Will the Democrats come back? — with Jeane Kirkpatrick (1994) | THINK TANK

Will the Democrats come back? — with Jeane Kirkpatrick (1994) | THINK TANK


Ben Wattenberg: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg. The effects of the election earthquake of
November 8 are still rumbling across the political landscape. Today we begin a two-part look at the future
of America’s political parties. First, the Democratic Party: Can the so-called
party of government flourish when it no longer pulls the levers of congressional power? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
consensus are Robert Borosage, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies; Will
Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute; historian Michael Beschloss, a
fellow at the Annenberg Foundation and author of “The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev”;
and Jeane Kirkpatrick, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, professor of
political science at Georgetown University, charter member of the now-defunct Coalition
for a Democratic Majority, and former ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan administration. The question before this house: Can the Democrats
come back? This week on “Think Tank.” America’s oldest surviving political party
has weathered rough seas before. In 1894, the Democrats were swept out of Congress,
prompting one wag to remark, “There is no Democratic Party, and William Jennings Bryan
is its leader.” But the Democratic Party has also faced big
challenges more recently, many of them self-inflicted. Lyndon Johnson (from videotape): I shall not
seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president. Ben Wattenberg: In the 1960s, a triumphant
Democratic Party enacted a program of sweeping reforms called the Great Society, but by 1968,
the party was torn apart by the Vietnam War abroad and social upheaval at home. Some observers say the conflicts of the 1960s
never healed. Ideological battles continued within the party
throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. Edward Kennedy (from videotape): No more American
hostages. (Applause.) No more high interest rates, no more high
inflation, and no more Jimmy Carter. (Applause.) Ben Wattenberg: Republicans capitalized on
Democratic disarray with what looked like a permanent lock on the White House. Meanwhile, the Democrats held on to the Congress,
steadily in the House of Representatives and for all but six years in the Senate. In 1992, it seemed that Governor Bill Clinton
of Arkansas could reunify the Democratic Party and take it in a new direction. Bill Clinton (from videotape): I am against
brain-dead politics in both parties, and you should be, too. Ben Wattenberg: But on November 8, 1994, a
Republican tide swept away Democratic majorities in the Senate, the House of Representatives,
and state governorships. Not a single Republican incumbent lost. Many Democrats blame Bill Clinton for the
big Democratic defeat. Others say it was raw voter anger. And some maintain the Republicans won because
Americans are becoming more conservative while the Democratic Party is becoming more liberal. One thing is for sure: The Democratic Party
and its leader are in trouble. Will Marshall, the Democratic Party is indeed
in trouble. How do they come back? Will Marshall: Well, Ben, I think the first
thing is to understand that this election closed the book on an era in Democratic politics. The New Deal coalition is finished. The agenda the Democrats have been defending
for decades really is now under threat. The Republicans have taken over the machinery
of Congress. And it’s time for Democrats to fashion a
new agenda that is competitive with Newt Gingrich and company for claiming the vital center
in American politics. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Bob Borosage. Robert Borosage: Well, I think it’s clear
the public’s looking for change. There are real problems that people have,
and they’re looking for solutions. And they voted for change this year. Unless Democrats become a party that is for
substantial change for working people, that helps them in their real life, they will have
a hard time coming back. Ben Wattenberg: Michael Beschloss. Michael Beschloss: I think if history is any
guide, the best thing the Democrats can hope for is that the public will come around to
their position on activist government. The Democrats for a half century were in favor
of a government that was more active. The majority of American people were, too. The issue hasn’t really changed. That’s still the issue that separates Democrats
from Republicans. The best thing that Democrats can do is wait
for a time when Americans are a lot more sympathetic to activist government than they are in 1994. Ben Wattenberg: Jeane. Jeane Kirkpatrick: Well, I think it’s all
about the relationship between government and society, and that this has been the issue
for a long time. And there was a period when people were convinced
that they could improve their lives by using government as an instrument to transform society. And the government kept working and working
on that agenda, and finally people decided, no, we’ve gone too far that way and what
