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What I Saw at the Devolution
This work is not designed to set forth novel or startling political doctrines. It is intended rather as a report on the fundamental enterprise of reexamination and self-criticism which liberalism has undergone in the last decade. The leaders in this enterprise have been the wiser men of an older generation. But its chief beneficiaries have been my own contemporaries; and its main consequence, I believe, has been to create a new and distinct political generation.
Arthur Schlesinger, Opening words of The Vital Center, 1949
A SPECIAL DAY
"Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun." It should have been no surprise that, try as I might, I couldn't get this Noel Coward ditty out of my head. Washington, D.C.'s dog days of summer have been legendary since the swamp was first declared our nation's capital as the bastard child of a constitutional compromiseand the summer of 1997 was no exception. Search as I might, however, I found few canines and even fewer foreigners as the temperature rose to oppressive levels. Instead, looking around the South Lawn of the White House, I saw a very differentthough no less peculiarmenagerie braving Washington's heat and humidity on this most August day.
If I had not known better, I would almost have thought it was a heat-induced mirage. Striding out of the White House through a flag-bordered path and headed toward a platform on the South Lawn,not arm in arm but close, were the then opposing leaders of American political power: Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. It reminded me of the comic books of my childhood, when DC Comics' Batman and Marvel Comics' Spiderman would team up, Superman would battle Muhammad Ali, or all the superheroes would gather together for a "special" issue that every kid just had to have. Along with Clinton and Gingrich on the platform in front of me, and certainly even hotter than I was because of the powerful camera lights trained in their direction, were Vice President Al Gore, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Budget Chairman John Kasich, and dozens of members of Congress from both parties. They had come together to end nearly three decades of wanton fiscal insanity in Washington and sign the first balanced budget in a generation.
Since the moment I had started my job as Vice President Gore's senior speechwriter two months earlier, the push for a balanced budget had been at the center of my work. "Today is the reason I came to the White House," I wrote in my diary the day the budget deal was first announced. The provisions of the agreement would have a real impact on the millions of Americans who would benefit from the lower interest rates that would result from the balanced budget, from the plan's tax cut for middle-class families, from the health insurance it provided for low-income children, and from the college tuition assistance it offered. On top of all this, the achievement of a balanced budget after decades of debate and false starts was an important milestone for the country and for the New Democrat brand of thinking that Clinton had brought to the White House. I had come to Washington to make a difference. Now, the day after my 22nd birthday and less than two months since I had graduated from college, I was, Forrest Gump-like, standing in a sacred spot on a truly historic day.
But gnawing at my pride was a profound disquietude. At first I couldn't identify its source. The event was proceeding almost exactly as planned. Logistical preparations had begun days earlier in the West Wing basement office of Communications Director Ann Lewis. There, every last detail was haggled outfrom the programs (parchment embossed with the presidential seal) to the invitees (over one thousand guests) to the music (answering a demand for "patriotic music," one meeting participant was forced to defend the choice of the Marine Band. "The Marine Band is 'the President's Own,'" she sputtered. "They're about as American as you can getand they're pretty wonderful!"). A top White House official poked her head in on her way out on the town that Friday evening and made sure the staff understood the significance of what we were doing. "This is the president's day," she directed. "Let's make it special for him."
Although the show was proceeding as planned, my uneasiness grew steadily stronger. The day was bigger than even the president of the United States. The assembled potentates had come to lower the curtain on something larger than three decades of budget deficits. Along with its specific importance, the balanced budget had a symbolic significance as well. Though I didn't realize it just then, I was witnessing the end of the political history of twentieth-century America. As historian John Lukacs has pointed out, internationally, the twentieth century really lasted from Franz Ferdinand's assassination and the beginning of World War I in 1914 to the moment when East Europeans tore apart the Iron Curtain with their bare hands and ended the Cold War in 1989. In that "short century," the forces of democracy and freedom faced off against monarchy, fascism, and communismand emerged triumphant. Similarly, American politics of the twentieth century lasted from August 1910, when former President Theodore Roosevelt unveiled his New Nationalism vision of big government, to August 1997, when President Bill Clinton acknowledged that expanding centralized, top-down, bureaucratic government was a thing of the past.
