A presidential election going to the mattresses, a Senate evenly split and a House with a majority margin of seven to nine, depending on recounts–not surprisingly, the talking heads prate on about a nation divided. Whoever becomes President, the conventional wisdom holds, has no mandate and must seek bipartisan cooperation, as both parties vie for the center of a generally stable and satisfied country.
No one can deny the partisan divide in the country. As analyst Mike Lux points out, even the state legislatures are closely contested. In forty-six, a pickup of five seats or less would change party control. An election night survey by Gore pollster Stan Greenberg for the Campaign for America’s Future showed that 40 percent of voters never considered voting for Bush, while 39 percent never considered voting for Gore. Nor is the suffocating consensus that has characterized the Clinton years in doubt. Fundamental questions facing the country–globalization, global warming, the yawning divide between rich and poor, the lack of affordable healthcare, the failed drug war–were off the table during the campaign, raised, if at all, only by Ralph Nader.
Yet beneath the party divide and the centrist consensus are trends that hold promise for progressives. As Kevin Phillips, chronicler of the “emerging conservative majority” of the 1970s, noted, 52 percent of the popular vote went to Gore and Nader. This is the largest center-left vote since Lyndon Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater. The politically challenged Al Gore got more votes than heralded campaign maestro Bill Clinton ever did. And Gore was far less popular personally than were his message and his issues. The Campaign for America’s Future poll compared the two major candidates’ central arguments: Gore’s investing to make prosperity work for all versus Bush’s trust the people and give them some of their money back. Voters favored Gore’s “message” by 54 percent to Bush’s 37 percent. On specific issues, Gore’s position did even better–whether it was investing in public education over vouchers, Medicare coverage for prescription drugs rather than Bush’s subsidies to HMOs or investing the surplus rather than Bush’s tax cuts. The national exit poll showed that voters who thought issues most important voted for Gore 55 to 40 percent. This liberal trend was also reflected in the fate of state initiatives: Voters rejected vouchers in California and Michigan, for example, while passing gun control in the “pro-gun” states of Oregon and Colorado. Most striking, Californians revolted against the drug war’s lock-’em-up policies, with a large majority voting to require treatment, not prison, for those convicted of possession of any illegal drug.
The election also displayed the growing vitality of the progressive base of the Democratic Party. Unions ran an unprecedented voter mobilization program, and union households, a remarkable 26 percent of the entire electorate, voted almost 2 to 1 for Gore. African-Americans were 10 percent of the total–and far higher in battleground states; they voted 9 to 1 for Gore. Latinos accounted for as much as 7 percent and voted nearly 2 to 1 for Gore. Pro-choice women were central to Gore’s eleven-point margin among women, in a year with a record gender gap. Single women–19 percent of the electorate–preferred Gore by a thirty-one-point margin. And, of course, for all the talk about upscale voters, Democrats–even Al Gore and Joe Lieberman–do better among poor voters and worse as income rises.
Why, then, was the election so close? The conventional wisdom, codified before the vote by the Washington Post‘s David Broder, is that Gore’s “populist” campaign rhetoric hurt him: He gained little among low-income voters (Gore ran worse among non-college-educated white voters than Clinton in 1996), while allowing Bush to capture the center, unlike Clinton in 1996. This is wrongheaded. In reality, Gore’s populism–such as it was–made him competitive, erasing the seventeen-percentage-point disadvantage he suffered going into the Democratic convention.
Gore and Democrats paid a price not for having too bold an agenda or too populist a rhetoric, but from having a timid agenda that Republicans could co-opt. With his compassionate conservatism, Bush worked to portray himself as a moderate on diversity, abortion, poverty and the environment. He offered his own proposals on prescription drugs, education and a patients’ bill of rights. Greenberg’s poll showed that voters found it difficult to figure out whose proposals were better. By blurring the differences on issues, Bush, with the media’s help, focused attention on personal qualities–tying Gore to Clinton, the bitter partisanship of impeachment and the scandals that Americans could put behind them. Gore’s attempt to distance himself from Clinton left him tongue-tied about the prosperity of recent years. Similarly, in the handful of House races that were actually contested, Republicans generally survived by cross-dressing on national issues and then focusing on whatever individual personal or political vulnerability their opponents might have.
But a conservatism that dare not state its name or reveal its agenda is exhausted, and the conservative coalition that has dominated the past two decades is unraveling. Republican support is overly concentrated in the South, rural areas and the less populated West. Democrats are winning cities, gaining in suburbs and winning the young. And Republicans are paying an ever greater price as the party of white sanctuary. Bush, if he steals the election, will be deemed an accidental President, a Republican Jimmy Carter. Just as Carter was elected after Nixon’s resignation at the beginning of a conservative era, Bush may well be the post-Clinton-scandal prelude to an era of progressive reform.
If Bush takes office, progressives will inevitably face a series of rear-guard battles–fending off the rollback of environmental regulations, antichoice measures and judges, civil rights retreats, free-trade treaties, etc. Bush will seek bipartisan support for modest reforms and will find allies across the aisle. Will Marshall, president of the New Democrats’ policy outfit, the Progressive Policy Institute, crows that “New Democrats will be in a commanding position in a Bush presidency.” If Gore wins the office as well as the vote, he has a clear mandate for his modest reform agenda. He can gain twenty-five to forty GOP votes for such reforms in the House and cut deals with the Senate. He’ll use appointments and executive orders to repay labor, environmentalists and pro-choice women. But his White House, no doubt, will be as conflicted as his campaign about whether to embrace a more populist direction or adopt the upscale, new-economy strategy of the New Democrats: social liberalism and conservative economics.
In either case, progressives must push hard from below, building a movement outside electoral politics or Washington lobbying. When Carter was elected, the emerging conservative majority responded by organizing on the ground with the Moral Majority, Richard Viguerie’s direct-mail empire and the scare campaign of the Committee on the Present Danger. Halfway into his term, Carter was hiking the military budget, surrendering to the Federal Reserve’s war on the economy in the name of taming inflation and supporting covert intervention in Afghanistan.
Similarly, progressives must build independent political action to challenge the limits of the current debate in Washington. A central focus should be to respond to vital needs unmet by the new economy. An aggressive campaign on making work pay–focused on the working poor and those left behind–is vital. Living- and minimum-wage fights and the coming reauthorization of the welfare-repeal legislation offer vehicles. Progressives should revive the campaign for universal affordable healthcare, starting with children and the working poor. The bitterness left by the Nader campaign should not impede the continued growth of the “Seattle Coalition,” challenging corporate globalization. Progressive legislators should be recruited to help, finding ways to link directly with citizens’ groups in raising issues not now on the table. The discount-drug trips to Canada, exposing the scandalous drug-company pricing policies, provide a good model.
Electorally, progressives will necessarily focus on taking back the House in 2002, starting with aggressive voter registration drives coming off this contested election. Even a slim majority in the House in 2002 will give progressive committee chairs the ability to expose fundamental issues and force votes that put Republicans and conservative Democrats at risk. For this to happen, liberal Democrats must push for a bolder, more populist Democratic agenda that is harder for Republicans to co-opt.
In many ways, Election 2000 is Clinton’s final poison pill to Democrats, leaving a Republican Congress and a weak centrist President in his wake. But progressives should be emboldened, not discouraged. Americans were looking for more and are coming our way. Now is the time to push harder to consolidate an agenda and a movement for progressive reform.