DONKEY KONG: The Future of the Democratic Party

Monday, May 21, 2001

In 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won reelection to a second term in one of the biggest landslides in American history. The outcome was a clear mandate in support of FDR's New Deal—an agenda of large-scale social and economic programs administered by the federal government. Sixty years later, in 1996, William Jefferson Clinton also won reelection to a second term, after declaring earlier that year that "the era of big government was over." How did the Democratic Party get from FDR to Bill Clinton? Now that the Democrats are out of the White House, will they continue the move to the center that Clinton initiated, or will they try to reinvigorate the traditional liberal base of the Democratic Party? Does that traditional base still exist?

Recorded on Monday, May 21, 2001

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, Al Gore may have won the popular vote but he lost the election and Bill Clinton is history. Where does the Democratic Party go from here?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, The Future of the Democratic Party. Let me begin with the tale of two presidents. In 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won election to a second term as president in one of the biggest landslides in American history. The outcome represented a ratification of the new deal that FDR had begun during his first term. The new deal, of course, included Social Security, the T.V.A., the W.P.A., one government program after another. In 1936, the era of big government had begun in earnest. Sixty years later, in 1996, William Jefferson Clinton won election to a second term as president. Clinton would go on to become the first Democratic president since FDR himself to complete two full terms in office. Shortly after his re-election, Bill Clinton announced, quote "The era of big government is over." From the era of big government beginning to the era of big government ending, how did the Democratic Party go from FDR to Bill Clinton? Now that the party is out of the White House, what will it do? Press for more big government? Accept smaller government? Appeal to the suburbs or attempt to reenergize its traditional liberal base? For that matter, does its traditional base even exist any more? With us today, two guests, Susan Rasky, a former correspondent for the New York Times, teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkley. David Kennedy, a professor of History at Stanford, is the Pulitzer-prize winning author of the book, Freedom From Fear.

Title: Party Animals

Peter Robinson: I begin with a quotation from a leading Democrat, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, Robert Reich, quote--quote, "The Democratic establishment in Washington is no longer connected to the grass roots. The national party is nothing but a fundraising machine. Congressional Democrats who flock to the center of a rightward creeping agenda lack the courage of any strong conviction." Closed quote. The Democratic Party, utterly out of touch and lacking in conviction. Do you concur, Susan?

Susan Rasky: No, I do not concur.

Peter Robinson: Do you come close to concurring?

Susan Rasky: I don't think so.

Peter Robinson: David?

David Kennedy: No, I don't concur at all. In fact, in the last presidential election, the Democratic Maj--Party achieved an electoral majority.

Peter Robinson: There is that convenient little fact isn't there? All right. Let's start--we'll step back from the last election to elections long past and try to discuss a little bit of the history of the Democratic Party. The sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset notes that a persistent characteristic of the Democratic Party has been that it has been a party of the outsiders, of the poor, of the people of the margins. Two centuries ago, the Democratic Party may have had rich patrons, Thomas Jefferson to name one, but even then, even two centuries ago, at the inception of that party, Northern workers, the Proletariats, to the extent that it existed in our cities, tended to vote Democratic. How did that pattern become established?

David Kennedy: Well, the--the Democratic Party as--as we would recognize it historically really emerges in the age of Andrew Jackson. And Jackson's great achievement was to put together a coalition of Western farmers, Southern and Western farmers, and Northeastern urban artisans. And in--in a rough outline form, I think that's been the historic base of the party, down through about the 1960's. And then the Democratic Party lost the--the South, at least the presidential election…

Peter Robinson: Tocqueville traveled the country…what--what--what were the years?

David Kennedy: 1830's.

Peter Robinson: 1830's. So Andrew Jackson is a prominent figure and president--becomes pres--elected president what year?

David Kennedy: 1828.

Peter Robinson: 1828, okay. So he's here during the Jackson period exactly.

David Kennedy: Oh yes.

