I was drafting a rather lengthy comment in response to a comment left at my post on the 2004 election. But it makes sense to bring it to the front page, because while the comment by “B” is directed at a point I had made about the 1992 presidential election, the general point is relevant to current California politics as well as to next year’s congressional midterm election.
The thread that ties all these issues together is the unrepresentativeness of the two-party system and the electoral rules that maintain it. That is, absent proportional representation and multiparty politics, our policy-making process lacks a means to institutionalize reformist sentiment arising from the nonpartisan segment of the electorate. What happens instead is periodic explosions of “radical middle” or “populist” sentiment against the usual way of doing political business. Usually this happens in executive elections, but the 1994 midterm showed it can happen in legislative elections, too. It could happen in 2006. But every time it happens, the existing institutions normalize the situation, and the responsiveness to centrist reformist impulses whithers.
We have sporadic breakthroughs by third-party candidates (e.g. Perot with his 20% showing in 1992, or the election of Jesse Ventura in Minnesota). Other times we have unusual circumstances that bring about a nominee of one of the major parties who has nonpartisan appeal (as when the distinctive rules of the California recall alllowed Schwarzenegger to bypass the normal partisan nomination process). And in 1994, we had the extraodinary Contract with America, in which Republicans seized upon the seething resentment at politics as usual and took control of the House for the first time in 50 years.
The problem is that there is no good vehicle for institutionalizing this sentiment. Our winner-take-all institutions for both executive and legislative posts mean that coalition-building and expression of alternative views is almost entirely a pre-election affair. There is no good mechanism to continue the expression of alternative views post-election, because the two parties have every incentive to co-opt what they can to avoid defeat at the next election, but, more importantly, to ignore what they can get away with ignoring to protect their and their core constituencies’ prerogatives. Thus between periodic eruptions of reform sentiment, things return more or less to normal until they erput again at some later point.
The normalization of the two-party system, rather than the institutionalization of a more responsive alternative, is reflected well in the J.C. Watts quote that I referred to before:
Republicans in just 10 years have developed the arrogance it took the Democrats 30 years to develop
The normalization of the two-party system, rather than the institutionalization of a more responsive alternative, is reflected in the stunning way in which Schwarzenegger, two years since being elected on a wave of cross-party support for shaking up California politics, is now seen (corretly, in my view) as just another Republicanâ€”just as out of touch with his state’s electorate as was Gray Davis before him and as were and are the Democratic majorities in the state legisalture.
But the first of these episodic bursts of non-Democratic, non-Republican radical-middle sentiments in recent times was Perot. So, let’s go back to the Perot example.
In my post about the 2004 election, I reflected back on the Clinton presidency:
…it was the Clintons (and Al â€œDialing for Dollarsâ€ Gore) who so squandered the opportunity presented by the 1992 election to build a new constituency for a modern center-left (which would have meant co-opting the Perot constituency, rather than ignoring it and defaulting it to the right).
B’s comment says, in part:
I have a hard time seeing a unified â€œPerot constituencyâ€ that could have been co-opted. You had your usual pox-on-both-their-houses types and others who just didnâ€™t feel inspired by either candidate, probably more for personal reasons than ideological ones [exactly what I am talking about–MS.]
Clinton (with much fanfare, I might add) brought the budget back into balance and essentially dismantled welfare. If Perot voters couldnâ€™t warm to Clinton after that, they either werenâ€™t paying much attention or were simply never going to warm to Clinton no matter what he did.
Of course, only the budget balancing bill was pre-1994; the welfare overhaul took place only after Republicans were in charge of Congress, notwithstanding that it was something Clinton had promised in his campaign to tackle early in his presidency and was an issue that probably kept the Perot vote from eating farther into Clinton’s own vote in 1992.
My response to B’s main point would be that this is not a matter of “warming to Clinton.” It is a matter of building coalitions. And, in the specific case of the Perot constituency, the Republicans proved more adept at it (again, temporarily) than did Clinton and the Democrats.
The Perot constituency thus ended up going pretty decisively to the Republicans in 1994. I think there were ways for Clinton and the Democrats to prevent that. Clinton had campaigned in a way that emphasized how different he was from a mainstream Democrat. He was clearly speaking to a segment of the electorate that was ready to swing away from G.H.W. Bush, and was deciding between Perot and the Democratic challenger. It was an opportunity for a center-left reformist agenda, yet in office, it was squandered.
Clinton mostly governed initially at the behest of congressional Democrats. The few cases where he did not do so were on issues that were sure to alienate the Perot constituency (the gun bill, which the House leadership wanted to avoid, and which passed only because some northern Republicans favored it).
It would have been hard for Clinton to reach out to this constituency more systematically in the context of entrenched Democratic majorities in Congress and in the absence of an institutionalized voice for the Perot voters. That is precisely my point. But by failing to make a serious effort at doing so, it opened the way for another pre-election coalition between an established party and a reformist constituencyâ€”in this case, by the Republicans under the nimble leadership of Newt Gingrich.
So, it is clear that the underlying problem with forging post-election coalitions is an institutional context in which it is possible for the third force to have 20% of the presidential vote yet ZERO representation in congress. (In virtually no other democracy could something like this happen!) This demonstrates the problem with the absence of institutionalization of alternatives to the normal way of doing politics. These sentiments can be expressed in elections (usually executive elections, 1994 notwithstanding), but do not obtain direct representation with which to hold the established parties accountable for what they do after elections.
Things in 1992-94 would have been very different–by necessity–if congressional elections were proportional and thus Perot voters had been represented BETWEEN elections. Perot did talk about political reform, but it was term limits, not PR. And term limits was something Republicans picked up on in 1994 (and then proceded to do little about).
Term limits are what I call JUNK REFORM, not the real thing, but they are inspired by the same radical middle sentiment against politics as usual for which PR would be a far more meaningful fix. Republicans used term limits as one of several ways to woo the Perot vote, and they have controlled Congress ever since, even while long since having abandoned most of their “we’re different” credibility that Perot’s movement once gave them.
In 2006, there could be an opportunity for Democrats to mobilize a reformist constiutuency. I have doubts that they are capable of doing it, but the kindling is there if they can find the right match to light it. But I am quite certain that, even if they do, they will squander the opportunity once back in power, much as the Republicans before them and Clintonâ€“Gore before that. And very much also like Schwarzenegger today in California. There simply is no means, absent proportional representation and multipartism, to put meaningful checks on the natural tendency of either party to revert to form once a seemingly critical election is over.