President Bill Clinton addressing the Democratic Leadership Council
After the landslide losses of George McGovern in 1972 and President Jimmy Carter in his 1980 re-election bid, to many in the Democratic Party the thought of a long-term absence from the White House was unbearable. As Richard Nixon won re-election against McGovern and Reagan handed Carter an embarrassing defeat, the blame was placed at the foot of the party’s left wing; with many critics suggesting the Democrats had become captive to its liberal interests – Blacks, labor, anti-war protesters and its urban core. The success of George Wallace in his independent bid for the presidency in ’68, and his attempt in ’72 that was aborted due to an attempted assassination upon his life, also revealed that the party’s southern flank had drifted to the Republican Party with many voters in that bloc identified as “Reagan Democrats” in 1980.
Following the deep losses in 1968, 1972 and 1980, the Democratic Party was in search of a new identity; the tug of war between the left, center and right that played out in the party’s political conventions of each of those presidential elections had taken its toll. Carter’s loss was the beginning of a 12-year exile from the White House and worse for the party, a white southern revolt that cast a deep racial shadow upon the party.
With the success of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NICK PAC) and other groups such as Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” sweeping Republican Ronald Reagan into office by its coded appeals to whiteness wrapped in patriotic symbolism, southern Democrats began to see their hold on the region slip away. What’s more, there was a growing backlash against civil rights era gains like affirmative action and voting rights as whites expressed resentment over policies they attributed to the liberalism of the Democratic Party. As Reagan secured himself in the Oval Office, white southern voters migrated to the GOP, leaving their Dixiecrat heritage behind with many southern Democratic elected officials identifying as “Blue Dogs” or “New Democrats” within the Democratic Party.
The DLC and Bill Clinton: The Perfect Storm
Following the success of Ronald Reagan in getting white, southern Democrats to support his candidacy, a movement was set afoot to reclaim those voters by a group of conservative Democrats. The movement took the form of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), eventually chaired by Bill Clinton and led by its director Al From. The DLC sought to recapture the south by promoting a center-right agenda that would contest the Republicans on issues of national security, champion conservative social values and create ideological distance from the traditional Democratic Party base – labor, minorities, environmentalists, civil rights activists and peace activists. The organization pushed conservative Democratic candidates such as Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and Virginia Senator Chuck Robb. Though the DLC publicly lamented the loss of the south to the Republican Party, its real concern was the loss of the white south.
Casting themselves as “New Democrats,” the members of the DLC supported policy that was indistinguishable from conservative Republicans. They championed military spending and supported the exercise of U.S. military might abroad. These New Democrats supported welfare ‘reform’ and defended Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign to repeal “welfare as we know it,” in the words of Bill Clinton. They talked tough on crime and legislated tougher by supporting punitive measures such as “three strikes and you’re out” and targeting nonviolent offenders. There was nothing off the table as the singular motivation of the DLC was to reclaim the White House by dismantling the traditional Democratic coalition and fusing together a bipartisan white, conservative voting bloc.
Soon the agenda of the DLC became the agenda of the Democratic Party with the Clintons front and center in preaching this new gospel. ‘Liberal’ became a four-letter word and the ‘middle’ was touted as the point that determined electoral viability. Concerns of African-Americans was pushed to the background on the promise that policy initiatives would be race-neutral but impactful without causing white resentment. It was a Faustian bargain that relegated issues of importance to Blacks to the back of the policy bus while giving Bill Clinton the headwind to take his politics from Arkansas to the nation’s capital.
The Coded Language of Human Marginalization
A new lexicon was created by the birth of the Democratic Leadership Council and persists in its demise. It is a language that seeks to establish a new narrative for the Democratic Party that effectively severs it from its civil rights and labor lineage, and creates a safe space for ‘Reagan Democrats’ to return to the fold with the security that the party will not accede to the demands of people of color, and organized labor. Today, this center-right narrative is at the root of the politics of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and was the centerpiece of how Bill Clinton governed and reshaped national politics. Much in the same way it has been said George Wallace declared he would never be “outni*gered again” after losing an election, the Clintons too were determined that a pesky little thing like the party’s legacy and relationship with Black voters would not interfere with their personal ambition.
Key coded terms that shape the politics of the New Democrat.
New Democrat: A New Democrat embraces ‘free markets’ with limited government regulation, supports the downsizing of government, supports an interventionist foreign policy and ‘regime change’ when foreign governments are deemed obstructionist to U.S. interests, extols the virtues of ‘personal responsibility’ and race neutrality. What really distinguishes New Democrats from ‘Old Democrats’ of the latter 20th century is the deliberate appeal to white voters who are offended by the policy gains realized by African-Americans that were facilitated by the Democratic Party of the JFK and LBJ eras.
Reinventing Government: This is a term that is used to promote a reconceptualization of the role of government. What it really represents is a backlash against an activist federal government and a shift to a more decentralized, state focused governance; a rebranding of ‘states’ rights’ under the guise of creating a more efficient model of policy making and service delivery and compelling greater personal responsibility on the part of citizens who receive public benefits. This term is also often associated with creating a market model of service delivery within government.
