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Labour and Clinton’s New Democrats

Patricia Hewitt, Philip Gould

First published in Renewal volume 1, number 1 (1993), pp. 45-51


The lessons which the British left can learn from Clinton are not so much abut content as about process.


For Renewal readers, our welcome for Bill Clinton's victory in America was tinged with envy. They won; but we lost.

Many of the reasons for the Democrats' success could not be replicated here, at least not in 1992. Clinton faced an ageing opponent who often seemed to have trouble stringing a sentence together, let alone articulating a coherent vision of the future. In Britain, the unpopular Prime Minister had already been replaced by a younger model whose weaknesses only became apparent several months after the election. In America, George Bush was blamed not only for the recession but for long years of declining real incomes; in Britain, not only did Major escape most of the blame for the recession, but it was widely believed that the election itself would bring recovery.

Completely different too is the media environment in which the Democrats operate. American journalists are horrified by the partisan nature of Britain's Tory tabloids, and the former's determination to check facts, challenge accusations and separate fact from opinion serves the opposition well.

But despite the very different conditions which they faced, the Clinton campaign learnt powerful lessons from Labour's earlier defeat. Can we now learn from their success?

It is essential to understand that we are not proposing any simple-minded borrowing of New Democrat positions. Their fusion of economic interventionism ('liberalism' in American) and social conservatism may or may not be appropriate here. Even if it were, acceptance of capital punishment will not be. The lessons which the British left can learn are not so much about content - although there is valuable intellectual exchange already underway - as about process.

A new identity

First, the process of forging a new political identity. By the end of the 1970s the Democrats had come to be seen as the Party of the poor and of the past, as well as the Party of special interests – an image confirmed in different ways by the campaigns of Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. It is a familiar tale for the British Labour Party, summed up by the skilled engineer who told the 1992 post-election researchers: ‘I’m Labour born and bred. My father would turn in his grave if he knew I'd voted Conservative. But we own our house, we've got good jobs. We're doing all right and we want to do better. We’re on the way up and Labour's for people on the way down.'

For much of the last decade, Democrat pollsters and political strategists like Stanley Greenberg – people outside the leadership circle but who were to play a vital part in the Clinton campaign – listened to disillusioned Democrats. They found that the majority of Americans – the self-defined middle class – felt themselves squeezed between the 'undeserving rich' and the 'undeserving poor'. Their central values were those of the New Deal Democrats: work, reward for work, and responsibility.

At the same time, new Democrat think-tanks – the Employment Policy Institute, the Progressive Policy Institute and the Democratic Leadership Council – were arguing about the ideas and policies which could drive the Democrats to success. Clinton himself, scarred by his re-election defeat as Arkansas Governor twelve years ago, had developed the new mix of interventionism and social conservatism with which he was closely identified. From the debates about ideas and strategies, key Democrats forged a new populism designed to respond to the people they called 'the working middle class’. Early in 1992, David Kusnet (a former speech-writer for Mondale and Dukakis) set out in a major book, Speaking American (Thunders Mouth Press, 1992), the 'new language' of this Democratic populism – a language which drew on the tradition of Roosevelt, Truman and J. F. Kennedy but was so contemporary that it would 'sound right for the post-urban, post-industrial middle class'. The new Democratic populism was not a question of shifting the Party to the right. As Greenberg said,

Democratic conservatives make a grave mistake when they associate this set of 'middle-class' issues with a simple move to the right, abandoning the poor or rejecting affirmative government. Indeed, it is the link between the broad working middle class and affirmative government that allows Democrats to define a majority polities (our emphasis).

For that reason, he argued against extension of means-testing, which would simply widen the gap between the middle class and the poor.

Thus, by the time Clinton won the nomination, there was a solid body of ideas and a central political philosophy waiting to be translated into a campaign message. For him, as for Labour, the big problem was trust. Between April and June, Greenberg and James Carville (the 'Ragin' Cajun' who became Clinton's campaign manager) drew on a series of focus groups amongst disillusioned Democrats to identify four central themes for the Clinton campaign. ‘People first’ stressed investment in people to secure America’s economic future. ‘Opportunity with responsibility' meant ‘no more something for nothing’. ‘The middle class’ signalled a populism of the centre rather than the left. And 'Reinventing government' was designed to win people's confidence that the system could be made to work for them. Combined, these themes became 'the new social covenant' which Clinton offered between people and government.

There is much in this which resonates with our experience here. Kusnet himself quotes Neil Kinnock's 'Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations?’ speech as a brilliant example of 'speaking American'. 'Investing in people’ was the central theme of an economic argument which Labour began making before the 1987 election. For Clinton, of course, lack of trust was a personal problem. For John Smith, trust is his outstanding political quality - something which now needs to be extended to Labour itself.

