Avoiding the Triangulation Trap

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April 2000


Avoiding the Triangulation Trap

Reforming Liberalism Without Abandoning It

By Stephen Pomper


Reinventing Democrats:The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton

By Kenneth Baer
University Press of Kansas

Click on the title to buy the book

Kenneth Baer's Reinventing Democrats is a history of the Democratic Leadership Council written with the detached objectivity of a hometown sports columnist covering the local team in a pennant race. The DLC (they're the home team) was formed in the mid-1980s by a group of reform-minded Democrats hoping to resurrect the Party after two crushing defeats by the Reagan juggernaut. Since then, the Party has been transformed from the Party of McGovern---associated with peaceniks and radicals, free-flowing entitlements, and unwieldy bureaucracy---to the Party of Clinton---the man who presided over welfare reform and declared that "the era of big government is over." Baer wants to credit the DLC (and its "New Democrat" followers) for recognizing that the Democrats' McGovern-era politics "repelled the working class and middle class voters who were once at the heart of the [Democratic] coalition" and for having the vision, tenacity, and political smarts to change the Party's course.

Despite Baer's evident sympathies, Reinventing Democrats is a detailed, accessible, and useful account of how an important political institution made friends and influenced people. But the book is a lot less appealing when it goes after the opposition---not the GOP, but the old liberal wing of the Party. Baer tends to hit the liberals in spots where the DLC ought to be a bit sensitive itself. And in suggesting that the Party cast off its liberal heritage, Baer fails to acknowledge the presence in that tradition of certain core values worth retaining.

Game Plan

If you imagine the DLC as a team, then the captain would have to be Al From. A veteran of the Carter administration, From took over the House Democratic Caucus after the 1980 elections with visions of rejuvenating his ailing party. He had some natural allies. As Baer points out, there were at least three strains of Democratic pols who felt the party needed redirection---Southern Democrats like Sen. Sam Nunn and Sen. Lawton Chiles, neoconservatives like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and neoliberals like Rep. Tim Wirth and Sen. Gary Hart. Although they came to their views from different angles, they wound up agreeing on many of the same positions: They believed that the Democratic Party should be tougher on crime and foreign policy, less spendthrift with entitlements, and less indulgent of entrenched special interests like civil servants and unions. They also thought that moving the party in this direction would "restore its electoral viability" with the middle class that had deserted it for Ronald Reagan.

How did a group of elite politicians and operatives transform a political party?

First, they gave themselves a little bit of distance. After several unsuccessful attempts to influence the party establishment from within, the reformers formed the DLC as an extra-party organization in 1985. This avoided what Bruce Babbitt referred to as the "Noah's Ark problem"---the need to satisfy diverse constituents by taking representative positions on behalf of each one. They could also raise their own money (which DLC honchos like Virginia's Chuck Robb were notably good at), start their own think tank (the Progressive Policy Institute), and publicize their own views without tangling with the cumbersome Party bureaucracy.

Second, they worked the rules. They pressured the party to create a new class of "super delegates" consisting of state party leaders and elected officials who, they hoped, would balance out the interest groups that had come to dominate Democratic conventions. They also lobbied to cluster Southern and Western state primaries on "Super Tuesday," so that candidates who were strong in that part of the country (especially conservative Southern Democrats) would get an early boost that could offset a poor showing in more liberal Iowa or New Hampshire.

Third, they aimed for the top. After the Dukakis/Bentsen defeat in 1988, the DLC decided to groom their own hand-picked candidate for the White House. Baer reports that in 1989 Al From flew to Little Rock and told then Governor Bill Clinton: "Have I got a deal for you... If you take the DLC Chairmanship, we will give you a national platform, and I think you will be President of the United States."

And finally, they squawked when Clinton strayed. Baer describes the rising fury within the DLC when Clinton spent his early political capital on "Old Democrat" issues like gays in the military, Lani Guinier, and universal health care. After the disastrous 1994 elections, Dave McCurdy (an Oklahoma congressman who had lost his job) denounced Clinton as a "transitional figure" and PPI began working on a "Third Way Project" that might be the basis for a third-party movement. An embattled Clinton mended the fence by "triangulating" toward more conservative positions and pushing ahead on welfare reform---and by the 1996 elections, the DLC was confident they had him back in the fold.

Baer sometimes strains to make the DLC look like the secret of Clinton's success---and indeed he never convincingly puts to rest the suspicion that it was the other way around. But this does not keep the strategic summary from being an insightful look at the organization's motivations and methods.

Double Standard

The bigger problem for Reinventing Democrats stems from the way in which Baer attacks both liberals and liberalism. As a DLC partisan, Baer wants us to believe that the New Democrats have identified the way forward. This leads him to go after the old guard in a manner that is neither evenhanded nor especially thoughtful.

Baer is most glaringly unfair in his discussion of special interest money. He is highly critical of the influence this money has on the left and almost entirely blind to it on the right. For example, in lamenting that liberal organizations like the AFL-CIO and Sierra Club successfully lobbied against the extension of President Clinton's fast track free trade powers, Baer notes that, "New Democrats were disheartened as even some of their own... succumbed to the pressure of labor's deep pockets and opposed the extension."

Yet while he's happy to suggest that big labor bought and paid for the fast track vote, Baer doesn't so much as acknowledge the influence of big corporate and other right-wing money on American politics. He blames the failure of the 1993 health-care reforms on strategic miscalculations by the Clinton administration without even a reference to the millions of dollars that the health-care industry poured into the Harry and Louise ads that soured the public on Clinton's plan. And he refuses to meaningfully address criticism of the DLC for a convention sponsored by, among others, tobacco giants RJR Nabisco and Phillip Morris. He simply notes that the DLC had always had "elite---corporate and private---donors" and that "in a polarized environment... this facet of the organization was particularly objectionable to liberals." Somehow the liberals get blamed again.

