Back in 1992, the two major English-speaking democracies (the United Kingdom and the United States) held elections which, while they went different ways, the more conservative party holding on in the UK while being voted out here, offered a similar lesson — that when times are tough, people are only willing to change course when they have confidence in the opposing party. In both nations, the opposition party led in polls in the immediate run-up to the general election.
While Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party picked up seats that year, substantially reducing the Conservative majority in Parliament, voters deciding at the last minute opted for the incumbent party, not confident that the Kinnock, from Labour’s left wing, could pull the UK out of its then-lingering recession. Thus, even in a recession, British voters preferred the mundane Major and his incumbent Conservatives to his more colorful challenger.
In our country, however, also suffering under a recession, Bill Clinton presented himself as “New Democrat.” And while he was critical of then-President George H.W. Bush’s policies, he, unlike the Democrats of today, did not oppose everything a President Bush proposed. He was mealy-mouthed on the First Gulf War, eventually coming out in favor and agreed with the incumbent on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). So well did he put forward his in that campaign that I can still remember it fourteen years later. That Democrat promised a middle-class tax cut and to “end welfare as we know it.”
In short, Clinton won in 1992, not merely because things were not as good as they had been in the 1980s, but because he put forward a more moderate agenda than had previous Democratic nominees. More importantly, he used his charm to present his platform in a positive manner. Unlike his Republican opponent that year, he had learned from Ronald Reagan and knew to be optimistic, playing to people’s hopes.
Without that positive, moderate message, Clinton would likely have suffered a similar fate similar to that of his British counterpart. People want something to vote for. They need to have confidence that if they “vote the bums out,” they’re going to get someone who will not make the same mistakes those bums did. Unless things are really, really bad, people’ll just pinch their noses and vote “the bums” back in. As they did in Britain in 1992.
Watching the Democrats finding themselves flat-footed with the good news this past week, we realize ever more clearly how they’ve been banking on things being really, really bad to help them take control of both houses of Congress this fall. Unlike the only Democrat since FDR to win two terms as President, today’s Democrats aren’t offering much of an agenda for America. Commenting on their latest plan, Peggy, showing why she has the qualities of a goddess of wisdom, puts it:
This week Democratic members of Congress and other elected officials unveil their “New Direction for America,” the party’s declaration of its reason for being. It said it stands firmly and unequivocally, without fear or favor, unwaveringly and with grit for . . . reducing the cost of student loans. And making prescription drugs less expensive. And raising the minimum wage. Etc.
This is not a philosophy but a way–an inadequate way, but a way–of hiding the fact that you don’t have a philosophy.
Without a philosophy, the Democrats are going to have a hard time convincing wary voters that they’re ready for power.
Just as Francine Busby ran a point ahead of John Kerry’s 2004 showing in her district in last week’s special election, so did Neil Kinnock’s Labour party run ahead of its showing in the 1987 election. But, despite the recession that year, it was not enough for Labour to return to power.
Although things are not going as well as we Republicans would like (which is, to some degree, of our elected officials’ own doing), the opposition party has presented itself as a force of obstruction, rather than a source of ideas for progress. Come this autumn, wary voters may well look at the Dean-Pelosi-Reid Democrats as our good friends “across the pond” saw Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party and will keep the more conservative party in power, albeit with a reduced majority.
-Dan (AKA GayPatriotWest): GayPatriotWest@aol.com
UPDATE: Captain Ed’s read of the latest CNN poll on party preference in congressional voting parallels the point I raise above, holding that the “results appear to benefit incumbents more than anyone else. The voters in individual districts may well stick with what they have rather than change horses if the trends remain.” Read the whole thing!