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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Joe Klein

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Joe Klein

Last Build Date: Sat, 03 Jun 2006 00:32:48 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

The Early Politics of Evasion

Sat, 03 Jun 2006 00:32:48 -0600

Well, I still believe in a place called the radical middle ... but what's most interesting now about my 1981 version of Democrats in Disarray is what's missing: any specific mention of race, the transcendent American social and political dilemma -- although the fact that the Democrats had already splintered themselves into caucuses does hint at the problem. While Reagan's Republicans were offering a unified, national message, the Democrats presented a fractured image that emphasized the primacy of their interest groups and, bizarrely, divided people according to racial identity a mere decade after liberals made it a point of honor to oppose racial segregation. No doubt, it would have been near impossible for the leaders of the party to tell the newly elected African-American members of Congress that separating themselves into a black caucus was a bad idea -- but it was a bad idea, which led to the creation of all those other caucuses, and to a public role for liberal interest groups that the Republicans never granted their own powerful special pleaders. This was especially true in the presidential election process. Inevitably, each of the various liberal sects would stage debates in which the Democratic candidates for president were expected to endorse every last extreme item on the wish list. In retrospect, it seems clear that a primary cause of the Democratic Party's decline was its refusal to acknowledge legitimate public concerns about crime, welfare dependency, affirmative action, and forced busing to achieve integration -- all of which, obviously, had a racial dimension. Most Democrats running for office understood what a pickle they were in on what came to be known as the "social" issues ... and they asked their consultants to solve it for them, to figure out ways to finesse the worthy but implausible positioning favored by their party. Running for president in 1968, Hubert Humphrey stumbled through an elaborate tap dance on school busing. He said he opposed "massive compulsory busing that has as its sole objective racial balance based on a mathematical formula." But he also said it was "fit, right and proper that you bus a child from an inferior school to a good school." Humphrey was a harbinger. The tap dance became the template for Democratic inanity. Liberals were against "racial quotas" but they were in favor of "racial preferences." They said they favored "a hand up, not a handout," but they supported a welfare system that delivered handouts and asked for absolutely nothing in return. Their speech became gerundial, evasive -- it reflected the sensibility of the teachers and social workers, the "helping professions" that became the party's most loyal supporters. They seemed more concerned with understanding bad actions than with punishing them. I once asked David Dinkins, the mayor of New York, if he thought evil had any role in criminality, and he responded, testily and no doubt unconsciously, with examples of how the evil subjugation of the poor had produced the conditions that induced people to commit crimes. Yes, poverty and discrimination did, to some extent, induce criminality. But Dinkins was simply incapable of saying, as were most liberals of his era, that there were some bad people out there -- in the city and in the world -- who needed to be taken out of public circulation. Indeed, liberals tended to cringe when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire" or when George W. Bush later called terrorists "evildoers." To paraphrase the old line about puritans, a liberal became a person who worried that someone, somewhere might be offended. The failure to speak plainly would haunt the Democrats for a generation and infect their positions on non-race issues as well (John Kerry speaking about the Iraq war in 2004 sounded an awful lot like Hubert Humphrey talking about busing in 1968). In early 2005, the Democratic pollster Diane Feldman realized the extent of the damage while conducting a focus group in a Midwestern state. "I showed them a fairly typical [Democratic] policy statement and an[...]

Politics Lost: The Burden of Southern History

Wed, 17 May 2006 00:46:24 -0600

"They're tough guys." "They protect the little guy." "You can believe 'em." Hmmm. Caddell began to understand that there was more to the Wallace phenomenon than racism--although there was certainly plenty of that. Wallace voters also were classic, gutbucket Southern populists, angry at the bureaucrats and stuffed shirts and big corporate guys and the intellectual elites who ran the show. "But, you know," Caddell told me years later, "the thing that really blew me away in north Jacksonville was when I'd ask them about the war. They didn't see themselves as hawks or doves. They weren't part of the elite conversation that was taking place in the media. It was their kids who were over in Vietnam bleeding to death. And so it was, 'Stop this horseshit! Either go all out and win the damn thing, or get out and bring the boys home.' It was mind-blowing, and it made perfect sense. The people who were polling the war had it all wrong. 'Are you in favor or are you opposed' just wasn't the right question." And so, even before he had graduated from high school, Pat Caddell had begun his quest: to find a way to speak to those alienated Southern populists, to lure them back to the Democratic Party despite their essential cultural conservatism. This would also become a central question in the life of the Democratic Party, which began to experience a deep electoral swoon as it was abandoned by middle-class white voters, first in the South in the 1960s, then across the country in the 1980s. Furthermore, Caddell had intuitively grasped an aesthetic truth about the sampling of public opinion: "It is not a scientific process," he told me thirty-seven years after he had first walked the north Jacksonville precinct. Poll results were not to be taken literally; they were to be read--and there could be a variety of readings. "I could get a fucking monkey to draw a sample. But that's the end of the science," he said, referring to the statistical models used to approximate the demographic composition of the public. "The rest is . . . is . . . I mean, it's a crude tool. You're trying to apply a linear measurement to something nonlinear: how people think, their emotions, the whole thing." Crude or not, it was a powerful tool--almost magic. And fun, an incredible parlor trick. On election night in 1968, Caddell had entertained the local political crowd by sitting in the Duval County courthouse with a big old adding machine, cranking in the data precinct by precinct, and announcing--in advance of the final tallies--who had won. A crowd of candidates who were looking for the latest results gathered around him as he peremptorily delivered thumbs-up and -down: "You're in," he told one Democrat. "You just carried the most Republican precinct in town." Every one of Caddell's projections turned out right that night ("Some within half a percentage point!" he later said), and the story about the high-school kid with the political magic show spread quickly. The local newspaper featured Caddell a few days later: "Meet Mr. Prediction." Mr. Prediction was soon hired by a local politician named Fred Schultz, who was about to become Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives; within the year, Caddell--who pretty much took up residence in Schultz's home--was summoned to Tallahassee where he solved a major political dispute by concocting a redistricting plan for Duval County that somehow satisfied both Republicans and Democrats. Then he was hired by the local Washington Post-owned television station to poll a special referendum held to determine whether Jacksonville and its surrounding communities would combine as one governmental unit. "The station sent me up to New York to have Lou Harris check me out and see if I knew what I was doing," Caddell recalled. "He said yeah, I was doing fine." Caddell pretty much looked the part of a wizard--especially a few years later when a lightning bolt of white hair prematurely struck his goatee and completed his thunderous visage: dark hair, dark lowering brows over dark eyes, a hawklike nos[...]