Not Ready to Say Goodbye

But the bottom-line question for many Democrats will be how enthusiastically to embrace Baer's soaring conclusion that with each electoral victory for the New Democrats, it will be "harder and harder to return to the liberalism that preceded it." To some extent this is a definitional question: If by liberalism Baer refers to the flawed and often counter-productive prejudices, hypocrisies, and interest group politics that characterized the Party from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s, then his conclusion is not especially troubling. But if by liberalism Baer refers to the conviction that there is a strong role for the federal government in promoting equality in American society, then it becomes more disconcerting.

To be sure, liberals themselves have debated what sort of equality the government should promote. Mainstream liberals have tended to believe that government should be an agent for wealth redistribution---with liberals in the 1930s leaning towards something approaching full redistribution and those in the 1960s tending to embrace more modest wealth shifting along the lines accomplished through welfare. By contrast, starting in the 1970s, neoliberals (including Mickey Kaus and other editors of this magazine) turned the emphasis away from wealth shifting and argued that the government should instead focus on developing a network of civic institutions to support a more socially egalitarian society---one where Americans would have both greater opportunity through economic mobility and the capacity to lead meaningful lives regardless of their material resources.

During the 1970s and 1980s, neoliberal writers developed a platform that served this agenda in a series of articles that appeared in these pages.1 The platform was an ideological mixed bag, with proposals that were in some cases considerably to the right, and in others considerably to the left, of mainstream liberalism. Because many of these views wound up in the DLC's platform, they merit a moment's examination..

The neoliberal "conservative" positions included proposals that would make it easier to hold federal bureaucrats and teachers accountable for underperformance, supported tough prison sentences for violent offenders, advocated military spending for critical weapons systems, and encouraged entrepreneurship. The neoliberals argued that mainstream liberal positions on these issues often had sympathetic foundations, but failed to address major problems the country was facing: Liberal sympathies for affirmative government led them to resist desperately needed bureaucratic reform; a concern for public education led them to support teachers' unions that blocked entry to non-union talent and hurt the public schools; empathy for Jean ValJean led them to ignore the real dangers posed by violent offenders and to underplay the distinction between violent and non-violent crime (an oversight that continues to contribute to prison overcrowding); memories of Vietnam caused them to oppose military spending that was vital to national security; and the knowledge of corporate misdeeds kept them from supporting entrepreneurship despite the fundamental importance of a prosperous private sector.

At the same time, however, the neoliberals supported institution-building proposals that were well to the left of mainstream liberal positions. In the case of health care, this magazine called for the creation of a national health service that would free doctors to focus on treating patients rather than collecting insurance claims, and free patients from the anxiety of medical expenses. Another neoliberal proposal with strongly socialist overtones was to create a compulsory national service, where people from different classes would mix, learn from each other, and develop a sense of civic responsibility. The neoliberals also continued to believe that strong federal regulation of everything from drugs to aviation was needed to protect the public---although they reserved the right to criticize the regulatory agencies for falling down on the job.

While the neoliberal platform was therefore ideologically diversified, it was not a compromise position between the political right and the political left. Planks on the right were intended to reform and strengthen government and society, and positions on the left were intended to create the network that neoliberals felt was needed to support the egalitarian society they envisaged. Taken together, the planks served the core neoliberal values of "community, democracy, and prosperity."

Half a Mansion

Now compare the neoliberal platform to the New Democratic "public philosophy" that Baer describes. Do they share the same goals and values? Certainly, the language of "opportunity, responsibility, and community" that Clinton and the DLC have promoted resonates with the neoliberal values of the 1980s. And certainly many of the planks in the DLC platform, and policies that have been implemented---from reinventing government, to the administration's pro-growth economic policies, to welfare reform---have a clear neoliberal heritage. But what about the institutions that the neoliberal platform was committed to building and the governmental role that it continued to support?

Here, the New Democrats may be less than fully committed. The DLC's line on health care has been decisively incremental. Baer treats the establishment of the Corporation for National Service (which sponsors the Americorps volunteer program that employs roughly 40,000 people) as satisfying the DLC's commitment to national service---even though its far more expansive original plan was to require service as a condition to receiving student loans. In the area of welfare reform, the DLC has failed to provide leadership on the kinds of supports---from job training to enriching childcare---that welfare-to-work participants will need in order to succeed.

The fact is the DLC has "triangulated" towards a more skeptical view of the federal government in the eight years of the Clinton Administration. Baer says that this is in part "born out of the belief that the Information Age, with its global, information-based economy, has made centralized bureaucratic structures obsolete." That's only true if the decentralized bureaucracies and market mechanisms at the receiving end of all this information actually fill the social needs that have to be met. And a quick glance at the nation's decentralized education and childcare systems suggests that we can't yet count on them to do that.

At the end of the day, it's hard to believe that the DLC's commitment to "opportunity, responsibility, and community" is complete without a strong commitment to the public institutions that will be necessary to make equality of opportunity a realistic possibility. The public philosophy that Baer describes may comprise many worthy ideas but it is lacking in that crucial respect. And that's one reason why all Democrats---New and Old---should think about keeping their good friend liberalism around for just a while longer.

Stephen Pomperis an editor of The Washington Monthly. You can email him byclicking hereor read his other articles byclicking here

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