Peter Robinson: And Tocqueville uses the phrases, the aristocratic and the democratic principals, and associate the aristocratic--of course, in those days it was the Whig Party that permeatated into today's Republican Party. But even then there was that feeling that the Democratic Party was the party of the little guy. Now to some extent, is that simply the way parties tend to sort themselves out in European democracies? In--in Britain you have the Tory Party, which would be very easy to call the Aristocratic Party, the party of the upper-middle class, and the party of the little guy--that's just the way parties tend to sort themselves out?

Susan Rasky: I think that's right. I mean, if you're a journalist, as I am, you think of the modern Democratic Party, the Democratic Party, as we know it, or are talking about it today, to have begun in '32. Right, we don't--we don't go as far back as…

Peter Robinson: The election of 1932 or…?

Susan Rasky: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: All right. 18--David's--David's quite as comfortable talking about 1832 as 1932.

Susan Rasky: 32. But--but my point is that we tend to think of it as a col--a collection as…

Peter Robinson: Okay, let's get to that point then. So we have--talked a moment about the inception of the Democratic Party. Then we have--Civil War occurs for much of that period. The Republican War, Republican Abraham Lincoln. And the Republican Party, the party of the North, of business, of Middle America, proves ascendant for decades, in particular between the end of the 1st World War and through the 1920's. The Republican Party is absolutely dominant. Then occurs the Great Depression and the election in 1932 of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Now describe what FDR meant to the Democratic Party.

Susan Rasky: Well, what FDR was able to do at a time--I mean, I think you also have to put it in the context of the economic times--that what FDR was able to do was put together a coalition of the economically disenfranchised groups. Take the racial minorities, and at that time the important racial minority for the Democrats were African-Americans. Take the poor, take the unions just beginning to come of age, working people, the party of the working man. And that's what it is…

Peter Robinson: From John Fitzgerald Kennedy to William Jefferson Clinton, how did the Democratic Party go from that A to that B?

Title: I Knew Jack Kennedy…

Peter Robinson: It strikes me that it's possible to draw a straight line from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, through Harry Truman, to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, but that it is impossible--there is a sharp discontinuity between John Kennedy and Teddy Kennedy. 1960, John Kennedy proposes a sweeping income tax cut--incidentally, I looked--I had a feeling you might challenge me on this. The Encyclopedia Britannica uses the adjective sweeping, sweeping income--or massive, rather. Massive income tax cuts. Today Ted--Teddy Kennedy is resisting income tax cuts. John Kennedy calls for stronger national defenses; Teddy Kennedy has consistently proven skeptical of defense expenditures. It would have been unthinkable for John Kennedy in 1960 to support gay rights, abortion on demand. The year 2001, it would be unthinkable for Teddy Kennedy to oppose gay rights or abortion on demand. Something happens to the Democratic Party between John and his brother, Teddy. What? What?

Susan Rasky: Lyndon Johnson for one thing, which means I disagree with your theory. I think that something--I--I assume what you mean is that something happens that takes the Democratic Party on a different track?

Peter Robinson: Right.

Susan Rasky: I--I--I think you have to put the Kennedy cu--tax cuts in context. It was coming out of a stagnant economy, not a booming economy, a stagnant economy. And our tax rates at that point were so high that a cut just made smart economic sense. I don't think it was a partisan--you're taking it to mean or you seem to be taking it to mean what a tax cut means politically today. I think is a very different ethos around the Ken…

David Kennedy: The tax retro that John F. Kennedy was trying to reform was essentially still the World War II…

Susan Rasky: World War II. Exactly.

David Kennedy: …that structure.

Susan Rasky: Exactly.

Peter Robinson: Right. The point is that something happens in the Democratic Party. George McGovern becomes a standard bearer in 1972. The two I can't get--I am trying very hard to make one of you the first word--the first to use the L word, Liberal. But you've just forced me to do it. The Democratic Party becomes home to Liberals. It moves to the left. How come? David?

David Kennedy: Well, there's--something else happens in the '60's, which I think is actually more important than the--the capitalization of the L word. Let's see if we can put it that way. And it is--it's the race issue. Lyndon Johnson, when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964…

Susan Rasky: Which of course Kennedy had started and was not able to put it through…

David Kennedy: Which is started on Kennedy's watch--it started on Truman's watch for that matter.

Susan Rasky: That's right.