we really want is a government that will reflect society and respond to it, not a government
that will use power to try to force change. And I don’t think that in our lifetimes,
frankly, there will be a swing back to support for a really activist government to transform
society. I think, by the way, this is happening all
over the West — in France and in Britain and in Germany, as well as in the United States. Ben Wattenberg: Michael, what historically
happens to the losing party in this kind of a, we think, perhaps, transforming election? Michael Beschloss: Well, in a way it’s unprecedented
because usually if there is a great party realignment, such as 1860, the reason that
happens is because an issue like slavery comes out of the blue sky, becomes central in American
politics, and causes the parties and the party system to break up in a way that had never
happened before. The interesting thing about the change this
year, there is no new issue. It’s still really activist government against
a much more limited idea of what government does. And the difference is simply that the Democrats
are no longer in the majority on that point of view. And the result is that if the Democrats decide
to take a more moderate view of the way they have approached big government, let’s say
during the period of the Great Society or the New Deal, the result is that they are
destined to be the party that the Republicans were for perhaps the 40 or 50 years after
the New Deal, which is that they’ll be voted in once in a while, but their function will
be to revise and edit what the Republicans do, not to be a majority party in this country. Ben Wattenberg: So you are agreeing with Jeane
that in our lifetime at least, we are not likely to see a Democratic government? Michael Beschloss: Unless there is a great
wave of support for the kind of interpretation of government that there was during the New
Deal and the Great Society. In 1994, that looks rather far away. Ben Wattenberg: Is there anything the Democrats
specifically can or should do now and in the future — say, the next two years and beyond
— to get back to this — Jeane Kirkpatrick: Ben, I think that the only
thing the Democrats can do if they want to become a party of government, frankly, at
any level is to listen more closely and respond more, you know, clearly, to the views and
values of the American people. That’s what we’ve always said, you know,
for a long time. Ben Wattenberg: And hibernate for a little
while. Jeane Kirkpatrick: And hibernate. Listen carefully, think it over, yeah. Will Marshall: I think the idea of getting
back is the wrong one. There is nowhere to go back. And I must disagree with Michael that this
is — you know, we’re simply going to be replaying a debate between big, activist government
and some conservative alternative and we’ll temporarily be on the downside of that debate. I think something fundamental has happened. The galvanizing issue of our time is an economic
transformation that is absolutely sweeping, as important in its impact on our society
as the move from an agrarian to an industrial society was in the Progressive Era. That is why Bob is right. Lots of working middle-class folks, despite
robust economic growth right now, are feeling insecure. They don’t know how to cope with this new
economy, the age of the microchip. It’s presenting them with bewildering changes,
and their whole sources of security are dissolving. And what they are looking for, I think, is
not either side of the old left-right debate over big government or less government. They want an enabling government. They don’t want welfare state provisions,
in my view, but they want government activism that helps them cope with these bewildering
changes. Ben Wattenberg: You were saying before, Michael,
that there hasn’t been a transforming election without a major event. You know, I looked at the polls just before
the election, and you saw very, very clearly — depending how the question was asked,
but that this values issue had become the paramount issue in American life. You all have not brought it up yet. Is it plausible to you that the Democrats
looking forward have to get straight-on values and that this is really what brung Clinton
down? Michael Beschloss: I think it’s going to
help a lot, although I would probably differentiate that from something like slavery or some of
the other issues that just were like a cleaver through the American political system. This is something more of a rolling change. But I think it has been the problem with Bill
Clinton, who in 1992 at least feigned, pretended to be a DLC moderate, but who, I think if
you were to look at him, is someone who would have much preferred to be running in 1964. Will Marshall: The reason that the reaction
against Clinton and the Democrats was so sharp and so unequivocal in the last election was
precisely because many people think he did not live up to the promise he made to be a
new Democrat. Ben Wattenberg: What Michael was saying. Will Marshall: When you asked people, what
do you identify Clinton with, they said with big government. And the most frequently cited reason was the
