at 6:00 p.m. in Georgia and Michigan, we knew Clinton had changed the political formula for Democrats. Clinton did indeed get 43 percent of the vote, but that was because Reform Party candidate Ross Perot took 19 percent. With my polls and the exit polls showing Clinton getting half of Perot’s vote, the Democrats were on course to win a majority of the vote.
But I was very conscious that 57 percent of Americans didn’t vote for Clinton, and I wrote the president-elect, “the new Clinton majority was still in-waiting.” The Perot voters were overwhelmingly working-class and their top issue was the economy, not the deficits or unequal opportunity. Perot ran strong among younger working-class voters, smaller industrial cities, and rural areas, and produced a historic turnout, matched only by 2020.
I and the campaign team cheered Gov. Clinton’s speech on election night, on the lawn in front of the Old State House in Little Rock. But only a minute into his speech, I stopped and asked, where did those words come from? I also realized bringing his campaign vision and political project into the White House would require daunting efforts and mostly fail.
Clinton opened the speech with the meaning of the election—something presidents must do if they are to turn the momentum of the results into a governing mandate. He promised “to restore growth” and “opportunity,” to “empower our own people” so “they can take more responsibility” to face problems “long ignored.” He listed five, starting with AIDS. The “economy” that he had promised “to focus like a laser” made the list. He never mentioned “the forgotten middle class.” And then he concluded, “perhaps most important of all” is bringing “people together as never before so that our diversity can be a source of strength.”
Of course I wanted his government to look like America and to have a president who would defend affirmative action when it came under attack by the Gingrich Congress, but Clinton in effect had weakened the economic populist forces that got him there, and put his fate in the strength of identity politics.
After the election, Clinton met at length in Little Rock with Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan and his new economic team, which included Goldman Sachs’s Bob Rubin and other prominent executives from Wall Street, former members of the House and Senate who prioritized fiscal restraint, Labor Secretary Bob Reich, Harvard economist Larry Summers, and a Council of Economic Advisers that was composed of mostly liberal economists, including Laura Tyson, Alan Blinder, and Joseph Stiglitz.
They all accepted that higher-than-expected deficits required the president’s economic plan to set credible targets for deficit reduction, so long-term interest rates could moderate. There would be few investments and no middle-class tax cut. And when the council warned that front-loaded deficit reduction in the face of slower-than-expected growth would mean a slower recovery, the president stuck with the deficit targets.
We have learned that Democrats have to offer an expansive plan for government that addresses the fundamental problems facing working people and the country.
The heart of the deficit reduction plan was a progressive new tax structure that would produce one the few presidencies since World War II where the country approached full employment, median income rose in real terms, and inequality fell. The plan raised the top rate to 39.6 percent, added a “millionaire’s surtax,” barred companies from deducting CEO pay above $1 million (although this backfired because it led CEOs to take compensation in the form of stock), and greatly expanded the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit, so if you worked 40 hours, you would no longer be in poverty.
As far as I can remember, we all supported NAFTA, with the side agreements that had been negotiated to protect labor and the environment. Later, the White House economic team supported China’s entry into the WTO, though I was not privy to internal debates on that fateful decision. The trade agreements certainly combined with George Bush’s tax cuts to produce one of the worst periods for job loss, falling incomes, and rising inequality. That is why I have worked to defeat every trade agreement since.
Bob Rubin lobbied the president, myself, and then the speechwriters not to change the tax plan itself, but not to talk about its progressive top rate, and particularly not the “millionaire’s surtax.” He argued that it made the president look “anti-business” and wanting to “punish the rich.” He would say, “The middle-class people don’t take well to disparagement of economic success.”
When President Clinton gave his first Joint Session address devoted to the economy, he did not mention the middle class or the millionaire’s surtax and how his tax plan would finally ask all to contribute. You could see all those anti-elite, working-class voters turning off their TVs.
Bill Clinton introduced a bold plan for universal health care and spent almost a year of his presidency trying to win support for it, against the bitter opposition of the health insurance industry and small business groups. It began with nearly 60 percent support when the president introduced it at a joint session address in September, though by the spring, approval had dropped to 43 percent. Hillary Clinton took the lead, rather than Congress, and that was surely a mistake, though who knew whether a majority in the Senate would have supported any plan? I pushed for a closing speech that called out the special interests leading into the midterm elections, but somebody said no.
We faced a treacherous midterm election, but the Republicans releasing Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” created a surprising opportunity. The consultant team embraced a new choice where Democrats battle for ordinary people and “Republicans want to go back to Reagan policies of tax cuts for the wealthy paid for by cuts to Medicare.” Including Reagan’s trickle-down tax cuts were key.
The president was not enthusiastic about the choice. It turns out that Republican consultant Dick Morris conducted a secret poll for the president in October. He told him the Contract with America was popular and “class warfare” was unproductive. Early in the new year, I would be pushed out as Clinton’s pollster.
The final irony was the fate of the progressive welfare reforms that were then shelved. The Gingrich Congress passed its own ugly welfare reforms that targeted the poor. Clinton vetoed them (twice) to win changes, and with Dick Morris’s strong urging, he ultimately signed the bill.
WHAT ARE THE LESSONS we should take from the 1992 Clinton campaign and his time in government if we want to help all factions contribute to rebuilding the national Democratic Party?
First, you must keep listening to working people and know how difficult it is to stay on course. You will be warned off “class warfare” and urged to offer “ladders of opportunity” to chip away at the country’s systemic inequalities. But building a politics around the latter is not the best way to achieve those changes. Nor does it elect Democrats.
