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Familial Feeling

billy boy
Ted Soqui/Sygma

Power Paterfamilias: Demos drove their relatively safe message home, over an dover again. It's the family, stupid.

Bill Clinton's Democrats, bereft of a unifying philosophy, agree on one thing: They want to be a family-friendly party

By Harold Meyerson

THE DEMOCRATS were the party of parents in Chicago, the nation's oldest political entity winnowed down to moms and pops, daughters and sons. Like everyone else, the Clintons, we learned from Hillary's speech, are stretched thin by the demands of work and home, and they stayed up all night when Chelsea had her tonsillectomy. We are parents, said speaker after speaker, here to give other parents the tools they need, from tuition tax credits to the V-chip.

Two distinct, if overlapping, Democratic factions displayed themselves in Chicago: the progressives, thundering against corporate greed and the welfare bill, and the Clinton/Dick Morrisites, targeting harried suburban moms with a range of useful, if small, programs. But on the primacy of parenthood, there was partywide consensus. Not just the centrists but the liberals paraded their family values and their family members to center stage. Jesse Jackson was introduced by his son, the congressman; Ted Kennedy was introduced by his son, the congressman. At the pre-convention concert-reunion of the Chicago 8 (well, four of them, anyway), Tom Hayden was introduced by his son, and David Dellinger by his grandson, and Michael Lerner by his son, and Dick and Mickey Flacks, 35 years ago SDS's first married couple, by their son, who was gassed in his baby carriage in Grant Park during the turmoil of '68. "Family values," said a smiling Hayden, shepherding the assembled broods off the stage, "brought to you by the Chicago Conspiracy."

Precisely because Chicago '68 had been about the sundering of generational ties, Chicago '96 was the convention of generational reconciliation. Hayden spoke at the concert about patching things up with his father, years after '68. Mayor Richard Daley, son of Old Mayor Daley, who turned police on the demonstrators and eventually on anything that moved, kicked off the concert by greeting Hayden and his crew. "However unwelcome you may have felt 28 years ago, in the midst of troubled times," Daley said, "you are welcome today." For their part, the attendees cheered Daley (the cast of Hair actually whooped). And Hayden emerged as one of the most popular figures at the convention, constantly importuned by delegates who wanted their picture taken with him. For many, he had come to personify the integration of the '60s into normal political channels.

For his fellow boomers Bill Clinton and Al Gore (the president who demonstrated against the war at Oxford, the veep who admitted to the press that he was there "observing" in Grant Park) mere integration was never sufficient. Beginning with Nixon, Republicans have run against '60s permissiveness; Dole is still straining to re-fight the '60s culture wars. Those rebellious kids who now lead the Democratic Party have had to become the party of concerned parents, asserting their belief in traditional, familial authority. From Hayden to Clinton and beyond, a United Front of Parenthood unified the Chicago Democrats. Much else divided them.

The Liberal Hour

IN LATE SPRING, pollsters from the Peter Hart firm conducted a briefing in the White House to present the results of a new survey to administration officials. What they'd uncovered was a torrent of untapped populism: 83 percent of Americans attributed rising economic insecurity to corporate greed. Asked to choose between different descriptions of government, 48 percent described it as too solicitous of corporate wealth, while just 35 percent described it as taxing and spending too much. By a two-to-one margin, respondents wanted increased government involvement in protecting their interests from business, rather than a hands-off posture that simply lets businesses compete unimpeded.

Though met with interest by administration liberals (Labor Secretary Robert Reich, White House aides Harold Ickes and George Stephanopoulos) the survey was quickly dismissed by more-establishment economic and political counselors. Laura Tyson, the onetime expert on Yugoslavian workers who'd become the centrist head of the National Economic Council, pooh-poohed the survey as reflecting not genuine economic anxiety but rather the Buchanan boomlet of the moment. Economic anxiety and the problem of stagnating wages would not become the chief focus of the president's campaign.

They did provide the basis, however, for the liberal presentations at the Chicago convention, particularly the two primary non-primetime speeches, Ted Kennedy's and Jesse Jackson's. Thundering his warnings about "a class crisis [that] emerges as a race crisis," Jackson hinged the party's claim to leadership on its ability to champion the California strawberry workers and the North Carolina chicken workers, who are struggling to survive. Kennedy, booming out an attack on "Dole, Kemp and Gingrich" that echoed Roosevelt's 1940 attack on GOP reactionaries "Martin, Barton and Fish," moved the class-war card to the top of the deck. The task of the party, he proclaimed, is to "repair the social contract . . . so that all the economic gains will not be funneled solely into stratospheric salaries for CEOs." Then he called for special levies against "billionaire Benedict Arnolds who renounce their American citizenship to avoid taxes on vast fortunes they have earned in the United States of America."

