Democrats forgot their roots

January 12, 1995|By Jonathan Alter

AS REPUBLICANS conquered Washington last week, lonesome Democrats could be excused for still rubbing their eyes in amazement.

What the hell happened?

Doing my part in the search for subtle clues, I found one buried in the stories about Webster Hubbell, the former associate attorney general and Clinton pal from Little Rock, Ark., who confessed to ripping off his law firm and clients.

It turns out most of the money went to paying private-school tuition for his four children.

This onetime Sugar Bowl star -- the personification of the Southern good ole boy with brains -- risked everything so that he and his kids could join the American elite.

Now, there's nothing wrong with wanting the best for your children.

And the vast majority of people with class mobility on their minds aren't willing to steal to get there.

But Mr. Hubbell -- and by extension, the Democrats -- seem caught in a kind of class warp that helps explain part of the party's problem.

Some of the anger may boil down to this: these smarty-pants Democrats forgot where they came from.

They're helping the poor, women, their own children -- anyone but who they used to be.

For 20 years, the Republican Party has skillfully exploited middle-class resentments by connecting them to taxes.

Democrats, Ronald Reagan said, "believe every day is April 15."

Even if unsure of the details of the "Contract," voters get the premise: no one should have to fork over up to 40 percent of his hard-earned income to the poor (read black Democrats) or to some money-wasting government bureaucrat (read white Democrats).

Yes, welfare is a tiny percentage of the budget and the vast bulk of tax dollars go right back to the middle class in entitlement payments like Social Security. But the feeling remains: the Democrats have our money. We want it back. The Republicans are more likely to oblige us.

And so the stereotypes have changed. Republicans were once maligned as the party of country-club stiffs. Now it's more like the party of hard-working suburbanites. The Democrats were once the party of the people, when that notion -- the people -- still meant something.

Now they're maligned as the party of the whiny minorities and Yuppies whose kids are going to leave yours in the dust.

Party allegiance is weak and impressions change quickly, but the aesthetic is hardening: Democrats are tax-collectors; Republicans are taxpayers. Democrats are book smart; Republicans are street smart. Al D'Amato over Ira Magaziner any day.

By all odds, Bill Clinton should not be having these problems on the class issue. After all, at first he seemed perfectly suited to negotiate the tricky politics of status. He was Hot Springs and Oxford, the mall and Manhattan.

Imagine Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon without their crippling class insecurities. That was Clinton -- the man with the chipless shoulder.

It made a nice contrast to George Bush faking it with pork rinds and the Daytona 500. But soon this contradiction -- like the others that plague him -- collapsed under its own weight.

The Vietnam draft issue lingered in part because it suggested which class he owed allegiance to -- and it wasn't Arkansas grunts. His presidency felt more like Hillary Rodham than Virginia Kelley -- too much Yale, too little horse racing, too many pointy-headed FOBs, too few hardheaded SOBs.

Ironically, Newt Gingrich is not particularly well positioned to tap middle-class insecurities either. First, he's a believer in the wonders of technology and the global economy.

This futurist pitch can sound like a lot of phony globalony to someone who's computer illiterate and out of a job thanks to foreign competition. Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton both give off those intimidating you're-gonna-get-left-behind vibes.

The other reason Mr. Gingrich shouldn't logically be a middle-class hero is that even on taxes "The Contract" hurts the middle class. The most important event of last week was passage of a rule that requires three fifths instead of a simple majority to pass any income-tax increase in the House.

Sounds good at tax time, right? But if upheld by the courts, this little procedural change -- debated for all of 20 minutes -- would have the perverse effect of eventually squeezing Middle Americans.

With income-tax increases -- which hit the rich hardest -- made nearly impossible for the foreseeable future, the burden will fall on state and local taxes that nail the middle class.

The three-fifths rule is probably unconstitutional, and it's surely irresponsible. If it had been in effect during the vote on tax increases in 1990 and 1993, those tax increases on the wealthy would have failed, and the deficit would be 50-percent higher today.

By endorsing (without really knowing it) the Republican plan to never raise taxes on the rich, the middle class will now have to pay for "The Contract" either by cutting entitlements to themselves or borrowing even more from their children and grandchildren.

Of course all of this is awfully complicated for the Democrats to explain. People want to care about their grandchildren, but they have to care about the size of their next paycheck first. And so we get the me-tooism on taxes from Democrats. This won't work for them, mostly for cultural reasons.

The middle class often finds the upper middle class (lawyers, bureaucrats, professors, journalists, patrons of private school) more irritating than the rich (who doesn't want to be rich?).

These resentments swamp facts. Until they address some difficult issues of class and elitism in America, the Democrats won't be able to talk convincingly to the middle class about economics.

Jonathan Alter is media critic for Newsweek.

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