Committee Of Correspondence

The Democratic National Convention

Karlyn Bowman
7:47 a.m.  Monday  8/26/96 

       This year, both parties have done something they didn’t do four years ago. They have extended their conventions, Dole with the announcement of the tax plan and the selection of Jack Kemp, and Bill Clinton with the White House bill signings and the whistle stop tour. At a time when they are guaranteed more coverage this makes sense, and campaigns of the future will probably follow this script.
       Chris Caldwell’s excellent reporting in the new issue of the Weekly Standard suggests another feature we are likely to see at future conventions. An army of spinmeisters from the other party descending on the convention to answer every charge and make some news of their own. Chris reported the Democrats had 37 people at the GOP convention.
       Clinton goes into what some are calling the second Republican convention in a fairly strong position. His approval rating hovers slightly above 50 percent in most polls. His disapproval is stubbornly high at about 38 percent. People feel pretty good about the economy. When asked about the most important problem facing the country, about 15 percent mention crime, and the deficit usually ranks second in the low teens. Those numbers suggest an unusually content public. In the polls conducted before the Republican convention, pluralities or majorities said that the president deserved to be reelected.
       It’s hard to know what to make of the torrent of public opinion polls purporting to measure the convention bounce the GOP got. We calculate the bounce by looking at the last Gallup poll taken before the convention and then looking at the poll immediately after the convention. This is not as straightforward as it used to be as the pollsters are in the field much more often than in the past, and the task is complicated this time by the fact that the vice president was added to the ticket before the convention began. Gallup had the race at Clinton 58, Dole 35 on August 5-7 (23 points). On August 11, the day before the GOP convention began, they asked about the Clinton-Gore and Dole-Kemp tickets and found the race at 53-44 (9 points). The organization was in the field on August 16-18, again posing the question with the VP nominees, and found the race at 5 points.
       Suffice it to say, the Republicans improved their position in San Diego, suggesting that we may have a race this fall. Christopher Caldwell
7:56 a.m.  Monday  8/26/96 

       It’s tempting to see a symmetry between what Republicans did in San Diego, and what Democrats will have to do in Chicago–mute their hard-liners to mollify swing voters. But a Republican majority in Congress gives Democrats the easier task. Had Buchanan/Christian Coalition forces set the tone of the Republican convention, independents would have had good reason to fear a Republican majority could change the abortion and gun laws. By contrast, no matter how incendiary the oratory of the Democratic left against welfare reform, the majority believes the era of big government is over.
       Yes, there’s room for both parties in the center. There had better be: Democrats have fought Republicans to a stalemate over the size of government. Remember that the arguments that shut the government down last winter were over fractions of a percentage point in federal spending. Paradoxically, the Republican revolution has removed the thing people feared most about the Democrats: ineluctable government growth.
       Where the parties differ now is not on government’s size but on how (and how much) it regulates. What I expect to see a lot of at the Democratic convention is a latter-day Reutherism. With bigger government off the table, Democrats will focus on “working people’s issues,” “corporate responsibility,” etc., as a means of providing for the working poor through regulation of business rather than proliferation of government. (Democrats, having touted their employment statistics throughout the Clinton administration, will have to abandon the non-working poor.) Jesse Jackson will have trouble working within this framework, but David Bonior won’t. The paradigm is the Family Medical Leave Act, the Striker Replacement Bill, Mended-not-Ended Affirmative Action, etc. The inability of Republicans to block the minimum-wage hike or alter the Kennedy-Kassebaum medical-insurance portability bill–and their cold feet on affirmative action–indicate that Democrats hold the advantage in this new-style politics.
       If there’s a consensus for medium-sized government, then the Republicans’ promised 15 percent tax cut is a strategy out of the past. Not that you can’t balance the budget after the cuts–you can if you have a balanced-budget amendment that automatically lops off spending. It thus doesn’t matter if supply-side economics “works”–but the unpopularity of last winter’s shutdowns established that the government that would emerge from a two-pronged tax-cut/balanced budget strategy would be too small for voters’ tastes (alas).
       How will Democrats respond? My impression, from talking to Clinton officials, is that Clinton will offer one or two targeted cuts Thursday, but won’t take the bait and try to outbid Dole. Democrats seem to believe budget-balancing is a good carrot to wave in front of Concord Coalition Republicans and Perotistas, and I think they’re right. Alan Brinkley
8:48 a.m.  Monday  8/26/96 