Race Neutral: On its face this term validates the concept of color blindness in the application of justice and apportionment of opportunity. However, it is used by New Democrats to suggest limits on government intervention to address systemic discrimination and historical injustices. Affirmative action policies have been recast as ‘reverse discrimination’ and the term ‘quotas’ has been used to disparage efforts to create a level playing field in the labor market and higher education. Though New Democrats express support for affirmative action, they do so behind the cover of Bill Clinton’s “end it, don’t mend it” façade.
Fiscal Responsibility: New Democrats preach the same gospel of balanced budgets and deficit reduction as their right-wing brethren. And they also champion fiscal responsibility as a means to limit the capacity of the federal government to intervene in matters of social redress. By stressing limited government and using fiscal restraint as a principle, New Democrats then shift responsibility to individuals for their life outcomes.
Surgeon General Jocelyn Edlers, fired by President Bill Clinton over her views on sex education
The Illusion of Inclusion
New Democrat politics works to convince its African-American voting bloc that they are a key constituency by engaging in symbolic acts that mimic the civil rights gains of Blacks. They are aided in this charade by some Black elected officials who, in their desperation for standing, confuse deception as legitimate and earnest acts of collaboration. As President, Bill Clinton perfected this illusion and endeared himself to Blacks while acting indifferently toward Blacks’ interests and promoting policies that imposed significant hardships upon African-Americans.
Examples of this pandering include President Clinton’s ugly abandonment of law professor Lani Guinier, whom he had nominated as an assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department. Despite the Clintons claims of a close friendship with Guinier from their days at Yale Law School, the professor was ditched when she came under attack by the right. The episode was one of several that revealed just how disposable Blacks were to Clinton, and the degree both Clintons were ready to throw Blacks under the bus for the sake of self-preservation. We saw a repeat of this behavior when Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders was shown the door after a moment of professional honesty and when her successor Henry Foster was also collateral damage of the Clinton’s deference to conservatives and win at all cost politics. It was not personal, just the cost of doing business in the New Democrat era when if not contributing to the bottom line – the maintenance of power – Blacks were deemed a liability. While Blacks have been marginalized for some time within the Democratic Party, the brashness of Bill Clinton in publicly trampling his Black appointees could only be taken as a wink to white voters to signal his ability to deal with his Black people.
In terms of policy illusions on race, New Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton, mostly southerners, suggest their politics is born from a ‘New South’ and seek to convince African-American voters that they truly are in sync with the struggles of Blacks in America. After all, southern Democrats like the Clintons, and Al Gore for that matter, are the children of Jim Crow. They witnessed the hatred of their parents’ generation toward Blacks and the evils of segregation. It is this proximity to the Black southern experience and Black suffering that is used to authenticate their sincerity. It is the “I feel your pain” lip biting angst of Bill Clinton and the appropriation of Black preacher dialect in the pulpits of African-American churches that defines the patronizing and pandering tendencies of New Democrats. They feel Black pain just long enough to secure support for one of their policy priorities or get elected to office.
Two examples of this illusory behavior was President Clinton’s positioning on affirmative action and his ill-fated commission on race. In the first instance, in the current of conservative attempts to undue affirmative action, Bill Clinton offered a tepid defense with his strategy of “mend it, don’t end it.” By playing into a purposefully deceptive critique, Clinton gave license to a racially charged attack that misled the public by equating ‘quotas’ as reverse discrimination, and that imagery, though contrary to the very principles of affirmative action, became embedded in the public’s consciousness. It took a strong retort from Rep. Kweisi Mfume, then chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, to keep Clinton from completing bailing out.
Then there was the issue of Clinton’s commission on race, formally known as “One America in the 21st Century: The President’s Initiative on Race.” Established in 1997, the commission was launched with much fanfare in a commencement speech President Clinton delivered at the University of San Diego. Heading the body was the eminent historian Dr. John Hope Franklin. Despite the leadership of Franklin and the genuine interest of many in its work, the commission essentially determined that what the nation needed was more dialogue on race. Its report was timid even by Washington standards and after almost a year and a half of work and meetings with thousands, the commission was more smoke and mirrors than substance. It raised suspicions again that Bill Clinton was playing the role of puppet master, creating an illusion for the sake of political expediency.
Casualties of Indifference
Blacks have become the collateral damage of New Democrat politics. While Bill Clinton secured two elections, his path to the White House was strewn with Black casualties. Black women and children took the hit through welfare reform, young Black men at first and then young Black women too were swallowed up by a crime bill that devastated communities and families, Black radio stations were preyed upon after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the ground under affirmative action became quicksand. If anyone ‘won’ during the 1990s, it was certainly Bill and Hillary Clinton.
New Democrat politics is now so firmly entrenched in the psyche of the electorate that a significant amount of deprogramming must take place to re-establish some semblance of race consciousness within the party. The goal has been to erase from public memory the promissory note the Democratic Party issued to African-Americans with the party’s support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. By winning back Reagan Democrats to the fold, Bill Clinton essentially achieved that goal. By the end of his presidency any legitimate claim by the party’s Black base was viewed with suspicion and deemed an attempt to game the system to secure unearned benefits. Knowing the Republican Party had taken a hard right turn, the choice for Blacks was to suffer the indignities of the GOP or the indifference of the Democratic Party.