It is no accident that these events occurred when they did. Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin, who put the New Nationalism into practice, lived in a time when centralized, assembly line factories were the cutting edge. They defined Americans' thinking about how the world should be ordered and structured. Bill Clinton came to power at a moment when this world was rapidly retreating and being replaced by a New Economy that wasperhaps above all elseintrinsically skeptical of centralized power and institutions, including government as Americans have come to know it. Clinton's signing of the balanced budget was a recognition of the awesome power the global financial markets now have in shaping American prosperity; it sent a clear message to Americans that government would live within its means, abiding by the same rules as the middle class; but most of all it made clear that the old, traditional choices about government had stopped being viable. Democratic big government programs and huge Republican tax giveawaysboth types of government by "hot check"were no longer live options.
As the ceremony went on, I began to realize why I was so anxious. When I was very young, my parents ran a small theater company in Los Angeles. I had grown up backstage, memorizing all the actors' parts and knowing when the audience would laugh far before they had any inkling of an impending guffaw. This predictability gave me comfort. Now, as the budget signing dragged on, an idea gnawed at me: a page was turningand no one had their lines for the next act. In the years since that hot summer of 1997, politics has stumbled and bumbled along, without moving forward. The new lines still have not been written. This is the unfinished business of American politics.
A CRISIS OF THE OLD ORDER
Noticing the rest of my White House colleagues, and trying desperately to fit in and to avoid passing out, I took the lead of the men and doffed my suit jacket, slinging it ever so casually over my shoulder. I strainedunsuccessfullyto keep my mind from drifting during the interminable speeches. Watching the behavior of the assembled crowd, an observer might not have realized that this was such a crucial new beginning for the president, his party, and the nation. Over there was Press Secretary Mike McCurry sharing a laugh with a couple other staffers under the shade of a gnarled old tree. There was one of my colleagues, in his late 20s andlike Thomas Hobbes' life in a state of nature"nasty, brutish, and short," sidling up to a pretty summer intern. There was a cluster of staffers from the First Lady's OfficeHillaryland, they called itfolding their programs into makeshift fans. And every so often, people would interrupt whatever they were doing to glance over at the made-for-TV production taking place before them.
It was indeed a special day for President Clintonone that no one could have foreseen when he began his campaign for the White House. Running for president in 1992, Clinton had found a country gripped by a crisis of the old order. Confronted by the demise of the Cold War and the final death throes of the comfortable post-World War II economic arrangements, Americans felt certain of little more than declinein their own standard of living, in the nation's economic well-being and social fabric, in their hopes for their children's future.
It was clearly a moment for creative, innovative leadership. But as the 1990s began, both parties were AWOL. The Republican Party gloried in the creed of greed and viewed crime and welfare as wedge issues to be exploited rather than problems to be solved. It had raised taxes on the middle class and presided over an era of dwindling growth. Education was an afterthought and Republican economic strategy was largely limited to the notion of rewarding those privileged with wealth and praying that their leftover trickle would sustain the nation.
At the same time, Americans saw a Democratic Party that had rejected its historic role as the tribune of the middle class. Many Democrats downplayed traditional values of work, family, responsibility, faithlabeling them the province of the Republicans. Paying more attention to rights than to responsibilities, to criminals than to victims, to bureaucrats than to entrepreneurs, to America's international sins than to its capacity for global good, the Democratic Party had lost its way.
Both parties concentrated on playing their assigned roles in the formulaic debate between "left" and "right" that characterized politics for most of the centurya debate that had become devoid of meaning, dependent on memory, derisive of the many. If American politics of the 1980s and early 1990s was a school dance, the Republicans would be locked in a chaste, but fervent embrace of economic elitism; the Democrats would be doing the lambada with cultural elitism; and America's middle class would be standing unobtrusively alone by the punch bowl. Politics was playing to those who favored French mustardand ignoring those who used "French's." It rejected their interests and sneered at their values.
