Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, served as senior adviser for policy and strategy in the Clinton White House. Bruce Reed was assistant to President Bill Clinton for domestic policy.
When Bill Clinton won the White House 25 years ago this month, he rescued his party from its worst electoral drought in more than a century. Today, as Democrats wonder how we lost the heartland and Republicans wonder how their base lost its mind, both sides could look to Clinton’s 1992 playbook for clues on how to revive a flagging party’s fortunes.
Before turning to Clinton in 1992, Democrats had lost five of six presidential elections, twice in 49-state wipeouts. The party was left for dead after back-to-back-to-back landslide defeats in the 1980s. “There are three things Democrats must do to take back the White House,” Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) joked. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Fortunately for Democrats, Clinton knew what to do. While both parties face different challenges a quarter-century later, those three things are still the road back:
Fix your party’s problems or you’ll never fix the country’s. Every party’s greatest enemy is denial. After a loss, party leaders rush to blame a candidate or circumstance, rather than owning up to more fundamental problems. Clinton knew that if Americans had rejected us in three straight landslides, we had only ourselves to blame. His agenda of welfare reform, community policing and tax relief for the forgotten middle class confronted head-on the problems that Democrats for too long had avoided — and Republicans had done nothing to solve.
The GOP has now lost the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections. Republicans control Congress and the White House but can’t govern because instead of confronting their party’s demons, they nominated an even bigger one. The GOP’s own postmortem of the 2012 election warned there was no future in bashing minorities and favoring corporations over the middle class. Donald Trump took that autopsy and turned the party into a walking corpse. Repealing Obamacare, ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and passing tax reform are such a struggle because they expose, rather than confront, Republicans’ Achilles heel.
Democrats had a good night Tuesday, but there is a lot of work yet to be done. If we want to be a majority party again, we must avoid our own forms of denial. Too often, our party succumbs to a recurring fallacy that voter turnout matters more than persuasion. Clinton knew that winning and governing required both. In 1992, he forged a personal connection with his base and a philosophical connection with undecided voters. When Ross Perot made 1992 a three-way race, some Clinton advisers urged a “34 percent solution” focused on Democratic turnout. Clinton chose instead to compete with Perot for swing voters and cruised to victory. Now, as then, sophisticated turnout models are no substitute for winning the argument.
Show Americans what you’re for. Clinton understood that ideas are the most underrated weapon in politics and the best chance a party has to change minds. He ran the wonkiest campaign in memory and made real solutions to real problems — sending young people to college in return for national service, rewarding work with the earned-income tax credit, steering capital to poor neighborhoods through community development banks — the test for his opponents. Attacking “the brain-dead politics of both parties,” he declared: “Americans know what we’re against. Let’s show them what we’re for.”
A quarter-century later, President Trump seems to be against everyone and everything. Republicans need to remember that whatever Americans may feel about how many National Football League players take a knee, they care far more whether their children can afford college or their employer will give them a raise.
In the Trump era of fake policy and fun-house mirrors, Democrats must be more focused than ever on real answers. Opposition parties talk about problems. A majority party has to make clear how it will solve them.
Leave no vote unturned. Clinton’s most remarkable political achievement was to transform America’s electoral map. He carried 32 states in 1992, more than the 31 states Democrats in the previous two decades had carried in five presidential defeats combined. He swept nine states no Democrat had won since 1964 and eight no Democrat has won since he left office. He prevailed in every age group and even split the rural vote, a breadth of support no Democrat since has matched.
Today, neither party may have the stomach for the long, hard grind of winning back the voters, states and regions it has lost. The party of Trump has retreated to its own private Alamo, with a base that doesn’t look like America and a strategy that depends on division, not addition. As a result, thoughtful Republicans and independents pine for a reasonable alternative. Yet instead of reaching out to the nearly 60 percent of Americans who disapprove of the president and may be looking for a new political home, Democrats are once again fighting over whether to purge one wing or frustrate the other.
Bill Clinton showed there is no such thing as an electoral lock: Candidates and parties choose whether to let themselves in or lock themselves out. Successful presidents and parties build enduring majorities, not energized minorities. That may seem a distant memory in these dark, polarized times, but like Clinton, both parties would be wise to believe America can still be a place called Hope.