health care plan, which indeed scared the middle class in this country. The second most frequently cited item was
that he was a cultural liberal, and everybody cited gays in the military. So the public doesn’t think he is anything
very different from the old Democratic politics that they’ve been rejecting lately. Jeane Kirkpatrick: Which brings us back to
the values issue. I think, Ben, that it’s very significant
that Bill Clinton and Hillary came into American politics with the McGovern campaign, which
we thought then, you and I — because you were also a charter founder of the Coalition
for a Democratic Majority — Ben Wattenberg: I was indeed, of the now-defunct
Coalition for a Democratic Majority, right. Jeane Kirkpatrick: We thought then was a — simultaneously
a matter of economic and political and cultural issues and was a creation of a cultural revolution,
as well as some different views on the Vietnam War than Johnson’s or Humphrey’s or Scoop’s
or somebody — Jackson. And I think, in this sense, that Bill Clinton
is a kind of end of that cycle, that he came in with the McGovern campaign and that he
goes out, as it were, with the cultural issues. Ben Wattenberg: How much of the Clinton thing
is just “personalistic”? You know, you hear people saying, “God,
every time I come into my living room, there he is on my television set. Get this guy out of my house.” I guess The New York Times ran an editorial
that alluded to Dr. Fell, I guess a 19th-century British poet named Brown who said, “I do
not like thee, Dr. Fell. The reason why I cannot tell, but this I know
full well, full well. I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.” Is there something about Clinton personally
that’s just getting people angry? Michael Beschloss: I think it’s ideas. And the problem is that when you’ve got
a party that is trying to be something other than what it was, like the Democratic Party,
you have the situation in 1992, where people were wondering, is Bill Clinton someone who
has recognized that the country has changed, that you have to have a different attitude
toward government than you might have in 1964, or is this someone masquerading as a moderate
in order to get elected? And the result was that when you began with
gays in the military and you unveiled this very big government health care plan, it leads
people to say, aha, this is a liberal who is basically a guest in his own time. Until you’ve got a situation in which you
have Democratic nominees — and he was embraced by a Democratic Party that presumably would
have liked to be more moderate. Unless you have people who have the genuine
instincts that really harmonize with this change in American politics, you’ll see
probably this kind of revulsion against a Democratic president if one is elected. Ben Wattenberg: Bob Borosage, let me ask you
two questions as a man of the left or from the left. Is the Democratic Party the right wing of
the left-wing party, the center right? Which is where that old Coalition for a Democratic
Majority was, where I think Will’s Democratic Leadership Council was. Are they — they’ve been called not a wing
of the party, but a feather of the party — are they really out of it? And secondly is, if the party — if President
Clinton decides to hang a right turn to get to that center constituency, would you as
a man of the left back a third-party run by, say, Jesse Jackson? Robert Borosage: I think it’s very much
premature to talk third party at this point, but — Ben Wattenberg: Well, he’s apparently hanging
a right turn. Robert Borosage: I think you see the Democratic
Party is clearly — the Democratic Party’s future is as a party of middle class and working
people, a multiracial party. You can’t avoid that. You can’t do push-off politics and pretend
that’s not true. And to the extent you try to go away from
that and to pretend you’re something else or to become Republicans, you do what the
Coalition for a Democratic Majority does. Eventually you end up as Republicans. And so the Democratic Party has to be what
it is. When it goes back to that base — I think
people here are misreading this electorate very much. This is an electorate, as Will says — Will
and I agree on this — this is an electorate that is looking for significant change, that
thinks this capital city is corrupt and taken over by very large, very powerful interests
that don’t represent them, and they are casting about — Ben Wattenberg: But you two are not saying
they’re the same interests? Robert Borosage: I think actually we are in
many ways. They’re casting about looking for dramatic
change. I think this notion that they’re for a passive
government is wrong, and I think to the extent the Republicans give them a passive government,
they won’t be very happy with it. They’re looking for real solutions to real
problems. Will Marshall: Ben, I’ll just raise one
point. We have a very static view of the Democratic
Party here. I mean in the 19th century, the Democratic
Party was not associated with the vigorous use of federal power. Ben Wattenberg: Absolutely. Will Marshall: In fact, it opposed that as
being contrary to democracy. Robert Borosage: It was a very rural party. Will Marshall: I understand that. In the 20th century, centralization was a
