And So It Begins...

by: Mike Lux

Wed Nov 05, 2008 at 17:00

By "it", of course, I refer to the great post-election debate: why did we win? Far more importantly, now that we did win, what should we do now?

I have been predicting for six months now that on the Thursday after the election, assuming a win, we would start hearing from conservative Democrats and the establishment punditocracy about how we need to go slow, not over-reach, be careful. The only thing I was wrong about was the timing: with Obama clearly ahead in the polls, the not-overreaching calls began early, and have been well-chronicled on the pages of OpenLeft. Many of these calls, actually most now that I think about it, include references to Bill Clinton's "over-reach" in 1993-94 that caused the Democrats' downfall in the 1994 elections. This post, written from the perspective of someone who was in the Clinton White House and who studied in detail what happened in the 1994 elections, will walk through why this argument is dangerously wrong for Obama and the Democrats in 2009.

Mike Lux :: And So It Begins...
The Clinton "over-reach" of 1993-94

This is one of the classic myths that conservatives and establishment pundits, helped in no small part by conservative Democrats, like to flog. The reality is that we lost the 1994 elections mostly because of the disappointment from working-class Democrats and independents, especially women, who had voted for us in big numbers in 1992 but didn't show up to vote in 1994. We lost because we didn't deliver for our voters, not because we over-reached.

The first major fight was over our first federal budget. As folks may remember, Bob Rubin and other deficit hawks convinced Clinton to dramatically scale back on his campaign promises for investments in domestic programs, and to delay health care reform until we got that budget passed. While Clinton complained that we were going with an approach more like Eisenhower than like a Democrat, he went along with the green eyeshade guys. The budget got progressively more modest over the course of the legislative battle, most importantly taking out Gore's carbon tax idea. The bill that ended up passing was reasonably progressive, but way scaled back from 1992 campaign promises or what progressive members of Congress/groups had been pushing.

The next big fight was over NAFTA, a real example of lefty over-reaching. Yeah, right. And once again, those of us in the White House pushing hard for health care reform to be prioritized early were left disappointed as once more the drive to get health reform passed got delayed. Meanwhile, our allies in the labor movement who were excited about helping us pass a health care bill had to spend millions in fighting the NAFTA battle.

Now, I will admit that trying to pass universal health care at all was a more aggressive, and progressive, thing to do. But as I have written about here, 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.

For all of our over-reaching, we didn't deliver much to those working class voters who gave us our victory in 1992. Family and Medical Leave was a great thing, and very popular, but very modest compared to bigger picture economic issues. An increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit was also terrific, but helped only a relatively small number of people.

Not delivering much is what cost us the 1994 election. I did a thorough analysis of the 1994 exit polls after the election and did a memo to my fellow White House staffers. What I found was that the key to the election were the voters that stayed home who were non-college educated, lower and middle income, younger, more women than men, and heavily Democratic. Disproportionately large among those non-voters were working class and unmarried women. Overall, there was a 22-point difference in terms of Democratic support (in the wrong direction, of course) between those who voted and those who had in 1992 but didn't in 1994, thereby sealing our fate.

Those non-voters, the key to why we got swamped in the election, were not mad at us for being too liberal or over-reaching: they were mad at us for not delivering on health care or promises far more money for education and other domestic programs.

Here's the other thing: with the economy in so much worse shape, with things bound to get worse before they get better, with the problems so big, we had better deliver. Big problems require big solutions. Going slow, being careful, being cautious, trying to solve one little problem at time in a modest, incremental way: it's just not going to work.

Barack Obama ran on change. The times require change. Let's not let incrementalists and small-minded ambition keep the big change we need from happening.

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I Remember Reading A 1994 Turnout Analysis (0.00 / 0)
That sounds a lot like yours.  Maybe it was yours, and maybe it was only a summary, since I somehow have it linked in my mind with Tom Ferguson.  Do you still have a copy?  If so, it might be nice to post the whole thing here, with some historical notes attached.