David Kennedy: The first significant federal intervention in the race matter in a century, since reconstruction, when Johnson signed that bill he turned, I believe, to Bill Moyers, or somebody who was standing near him, and--and as he put the final signature on the bill he said, "I think we've just lost the South forever." Well, that was a very prophetic and--and astute statement, because the solid South, which had been reliably Democratic for a century, became almost immediately thereafter no longer reliable for the national Democratic Party. That's the major change that changed the whole composition of the Democratic elector.

Peter Robinson: They lose the South. Democrats--during this period, as the Democratic Party moves to the left--will you let me say that? Is that a fair thing to say, the Democratic Party moved to the left?

David Kennedy: Go on.

Peter Robinson: Okay, but I want to know why it happened, why the Democratic Party did so, because the Democratic Party losses the South. That's one piece of FDR's coalition. Richard Nixon gets a good portion of the blue-collar vote and Ronald Reagan gets a majority of it. These are the Slavs, the--the Italians and so forth, those recent immigrants. And Ronald Reagan and George Bush, father, both get a majority of the Catholic vote. The point I'm trying to make is that the Democratic Party pays an extremely heavy political price for moving to the left. Why did it make that move? David?

David Kennedy: Well it--it moves left partly because I think it loses the ballast of the South. The South had been a very conservative element in the Democratic coalition. And though--though other elements in the Democratic Party and the urban North had been, you might say, trying to move leftward, they were restrained by the necessities of this electoral coalition that included the South. But you know there--there are also deep ironies in this, it seems to me in a way. Because the--the--what Franklin Roosevelt's new deal does, essentially, is to bring into the mainstream of American life this--this--this enormous immigrant generation that had arrived around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. We're talking about twenty-five million people who showed up in the quarter century before World War I. Their political loyalties, in fact, were not very well established until the 1930's. Roosevelt brings them into the Democratic Party, lays on programs like Social Security and so on, and the whole mortgage insurance, one thing or another that helps all these people move into the great middle class. And then their sons and daughters, in the new era of prosperity in the post-war era, become Republicans. So to the extent of the difference between these parties is economic, there's--there's an irony that the--the Democrats are, to a degree, the victims of their own success.

Peter Robinson: We come now to the significance of the 42nd president, Mr. Clinton.

Title: It Takes a Clinton

Peter Robinson: Bill Clinton actually reverses a number of trends. He does pretty well in the South. The majority Catholic vote goes back to the Democrats under Bill Clinton. The majority blue-collar vo--vote goes back to the Democrats under Bill Clinton. And Bill Clinton makes some pretty good inroads into white suburbs, which had traditionally voted Republican. So the question is, how did he do that? What happens under Bill Clinton?

Susan Rasky: Because--because he was smart enough to look at the shift in population. By 1992, the suburbs was where the majority of voters lived. It doesn't take rocket science to figure out that to be president you need to go where the votes are. So the suburbs start becoming the focus…

Peter Robinson: Right, so they become a central portion of his strategy. And what does he do to win the suburbs?

Susan Rasky: Well, one…

Peter Robinson: What's different about him from other Democrats?

Susan Rasky: Well, it seems to me that his electoral success is his ability to synthesize the old stuff and the new stuff. The mantra of the Clinton administration is one that they pick up in focus groups. It's the same thing that folks have been telling the Republican Party for years, which is, people who work hard and obey the laws ought to get something. It's a--a euphemism for saying; we don't want to be a welfare state anymore. It begins to steal some of the ideas that have been grist for the Democrats.

Peter Robinson: Very similar to Richard Nixon's silent majority, isn't it?

David Kennedy: Well, in a sense. But you know, the--the--the Susan just said something interesting here. The suburbs are now demographically the most important part of American society. The urban era in American history lasted just seventy years, from 1920 to--that's the first census that shows a majority urban--to 1990, which is the first census that shows a majority suburban. Now suburbs are not just physical places, they're a way of life and a culture. I think Nix--or Clinton's great insight was that the Democratic Party had to re-tailor its message from that old urban new deal era into the post-urban suburban moment at the end of the twentieth century. So what does he do? He distances himself somewhat from the elements in the Democratic coalition that had produced electoral trouble for the party. So that's why he puts down Sister Solja.