We have learned that Democrats have to offer an expansive plan for government that addresses the fundamental problems facing working people and the country. The spiking inequality of wealth and income, people living paycheck to paycheck, CEOs reviled for their greed, trade agreements that export American jobs, and the billionaires and lobbyists calling the shots with government pretty much sets your agenda. As we can see in the table below, people want government to help families do better and they want to empower workers and make the big corporations contribute.
The expanded monthly Child Tax Credit got the attention of Blacks and white working-class voters under age 50. It achieved the kind of unity among the diverse working class that Clinton opened up. That is why it’s so tragic if it’s not continued.
When Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union address earlier this month, he made the case for these programs, some in place and some promised in the future. He moved the meter on the country moving in the “right direction” and on “trusting government,” according the “dial meter” research we conducted for PSG Consulting and the American Federation of Teachers. Some of the biggest shifts were with Blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans (AAPI), white millennials and Gen Z, unmarried women, and working-class women and men. They saw government in action affecting their lives.
You also need to listen to our base of Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans (AAPI), who just don’t prioritize addressing racial inequities, when compared to government bringing change in other areas. Trump’s 2020 racist campaign had to be challenged and defeated, but it was also a trap that became harder and harder to escape.
We tested the robust agenda rightly being addressed by Biden and Democrats and included one item that listed what Democrats were doing to address racial injustice for all voters of color. The wording of that item is presented below:
Some government agencies discriminated against some groups for decades. Now, Black farmers get grants, millions of housing vouchers targeted to minority communities, the infrastructure law removes all lead pipes, and increased funding for Black, tribally-controlled colleges, and Hispanic institutions.
Black voters prioritize addressing these racial inequities, but it’s hardly in the top tier. Fully half of them chose government policies that empower workers and push up wages; about half embrace health care changes, including expanding Medicare, and getting drug and insurance premiums down. Of course, they want to address systemic racism, but for some reason, they rally to leaders who want to empower workers, and get higher wages and health insurance. Maybe they think those changes will affect them more and bring a broader coalition of support. Maybe we should trust their judgment.
Hispanics and Asian American and Pacific Islanders put these efforts to redress historic injustices last in importance. Of course, they support punishing discrimination, but what gets their attention? They want to empower workers and rein in big corporations. They want to focus on addressing the deep inequalities built up since 2000 and remain undistracted by Trump efforts to make all politics racial.
Democrats ignoring “defund the police” in 2020 was a canary in the coal mine for the party remaining silent on cultural issues. Addressing crime and welfare was important to the success of the Clinton campaign in reaching all working-class voters, and not addressing them is just as important to why Democratic campaigns are faltering now.
Democratic base voters hate “defunding the police.” Choose your group, but they each respond negatively to the words, in a ratio of 2-to-3 to 4-to-1. About half of Hispanics, AAPI, millennials/Gen Z voters, and unmarried women give the highest possible negative (over 75 on a 100-degree scale). If you are defunding the police, you are not concerned with crime and not using the only instrument people know to achieve public safety.
That is why a public safety message that prioritizes addressing crime, while funding the police with accountability and reform—precisely the message Joe Biden used in the State of the Union—has a big impact, doubling the Democratic margin among those who hear it. Working-class voters, whether they supported Biden or Trump, are surprised by it because they think defunding the police is a “woke” Democratic position.
My surveys had also shown that “Black Lives Matter” and “defund the police” were particularly unpopular among Hispanic voters. We didn’t ask what explained it, and we should. Hispanics may have thought Black Americans and their issues were higher on the priority list for Biden and the Democrats. They didn’t see Joe Biden campaign for their vote, the way Hillary Clinton did.
Let me posit an additional explanation that will need a lot of further discussion. Democrats putting addressing America’s very real “systematic racism” at the top of their campaign agenda doesn’t align with the priorities of those communities, as we saw above.
But it also doesn’t align with the vision of America as an immigrant country where all ultimately make progress. You may have faced extreme poverty, all forms of unfree labor and political repression, but you are blessed to live in a country where hard work allows each generation to do better than the last. That Democrats are losing to Republicans now on who can help you realize the “American dream” is prima facie support for my concerns.
In the Hispanic community, pollster Carlos Odio found that the new Hispanic migrants feel blessed to be in America and away from their home countries where life was unbearable and unfree. Republicans more than Democrats have been speaking to that strong immigrant consciousness.
Black voters in my focus groups have an astute sense of history and worry that past work to secure their family and their parents’ battle for civil rights will be reversed. They think the Black community will be the first to pay the price if progressive forces lose out to conservatives. Despite the fraught history, they want to be part of an American story where their community continues to make progress.
In my survey conducted for Biden’s State of the Union, I found a pretty stunning 69 percent of the respondents reacted warmly to the assertion “America is still the country with the best history of advancing civil rights.” Do you realize 63 percent of Blacks said that? So did 62 percent of Hispanics and 67 percent of Asian Americans. Less than a third of voters across our diverse base rejected that.
The Black community reflected Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement that fought entrenched segregation and the White Citizens’ Council, yet he declared, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency began with his call for unity at the 2004 Democratic convention. He said, “I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story” and “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
I could not have been more critical of Obama not challenging the greedy corporations that gave us our rising economic inequality, but he was pretty wise in bringing the Black experience into the larger American story. That kind of understanding of America doesn’t diminish our priorities in government fighting systematic racism and deep racial inequalities, but you won’t get that chance if you don’t learn from the wisdom of our own voters and leaders.
In the end, the Clinton experience taught us the need for a hopeful vision for the country that unites our own voters.
I believe Democrats need to embrace America as a “multicultural” immigrant country where all groups who work hard have a chance for a better future. Black and white, Hispanics and Asian Americans all think they will fare better if America lives up to its promise, in an America that is truly exceptional. Democrats don’t win elections unless they believe, as their own voters do, that America is exceptional. Democrats will then be offering to the country the prospect of greater unity and hope.