As the 1992 campaign got under way, few in Washington seemed to recognize this problem. But, far away from the glare of the national media's spotlight, a Democratic contender who had developed a cohesive critique of not only the Republican record but his own party's as well was preparing to step forward.
Arkansas' youthful, yet veteran, governor, Bill Clinton, was, as he described himself, "a different kind of Democrat." In a political career built like moston lucky breaks, one of Clinton's luckiest came early on. In 1974, he lost his first racea run for Congress. Beginning his career on the state level instead, he gained a greater perspective on the changes transforming America. Of course, he paid a price for this distance from D.C. His name wasn't bandied about with breezy familiarity at the chardonnay and brie parties on the Upper East Side where campaign cash is collected. He did not become a powerful, beef-ingesting, pork-dispensing, perk-exploiting Capitol Hill baron. Yet his breathing distance from Washington allowed him to realize very early on that the Capital's political debates were increasingly irrelevant to a changing nation. Announcing his presidential candidacy in October of 1991, he further distanced himself from the most powerful leaders of his own party. "The small towns and main streets of America aren't like the corridors and back rooms of Washington," he intoned from the steps of Arkansas' Old State House. "People out here don't care about the idle rhetoric of 'left' and 'right' and 'liberal' and 'conservative' and all the other words that have made our politics a substitute for action."
Clinton demonstrated a clear willingness to challenge both the Democratic Party's political arrangements and its ideological orthodoxies. For more than a year, as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Councila band of party rebels committed to building a new governing majorityClinton had traveled the country speaking out on the party's need to change in order to keep up with the times. Now, as his presidential campaign got under way, Clinton would break forthrightly with his party's past.
THE COMING OF THE NEW COVENANT
I believe that together we have fulfilled the responsibility of our generation to guarantee opportunity to the next generation, the responsibility of our generation to take America into a new century, where there is opportunity for all who are responsible enough to work for it, where we have a chance to come together across all of our differences as a great American community.
President Bill Clinton, at the balanced budget signing,
August 5, 1997
On October 23, 1991, twenty days after he announced his candidacy, Clinton traveled to Georgetown University, his alma mater, to deliver the first in a series of three speeches that formed the intellectual foundation of his candidacy. By the time he finished delivering the third in mid-December, he was languishing in fourth place in the polls in New Hampshire and had managed to raise only half as much in campaign funds as the leading fund-raiser in the pack. However, the press realized the effectiveness of his message. For instance, Howard Fineman of Newsweek wrote that through this series of three speeches, "Clinton has cornered attention." Largely on the basis of these speeches, they anointed him with a front-runner status that he was to take all the way to the nomination.
The speech Clinton delivered that October day was one of the most eloquent given by an American politician in the past quarter century. Devoid of rhetorical bells and whistles, its power came from its honesty, from Clinton's willingness to speak truths that many politicians knew but few then had the courage to say.
Clinton thundered at thoserich, poor, and in betweenwhose demand for special favors had undermined the basic American creed of fairness. He said it was time that all Americansfrom corporate CEOs to deadbeat dads, from Congressional chieftains to welfare momswere held to an equal standard of responsibility for their actions. He offered a "New Covenant, a solemn agreement between the people and their government, to provide opportunity for everybody, inspire responsibility throughout our society, and restore a sense of community to this great nation."
Like President Reagan's central themes of smaller government, lower taxes, and stronger defense, this triadopportunity, responsibility, communityserved as the guiding principles of Clinton's presidency. These ideas were at the core of most every speech he delivered as president, and certainly every major one. In 1991, they were not just idle slogans, but fundamental departures from the Democratic dogma of the previous twenty-five years. They underscored his "different kind of Democrat" claiman assertion that was central to his ability to win the White House. It is no accident that Walter Mondale did not even use the word "responsibility" once in his convention acceptance address while Bill Clinton used it six times.