The Kennedy and Jackson presentations were preceded by a Tuesday afternoon forum to kick off the Campaign for America's Future (CAF), a newly minted organization intended to provide a progressive counter to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) "by putting the question of declining wages and living standards at the center of American political debate," as CAF founder Robert Borosage stated. (Truth-in-packaging disclaimer: I am one of the hundred-or-so signatories of CAF's founding statement.) The rise of the Reagan Democrats, economist Jeff Faux argued at the forum, was partly a function of their rising prosperity, a condition that had emphatically ceased to pertain. The cultural conservatism prescribed by the DLC could no longer win these voters back. "There is no argument for this party becoming more conservative," Faux adjured, "[unless you rely on] outmoded data."

The most important of the CAF's sponsors are the AFL-CIO and the member unions that backed John Sweeney's successful insurgent campaign last year for the federation presidency. The new-model AFL-CIO was all over the convention. It wasn't that the unions had any more delegates than they've had in past years (they had 811 out of 4,300, about the same as in '92) but, as one staffer put it, they had "an enthusiasm that would have been unthinkable four years ago." The unions came to the convention justly claiming credit for pressuring House Republicans to vote for the minimum wage. In 86 swing congressional districts, they have placed a staffer and 100 volunteers to mobilize union voters. In six states, they'll be fighting the Christian Coalition head-on this fall, setting up interfaith alliances that will demand the distribution of their own slate cards from pulpits on pre-election Sundays.

The shock of renewed relevance gave the AFL-CIO delegates to the convention an élan nowhere in evidence in recent decades. (The largest delegation, from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, actually wore T-shirts annoucing "The state of AFSCME is Clinton Country.") Federation leaders played a key role in drafting the party's platform. And yet ...

And yet, that platform affirmed the president's position on NAFTA and welfare and downsizing government, and the union drafters never even considered contesting it. Their distinctive contribution was to insert some language on workers' rights. But their broader calculation was that they wanted a Clinton win, a big Clinton win that would bring in a Democratic Congress, and so they would agree to disagree and work loyally for the team.

This was not a calculation unique to labor; it was, with varying degrees of disgruntlement or outright anger, the calculation of virtually every liberal gathered in Chicago. "In '68, we ripped apart the big tent and lost to Nixon," Jackson told the delegates. He condemned the welfare bill eloquently, and then said, "We are mature enough to differ without splitting." Jackson was followed to the podium by Mario Cuomo, who noted that "many, including me, feared the welfare bill posed too great a risk to children. The president," he continued, "is confident he can avert the risk by further legislation before children are actually harmed. We should all hope and pray that the president is right, but . . . we need to give the president the strength of a Democratic Congress" to enact that further legislation. Even at the Chicago 8 Reunion Concert, the occasional expressions from the podium of non-support for the ticket were greeted with a cold silence from the crowd.

The most vivid display of anti-welfare-bill, pro-Clinton acrobatics came at a Tuesday-morning press conference called by Rep. Maxine Waters and featuring such women's movement icons as Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Dolores Huerta and Ellie Smeal, as well as a host of elected officials. "We have a platform we don't like, and we are supporting the president," Abzug said in an uncharacteristically resigned tone. "We're saying, 'Okay, you made a mistake.' " Waters, who would condemn the bill from the convention podium later that night, insisted that "the best way to improve this bill is to support Bill Clinton. The president understands this is not a good bill. We're saying, 'We want this bill re-worked.' "

Even for an old leftie like Abzug, the thought-process at work here required a thorough grounding in higher dialectics. Clinton was problem; Clinton was solution. He was thesis, antithesis and synthesis rolled into one. As one union delegate put it, "He's achieved a state of Hegelian ubiquity."

call me al
Ted Soqui/Sygma

Reed 'em and Veep: Al Gore proved the personal is lugubrious.

Morris and the Gore Bathosphere

MORE THAN ANY single presidential counselor, it was Dick Morris (the strategist, not the tabloid cover boy) who kept the populist impulse and any talk of class far away from all prime-time presentations. In the Morris convention (the network's one hour of nightly coverage) any defense of government or of the Democrats' traditional constituencies was a stealth defense at best. When, on Monday night, Christopher Reeves told the convention that "the most important lesson FDR taught us is that America cannot let its neediest citizens fend for themselves," he was met with thunderous applause. For many delegates, the line was a safe, almost surgical attack on the welfare bill, like one of those Chinese wall posters criticizing the current leadership by commenting in historical code on the sins of the Han Dynasty. But that was all Morris was going to allow on the air.

