Bankrupt Democrats

As polling day approaches in Britain and the United States, politicians are pulling their usual tricks. Independent columnists warn of dangers for the public, parties and press

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For a party quietly confident it will retain the White House, and which is starting to nurture secret ambitions of recapturing at least one of the two chambers of Congress this November, the Democrats are in quite awful shape. That is the strange paradox of American politics as the party of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson gathers for its convention in Chicago today. Victory is within reach - yet what Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party stand for is a matter for the seers of ancient Delphi.

Consider first the astonishing role reversal of the two major parties. If the bond market has been skidding of late, one reason has been the opinion poll bounce of the Dole-Kemp ticket. Could those Republicans with their irresponsible, deficit-boosting tax cuts really have a chance of winning power? Suddenly Democrats are champions of the status quo and the darlings of Wall Street, while Republicans, touting child tax credits and a 15 per cent across-the-board tax cut for all, sound more populist than their opponents ever did.

In part, of course, the President is bowing to the inevitable. America is shifting rightward - and he knows it. True, he may be credited with fostering a new post-Cold War consensus across the US political establishment, based on a reduced role for government, free trade and "family values". But these are traditionally Republican issues and Mr Clinton's tactic, so successful thus far, has been to smother his opponents - co-opting their popular ideas such as welfare reform, law and order, even a balanced budget, and demonising the rest as callous extremism. The latter category embraces Republican plans for education and the environment, but above all what Democrats dishonestly portray as the Republican goal of "slashing" Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

No matter that the "cuts" are a reduction in, not a reversal of, future growth in entitlement programmes which must be adjusted if the budget deficit is not to soar early in the next century, as babyboomers reach retirement. The President was a closet Republican, Bob Dole mocked at a campaign rally in New Jersey last week: "Give him 10 minutes and he'll probably show up here." To which the Democrats reply with an ad that sums up their entire re-election strategy: a malign image of House Speaker Newt Gingrich superimposed on the Oval Office, and a voice-over making clear that continued occupancy of that room by Bill Clinton was the last hope of preventing decency disappearing completely from the country's governance.

By the lights of an election campaign, the policy is working. But if so, the Democrats have their opponents to thank for it - Mr Gingrich's singular achievement in turning himself into the most unpopular politician in America during his first year as Speaker, the Republicans' crass obsession with overturning even minimal gun control, and their travails with abortion. Democratic policies are almost entirely lacking, even though the President will paper over their absence by unveiling "30 to 40" initiatives during convention week. Mainly, though, self-definition for the party consists of saying what it will not do. And even in this unanchored age, aimlessness can only go so far. In the basic stuff of politics, the war of ideas, they are outgunned by the Republicans.

The old Democrat core coalition of minorities, liberals, blue-collar workers from the old industrial belt and Southern Dixiecrats is losing its last two components: the industrial workers lured by the siren call of the suburbs and transformed into Reagan Democrats, and the South in the process of a historic secular switch to Republicanism, set in motion by the Johnson civil rights legislation of the 1960s. More than half the population lives in the suburbs; they are now the citadel of Republicanism.

Plainly, transformation of the party is required; but compared with changes in the Labour Party in Britain, it has been modest indeed. Clinton won election as a "New Democrat". Yet he governed for his first two years as an Old Democrat, committed not simply to consolidating government but to expanding it - culminating in the health-care reform disaster that preceded his party's mid-term rout in 1994. Then came the tactical shift to the "tri-angulation" espoused by his newly favoured political strategist Dick Morris, of a midway course between the Republicans and his own Democratic minority on Capitol Hill.

Welfare reform, however, has only laid bare the limits of this approach. Last week, for purely electoral reasons, Mr Clinton agreed to sign a Republican- driven measure on which, he acknowledged, he had "grave doubts". Faced with liberal uproar at the party's abandonment of guaranteed federal assistance to poor children, in place since FDR's New Deal, the President then proclaimed he would seek to modify it. In so doing he has opened himself to Republican derision, while failing to quell unrest within his own party. Welfare reform will be the joker in the well-ordered Chicago pack.

But Mr Clinton's handling of it is symbolic of much more - of the Democratic crisis and the conflict within the party between what it would like to be, and what it has to be. If he is re-elected, a fascinating question arises: how would this politician, whose career has been an eternal campaign, govern when there are no more campaigns to be fought? Ideally he will work towards a bipartisan deal on social security and entitlement reform. But he will also have to make the New Democratic Party a reality. Republicans will not have a death wish for ever.

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