In his first presidential campaignn, Clinton used "opportunity, responsibility, and community" to differentiate himself from both traditional Republican and Democratic nostrums. "Opportunity" was neither the no-growth economic record and indifference of the Bush years nor the government guarantee of equal results proffered by many Democratsit was an outlook of rewarding hard work, encouraging strong economic growth, and above all else promoting access to education. His vision of "responsibility" included not just a promise to "end welfare as we know it," but an uncompromising demand for better corporate citizenship. Finally, his call for "community" rejected the loose principles of both the Left and Right, vowing to go "beyond every man for himself on one hand and the right to something for nothing on the other."
Clinton's New Covenant was less the basis for a new politics than a powerful reminder to the public that Clinton shared their distaste for the "brain-dead" old politics. Yet, it clearly reflected the raw resentments and muffled hopes of the average men and women who had seen both parties walk away from their historic commitments and get sidetracked by side issues. Unfortunately, as was once said of President William Howard Taft, if Clinton "were Pope he would think it necessary to appoint a few Protestant Cardinals." Once ensconced in office, Clinton brought into power a cadre of advisors and staffers who never bought into his message of change. He and his party paid a disastrous price for this in the 1994 midterm rejection.
In the summer of 1997, some of the White House staff gathered together in the ornately tiled Indian Treaty Room for a good-bye party for Donald Baer. The hard-driving former journalist who became Clinton's chief speechwriter and then communications director had helped engineer the president's political resurrection after 1994 and was one of the few true believers within the White House. As part of the "entertainment," the guests were treated to a parody of "We are the World," entitled "We are Dons World," written and performed by many of the White House speechwriters and communications staff. But it wasn't only the voices that were off-key.
When we were down and out
And there seemed no Hope at all
Don helped build that bridge
And now we're standing tall.
Well well well, we're a community now.
An opportunity to take responsibility
In our churches, mosques, and synagogues.
Rising to deliver some brief words of thanks to Baer, President Clinton couldn't help but deliver a mild rebuke to his staff members. His smile never leaving his face, but his eyes betraying a profound disappointment, Clinton said, "The thing about that 'opportunity, responsibility, and community' is that for Don, they were never punch lines. They were what he believed in." As is often true, Clinton was also describing himself. But if he was disappointed in his staff, he might have seen where he fell short in leading them.
THE SON ALSO RISES
In signing the balanced budget, Clinton tried to make clear, once and for all, that Democrats would no longer peddle the shopworn planks of a bygone era. Whether it was free trade, welfare reform, fiscal responsibility, battling teen pregnancy, strong anticrime measures, use of military force abroad, or the death penalty, Clinton broke with the philosophy his party had promoted in recent years.
Yet, there is little assurance that his personal impact on the Democratic Party is necessarily anything more than ephemeral. From the very beginning, Clinton concentrated first and foremost on bringing change to the nation and saw bringing change to his partyif it happenedas a positive side-effect. Mere days after his election, the barons of congressional power flew down to Little Rock to meet with Clintonan outsider who had explicitly campaigned against both the Democratic Congress and Washington, D.C., in general. Before the glare of the camera lights, these Washington pooh-bahs appeared with the crusading young reformer from the hinterlands and, in effect, took him under their left wing. "Don't worry, sonny," they seemed to say. "We'll show you how it's done." And Clinton followed their lead. His calls for cuts in bloated Capitol Hill staff and for the line-item veto vanished, he soft-pedaled his desire for campaign finance reform, and he suddenly became vague on the middle-class tax cutonce a centerpiece of his economic agenda.
