Jan 1 1995

‘Move to the Right’

Pundits' Tried-and-Failed Advice

When asked what advice she had for Bill Clinton on Election Night (11/8/94), ABC commentator Cokie Roberts snapped: “Move to the right, which is the advice that somebody should have given him a long time ago.”

While most pundits used the more euphemistic “move to the center,” Roberts’ prescription was constantly being offered by media spin doctors. One of the most prominent was Al From, leader of the Democratic Leadership Council, a corporate-backed group “New Democrats” who have long argued that moving to the right and/or center is the key to winning elections.

It is? “New Democrats,” if anything, did worse in the 1994 election than plain old Democrats. The DLC’s chair, Rep. Dave McCurdy (D.-Okla.), got only 40 percent of the vote in his bid for the Senate. Sen. Jim Sasser (D.-Tenn.), a DLC leading light, won only 42 percent in his re-election drive. The DLC’s Rep. Jim Cooper (D.-Tenn.), best known for his “bipartisan” health reform plan, managed only 39 percent.

Another prominent DLC member–a past president of the group–wasn’t up for re-election, but President Bill Clinton would have to be considered one of the election’s big losers. Although he campaigned as an “agent of change” who would reverse trickle-down policies, in office, Clinton overwhelmingly followed the DLC recipe for success. He offered centrist or conservative proposals on issues like crime, welfare, deficit reduction and trade. On health care, he avoided a single-payer approach pushed by progressives in favor of a complex, expensive, insurance industry-friendly plan.

But commentators insisted–without providing evidence–that Clinton had abandoned the New Democratic faith. “Elected as a New Democrat, he stumbled during his first two years in office largely because he proposed Big Government solutions, like his health care plan, to a populace that thought it had already rejected them,” said Time‘s Michael Duffy in a pre-election article (11/14/94). Newsweek‘s post-election cover story by Howard Fineman referred to “the New Democrat centrist themes he ran on in 1992 (and mostly forgot about after he was elected).”

The denunciation of the centrist Clinton as an out-of-touch leftist is an old pattern, one that Extra! pointed out (9/92) after Clinton was heralded in 1992 as the candidate who would finally wean the Democratic Party away from “Mondale/Dukakis liberalism.” Before their electoral defeats, both Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis had been hailed by media pundits as moderate candidates who would take back the party from the left: “When the ‘pragmatists’ lose badly with their centrist approach,” Extra! noted, “they are repainted after the fact as radicals, so the strategy of tilting to the right can be tried again and again.”

Economic Happy Talk

If it wasn’t a Clinton shift to the left that led to the Republican victory, what was it? The biggest difference between 1994 and 1992 was not the country’s opinion of Clinton, but who in the electorate was motivated to vote. A survey taken by Gallup for CNN and USA Today (neither of which did much with the results) suggests that if all eligible voters had come out, the results would have been far different: Those who turned out were significantly wealthier, whiter and more Republican than those who stayed home. And those who voted in 1994 were much more affluent and more conservative than the voters in 1992–as a lonely letter to the editor in the New York Times (11/25/94) pointed out.

What’s keeping the Democrats home? Many news outlets found it a great puzzle that Clinton wasn’t getting more of a boost from the “booming” economy. “Democrats Getting No Lift From a Rising Economy,” a front-page New York Times piece marveled (10/18/94). Just the day before (10/17/94), that same front page had announced still more good news: “Statistics Reveal Bulk of New Jobs Pay Over Average,” the Times‘ headline declared.

If you read that article, however, the news wasn’t all that great. Reporter Sylvia Nasar’s big story was that most new jobs were in high-paying categories, a statistic that means little: The fact that managers as a group make a lot of money doesn’t mean that being an assistant manager at McDonald’s is going to make you rich.

The real news was buried in a graph that accompanied the story. While the salaries of managers and supervisors–who make up about one-fourth of the American workforce–have climbed, real wages for the other 75 percent of U.S. workers have fallen every year from 1987 to 1993, and have been basically flat in 1994.

This reality, hidden behind economic happy talk in so much news coverage, goes a long way to explaining both the conservatives’ anger and the Democrats’ apathy. Clinton’s party has done little to address the economic stagnation plaguing working people and minorities; at the very beginning of his administration, he abandoned the modest economic stimulus program that he successfully ran on. That was part of the post-election “move to the center” that pundits like Cokie Roberts encouraged him to make.