Peter Robinson: He says, I'm no Liberal, I'm in favor of the death penalty. I'm no--I'm not going to get too cozy to the Black activist that puts down Sister Solja, so he puts distance between himself and the really quite hard Liberal element of the Party.

David Kennedy: Right.

Peter Robinson: What else does he do?

David Kennedy: Well, the other thing he does, which has a--a riskier electoral strategy that I think paid off for him eventually, is he supports free trade, which really cuts against the grain of the preferences of a lot of those old urban industrial working class constituents of the Party. The fact that--that Clinton could so successfully support NAFTA and the Chinese trade deal, those pair of policies, is an index of how he fell liberated from the old constituent basis of the Party.

Susan Rasky: And those very constituencies who vowed that they would run candidates against Demo--Clinton Democrats in the primaries, i.e. Labor…

Peter Robinson: The unions.

Susan Rasky: …ends up being Clinton's most--most important supportive, getting out the vote, providing the kind of money to run in expenditure television.

Peter Robinson: Because he causes them to recognize that in this new world he's the best they're going to get. That's right? Now here is the big question about William Jefferson Clinton--Clinton. The question is, did he indeed succeed in leaving a legacy--did he indeed succeed in bringing the Democratic Party back to the mainstream? Now, of course, you have to avoid totalogy. Any guy that wins more votes than the other guy, in some sense, is the champion of the mainstream. But what I mean to say is, did he leave a legacy to the Democratic Party on which it can now act? Susan?

Susan Rasky: I have to believe yes. And I have to believe that partly because you look at what the Republican constituency would be. I mean this is not a one-sided game.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Susan Rasky: You know, there's--there is a--a permanent floating constituency that shifts between these two parties, right? And it's the--the ability to attract enough of that say twenty percent in the middle that maybe thinks of itself as independent but is, in fact, a leaner one way or the other. It's the ability to grab a piece of that twenty percent that makes the difference in an election. What Clinton did was establish a route for Democrats to get a piece of that twenty percent.

Peter Robinson: And what is that--what is that--we mentioned that he put some distance between himself and the harder left elements of the party…

Susan Rasky: I--I think a--a way that might be helpful to look at this is the ability to…

Peter Robinson: I'm looking for an enduring legacy of Clinton.

Susan Rasky: It seems to me that Bill Clinton's enduring ind--enduring legacy is to say government can do some things well. There are some things that ought to be left to the province of government. I think that's--that may be one of his most important legacies, because you hear George Bush echoing it now. Whether he believes it, I'm not sure. But you hear a rhetoric that is pleasing to people in the center who want to believe that.

Peter Robinson: We come at last to the present. What does the Democratic Party stand for today?

Title: Down and Out on Capitol Hill

Peter Robinson: We said at the outset that from it's inception Tocqueville notices that the Democratic Party is in some way, all those decades ago, the party of the little guy, the dispossessed, the poor. Franklin Roosevelt ratifies that in a new way. And now you have a Republican president talking not just about conservatism, which would resonate with someone like me, but compassionate conservatism. Compassion being that great feeling for the little man, the downtrodden, the dispossessed. And not only does he have a--a kind of rhetorical trope going that indicates a willingness, indeed a determination, to reach into the Democratic constituency, but he knows exactly what he wants. He has an--a--a--an agenda on education, on defense, on tax cuts. He knows what he wants. Now here is the way that it looks to me that the Democrats are responding. They're saying, no, no, no, no, we can't have those tax--no, no, no, no, no, you mustn't reform Social Security or Medicare. On energy, no, no, no, no, no, that's all--all wrong, all wrong. And by contrast, with Franklin Roosevelt, who had the initiative, who knew what he wanted to do and rolled out one item on the agenda after the other. By contrast, with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who likewise had the initiative, knew what he wanted to do, the Democrats today look like the Republicans at there worst in the 1960's, that is to say a party of mere obstruction. Just saying no!

Susan Rasky: Aren't you comparing a party that's holding the presidency to a party that's holding…

Peter Robinson: Is that all that it is?

Susan Rasky: …that's not holding at the moment.

