By "it", of course, I refer to the great post-election debate: why did we win? Far more importantly, now that we did win, what should we do now?
I have been predicting for six months now that on the Thursday after the election, assuming a win, we would start hearing from conservative Democrats and the establishment punditocracy about how we need to go slow, not over-reach, be careful. The only thing I was wrong about was the timing: with Obama clearly ahead in the polls, the not-overreaching calls began early, and have been well-chronicled on the pages of OpenLeft. Many of these calls, actually most now that I think about it, include references to Bill Clinton's "over-reach" in 1993-94 that caused the Democrats' downfall in the 1994 elections. This post, written from the perspective of someone who was in the Clinton White House and who studied in detail what happened in the 1994 elections, will walk through why this argument is dangerously wrong for Obama and the Democrats in 2009.
The Clinton "over-reach" of 1993-94
This is one of the classic myths that conservatives and establishment pundits, helped in no small part by conservative Democrats, like to flog. The reality is that we lost the 1994 elections mostly because of the disappointment from working-class Democrats and independents, especially women, who had voted for us in big numbers in 1992 but didn't show up to vote in 1994. We lost because we didn't deliver for our voters, not because we over-reached.
The first major fight was over our first federal budget. As folks may remember, Bob Rubin and other deficit hawks convinced Clinton to dramatically scale back on his campaign promises for investments in domestic programs, and to delay health care reform until we got that budget passed. While Clinton complained that we were going with an approach more like Eisenhower than like a Democrat, he went along with the green eyeshade guys. The budget got progressively more modest over the course of the legislative battle, most importantly taking out Gore's carbon tax idea. The bill that ended up passing was reasonably progressive, but way scaled back from 1992 campaign promises or what progressive members of Congress/groups had been pushing.
The next big fight was over NAFTA, a real example of lefty over-reaching. Yeah, right. And once again, those of us in the White House pushing hard for health care reform to be prioritized early were left disappointed as once more the drive to get health reform passed got delayed. Meanwhile, our allies in the labor movement who were excited about helping us pass a health care bill had to spend millions in fighting the NAFTA battle.
Now, I will admit that trying to pass universal health care at all was a more aggressive, and progressive, thing to do. But as I have written about here, we failed far more because of our own political mistakes, especially on not pursuing a more populist anti-insurance industry message, than because voters thought we were being too liberal.
For all of our over-reaching, we didn't deliver much to those working class voters who gave us our victory in 1992. Family and Medical Leave was a great thing, and very popular, but very modest compared to bigger picture economic issues. An increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit was also terrific, but helped only a relatively small number of people.
Not delivering much is what cost us the 1994 election. I did a thorough analysis of the 1994 exit polls after the election and did a memo to my fellow White House staffers. What I found was that the key to the election were the voters that stayed home who were non-college educated, lower and middle income, younger, more women than men, and heavily Democratic. Disproportionately large among those non-voters were working class and unmarried women. Overall, there was a 22-point difference in terms of Democratic support (in the wrong direction, of course) between those who voted and those who had in 1992 but didn't in 1994, thereby sealing our fate.
Those non-voters, the key to why we got swamped in the election, were not mad at us for being too liberal or over-reaching: they were mad at us for not delivering on health care or promises far more money for education and other domestic programs.
Here's the other thing: with the economy in so much worse shape, with things bound to get worse before they get better, with the problems so big, we had better deliver. Big problems require big solutions. Going slow, being careful, being cautious, trying to solve one little problem at time in a modest, incremental way: it's just not going to work.
Barack Obama ran on change. The times require change. Let's not let incrementalists and small-minded ambition keep the big change we need from happening.