modernizing and progressive force, and that’s why had I been alive in the Progressive Era
in the ’30s, I would have been a strong advocate for that policy and why the Democrats
were right to embrace those policies. But we’re in a new era. The party can’t go back or keep fighting
these old battles. And one of the — the good news from this
election is that Bill Clinton and the new Democrats are liberated from this old status
quo that was defended by powerful congressional committees working incestuously with interest
groups, with the experts who defined problems and defined the solutions without consulting
the people. This nexus of relationships has been shattered. The Republicans are taking over the machinery,
even changing the committees so they no longer can protect the old vested interests. They may protect new ones, but at least they
won’t be protecting the old ones. Ben Wattenberg: Michael. Michael Beschloss: One problem with that is
that a large part of the Democratic base, and especially the Democratic base after the
election of 1994, is not going to be particularly turned on by those issues. They’re going to feel rather alienated. They’re going to feel the Democratic Party
is beginning to slough them off. They’re not going to turn out very much. Robert Borosage: What are you thinking of? Michael Beschloss: Well, what I’m thinking
of is, if you want to see an energized system, what you want to see is two parties that really
stand for a very great deal of difference. That’s when you have a lot of turnout. Sometimes, as in a parliamentary system, it
means that one party is destined to be the minority party for a while, but it always
comes back. What I would much prefer to see is a Democratic
Party that tries to address the people who are at the center of that base and perhaps
does not try to walk away from the idea of activist government and waits for the time
when people feel that there are a lot of problems that are not being addressed by the private
sector and perhaps not by states and localities. And that way will come back once again. Ben Wattenberg: Will, has the window closed
on Clinton? We all agree that he had this great window,
and it’s led people like me to endorse him publicly and write columns about it. And now these events — some of it is unfair. I mean, I think he actually did accomplish
some good things. I happen to like the crime bill. I think he’s in the right direction on the
education bill. But the fact is that he has become somewhat
poisonous in the Democratic Party. Has that window of opportunity for him shut? Is he going to be challenged on the right
— I talked to you about a challenge on the left — by, say, a Senator Bob Kerrey? David Boren, former senator from Oklahoma
who resigned, is making noises that sound like an independent candidacy. My colleague Norman Ornstein says it might
be backed by Ross Perot. Has Clinton’s time gone? Will Marshall: No, it hasn’t. The door hasn’t shut on him. Amazingly enough, I think there is a way out
for Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party. We’ve been probing the independent vote
pretty intently lately. Ben Wattenberg: You just took a big poll,
didn’t you? Will Marshall: A big poll. This is the new factor. We’re talking about Democrats, Republicans,
left and right. You know, people are disenfranchised by the
old left-right choices. Thirty percent of the electorate is resolutely
independent; they don’t like either party. They swung against George Bush and passive
governance in 1992. They just swung against Bill Clinton and the
Democrats in 1994, but they are not intrinsically Republicans or even conservatives. And if Newt Gingrich and company don’t shake
up this corrupt insider status quo that they dislike so much, I would guess that in 1996,
they’re going to be in trouble, because the independent voters aren’t giving much
time to deliver what they want. So there is an opportunity for Bill Clinton
to contest Newt Gingrich and company for the mantle of radical progressive reform. Ben Wattenberg: Bob Borosage, what would your
“for instances” be as to what Clinton ought to do to recapture — Robert Borosage: Well, I read Will’s poll. I think the poll is right. It’s just the conclusions he draws that
are goofy. The poll is, people are disgusted with politics
as usual. You’ve got to put forward a program of political
reform that tries to limit money in politics. Ben Wattenberg: Well, what are your “for
instances”? Robert Borosage: Campaign finance reform,
changing the lobby system — and push it and make it a presidential priority, not something
you try to slip over at the end of the day. Take that mantle back. You allowed Newt Gingrich to look like he
represented political change in the country with term limits. That we ought to contest. You’ve got to go back and put forward a
set of things that help people with everyday problems that they face. Now, welfare reform is I think replaying the
crime debate. You know, all these careful pollsters said,
well, people are really for both punishment and prevention. And of course that was true. But when it became punishment and pork, they
turned on the president, and the DLC members sabotaged him because they didn’t want to