Clinton's campaign succeeded because it drew on an earlier Democrat populist tradition, a decade of debate about values and policies, and a serious understanding of how people viewed their own lives to arrive at a political strategy which was both true to Democratic values and utterly modern. When Clinton proclaimed that he was a 'New Democrat', he was offering a different identity for his Party and not a slogan.


Style and substance

The extraordinary thing is that Clinton succeeded when so many had come to believe that the Democrats could never win another Presidential race. First, both he and his advisers understood that although the policy detail was important (Clinton was never short of detailed programmes), what really mattered was the big position, the statement of values and the symbolic policies which illustrated those values. Thus, the belief in the value of work and the rejection of 'something for nothing' was translated into a hard-edged commitment to offer 'welfare mothers' education, training and child-care for two years – but, after that, to demand that they took a job. The rhetoric appealed because it was backed up by a tough position; and the risk taken in declaring a tough policy helped to undercut people's fear that the Democrats would always give way to 'special interests'.

Second, the changes which Clinton proclaimed were real changes – the product of longstanding debate, which engaged people at many levels of the Party. The very different natures of the Democrats and the British Labour Party help to explain why it is easier for a Democratic candidate to 'make the change' than for a Labour leader. Clinton did not have to win the hearts, minds and votes of a Shadow Cabinet, a PLP, a National Executive Committee or a Party conference. But at the same time, his new populism generated genuine support and enthusiasm amongst Democratic governors, Congressional candidates, Party activists and union members.

The contrast with Labour is striking and instructive. Here, there were too many who went along with the Kinnock project of change, not because they believed in the need for change or in the kind of change he was offering, but because they thought it might win. In America, when Clinton said 'we have changed,' it was not only he who meant it. In forging a new Democratic identity, Clinton took risks. But he could take risks, be believed and win because he had years of political debate, research and education behind him.

The extent of the change in the Democrats was also signalled by what Clinton's staff called 'counter-scheduling' - reinforcing a position by taking it to an unexpected group. One such example was Clinton’s attack on Sister Souljah in front of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, sending a clear signal that he would not be the prisoner of the black lobby within the Democratic Party. Similarly, Kusnet advised Democrats to overcome stereotype with surprise: 'talk to black churches about crime or the need for more respect for religion in public school curricula ... Talk to young people in white suburbs about saying no to drugs.'

All these were symbolic ways of reinforcing a fundamental point: that the poor want work and reward for work, just like the working middle classes; that black and white Americans alike are concerned about drugs, health insurance, unemployment and the environment; that the Democrats are not about special interests, but the national interest.


The gender gap

The second area where we can look for useful lessons in the American experience is the gender gap. Again, there is a basic difference. In the USA, the gender gap benefits the Democrats: women have been for over a decade more likely to vote Democrat than men. So unlike Labour the Democrats did not start behind with women. There are several reasons for the difference, one of which is the salience of abortion as an issue which both divides the parties and moves the voters.

But the Clinton campaign did not take women for granted. Despite the fact that the top four campaign managers as well as the two candidates were men, the campaign itself reflected and reinforced a feminised political culture. The Democratic Convention starred a series of outstanding women, starting with its keynote speaker, Texas Governor Ann Richards. A record number of women ran for office and were elected to Congress, often with the help of a $3 million feminist fundraising effort called EMILY ('Early Money Is Like Yeast'). Hillary Clinton herself played a key role and younger women were influential throughout the campaign. The traditional occupations of secretary, tea-maker and photocopier operator were no longer filled by women – everybody did their own. Later, about half of Clinton’s transition teams were women. Again, these are real changes in the identity and therefore the image of the Democrats, and they are seen as such by women voters, particularly the rapidly growing number of working women who formed a key target for the campaign.


Non-political politics

Just as important was the style of the campaign itself. In deliberate contrast to the Republicans, Clinton set out to be open, informal, honest, emotional, non-confrontational – to be a 'non-political politician'. This was far more than a Carteresque campaign against Washington, although that was an important element. The new approach was signalled, first, by the Clinton biographical video – 'I still believe in a town called Hope' – which preceded his appearance at the Democratic Convention. The deserted mother, forced to leave the young Clinton with his grandparents while she went to work, the alcoholic stepfather – all brought Clinton alive to the people and identified him with the ‘working middle classes' rather than the intellectual elite suggested by his Yale/Oxford education.

Equally significant was the decision that both the Clintons should appear on TV talk shows together to discuss the ups and downs of their marriage. Not only did the openness – astonishing for a politician – neutralise the 'Gennifer' effect, but it placed the Clintons firmly within a modern American culture of self-analysis and self-disclosure. Throughout the campaign, the media strategy continued to use non-traditional, non-political programmes from which Clinton could make his appeal.

Britain does not go in for public emotions in quite the American fashion. But Clinton's recognition that people distrust politicians, and the conscious decision to speak and act as a 'real person', is just as relevant in Britain – and even more important in appealing to women than it is to men. In 1988, the successful effort to present a new George Bush drew on similar elements, notably as in the 'kinder, gentler America' which Bush's speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, points to as a perfect example of language which would be used by one person about another, rather than by a politician about his programme.

