Democrats search for why they lost the White House

Theories - and debate - abound: Too much emphasis on populism? The Clinton factor? Gore likability gap?

The Electoral College made it official. George W. Bush won. Now Democrats - renowned for fighting among themselves - are trying to figure it out: What went wrong?

Al From, head of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), says the failures were clear. Al Gore and his team ran an outdated campaign that smacked of 1980s class warfare.

Not so, claim Mr. Gore's Democratic allies. Stanley Greenberg, the vice president's campaign pollster, says Gore's populist message appealing to low- and moderate- income Americans was the right one.

Disappointment among Democratic activists this year is especially acute. After all, on election day they had the most masterful Democratic politician in more than 20 years, Bill Clinton, in the White House. The nation was enjoying a record boom. Unemployment was at rock bottom. Home ownership had reached peak levels.

Yet Democrats lost - even if narrowly. Moreover, they failed to capture the House of Representatives and only mustered a 50-50 tie in the Senate.

One aspect that is particularly worrisome for Democrats was the loss of white voters on election day, particularly white men, compared with 1996. Four years ago, Clinton won reelection by carrying the votes of blacks and Hispanics overwhelmingly, while holding his losses among white voters to just 3 percentage points.

This year, Gore's white vote virtually collapsed. He was beaten among whites by a 12-point margin, and among white men he lost by an overwhelming 24 points.

The Democratic Leadership Council was created in 1985 to head off defections of moderate voters, particularly in the South and the industrial Midwest. Those voters, mostly white, were attracted in the 1980s to Ronald Reagan's tough-minded economic conservatism.

Clinton's formula for winning back these voters in 1996, say Mr. From and his pollster, Mark Penn, was "fiscal responsibility and support for a smaller, activist government."

But Gore downplayed these "New Economy" themes. As a result, Republicans succeeded in portraying Gore as "an old-style, [Michael] Dukakis, big-government liberal," according to the DLC analysis released Tuesday at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters.

Throughout the 2000 campaign, Gore hammered away at populist themes that can turn off moderates. He attacked Bush's tax plan as a giveaway to America's richest 1 percent. He blasted the profits of big oil companies at a time of rising prices. And he denounced Bush's proposals to allow Americans to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in the stock market.

Mr. Greenberg insists the Gore strategy worked. It simply was unable to overcome American voters' concerns about the issue of values.

When Americans were asked in the nationwide exit polls on election day what qualities of the candidates were most important in deciding their votes, about one-quarter of them said "honesty." Of those voters, Bush won 78 percent, while Gore took just 16 percent.

That kind of drag on the ticket - created, many feel, by the legal troubles of the Clinton White House - may have been a major contributor to Gore's loss.

A somewhat different view comes from Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates in Washington. Mr. Garin downplays the split between centrists like From and populists like Greenberg.

"Part of Bill Clinton's political brilliance was that he could take one part from Column A, and one from Column B," he says. "Democrats do not need to be pure-bred centrists or populists."

True, he says, there are clearly important philosophical differences among Democrats, particularly on economic issues.

But Garin takes issue with the DLC analysis that says Gore's populist rhetoric turned off voters from the New Economy, the "wired workers" of Silicon Valley or the Route 128 corridor around Boston.

"The reality is, among those new Democrat voters, [Gore] did fine," Garin says. Gore won in California, in New York, in Massachusetts.

Where Gore lost - and where he desperately needed to win - was in states like West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas. If he had won even one of those states with solid Democratic traditions, he would now be the president-elect.

While arguments can be made that Gore was too populist, or not enough of a "New Democrat," a key factor may also have been that Gore was not well received on a personal level, Garin says. And that may have been the most critical of all.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.