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Morning Jay: It Was Never Bill Clinton’s Party

6:00 AM, May 31, 2012 • By JAY COST
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Yesterday, we got word that Artur Davis, the former Democratic representative from Alabama’s majority-black Seventh Congressional District and failed 2010 gubernatorial candidate, jumped from the Democratic party to the Republican party. What to make of this?

A few years ago, when Alabama Democrat Parker Griffith made a similar switch, I took it as a notable marker in the transition of Southern politics toward the GOP. Griffith represented one of the last Democratic holdouts in the South, at least on the congressional level, the old Jacksonians in the Appalachian region. I thought it was illustrative that he did not feel as though the Democratic label was a good vehicle for his political ambitions.

This switch seems less descriptive. Davis’s constituents in the majority-minority Seventh District of Alabama are really as solidly Democratic as they come. And African Americans in the South have been in a pretty comfortable alliance with Northern liberals since the Voting Rights Act, so this is not a signal of any shifts in the body politic.

What I find much more interesting is this comment from Davis:

[I]n my early thirties, the Democratic Party managed to engineer the last run of robust growth and expanded social mobility that we have enjoyed; and when the party was doing that work, it felt inclusive, vibrant, and open-minded.

But parties change. As I told a reporter last week, this is not Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party (and he knows that even if he can’t say it). 

On the specifics, I have regularly criticized an agenda that would punish businesses and job creators with more taxes just as they are trying to thrive again. I have taken issue with an administration that has lapsed into a bloc by bloc appeal to group grievances when the country is already too fractured: frankly, the symbolism of Barack Obama winning has not given us the substance of a united country.

This is a common point one hears from Clinton voters in the 1990s – it’s not his party any more. However, it’s not actually true. It was never really Bill Clinton’s party.

This is an issue that I discuss in Chapter 11 of my new book, Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic. Much like Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, Clinton came into office looking to reform his coalition in the hopes of creating a lasting majority. Also, like Ike, while Clinton enjoyed personal success, he never managed to reshape his own party.

Consider these points about the Clinton era:

1. He was far from the consensus choice of the party in 1992. In fact, most of the major interest groups that dominate the party today either opposed him or were lukewarm to his candidacy in 1992. What put Clinton over the top that year was his domination of the Southern primaries, thanks in large part to the sorts of white, working class voters who now call themselves Republicans.

2. He offered a reformist agenda to Congress, but the congressional liberals stymied him in 1993-94. They pushed him to the left on deficit reduction and crime control, punished him in the 1994 midterms for pursuing NAFTA, were lukewarm to his health care plan in part because it aggravated organized labor, and made welfare reform (a key plank of his ’92 candidacy) a non-starter.

3. In 2000, the Ralph Nader challenge was at its core an effort to lobby the vast array of disaffected interest groups that had backed Clinton four years prior because they saw him as the lesser of two evils. In the end, the party mostly came home in time for the election, but not entirely. Nader succeeded in splitting the vote in Florida by just enough to deliver George W. Bush the presidency.

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