       Now that the Republicans have made clear how far conventions have moved toward becoming utterly empty vehicles for media strategists to exploit, I suppose there is no reason in belaboring the point this week. The Democrats, I assume, will orchestrate their convention just as elaborately (and, they will have to hope, as well) as the Republicans did. The remaining question, then, is how much good it will do them.
       I suspect quite a lot. It won’t make as big a difference to Clinton as San Diego did to Dole, but that’s in part because Clinton doesn’t need it as much as Dole did. But the Clinton administration has metamorphosed in many ways since the president’s last unfiltered address to the nation (the State of the Union in January), and this will be his first chance to present the product of the changes of the last eight months on his own terms.
       It may be that the Democrats will not have many speakers with the glamour, or emotional appeal, of Powell, Nancy Reagan, and Elizabeth Dole. But I would not underestimate the likely effect of Hillary Clinton’s appearance, which I suspect will actually do more for her than Mrs. Dole’s appearance did for Mrs. Dole–not because it will be better (although I suspect she’ll do pretty well) but because she needs it more. In a way, Mrs. Clinton comes into this convention in a position not unlike the one in which former Sen. Dole went into his–as someone whose public image is much worse than it deserves to be, and likely to be much improved by personal exposure.
       But the main reason the convention will probably help Clinton is that all the things that traditionally help incumbents are, to at least some degree, in place for him and will undoubtedly be discussed repeatedly this week: an economy that is at least superficially healthy; a low unemployment rate (even if probably not really as low as the statistics suggest); peace; and an unpopular enemy–the 104th Congress–against which Clinton can pit himself and to which he can tie Dole. And Clinton, of course, is a terrific campaigner and always tends to do better when people are watching him than when they are reading or hearing about him.
       What about the Democratic party in all this? Its divisions are real, of course, and there are many members who are quite unhappy about some aspects of the Clinton administration–although probably not too many of them delegates, since the delegates were carefully hand-picked to give most seats to real Clinton enthusiasts. But I do think the Democrats this year are in something of the same position the Republicans have often occupied in the past: convinced that something very dangerous to their hopes is at stake in this election and thus much more willing than usual to hide their disagreements and support a candidate many of them don’t really like. R. Emmett Tyrell Jr.
9:23 a.m.  Monday  8/26/96 

       In response to Chairman Stein’s very provocative introduction I doubt that the Democrats will be as successful as the Republicans in “establishing themselves in the center without alienating their more extreme partisans.” Two rather good books on the conservative and liberal brethren explain why. In The Conservative Crack-Up the author argues that though fragmented by various enthusiasms the conservatives invariably come together when things get serious. Despite all the ideological bickering anterior to the Gulf War, Pat Buchanan fell in with the president at the first hostile shot. In 1992 despite the various conservative factions’ anxious scrupling over George Bush’s record most turned out for Bush. The reason that the conservatives usually fall in at the end of the day is that they are not terribly intense about politics, and those that are tend to think strategically. They believe they have a long way to go to retrieve the Republic from the Barbarians. As was argued in another rather good book, The Liberal Crack-Up, fragmentation afflicts the liberals too, but it is a more serious fragmentation. The liberal coalition is far removed from the coalition whose eponym was Roosevelt. It is composed of enthusiasts who are more obsessed with their own enthusiasms than with the good of the whole. This coalition’s centrifugal forces are the major cause of the Carter administration’s collapse and they have been a significant component in the Clinton administration’s problems, from the gays in the military row to the present row over welfare. Actually the liberals’ problems have worsened as their different enthusiasts–the gays, the feminists, the lovers of the black-footed ferret–are members of a coalition that has pretty much completed all the serious endeavors it set out to achieve. Policy now must address the problems those endeavors have ushered in, and liberals are not eager to create such policies. Worse, practically every element of the liberal coalition has fal len into the hands of charlatans. They achieved leadership in the gay movement, the women’s movement, and so forth by ideological altruism, either contrived or heart felt, and they will remain true blue to their altruism. Clinton, smoothie that he is, has maneuvered around the problem of the liberal crack-up but this convention will not be able to hide the extremists and the public will be watching. Clinton’s chances for victory in the fall will continue to decline as a consequence of the display in Chicago.
       The press might miss this but we shall not, right Chairman Stein? Herb Stein
1:47 p.m.  Monday  8/26/96 

       At this moment, on Monday afternoon, about all there is to say is that we shall see.
       Tyrrell may be right that the Republicans are more unified than the Democrats. A cynic (not me) might say that the Republicans are unified in their desire for money. They want their taxes back. And money is negotiable, infinitely divisible, and, if one is not worried by the budget constraint, infinitely expandable. The Democrats, on the other hand, have a lot of non-negotiable ideological demands. But I suspect that they also have one over-riding, unifying, desire–which is to be in power.
       Chris Caldwell suggests that balancing the budget will be a good theme for the Democrats. With his accustomed modesty Tyrrell has referred to two good books, The Conservative Crack-up and The Liberal Crack-up, without mentioning that he is their author. I will refer to a book of mine, The Fiscal Revolution in America, in which I report that balancing the budget is a flag that is more often saluted than followed.
       On the subject of glamour, I am a little put off by the idea of Christopher Reeve speaking on the first night. I am sorry for him. But he fell off his horse. What does that have to do with national politics and policy? Will Clinton announce an anti-horseback-riding initiative?
       We’ll talk more on the morning after.