Well before Bill Clinton mastered the skill of political survival, and became the most consequential ex-president since Theodore Roosevelt, he pulled off a more pivotal achievement. Clinton essentially restored the Democratic Party as an electoral force by shoring up its credibility on fiscal policy, social policy, and race, and in so doing, he drew two crucial blocs firmly back into his party: blue collar whites and suburban professionals. The modern electoral map, which allots most of the industrial north and Midwest to Democrats and in which suburb-heavy states like California and New Jersey have not been contested in a generation, is the legacy of Clinton’s restoration project.
Republicans face a comparable predicament to the one pre-Clinton Democrats faced in the late eighties, and to compound the analogy, it is a challenge along roughly the same fronts with a very similar alignment of voter blocs. If Walter Mondale’s Democrats seemed wedded at the hip to their union benefactors, today’s Republicans seem just as tied to corporate lobbies or billionaires. If the party that nominated George McGovern seemed mired in the grip of left-leaning activists bent on a radical redesign of social policy, Republicans appear to be under the sway of one network and a bevy of factions who are just as bent on a counter-cultural revolution from the right. The combination of money and noise exerted veto power on late eighties Democrats, much as contemporary Republicans are constrained by their own base.
And the blue collars and suburbanites whom Clinton strategized over are the very same slices of the electorate that allowed Barack Obama to run the battleground table with the exception of North Carolina (whose unpopular Democratic governor and nine percent plus unemployment should have made a 2.5 point margin much more comfortable).
The particulars of the Clinton project are worth recalling. The adoption of welfare reform served as an antidote to voters who associated Democrats with the transfer of tax dollars to the irresponsible. The denunciation of a rapper for loose lyrics about police violence seemed to erase the pandering, excuse making side of the party’s DNA. The now forgotten middle class tax cut proposal may not have survived Clinton’s first budget cycle, but it did its job by linking his party to the economic fortunes of a group that hadn’t seemed needy enough to be a liberal priority.
My strong hope is that Republicans, my new party, are about to discover their Clinton instincts. Had those sensibilities surfaced in the last ninety days, Mitt Romney would likely be planning a transition now. It is not hard to imagine the impact of a well-timed denunciation of the Todd Akin/Richard Murdock mythologies on rape not as gaffes, but as wrong-headed efforts to have government substitute for the conscience and moral judgment of a victimized woman. A fleshed out plan to rescue homeowners underwater on ill-conceived mortgages would have reflected some of the smarter instincts in the conservative intelligentsia in the last several years, while paying dividends with voters who associated the GOP with the blocking of initiatives and little else. Grabbing and running with Senator Marco Rubio’s version of the Dream Act before Obama absconded with it would have made a difference in Florida and Colorado.
But the tactical missed chances by Romney’s operation are history. The current challenge is finding a GOP pathway to do on the right what Clinton did in the salvation of the left 20 years ago: first, restoring the party’s bona fides as an institution capable of thinking and governing and not just pawing under the commands of its base. Second, overcoming a resistance to smart, fiscally disciplined innovation and reform.
It’s a repositioning that would demand taking on some of the party’s strongest rhetorical and ideological streams. There is an element in conservatism that distrusts government enough to fear even market based reforms to education or healthcare; it is a dead ringer for the liberal skepticism a generation ago of any rethinking of welfare on the ground that a changed course was tantamount to yielding to a right-wing backlash. The fixation in some circles on the cultural threat from immigration, and the Fox News inspired drumbeat about an untaxed, freeloader class have a political currency that requires courage to ignore or criticize.
The Republican Party is not about to abandon its status as a conservative vehicle committed to the protection of unborn life, or the defense of traditionally defined marriage, or its resistance to a spending course that robs the future, or to taxes and mandates that destabilize business confidence. But it is worth noting that Clinton’s willingness to mix it up with the status quo in his party earned him ground to defend the unshakable parts of the liberal orthodoxy. Had Clinton not recast welfare as a privilege rather than a right, for example, affirmative action would have been deeply vulnerable in the mid nineties. In the same vein, a Republican who rescued the pro-life movement from its farthest edges is better poised to defend Catholic institutions from the Obama Administration’s healthcare mandates. A Republican who acknowledges that a conservative party should refrain from ripping immigrant families apart is a far more credible advocate for a tighter border and a crackdown on the hiring of low wage, undocumented labor.
Barack Obama’s second term is not some existential threat to the country’s freedom. But it is the triumph by any means necessary of a statist, redistributionist liberalism that intends to seize enough territory that it will take a generation rather than an election to undo its gains. The conservatism that counters Obama will need to be more supple, less insular, and considerably more acquainted with the America it is seeking to lead.