The ABCs of Democratic Politics

March 26, 1992

Having suffered a close but humiliating defeat in Connecticut at the hands of Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., Gov. Bill Clinton now focuses on New York, where he was ahead in polls taken before the Connecticut vote. He has already begun attacking Mr. Brown head on, savaging his flat tax in a way that suggests personal attacks will also intensify.

New York is important to Mr. Clinton, and Mr. Brown is an obstacle, but the front-runner from Arkansas misses the point of Connecticut and of the polls if he thinks his problem is Jerry Brown. His problem is Bill Clinton. If Mr. Brown were not running, the problem would remain. There is a big ABC vote out there -- Anybody But Clinton.

The obvious indicator of Democratic dissatisfaction with Mr. Clinton was the Connecticut outcome Tuesday night. The clear NTC front-runner, the nominee-apparent, he only got 36 percent of the vote. In addition to the 37 percent of Democrats who voted for fringe candidate Jerry Brown, 20 percent voted for non-candidate Paul Tsongas.

Another ominous indicator is obvious in exit polls. Democratic voters said two alarming things. One, most said they wish someone else were running (58 percent). Two, a very great many said they do not believe Mr. Clinton has the honesty and integrity to be president (46 percent).

A less obvious but perhaps more eloquent statement of voter disaffection with the lack of appeal of the Clinton candidacy came from the turnout. Four years ago at this stage, when the Democratic race was already in effect settled, 241,395 Connecticut Democrats still went to the polls. Tuesday, only 171,198 did. That is about a 30 percent falloff, far exceeding the 9 percent drop on the Republican side. Put another way, more than twice as many Connecticut Democrats voted for Michael Dukakis as voted for Bill Clinton.

What Mr. Clinton has to do now is convince Democratic voters in New York (and Wisconsin, which is holding its primary on April 7, too) that he is not the flawed scandal-a-week politician his opponents and some elements of the press have made him out to be. He can't do that by proving that Jerry Brown is a fraud or a flake. He can only do it by proving that he is the honest, legitimate standard bearer his fellow Southern Democrats saw in him when they voted overwhelmingly for his candidacy earlier this month.

There is some justice in Governor Clinton's claim that his "negatives" and relatively poor showing in the East are due to an unprecedented dredging up and embellishing of old criticisms that Arkansas voters never took seriously. There is some logic in his argument that given time and opportunity to present his own version of the Bill Clinton persona and the Clinton program, he can convince other Democratic voters to dismiss the criticisms.

But it is not the Jerry Brown voters he must speak to; it is the larger bloc -- the ABC voters.

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