For all their differences it was what Bill Clinton and Karl Rove had in common that sealed their common result.
Like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, DLCers like to direct our attention to Bill Clinton’s wins in 1992 and 1996. “Pay no attention to the election behind the curtain (1994)," the one that turned the country over to conservative Republicans for 12 long years.
Yet it was the same strategy praised by the Corporate Democrats that gave the country away. After running as a populist in the 1992 election, Clinton turned on the unions and minorities who make up the base of the Democratic Party and positioned himself between the base and the Right, so-called triangulation.
The strategy was simple: play to Mark Penn’s ‘swing voters’ (soccer moms, office-park dads). Throw sops to the working class heart of the Party through small, incremental issues that were supposed to stand symbolically for the larger issues, but never offer voters anything that would change their lives.
This became the conventional wisdom for the national party. When the Right launched the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry, he was deterred from responding because his advisors told him doing so would alienate moderate, swing voters.
It wasn’t until 2006 that Democratic candidates broke free from the centrist mantra and a wave of populist candidates took both House and Senate on a populist platform attacking corporate CEO’s and defending American jobs, retirement and health care.
As described by Sherrod Brown of Ohio, for the previous 12 years Democratic candidates had positioned themselves just a few steps to the left of their Republican opponents. That way, they argued, they could appeal to everyone from there over to the left. Instead, Brown points out, doing so diminished the differences between the candidates on economic issues, leaving voters to choose on the basis of the gaping differences on social issues.
What Clinton and Rove Had in Common
On the face of it, nothing could be more different from the Rove approach: appeal to the conservative base, demonize Democrats and ‘liberals’, and slash-and-burn your way to victory. DLC revisionists will tell you he lost in the end because he failed to appeal to moderates and independents. But they predicted the same fate for the same reason in 2000, 2002 and 2004.
“Negative campaigning turns off swing voters,” they said, as they lost election after election. No. What sealed the fate of the Rove Republicans was a failure to address voters’ real world concerns.
For over a decade voters were fed the artificial constructs of pollsters and academicians – liberals/conservatives, Republicans/Democrats, swing voters/base voters. These categories are not how people think about problems in their everyday life. Nor how they think about themselves.
If they lose their job, it’s about the damn company shipping the plant overseas, about the Indians and Chinese working so cheaply. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, but about the people and institutions they see directly affecting their lives.
When United Airlines takes away workers’ pensions, everyone who works there is angry – not just swing voters or base voters. And they are angry at the people who ‘did it’ to them – United Airlines, Wall Street and CEO’s who discard them like yesterday’s trash.
Aren’t these constructs too? Yes, but constructs that reflect the real world economy and how voters see it. There is a Wall Street driven by a hunger for profits to outsource jobs. Political parties and elected officials stand several steps removed from this economic fray.
Clinton & Rove: Different Tricks, Same Game
For over a decade voters had been presented with two choices, neither of which reflected their lives, needs or aspirations: DLC centrism v. Rovian conservatism. Politics was a game played by consultants and advisors. The chips were polls and buzz words; the battleground was the media where they fought over competing abstractions. Until 2006.
Until last year when 39 of the 42 new Democratic House members stopped looking at the issue of outsourcing jobs through the conservative-moderate-liberal frame (“oh, no…if we don’t support free trade, we’ll lose the moderates”) and talked about it as voters experienced it – the bastards are stealing our jobs! Eight of the nine new Democratic Senators ran ads on the trade issue. One who didn’t was DLC favorite Harold Ford, as in non-Senator Ford.
The winning Democrats took off after Big Oil and the Big Drug companies, talking, finally, about the things that really mattered to people. And giving people real life enemies they could understand, outlets for their fear and anger that mirrored how they were seeing the world. Even Republicans recognized the power of populism, running adds against Democratic incumbents for taking money from Big Oil.
2006: Real World Issues Trump Consultants’ Abstractions
In the end neither Mark Penn's swing groups nor Karl Rove's base voters were any match for a campaign fought over the real ground that defined voters lives. In the end Clinton’s embrace of Mark Penn’s tip-toeing around the ‘swing voters’ was offset by Karl Rove’s ham-fisted appeals to conservatives.
And the country finally got a campaign fought over things voters care about. And a majority it deserved.