Peter Robinson: Is th--is that all that it is?

Susan Rasky: That's a huge part of what it is.

Peter Robinson: Newt Gingrich…

Susan Rasky: The agenda belongs to the White House, not the Congress.

Peter Robinson: Right, okay. Newt Gingrich becomes Speaker in 19--well, he actually becomes Speaker in 1995. And for three years, I will not say it was an altogether successful experiment, but for three years he tries to behave as though he's president of the United States. That is to say--my point is that even though the Republican Party during those years did not hold the White House, there was a sense of intellectual ferment, a sense of initiatives, sorting through the agenda, coming up with a program for the country that I, myself, find completely lacking on the Democratic side today. Am I simply being blind?

David Kennedy: Well, the--the--the Gingrich matter, I think, was a really unique and distinctive moment. We--it's very difficult to use the base of Congress, or you might say the parliamentary dimension of the American system, as that kind of forum to really shape an agenda and pull everybody together. The--the presidency is the place where the bully pulpit is and that's the--the president is the person who can ascend to the bully pulpit.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you this. You could say--go back to the sixties and seventies and you can say out here in California, Ronald Reagan, Governor of California from '66 through '72, steps down and he's working out an agenda. He's giving radio talks, he's criss-crossing the country, speaking, he's working out a new agenda for the Republican Party. You could argue that at the same time there were Liberal Republicans in the Northeast who were working out an agenda in their various think tanks and--they lost in the end--but you could point to two or three or four centers of intelligence and initiative on the Republican side during those years, a sense of ferment. You could have disagreed with them, you could have thought they would come to nothing, but you say, these are people who are working it. Where is that on the Democratic side?

David Kennedy: Well, I think it's hard to see, frankly.

Peter Robinson: It is?

David Kennedy: I think it's a worry for the Democratic Party that doesn't have that kind of leading intellectual voice, or organizational voice, that really is pointing it in a given direction. I mean, the disappearance of Al Gore, mysterious disappearance of Al Gore from the national scene, Clinton's exit from the White House under a certain cloud of--of discomfort even while he remains the titular head of the Party, has kind of decapitated the Party, at least temporarily. It's very difficult to see where those kinds of centers of organization, long term strategic planning are.

Peter Robinson: Final topic: Demographic Trends. Who benefits most? Republicans or Democrats?

Title: Megatrends

Peter Robinson: Trend number one: The move to the Sun Belt continues. Results of the last census, states in the North are going to lose a few seats in Congress. States in the South and West are going to pick up seats. Whose it help?

David Kennedy: Well, I--I don't think the answer to that is obvious.

Peter Robinson: Oh, it is not obvious?

David Kennedy: The biggest Sun Belt state is California.

Peter Robinson: California.

David Kennedy: By far. It's got one-eighth, I think, of all the population of the country and a commensurate proportion of all the electoral votes you need to win the presidency.

Peter Robinson: It will pick up one seat.

David Kennedy: And the--the--California has in recent years been solidly Democratic. So, thanks to…

Peter Robinson: But aside from California…

David Kennedy: Well, you can--you can't brush aside the largest state, which in fact is twice as large as the next largest, which is Texas.

Susan Rasky: In the short-term Republicans, you'll be happy. (Inaudible).

Peter Robinson: Well, in the short-term outside California Republicans but David saw that coming. I should have couched it a little more subtly, I suppose.

Peter Robinson: Trend number two: Stock market participation. It used to be quite a re--reliable Democratic ploy to rail against Wall Street. And just a couple of decades ago it was only a small fraction of American households that were invested in the stock market. Today over fifty percent either own stocks, 401k's, mutual funds. In one way or another, over half of American households are in the market. Who's that help?

Susan Rasky: I'd say that helps both parties.

Peter Robinson: Does it?

Susan Rasky: Yes. Absolutely.

David Kennedy: Well, I--I think I probably agree, but it al--it also strikes me in that regard how anomalous it seemed in the last presidential campaign when Al Gore repeatedly invade against the big corporations.

Peter Robinson: Why was he trying to get class warfare going?

David Kennedy: That was--that was a voice from the Democratic Party past. This did not seem appropriate.

