Nov 7 2008

Media Tell Obama–Don’t Be a Lefty Like Clinton

Rewriting the '94 election to find a centrist moral

Immediately after Barack Obama was pronounced the victor in the 2008 presidential election, corporate media began to tell him how he ought to govern–in most cases, urging him to hew toward the center. To support their argument, many journalists pointed to President Bill Clinton’s first term to find lessons in centrism for Obama. But are media getting the history wrong?

In that “unhappy first year in office,” wrote the Los Angeles Times‘ Doyle McManus (11/5/08), “Democratic congressional leaders pushed a new president to the left–leading to the party’s loss of both houses in the midterm elections of 1994.”

“Though Democrats now are in a position to steamroll their policies into place without much regard to the Republican minority, both history and the national mood suggest a bit of bipartisanship would be wise,” wrote Gerald Seib in the Wall Street Journal (11/5/08). Seib saw a liberal healthcare plan as Clinton’s downfall:

Mr. Clinton won in 1992 with friendly Democratic majorities in Congress strikingly similar to those Sen. Obama will enjoy: 258 House seats and 57 Senate seats. He did, in fact, reach across the aisle to Republicans initially to balance the budget and promote free trade–policies that had durable and lasting support precisely because they had a bipartisan foundation.

But he then fell into the trap of leaning on the power of Democratic votes, and ignoring the animosity of minority Republicans, to try to push through the single biggest domestic effort of his first term, a wholesale remaking of the nation’s healthcare system. It was an overreach, which Republicans drove home by reminding voters that Mr. Clinton had won office with just 43 percent of the popular vote, thanks to the votes siphoned away by independent candidate Ross Perot.

The backlash was instant, and painful. Democrats lost 54 House seats and 10 Senate seats in 1994, just two years after Mr. Clinton took office.

The Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus (11/5/08) saw Clinton’s failure in his “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and environmental policies:

The experience of President Bill Clinton’s rocky early months–remember gays in the military? the BTU tax?–suggests the steep political price of governing in a way that is, or seems, skewed to the left. This risk is particularly acute for Obama, whose opponents have painted him as a leftist extremist. The good news is that his advisers seem exquisitely aware of this trap and determined not to fall into it.

Dan Balz of the Washington Post (11/5/08) turned to former Clinton adviser William Galston, who suggested that rather than following the example of FDR’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, he should instead heed the warning of “1993, the start of Clinton’s first term, when Democrats pushed another liberal agenda, only to find that the country was resistant. Within two years, Democrats lost their congressional majorities.” Galston, Balz reported,

said there was little evidence heading into yesterday’s balloting that the country had taken a sharp left turn. “It’s hard to say substantively what mandate Obama and the Democrats have gotten,” he said. “They’ve gotten a chance to make their case.”

Of course, it’s hardly surprising that a committed centrist would argue that Clinton’s first term failure was that he was too liberal; Brookings identifies him as a longtime senior adviser to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a corporate-backed group that exists to push the Democratic Party to the right.

It’s a long-standing myth, and a useful one for centrists and conservatives who wish to see Democrats shift right. But there’s very little evidence that it’s actually true; in fact, it’s more likely that Clinton’s abandonment of leftist campaign promises led to the 1994 reversal of power in Washington.

As several commentators have pointed out, Democratic voter turnout declined in 1994, while Republican turnout increased. Rick Perlstein (Boston Review, Summer/04) pointed to political scientist Martin Wattenberg, who showed that “registered nonvoters in 1994 were consistently more pro-Democratic than were voters on a variety of measures of partisanship”–which suggests, wrote Perlstein, that “the real triumph of the Republicans in 1994 was not ginning up any kind of new national consensus on their issues, but in motivating their own core voters to create a temporary mirage of such a consensus.”

And why did Democratic voters not show up to the polls in ’94? It’s doubtful that it’s because Clinton went too far to the left. According to Public Citizen (cited in Huffington Post, 9/21/07), polling showed people were actually “upset about NAFTA’s passage and specifically about local representatives’ support of NAFTA.” NAFTA, remember, is exactly the sort of “centrist,” bipartisan policy that pundits urge Obama to pursue in order to reassure voters. All evidence suggests that for Clinton, it actually had the opposite effect–despite the Wall Street Journal‘s claim that it had “durable and lasting support.”

Clinton also moved to the right on the two programs that the Washington Post‘s Marcus cites as scaring off voters–he had promised during the campaign to allow gays to serve openly in the military, and he dropped the proposal pushed by Al Gore for an energy tax. Meanwhile, Clinton pushed through “welfare reform” and dramatically scaled back his promised domestic programs at the urging of deficit hawk Democrats.

As FAIR has argued in the past (Extra!, 1-2/95), this failure to address the economic stagnation that afflicted working-class and minority voters is the most plausible explanation for the Democrats’ 1994 woes; while media raved about the “rising economy,” real wages for the bottom 75 percent of workers continued their downward fall in 1993 and stayed flat in 1994.

Former Clinton official Mike Lux argued (Open Left, 11/6/08) that when the Clinton administration finally pushed healthcare to the fore, “we failed far more because of our own political mistakes, especially on not pursuing a more populist anti-insurance industry message, than because voters thought we were being too liberal.” Lux’s post-’94 election poll analysis found that “there was a 22-point difference in terms of Democratic support (in the wrong direction, of course) between those who voted [in ’94] and those who had in 1992 but didn’t in 1994, thereby sealing our fate.” And “disproportionately large among those non-voters were working-class and unmarried women.”

The move to the center overjoyed many in the media, but it seemed to take the steam out of the voters who put them in office back in 1992. Obama and the Democrats may well learn from the mistakes of Clinton’s first term, but they would be wise not to take history lessons from corporate media.