From there forward, until his decisive break with congressional wisdom over the need for a balanced budget in the summer of 1995, Clinton chose accommodation over confrontation most every time. As president, he was seldom willing to expend his political capital in reconstructing the Democratic Party in his image. Most of his words and many of his actions pointed Democrats in a new direction. But when the forces defending the old party's apparatus and guarding its arrangements got in the way, he smoothed down the differences. This worked wonders for making peace; it was an enormous missed opportunity for remaking the Democratic Party.
Yet, while Clinton might have sped up the process, politics continued to change even without his active assistance. The same societal forces that had shaped Clinton in Arkansas were having an even greater impact in shaping the next generation of political leaders around the nation. As the 1990s progressed, it became increasingly apparent that the old ways of American politics were fading away. The story of one family in particular makes it clear that it is truly not your father's politics.
One would expect a moment of personal conversion to come while watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu, while running one's hands over the stones of the Great Wall of China, while traveling down the road to Damascus. It seems far less likelyand much less glamorousfor this moment of awakening to occur while campaigning for a state senate seat in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. After all, Saint Paul is one thing, St. Paul is another. Nevertheless, for one Minnesota politician, his successful first campaign put him in touch with voters who had concerns and outlooks very different from those of a previous generation.
The story begins 125 hundred miles away in a different world. On Halloween night 1936, the children of Theodore Mondale did not go door to door searching for candy. Their father was a stern and reverent preacher who frowned on the holiday's frivolity. Moreover, the tight grip of the Great Depressions seventh year left little levity in their tiny town of Ceylon, Minnesota. But there was another reason why the Mondale family was at home on this Halloween. Theodore Mondale had gathered his family to listen to the radio as Franklin Roosevelt brought his reelection campaign to a close with a stirring address at Madison Square Garden.
In a fiery speech, FDR sought to energize the Democratic Party's base of working Americans with a violent denunciation of the big business interests that he had battled during much of his first term. "I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match," said Roosevelt, struggling to make his voice heard above the crescendoing cheers of the crowd. "I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master." Listening at his father's side, 8-year-old Walter Mondale was exposed to a brand of politics he would practice all his life.
That October night, as he called "the roll of honor of those that stood with us," Roosevelt saw an industrial democracy with powerful interests arrayed on either side of a wide chasm. In his New Deal, he built up a big government to guarantee equal opportunity and protect Americans from the vicissitudes of adversity.
A decade later, Walter Mondale became swept up in a small insurgent faction led by Hubert Humphrey that was fighting to bring the values of the New Deal to Minnesota. They were the children of FDR, the "distinct political generation" that Schlesinger had described. Attacked as an "upstart," Mondale laid into an old giant of Minnesota politics for being "a voice out of the past. A last gasp of the old farmer-labor group." He stated that his goal was to speak for a new "generation that has grown up to plague the normal and traditional way of doing things." In a world that changes much faster than the minds of the people who live in it, the challenge of politics in every age is to assess the world as it is and respond to it with honesty instead of nostalgia. When he was young, Walter Mondale met that challenge directly.
But by the 1970s, as Mondale reached the heights of national leadership, America was changing both economically and socially. Americans were less likely to pledge their loyalty to parties in exchange for particular programs, to companies in exchange for a lifetime job, to interest groups in exchange for favors.
While he was vice president, Walter Mondale stated that the Democratic Party's job was to "take care of its friends." That meant extending the reach of government to help those who had long been left out of the American Dreamthe poor, minorities, struggling workers. Unfortunately, it also meant the care and feeding of the constituency groups that made up the party's special interest infrastructure by offering them specific promises and programs. Mondale believed that in addressing organized labor, he spoke to working people; in speaking to civil rights leaders, he addressed minorities; in talking with feminists, he appealed to women. "My premise has always been that there are more Democrats than Republicans, and if we can keep our own family relatively intact, chances are we'll win," he wrote in a memo to President Carter as they began their general election fight in 1980. He urged Carter to appeal "directly to our constituenciesJews, labor, minorities, farmers, ethnics, women, environmentalists, etc." Running that fall against Ronald Reagan, Carter and Mondale did just thatand lost in a landslide.