Peter Robinson: He was a few decades out of sync on that one.

David Kennedy: I think that was one of his greatest tactical mistakes.

Peter Robinson: Okay, here's, to my mind, the big one: Hispanics. They've edged out African-Americans as the largest racial, or ethnic, minority in the country. Birth rates and immigration patterns both suggest that Hispanics will continue to grow as a proportion of the nation's population. Now, they have tended to vote Democratic. On the other hand, they tend to be socially conservative, hard working, forming small businesses so they'd be sensitive to all the things that small business owners would. And that would suggest to me the Republicans have a shot with them. Susan?

Susan Rasky: Republicans keep telling themselves that. In California, at least, that's not the case. There's a state legacy here of such mistrust of the Republican Party that it doesn't seem any time in the near future Republicans…

Peter Robinson: That's a problem that will take a decade to overcome.

Susan Rasky: That's right. I mean, a gen--a generation…

Peter Robinson: Republicans position themselves as the anti-immigrant party in this state.

Susan Rasky: That's right. And it will be…

David Kennedy: They endorsed and supported Prop. 187.

Susan Rasky: Yeah, no, it will be a generation. But I think we do make a mistake if we consider Hispanics as a monolith. I think the experience of other groups who have immigrated shows it--it has a lot to do with how long you've been here. Are you first generation, are you second generation, are you third generation? As people have been here, for a time their economic interests change.

Peter Robinson: So it's fair to say the expectation regarding Hispanics ought to be the same as the expectations regarding the Irish or the Italian. That is to say, as they become middle class and move up the socio-economic ladder, they'll tend to vote more Republican.

David Kennedy: If history is any guide, they will tend to enter the middle class, and the middle class is--is more friendly territory for the Republican Party, that's true. But I think, as--as far into the future as we can see from this vantage point, a lot of these big Latino communities, and I think Susan is absolutely right, there are many of them. There's Puerto Ricans, there's Cubans, there Central Americans, there are Mexicans, and they aren't all alike. But the point is, those--those communities, I think, are going to be economically precarious for quite a long time to come, as far into the future as we can reasonably see. So I--I don't think they are going to be ripe pickings for the Republican Party any time soon.

Peter Robinson: Okay, it's television, alas, so we have to close it out. But I want to close it out with asking for some predictions. Country's perfectly balanced between the two. This would be an almost, what, 1880's there were periods when the country just couldn't quite seem to make a decision. Although the Democrats tended--or the Republicans tended to win the presidency. It was always a knife's edge election. So the question is, are we in for a period like the 1880's, are we in for a decade or a decade and--and a half of a very close balance of the kind of national inability to make up it's mind between these two parties, or are we in for a quicker correction, four years from now, six years from now, one party or the other will have moved back to a position of advantage? David?

David Kennedy: Well, we--we've been in a period for about thirty years that resembles the late nineteenth century, which is just as you describe. A great--a very precise--precarious balance between the two parties. No one is…

Peter Robinson: Those big Reagan victories don't--don't dent that parallel?

David Kennedy: Well, they--they punctuate the period to a certain degree, but Reagan didn't hold control of the Congress for more than a couple of years.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Susan Rasky: Yeah, very heavily Democratic Congress for part of that.

David Kennedy: A period like the one between 1932 and the 1950's, a long period of time when the presidency and both houses of Congress have safe control of the same party. That--that is a pattern we haven't seen for thirty years. So we may be…

Peter Robinson: And that aint coming back?

David Kennedy: Well, I don't know. I would--I would say, again, if the historical pattern gives us any predictive value, we may be on the edge of some final or dramatic resolution of this uncertainty. And one or the other party will emerge in the near future as a long-term majority party.

Peter Robinson: Which party?

David Kennedy: Well, I'm--I'm going to predict it's the Democratic Party, of course.

Peter Robinson: You partisan, you. David, Susan, thank you very much.

Susan Rasky: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: Neither of our guests could say any better than I could myself which direction the Democratic Party will take from here. But they were both convinced the Party will pick up strength at the next election. Myself? I doubt it. Who says partisanship doesn't influence perception? I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.