But 'feminine' in America could mean weakness. Several Democrats before Clinton – including mayors like David Dinkins, Richard Daley, Ann Richards and Dianne Feinstein – had found a combination of 'tough and tender' which appealed to women as well as men. It is no accident that, in Britain, the SDP-LibDem Alliance – which tried to find its own version of 'tough and tender' – understood that its greatest appeal was as the 'non-political' party – and its greatest support was amongst women.

However unfairly, Labour has long been blamed more than the Conservatives for 'slagging off’ the other side and our politicians were quick to learn in this year's campaign from the public distaste for a much-publicised argument on the 'Today' programme. Looking to the future, John Smith's own biography, like that of many of his colleagues – with its emphasis on education, on family, on solid values – offers a new opportunity to identify Labour once again with the 'working middle classes' of Britain.


Managing the campaigns

The third area in which Labour could learn from the Democrats lies in the management of the campaign itself. The inward organisation matched the outward style: Carville was determined to build an egalitarian campaign based on trust. To cope with the 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week campaign dynamic, with saturation media coverage and information overload, Carville relied on ‘liberation management' rather than formal chains of command. This created a relaxed and mutually supportive environment where every team member could be open about ideas and criticisms. The candidate himself was clearly in charge, making the key strategic decisions. At Little Rock a small group – Carville himself, Greenberg, the head of communications George Stephanopoulos, and the financial and personnel director Eli Segal – directed the campaign's strategy, tactics and management. The campaign team – some 300 people – were amongst the most talented Democratic supporters in the country, people who had been doing top jobs in related fields rather than Party workers exhausted by years of inner-Party battles. The main decision-makers had all worked in earlier campaigns – most for Dukakis, many for Mondale, some for McGovern – and had learnt from those mistakes. All were committed to the 'New Democratic’ strategy. And in line with Carville's management philosophy (although in an ironic echo of Labour's disastrous 1983 campaign), anybody who wished could attend campaign management meetings!

At the heart of the campaign was the 'war room', staffed 24 hours a day, occupied not only by Carville and Greenberg but by senior people from every key campaign function. TV screens permanently showing every national channel allowed the war room team to respond immediately to every attack from the Bush camp, to every fresh campaign development. Here in the war room, the fast -response press release or the new radio or TV spot was written.

A similar integration of campaign strategy, tactics and media existed in the field operation, with a team in Little Rock directing efforts in every target state. This integrated field operation – and the 'war room' concept itself – is far closer to the highly successful by-election teams which Labour has run for the last six years.

The war room housed the Democrats' most important resource: a databank containing literally millions of items of information about Democratic and Republican positions, pronouncements and actions. Every accusation about Clinton’s record in Arkansas, every quotation from his past, every reference to other Democrats could all be checked and rebutted within minutes. The product of several years' research by the Democratic National Committee, the campaign databank became for the media, as well as for the CIinton campaign, an invaluable source of hard information.

With this databank, Carville's strategy of ‘instant response’ became possible. No Republican attack went unanswered. But the rebuttal came with facts, not with rhetoric. The Democrats could attack and counter-attack, without becoming negative, personal or confrontational. Instead of a separate 'rapid response' or 'Conservative watch' team, the whole campaign became a rapid response unit.

The comparison with Labour is depressing. Despite valiant efforts by researchers at Walworth Road and Westminster, the Party has no equivalent database. The Conservatives know far more about every speech, interview and article from every Labour politician than we know either about our own people or about theirs. Far too often in the last seven years, as well as in the weeks of the election campaign itself, those working on party political broadcasts had to generate their own factual research as well as the creative treatment.

Again unlike Labour, the Clinton campaign was housed in a single building. On one floor were the scheduling, press relations and field operations; on another, the strategists, campaign managers, Presidential debate teams, and the people liaising with the trade unions and other key groups. There is no doubt that Labour's 1992 campaign was hampered by the inadequacies of the Walworth Road building. Not only did we lack a 'war room' – lines of command and communication were arranged on far more traditional lines – but there was no space in the building for all the key functions. The economic secretariat – a vital research resource – were housed next door. The press conferences and briefings – half a dozen a day in the final stretch – were held in Millbank, with the press operation having to decamp there from Walworth Road. The Shadow Communications Agency was at Transport House. For almost everyone involved in the campaign, the split sites meant extra time travelling and inevitable failures of communication.

Here then are the central lessons for Labour of the Clinton campaign: forge an identity which synthesises values, vision and symbolic policies, which appeals to the majority rather than minorities; engage Party and politicians in a process of intellectual and political debate, so that the message of change carries conviction because the messengers themselves are convinced; start to transform the Party's macho culture and to abandon stereotyped political language; and create a campaign operation – backed up by a comprehensive database – which can concert the fast, flexible initiatives which modern campaigning demands.

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