Consider the two speeches that the Star contends Morris ran by his focus group: Hillary's, and Al Gore's. The first lady's address was a compendium of small policy suggestions and helpful hints for parents. (Keep moms and babies in the hospital for 48 hours after childbirth; hospitals should have 24-hour hotlines for new parents.) Hillary delivered her homily in a somewhat hurried, almost school-marmish fashion. The last four years have surely been increasingly tense and joyless for her; the tension and joylessness grow harder to conceal. But for the very reason that she has been the chief target of the right's attack, her appearance on the podium evoked the convention's most heartfelt ovation. Whatever you may have done, the delegates were saying, you have taken it for your husband, for all of us. We love you, if only for the enemies you've made.

Al Gore, on the other hand, is becoming a more comfortable and compelling speaker. At the AFL-CIO caucus on Sunday, he had the delegates roaring with laughter at his description and pantomime of the Republican congressmen whom he looked down upon from his perch beside Speaker Newt Gingrich during Clinton's last state-of-the-union. (When Clinton suggested they vow never to close down government again, Gore said, the Democrats leaped to their feet. The Republicans started to join them (after all, they were on TV) until they saw Gingrich, seated next to Gore, glaring at them, and they settled awkwardly back into their seats. Gore left the AFL-CIO delegates chanting for Gore-2000, a remarkable feat for a vice president who led the fight for NAFTA and, within the White House, for the welfare bill.

Gore clearly outshone his potential rivals for the 2000 nod at the Chicago convention. House minority leader Dick Gephardt, the convention co-chair who could reasonably view himself as the rightful heir to labor's support, failed to light any sparks in his convention or delegation addresses. Besides, Gore is a great retail pol. Knowing his positions make him anything but labor's natural candidate, he took pains to schmooze the union leaders in Chicago, taking them out after the Monday night session. He repeatedly affirmed the value of the teachers' unions that Dole had assaulted. The emerging Gore M.O. is to affirm the constituency, even (or especially) when he isn't there on their issues.

Gore's convention address, moved up to Wednesday both to give him more exposure and to clear the decks for his long-winded running mate the following night, featured an artful attack on Dole and a memorable account, to an utterly hushed hall, of his sister's death from smoking-induced lung cancer. It was not the first time Gore had plumbed the personal in the cause of the political. Four years before, in his '92 acceptance speech, he movingly recounted his son's near-death in a car accident. On that occasion, though, Gore had at least some restraint. This time out, secure in the knowledge that there was an actual public-policy moral (restrict the advertising and sale of tobacco to minors) at the end of the story, he went on past the point of all decency, reducing his poor mother to tears and delegates to silent misgivings. (Both of Gore's aging parents are alive, creating the possibility that one of them could sicken or die before the 2000 convention, and another before 2004. Prepare yourself for further descents into the Gore Bathosphere.)

The Rupert Murdoch Morning News

AMID ALL THIS planned wallowing in the personal came one startling moment of unplanned wallowing. On Thursday morning, the convention was abuzz with secondhand accounts of that morning's New York Post story recounting Dick Morris' encounters with a prostitute. The timing was impeccable. On the one hand, it totally stepped on the news of Clinton's triumphant acceptance speech, to be delivered that evening. Moreover, it erupted in plain view of 15,000 journalists bored out of their minds by the two utterly scripted conventions now coming to a close.

The timing was perfect. The story was to break in the Star, a paper owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch until 1990, the following Monday. The Post, a paper currently owned by Murdoch, was given word of the story and ran it on the convention's final day. This is exactly the way the avowedly right-wing Murdoch plays politics in Britain: using his tabloids to go after the Labor Party in the run-up to every election. (Indeed, the progression of papers this time was exactly the same as it was in the '92 Gennifer Flowers scandal, as Clinton '92 consultant Frank Greer noted. "I've been here before," Greer said, "first the Star, then the Post, then everybody else.")

The Star attempted to make this more than a sex story by suggesting Morris made his friend privy to high-level secrets. The secrets turned out to be Hillary and Gore's convention speeches (is she the one who suggested he go on so long about his sister's death?), and "a military secret known to only seven people: that there's life on Mars!" While adding a note of unquestionable verisimilitude to the story (this is exactly what someone like Morris would say to impress a hooker), its security implications seem dubious.

By mid-day Thursday, Morris was gone: but, as Clinton's acceptance speech made unmistakably clear, Morrisism remained.