But I would add two things:

First, you are talking about reality--what Clinton really did and did not do, how people did and did not respond.  There is also the aspect of reality-shaping, which is virtually all that these media blowhards know.  And in this respect there's another glaring contradiction, since there were all manner of manufactured controversies aimed at getting Clinton to back off his allegiance to different segments of the Democratic base.  This is part of the background that weakened his hand, and contributed to the outcomes you've already described.  And what they're trying to do with Obama right now is exactly the same thing--using a false version of what happened with Clinton to pull the same shit with Obama.

Second, because the Democratic base was demobilized, the Perot voters were all the more important, and with Clinton's push for NAFTA this made it very easy for the GOP to make a play for these voters.  OTOH, if Clinton had delivered, it's quite likely he would have peeled off a good slice of those voters for the Dems.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

The Progressive vs. Conservative Governing Frame... (0.00 / 0)
is a creation of the media, which needs to create these kinds of frames in order to justify their expert "analysis" and thus keep people tuning in. Though most people self-identify with a political label--i.e  conservative or moderate or liberal--in truth, people do not vote exclusively based on these ideological labels, instead choosing a candidate who will help solve the problems they face. As Mike wrote, voters in 1994 were "not mad at us for being too liberal or over-reaching: they were mad at us for not delivering on health care or promises far more money for education and other domestic programs." Obama faces the same situation, and most "regular" people will judge him based on how he solves the problems the country faces, not on whether he offers "liberal" or "conservative" solutions. Most people want solutions, period, and will support the person who provides that solution. The rest of the talk is media chatter.

Now, I do personally believe that "progressive" solutions are what works, but that is another discussion...

Another reason to "deliver big" (4.00 / 2)
Obama WON big, an EV landslide. Thanks for this reality check against the pundit BS.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

big problems = big solutions (4.00 / 1)
I suspect this whole issue will take care of itself just because the issues (health care reform, fighting global warming, reorienting our foreign policy to actually fight terrorism rather than looking for pretenses to invade Middle Eastern countries, and of course the economy) that will be facing President Obama and the new Congress just can't plausibly be solved by small solutions or half measures.

Do You Think Those Problems Will Nudge Cass Sunstein Enough To Wake Him? (0.00 / 0)
Or is he permanently asleep?

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Do you mean that Cass Sunstein will start realizing once again (4.00 / 1)
that the wind is changing direction and change along with it?  Given his closeness to Obama that may be our best hope.

"Incrementalism isn't a different path to the same place, it could be a different path to a different place"

[ Parent ]
More important than (4.00 / 1)
why did "we" win is "what did 'we' win"? And who is "we"?

If Obama mentioned ending the war in Iraq, I missed it.

Mike You describe that just as I remember it actually happening (4.00 / 3)
The reality is important but how that reality is presented for consumption is sadly even bigger.

In 92, you and I agree ,that Perot didin't permit Bill Clinton to win.  His reentry in Oct actually denied Bill Clinton the mandate that he actually had gotten.  Clinton/Gore was at 57% after Perot's withdrawal. But there was no left media then to bring that message to public awareness to counter the false media narrative.  So Clinton's power was undercut from the beginning.

And you are absolutely right, those women who stayed home, (Emily's list had the same analysis, maybe the same pollster?, Celinda Lake, that working class, unmarried women who had such busy, overworked, low information lives stayed home in 1994.  We lost those women because Bill Clinton, due to the influence of centrtist Democrats didn't do things to make their lives better.  

And if Barack Obama listens to these selfsame folks then he is in danger of repeating this mistake...and undermining his own administration.  I think though this time there is a new media to counteract this meme, and a new media/activist infrastructure to help him deliver for all those folks.

"Incrementalism isn't a different path to the same place, it could be a different path to a different place"

Just wanted to thank you (4.00 / 1)
this is damn good blog that you sponsor and Chris and Matt are excellent.

Its been a hell of a ride. thanks


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