Clinton's abandoned middle class

John Jacobs

August 03, 1993|By John Jacobs

KEVIN Phillips, the Republican Democrats love most to quote, has outlined a sour yet savvy political analysis that bodes ill for both major parties but reserves its harshest judgment for President Clinton.

A prolific writer and political analyst -- his most recent book is "Boiling Point: Democrats, Republicans and the Decline of Middle Class Prosperity" -- Mr. Phillips told a Comstock Club audience in Sacramento last week that Mr. Clinton seems to have blown a historic opportunity to acknowledge and reward an enraged and economically failing middle class. His failure, Mr. Phillips suggested, will haunt him next year, when Democrats lose congressional seats and Mr. Clinton's ability to move his programs becomes even more diminished than it is now.

During last year's presidential campaign, Mr. Clinton tried to make clear he understood the rage that propelled middle class voters to reject President Bush and to flirt with such off-beat candidates as Pat Buchanan, Jerry Brown (in Mr. Phillips' choice phrase, "the political equivalent of a drive-by shooting") and ultimately Ross Perot.

Those voters have seen their standard of living remain static, if not plunge, in recent years. They no longer believe that they can personally realize the American Dream and worry about their children's education, about military base closures, about towns going under and industries dying. Those who are employed express anxiety about keeping their home, their job, their health care and their pension. He cited figures in his latest book showing that 80 percent of Americans last year believed that government favored the rich and powerful, up from 29 percent in 1964. Sixty-two percent of them voted against Mr. Bush.

Mr. Phillips is worth listening to. His 1968 book, "The Emerging Republican Majority," which predicted the demise of Franklin Roosevelt's half-century governing coalition and the rise of a new suburban-Sun Belt Republican era, quickly came true with Richard Nixon's election that year.

In 1990, his book, "The Politics of Rich and Poor," documented the degree to which Republican policies in the 1980s permitted the transfer of wealth to the richest 1 percent of Americans from poor and middle class people. While fellow Republicans squirmed, he said what many Democratic politicians, dependent wealthy elites for campaign contributions, lacked the guts to say themselves. Once he said it, though, Democrats loved to quote it.

Although he did not specifically predict a 1992 Democratic victory, Mr. Phillips did predict that the "speculative bubble" of the '80s would burst, that the economy would implode and that eventually angry voters would vote out Republicans.

As a candidate, Mr. Clinton seized on the discontent Mr. Phillips documented. He accused Mr. Bush of destroying the middle class and described in detail, often in New Hampshire town meetings, just how far things were sliding for ordinary citizens. In promising a tax cut for the middle class as well as promising in his acceptance speech at Madison Square Garden last July that he would never forget them, Mr. Clinton shrewdly exploited that discontent.

Once he was elected, however, Mr. Phillips argues, Mr. Clinton acted like he had already jump-started the recovery and generally "hitched his wagon" to the notion that he could now raise taxes to ease the deficit and retreat on what he had promised. He started talking about gays in the military, which did not play in the suburbs or with people worried about declining living standards, and stopped believing in his own analysis of middle-class pain, if he ever had believed in it, Mr. Phillips said.

"But the factors that created the politics of middle class frustration in 1992," Mr. Phillips said, "are still out there in 1993. What's different is that instead of it being the Republicans who are pretending it wasn't happening, now it's the Democrats."

As a consequence of alienating the middle class that elected him, Mr. Clinton has since experienced the steepest slide in public opinion polls for a new president since polling began. With the Republicans playing obstructionist and not offering any solutions of their own, said Mr. Phillips, the principal beneficiary is Ross Perot, whose major claim is, "I'm not one of them."

But Mr. Perot is not exactly "the reincarnation of Aristotle." People see him less as a president than as a "national Roto-Rooter man." Even so, "having turned to Perot to get rid of Bush in '92, voters could turn to him to get rid of Clinton. . . . That's what's out there seething its way toward something in '96," Mr. Phillips said. "Where it's going, who knows?"

In the shorter term, Mr. Phillips predicted that Republicans could gain three or four Senate seats and between 20 and 25 House seats in the 1994 midterm elections. If so, Republicans could prevent the Democrats from exercising operating control of Congress.

It's difficult to argue with that analysis. Mr. Clinton seems to have VTC more problems right now than he knows what to do with. And unless he can begin to reassure a large and unhappy group of middle-class voters that once again he understands their pain and has some concrete proposals to alleviate it, today's problems will seem easy compared to what lies ahead.

John Jacobs is political editor of McClatchy News Service

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