It's Bill's Party

THE IRONY IS that Clinton owes his success to his highly selective embrace of the Morris plan. He did endorse the retreat from the ideology of big government, the support for the balanced budget and the welfare bill, the targeting of suburban moms and the de-emphasis of the economic insecurity issue. And yet, he rejected Morris's suggestion that he reach a deal with the Republicans on the budget to avert a government shutdown, grasping as Morris had not that he would rise in the polls for defending Medicare and education, and that the Republicans would fall for their fanatic posturing.

To say that Clinton has struck a balance, though, is not to say that he's reached a coherent philosophy. The Clinton party proclaims that big government is over, but that government is nonetheless needed here and there. Adrift between a coherent liberal defense of big government and a coherent conservative attack on big government, the Clinton party is a party not just of small government, but of small ideas. Though the president delivered his speech in a folksy, compelling and ultimately powerful way, he failed to conceal the fact that it contained no guiding philosophy, no central theme, no big idea. It is impossible to imagine any young person whom this speech will move to spend his or her life in politics. People are not moved by laundry lists, most especially laundry lists with no big-ticket items.

Among the bite-sized proposals were two new ones: a capital-gains tax exemption on the sale of your home, and a tax credit for businesses that hire welfare recipients. As recently as three years ago, the Clinton administration was still talking about public-sector employment for people going off welfare who can't find jobs. But government-as-employer-of-last-resort has become government-as-employer-of-no-resort.

"Tonight, I challenge every business person in America who has ever complained about the failure of the welfare system," Clinton intoned, "to try to hire somebody off welfare: and try hard." (Should anyone ask you the difference between Concerned New Democrats and Unfeeling Republicans, it's these last three words.)

Clinton spoke, as he has all year, for the popular side of government, for college loans and tax credits, for Medicare, for a balanced budget. But if his speech lacked a guiding philosophy, it certainly had a governing metaphor, and he took it straight from Bob Dole. Indeed, a good deal of the entire convention pivoted on one critical error Dole made at his convention. "Let me be the bridge," Dole had said in his acceptance speech, "to an America that only the unknowing call myth."

The line was plainly the touch of novelist Marc Helprin, the Dole speechwriter awash in nostalgia for the America of Dole's childhood, of the prairie, of the martial virtues of the Good War. (Dole's own nostalgia is considerably more in check: he's never betrayed the slightest desire to return to the Kansas prairie, but he was paying Helprin and he might as well use the damn line.)

It was also a horrific mistake: the line enabled the Democrats to go ever so decorously after Dole on the age issue, affirming Dole's noble qualities while painting him as one out-of-touch duffer.

"With all due respect," Clinton said, "we do not need to build a bridge to the past. We need to build a bridge to the future." And he said it again and again, as did Gore and a myriad of other speakers. "This is the last time," said David Kusnet, who wrote Clinton's speeches during the '92 campaign and for the first two years of his presidency, "that a novelist gets hired by a presidential campaign."

And going decorously after Dole is a key to the Clinton strategy. For in the party he has rebuilt around family and generational reconciliation, Clinton remains the child of the '60s campaigning against his father's generation. He is 23 years younger than Bob Dole, 22 years younger than George Bush. No president, or presidential candidate, has had successive opponents so much older than he. Few have placed the kind of emphasis Clinton did (chiefly with his selection of fellow boomer Gore as his running mate) on the generational aspect of his politics. Clinton has to be the candidate of generational continuity, because at some unspoken psycho-social level, there is something downright Oedipal about his campaigns both of '92 and '96. (And remember, Clinton never met his own father, whom he believes to be dead . . . .)

There's a reason why the Republicans have given Clinton such relatively senior opponents. They are leaders from the era when the Republicans had a popular and unifying identity: the party that waged the Cold War, the party united by anti-communism. The party's new leaders have yet to find a post­Cold War equivalent, a message so popular that it will unify the party and restore it to power. (Gingrich's contribution is to have demonstrated that crude anti-statism isn't that message.)

But if the Republicans are still the party of the Old Order, the Democrats are not yet the party of the New. In the past two years, Clinton has done a brilliant job of defining himself, and his party, by what they're opposed to, but whether the party continues to drift toward Morrisism without Morris, or veers more toward an AFL-CIO tack, is very much up in the air. In this battle, some on the left feel they need the space created by a Democrat in the White House. "Whatever these guys may do," one of the party's prominent veterans of '68 muttered during Gore's speech, "we need the 16 years [of Clinton, then Gore] to rebuild our base." That's the wager many liberals were making in Chicago, and they made it abundantly clear they didn't think they had an alternative.

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From the September 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro

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