limit assault guns. You do welfare reform — when people discover
that Bill Clinton thinks ending welfare as we know it costs more than keeping welfare
as we have it, he’s going to get killed by the Gingrich plan, which pretends it’s
going to save half of the welfare budget. You know, people are going to see him more
— Ben Wattenberg: So are you advising him to
do something that will get him killed? Robert Borosage: No, I’m not. I think welfare reform is a bad subject for
the president. I think you try to limit the damage that Republicans
do. Ben Wattenberg: Well, he ran on it. I mean in 1992, you couldn’t stop the man
from saying — Robert Borosage: It was a bad subject then,
too. Ben Wattenberg: End welfare as we know it. You want to keep the welfare system as it
is now? Robert Borosage: I want to limit the damage
the Republicans are going to do to poor children. I want to put forward a program that deals
with the real problem that working people have as they try to go through jobs that don’t
have health care, that don’t have security, that don’t have paid vacations, that don’t
have childcare, etc. I mean, this is a society in which middle-class
people have real problems now. The president’s got to talk to that, or
Democrats simply aren’t going to be able to have pudding in this. If the answer is “in this economy we can’t
do anything to help you,” then I think Republicans will win these elections, because they don’t
want to do anything. Ben Wattenberg: What would you all — let’s
just play a little hypothetical here. What would you advise the Republicans to do
in this moment of disarray with the Democrats? And I will start with you, Jeane Kirkpatrick. You are one of the few Americans extant who
worked for both Hubert Humphrey and Ronald Reagan. Jeane Kirkpatrick: That’s right. Ben Wattenberg: That’s right, so — Jeane Kirkpatrick: With some enthusiasm in
both cases. Ben Wattenberg: In both cases. I understand that. What should the Republicans do? Jeane Kirkpatrick: I think that the Republicans
should do what they in fact are doing, first of all, which is reaffirming the elements
of the Reagan program, the Reagan orientation. The fact is that the Republican Party is not
a party of the status quo at all, and this is a very fundamental kind of an error that
Democrats make, I think. Even very smart Democrats make this mistake. Ben Wattenberg: Like our panel — like part
of our panel. Jeane Kirkpatrick: The fact is that those
of us who participated in it called it a Reagan Revolution. It did in fact rather dramatically reverse
a lot of the directions that the US government had been going for a long time, and it returned
a lot of power to people who had been effectively disenfranchised in Democratic bureaucracies
and the highly structured kinds of power structures of the Democratic Party. I think that the Republicans — Will Marshall: You know, Dr. Kirkpatrick,
I think you’re a brilliant woman. I can’t figure out what you’re talking
about. Jeane Kirkpatrick: Yeah, I know. Well, I don’t — Will Marshall: You bankrupted the country
in four years. Jeane Kirkpatrick: You don’t make any sense
to me, either, quite frankly. [Laughter.] When I listen to you talk about what the American
people want, I think, you know, this is what the IPS has been saying for about 40 years. This is — since it was founded, and the
American people, the majority of the American people have rejected it every time they have
had the opportunity. Each time they have recognized the kind of,
quote, “change” that you’re proposing, the American people turn out in great majorities
and vote for the opposition. And that’s what they keep doing. Now, I think there’s a message in this,
and the biggest message of all is “leave our society alone.” You know, respect American society, respect
American culture, and find some simple solutions to our very real problems. Ben Wattenberg: Are you thinking of running
for national office? Jeane Kirkpatrick: Me? Ben Wattenberg: Yes. Jeane Kirkpatrick: No. Ben Wattenberg: Michael Beschloss, what do
you think the Republicans should do? Michael Beschloss: I think they should do
what they have been doing. The Republicans during all the years after
the New Deal basically stuck to a position, which was of limited government, opposition
to the New Deal notion of government. That was destined to make them a minority
party for a long time. Their function for roughly the 60 years after
1932 was to moderate and limit and edit some of the excesses that Democratic majorities
in Congress and also in the White House committed. That’s what the role for Democratic Party
is going to be, likely, for the next 10 or 20 years. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you all very much. Thank you, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Michael Beschloss,
Will Marshall, and Bob Borosage. And thank you. As you know, we enjoy hearing from you. Please continue to send your comments and
questions to New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036. Or we can be reach by email at [email protected] For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc. in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.