The jockeying by presidential candidates to win the support of pundits and funders is known as the “first primary.” Bill Clinton won that primary by presenting himself as the kind of centrist politician that political insiders are comfortable with: tough on foreign policy, skeptical of social programs, friendly toward business.
In the real election, Clinton often ran a very different campaign. He criticized his Democratic primary opponents for policies he said would favor the rich at the expense of people of ordinary means. He attacked the Bush administration for its “trickle-down economics,” and as a captive of corporate lobbyists and contributors, whom he called “special interests.” His promise to be a change from 12 years of Reaganism paid off, especially among women and non-white voters — if only white men could vote, George Bush would have been re-elected.
As president, Clinton will have to decide which election returns he’ll listen to — the voice of the people or the voice of the punditocracy. The latter is already calling for Clinton to abandon some of the promises he was elected on.
Juggling “Special Interests”
“The fun in the coming year will be watching Mr. Clinton juggle in the center ring,” commented Thomas Friedman in the New York Times (news analysis, 11/15/92), “juggling Democratic supporters who will be alienated by the special interest promises he fails to keep and juggling Republican and Perot conservatives who will be outraged by the special interest promises on which he delivers.”
Friedman’s use of the phrase “special interests” to disparage progressive constituencies like women, African-Americans, environmentalists, etc. was a hallmark of post-election commentary. (It’s ironic that these were the only “special interests” that journalists recognized, when during Clinton’s campaign the pejorative term had increasingly returned to its original meaning of monied elites. Notice that Republicans and Perotistas are pictured by Friedman as foes of “special interests.”)
A CNN report (11/14/92) argued that Clinton need not do much for what the network called “special interest groups” — the only ones mentioned were environmentalists, women, blacks and gays. Perennial pundit Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute was quoted, saying that Clinton “enters office with the fewest debts owed to interest groups in his own party of any Democratic president in modern times.” The business groups that contributed heavily to Clinton and the Democrats apparently don’t count.
Steven V. Roberts, writing in U.S. News & World Report (11/23/92), was more specific about what promises Clinton should consider breaking, on such issues as abortion, family leave, urban aid and civil rights. Roberts presented “liberal interest groups” as greedy, demanding and powerful, as with the groups calling for District of Columbia statehood: “Some of Clinton’s aides fear that if he bows to black groups and pushes the measure, it could squander time and resources that he cannot afford.”
The last group of “liberal stalwarts” Roberts warned Clinton against were Common Cause and other proponents of campaign finance reform (which could be a “wasting battle” for the president-elect). He then concluded: “How Clinton performs in these early battles will provide important clues to his character. Is he really a new form of Democrat? Or is he what Bush accused him of being: a free-spending liberal dressed up as a moderate?” In this Orwellian formulation, Clinton can oppose campaign finance reform to prove that he’s a “new Democrat” who will stand up to “interest groups.”