IT'S THE ETYMOLOGY, STUPID
Hey, you Democrats, Bob Grossfeld has a message for you: Things aren't as bad as they seem. Unless you're a "liberal" Democrat. In that case, you'd best start calling yourself "progressive."
Grossfeld, a Tempe-based Democratic political consultant, suggests that his party's malaise is, to some extent, a matter of semantics. Its rebound will depend, to some extent, on reshaping the nomenclature. "The language that we've used for the last 50 years has got to be changed. We've got to drop the word 'program' from our vocabulary," Grossfeld says. The "liberal" or New Deal Democrats' solution to a problem was to simply create a new "program."
Instead, expect to hear about a lot of "initiatives" from a lot of "progressives" in the New Democrats' lexicon.
"I'm pretty well-convinced that the Democratic party as a whole is exactly where people want it to be," Grossfeld says, "but we're still using images and words that convey old meanings." As a prosperous Democratic political consultant, Grossfeld is a rare creature in Arizona. He is also the president and executive director of the Arizona Democratic Leadership Council, an affiliate of the national DLC, the vanguard of the so-called New Democrats.
Grossfeld's DLC title puts him on the ground floor--or at ground zero--of the descendant party's effort to redefine itself.
As he nursed a bowl of chicken soup at a Tempe delicatessen, Grossfeld ruminated on last week's meeting of the national DLC in Washington, D.C. One of about 300 Democratic tacticians invited to the White House, Grossfeld describes the confab as two days of speechifying, panel-discussing, numbers-crunching, soul-searching and blame-laying.
Much of the DLC's ire was directed at President Clinton, who, DLC faithful believe, won the White House on the DLC bandwagon, then promptly jumped ship to consort with New Deal Democrats like Ted Kennedy, Tom Foley, George Mitchell, et al.
"After that success," he says, referring to Clinton's election in '92, "rather than maintaining that course, the administration ran into this dinosaur of a Democratic party in Washington, which just kept moving in the same direction like a glacier."
He says White House officials who attended the conference "got that message, that they can't be running in 4,000 directions at the same time and expect to have any kind of clarity."
"The past election was really the result of moving away from what got us there in the first place," Grossfeld says. He believes the most recent election was the death knell of federal programs bearing vestigial monograms like FDR, JFK, LBJ.
"The principal consensus is that the New Deal political coalition no longer exists. The Roosevelt New Deal coalition is virtually incapable of winning an election, and when you look at the numbers, it's easy to see why."
The Democrats lost independent, middle-class voters in a big way, because those people have come to see Democrats as the party of Big Government.
Being a political scientist, Grossfeld comes armed with numbers: on November 8, the 16 percent of the electorate that earns more than $75,000 a year favored Republican candidates 60 percent to 40 percent; the 33 percent that earns less than $30,000 annually went for Democrats 58 percent to 42 percent; no surprises there. However, the largest group--people earning between $30,000 and $75,000, comprising 51 percent of voters--went for Republicans 51 percent to 46 percent.
The latter group flip-flopped in the most recent election, creating what Grossfeld calls "a thermonuclear meltdown" for Democrats.
Although the crucial independent voters--both Democrats and Republicans--rebuked Democratic candidates, the electorate has not rejected the DLC's ideology, Grossfeld says. That ideology? Government should help people equip themselves to solve their own problems. Grossfeld says Vice President Al Gore spoke to the DLC conference twice, and that Gore's message underscored what the Democrats are failing to communicate to voters. Grossfeld believes the best-kept secret in the country is Gore's "reinventing government" program--er, initiative--which has made remarkable strides toward making government efficient.
"Corporate America knows about it because they see it first," he says. "The message just hasn't filtered down to the average citizen yet."
Getting that message across is Clinton's job. The White House has favorable data to work with; it just can't figure out how to disseminate it. The result is "the telling and retelling of stereotypes and stories and, in some cases, outright lies, about what is happening."
Grossfeld cites the deficit-reduction plan. "The Washington-based Democratic party allowed [it] to be characterized as a tax increase, and the Republicans sunk their teeth into that," he says. "Clearly, the reality is that for the vast majority of middle-income voters, there was no tax increase. But the Democratic party and, to some extent, the White House, did just a piss-poor job of explaining that to people."
Whether the administration can clamber out of its defensive mode and sell some of its accomplishments will determine how Democrats--and Clinton himself--do in 1996.
Although Grossfeld believes much of the Republicans' Contract With America is "punitive," he does not expect the Republicans on Capitol Hill to fumble the ball they've been trying to get their hands on for 40 years.
"A consistent theme that I heard repeated over and over again is that Newt Gingrich is one of the most brilliant political tacticians to come along in a long time, so none of us is going to count on the Gingrich coalition screwing things up on principal strategy . . . What we will see over the next 16 months are very carefully orchestrated efforts designed to convince people that they are finally getting what they have been promised for a long time."
Asked to lay odds on Clinton's chances in '96, Grossfeld snorts and asks, "Winning the election or getting renominated?" But seriously, folks, he gives Clinton a 55 percent chance at a second term, based on the exhaustive polling of independent voters that the DLC has commissioned. Surveys indicate that nearly three-quarters of that voting bloc believe it's too early to tell whether Clinton's presidency has failed. Nearly 70 percent still want Clinton to succeed. Sixty-four percent believe he has tried to move the country in the right direction.
On another front, Colin Powell may emerge as a formidable independent candidate. Grossfeld says the former joint chief is already investigating the process an independent must go through to qualify for ballots in respective states.
Of course, the battle for the hearts and votes of Americans will not be won by the timid, and Grossfeld sees encouraging signs that Democrats--the DLC's New Democrats, in any case--are ready to rise to the challenge.
He tells of White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta's speech to the DLC last week. Panetta droned on at length during his luncheon address, failing to inspire the assemblage until he began discussing the Republicans' quest for a balanced budget amendment.
"He said, 'Now the Republicans have got to try and deliver, but if they try and do that in a way to hurt the working man, dammit, we're going to stand up and fight them.'"
The declaration triggered thunderous applause.
"But people weren't so much applauding the notion of confronting the Republicans," Grossfeld says. "They were applauding him saying 'dammit.'"
Democratic success, he says, is going to hinge "on a willingness to get into their faces.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.