An Unsatisfying Democratic Presidential Race

Douglas Koopman

January 1, 2000

Each political party’s presidential nomination process ought to be a public process of defining itself for voters in the November general elections. Ideally, various factions within each party promote key issues and candidates who champion those issues. These issues and candidates clash, often quite openly, in a reasonably fair process that slowly shapes the party’s message for the fall elections. In the end, the dominant faction plays the major role in shaping the party message. At the same time, it accommodates when it must, modifying its positions to address the major concerns of other important factions.

These primary season disputes, if they are fair and substantive, can actually help a political party in a general election campaign. Many voters will be more attracted to a party that has fair debates over real issues, and that shows the ability to accommodate differences without sacrificing principles.

This healthy dynamic seems to be happening among Republicans. George W. Bush, the party favorite, has already watched protectionist Pat Buchanan exit. Soon the moralist candidacies of Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes will fall, followed by Steven Forbes, the prickly free-market patrician. And the remaining candidates survive not by ignoring the issues these fallen ones have promoted, but by partially accommodating them. Because the two front-runners, Bush and John McCain, have almost no substantive differences between them on any issue except campaign reform, by the time of the GOP presidential convention Republicans will be well positioned to present an attractive front to a wide range of voters.

Democrats are another story. Its factions are far more divided on issues than are Republicans, but the uninspiring campaign between Al Gore and Bill Bradley is masking rather than reconciling these divisions.

What are these divisions? The essential Democratic dispute is between the “old” party of the 1980s versus the “new” party of the 1990s. The “old” is anchored by the “inside the Beltway” leaders of manufacturing and teacher unions. It also includes the elite leaders of personal “identity” groups such as racial minorities, feminists, gays, and of the more radical environmentalist groups. This faction is dedicated to protectionist trade and education policies that restrict competition from imports and private schools, respectively.

The “new” Democrats are the socially moderate suburbanites worried about crime, education, and the value of their investments. They don’t mind experimenting with educational choice and getting tougher on criminals. Most important, these “new Democrats” want to expand globalization so that corporate earnings and middle class investment portfolios continue to grow.

Both Gore and Bradley are seeking support from both wings of the party, trying to straddle the old left and new. Gore appeals to the old left by securing endorsements from Washington-based leaders of the unions and identity groups. Bradley goes after the same groups with more ambitious social programs. Gore appeals to the “new” by promising to continue the Clinton policies that he claims have brought the prosperity of the 1990s. Bradley seeks their votes by promoting campaign finance reform, experimenting with educational vouchers, and promoting non-partisanship.

But the key differences between the two candidates are stylistic. Gore is the “insider.” Driven more than Bradley by consultants and pollsters, he proposes gimmicks like biweekly debates and TV advertising moratoria, and questions Bradley’s loyalty to the Democratic Party. Bradley, the “outsider,” appeals to good government over partisanship, and proposes comprehensive if politically unrealistic proposals.

There is no bigger Democratic intra-party conflict than how to respond to globalization. Globalization has helped “new” Democrats increase their wealth as corporations expand their profits with low-cost labor in unregulated foreign countries. But this same globalization threatens most elements of the old Democratic left. Labor feels especially threatened by perceived job losses, and environmentalists oppose moving manufacturing to nations with weak environmental laws. In fact, opposition to free trade has united these old left factions like never before.

The violent demonstrations in Seattle during the recent World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings illustrate both points. Labor union and environmental leaders made a powerful statement against something they believe is destroying American jobs and the global environment. And demonstrations moved toward violence because the protesters perceived, quite correctly, that they have no champion or even much of a sympathetic ear.

Gore and Bradley have almost identical positions on trade. They both support globalization, but have indicated they would like some “language” about labor and environmental standards in future global trade agreements. The new left is satisfied; but the old left correctly sees this position as a put-down. The danger to Democrats is that the old left, still the heart of grassroots organizing and get-out-the-vote drives, will sit on its hands in November. The Democratic Party’s presidential primary process is not performing its most vital function of seriously addressing the most important issues advanced by its key coalition members. It’s an unusual primary contest, one that focuses on personalities and avoids substantive issue conflicts. In the short run, avoiding the trade issue may make Democrats look more united. But in the long run, it does a disservice to the party and to the political system.

Douglas Koopman teaches political science at Calvin College and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.