The Roots of the Enthusiasm Gap Go Back to 1992

With the midterm elections only a few weeks away, pundits are buzzing with talk of a so called "enthusiasm gap"; one which has been characterized as a rift between revved-up conservatives and dispirited progressives. If the Obama White House, proud of its accomplishments, is frustrated by a base resistant to heading to the polls in droves to fend off a Republican assault, then it's not looking deep enough. The "enthusiasm gap" is not something new. The growing gap between Washington Democrats and the base of its party reflects a profound rift that's been brewing since 1992.

In that year, Democratic voters were energized by the election of Bill Clinton, which marked the end of the long, difficult Reagan-Bush era. Progressives had good reason to be excited in 1992. Clinton promised landmark legislation on health care, and on the campaign trail he vowed to labor audiences that new trade deals would include strong "side agreements" to protect workers' rights and the environment.

However, once in office, Clinton proved himself to be fixated on transactional politics--politics as the art of the deal. Focused on the insider baseball of beltway negotiations, he put forward a pre-compromised health care plan. Contrary to his belief that a watered-down proposal could be ushered through Congress, his plan generated little enthusiasm and went down in flames.

The White House had more success in pushing NAFTA, but it left the labor movement at the altar by abandoning pursuit of any of the protections Clinton had promised. Furthering the betrayal, the president and the Democratic Congressional majority failed to even put anti-strikebreaker legislation on the map--despite the fact that organized labor had emphasized the importance of such legislation for working people hard-hit by the recession of the early 1990s.

Presenting his 1993 budget, President Clinton did little to fight back against the "starve the beast" mentality of the Republicans and defend the need for essential public services. His pitch to the Democratic base was merely that he would slash less than the right. The debate was over degree, not over the substance of public policy. Within a few years, Clinton would play into conservatives' hands by proclaiming that "the era of big government is over."

In other words, rather than taking stands based on real progressive vision, pushing the limits of the possible, and starting a broad debate about the appropriate role of government in our society, the Clinton administration worked to cut deals in pursuit of what the political class in Washington had deemed feasible.

By the time the 1994 midterms rolled around and Clinton had to go back to the Democratic base for support, a huge rift had formed. There was a yawning gap between, on the one hand, what the Democrats thought they were accomplishing for working class and middle class Americans and, on the other hand, the profound disillusionment felt by these same voters.

People throughout the country were angry. They responded to transactional politics in Washington by adopting a transactional attitude at the polls--rationally assuming a "what's in it for me" stance when confronted with politicians who had long placed deal-making before principle. While just two years before voters were inspired by the prospect of the first Democratic president since 1980, they had since grown disgusted. The Republicans took control of Congress.

Unfortunately, we've seen a very similar pattern emerge with the Obama administration. Transactional politics has once again defined the White House's approach to governing. And this time, the gap between Washington and the rest of America is even wider for three reasons:

First, people remember 1992 and 1994. The disenchantment of the Clinton years is hardly in the distant past, and few in the Democratic base enjoy experiencing it again.

Second, it is happening this time amid an even more trying economy. While largely forgotten now, the recession of the early 1990s caused serious pain for working people, who were being introduced to then-fresh catch phrases such as "down-sizing" and "out-sourcing." Today's economic crisis is of an even greater order of magnitude. The likes of it come along once every several generations, and now the job base in our country has been decimated.

Third, having campaigned on "hope" and "change," Obama created very high expectations. Those who anticipated that the new president would be far more visionary than Clinton ever was have been taken aback at seeing him fill his White House with beltway insiders. These officials resumed horse-trading where the last Democratic administration left off. From health care to financial reform to economic stimulus, President Obama has tried to earn a reputation as a "bipartisan" moderate, avoid being labeled "anti-business," and put forward compromise proposals that end up pleasing no one.

Every time the Democrats are too timid to promote a policy solution that the party's base actually wants, they walk into a trap. They end up passing something that is too insignificant to actually deal with the problem at hand but that nevertheless prompts hysterical denunciations from the right. Despite their efforts at moderation, they are vociferously condemned as "tax-and-spend liberals." At the same time, they have nothing to show for their efforts that might make them proud to have earned the label.

Going forward after the midterms, the choice for these elected officials is clear: They can start acting like progressive Democrats and championing legislation that truly serves the needs of working Americans. Or they can continue to play an insider baseball game and call that a victory, shrugging their shoulders or scolding their base when people prove insufficiently grateful.

It's not a difficult decision. We've had almost two decades to learn from the mistakes of the Clinton era. Let's hope it doesn't take another two for the right choice to sink in.

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