Do the Democrats deserve a second chance?

Not unless they come up with some new ideas, says a former rising party star who quit in disgust

Published August 30, 1996 6:01PM (EDT)

Forget Dick Morris' bimbo eruption. With a 10-15 point lead in the most recent polls, President Clinton looks set for a reasonably comfortable ride towards four more years. Barring an unforeseen political catastrophe, the question is not whether Clinton will win, but by how much -- and whether his margin will be large enough to restore Democratic control of Congress.

The very possibility of such a resurgence marks a stunning reversal of fortune for a party that was thoroughly whipped just two years ago. As Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Democratic Party, says in today's Wall Street Journal, "We've been given a second chance. Very few parties ever get one."

But do they deserve that chance? We spoke to former Democratic Rep. Tim Penny of Minnesota, a six-term congressman and rising star of the party who stunned political observers when he suddenly quit the House in 1994. "I was burned out," Penny says. "I was particularly distressed that we so quickly squandered the opportunity that Clinton's election and the election of so many new-breed Democrats gave our party. I really felt like we were eating our young, many of whom were fiscally responsible but future-focused. I felt that if we could so misread an election and so misapply an opportunity, then I just didn't want to be around for the rest of the session."

Penny is now a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota, and a national representative of the bipartisan Concord Coalition. He is the author of "Common Cents: A Retiring Six-Term Congressman Reveals How Congress Really Works and What We Must Do To Fix It" (Avon, 1996).

The question on a lot of minds is: How badly will the Dick Morris affair affect Clinton's campaign?
I don't imagine the story will just drop, even though Morris has tried to take himself out of the picture. But I don't think it'll affect the campaign greatly. They have a well-established game plan.

The New York Times expended considerable ink today resurrecting the specter of the "character issue." Could the Republicans take advantage of this?

I don't think so. I don't think the story will last that long. The real campaign forays start today and that will be the story of the day for the next couple of days. Then we've got Labor Day, which is always a big day for political candidates. So I think the Morris affair becomes at best a secondary issue.

The latest polls put Clinton up to 15 points ahead.

I think he'll stay in that range for the foreseeable future. He could win by that amount.


It could tighten, but only if there are unforeseen developments. Whitewater. A sticky foreign policy situation. Other shoes that could drop. But I think by and large those will be contained between now and the election. Nothing in place right now causes me to believe that this race will tighten that much.

If Clinton wins, especially with a margin like that, what might he do with a second term?

Small potatoes. The kind of minor initiatives he announced last night and throughout the week. Martha Phillips of the Concord Coalition called it "cheap pandering," because they don't add up to much. But he shows voters that he is interested in key issues like education and tax breaks for home ownership.

Do you think that's "cheap pandering?"

Yes, but that's his forte. That's always been an element of Clinton's campaign style. And I think the best we can hope for is that he continues to do it on the cheap. Assuming he wins the election, I think he'll see it as a mandate for moderation. He wants to be able to say that the election was a rejection of the more extreme elements of the Republican agenda and the ultra-conservatives, and so set the stage for building a bipartisan coalition that reaches out to moderates in the Republican party. There are many moderate Republicans who would be willing to join a bipartisan governing coalition, particularly if the more extreme elements in their party are chastened by the election results.

Something that Dick Morris supposedly favored. Do you really see it happening?

I think it could. My sense is that just as my party took a beating in 1994 because we put on our tax-and-spend face and people didn't want to return to that old-style politics, I think the Republicans went too far in the other direction, and it is possible that you'll see the pendulum swing back.
I don't think it's going to swing back in large numbers. I think whichever party wins, Congress will end up with a very tenuous majority.

In both houses?

In both. There's going to be a balance of power, in which Clinton will of necessity be required to build bipartisan coalitions. The model established in the week before the summer recess -- when they passed health care insurance reform, welfare reform bill, the minimum wage bill, all with significant bipartisan support -- is the model that will need to be pursued in Clinton's second term.

Could it be a Democratically controlled Congress?

More likely a Republican Congress, with a narrow majority. When you look at the math, it's hard to identify enough opportunity seats for the Democrats to win back control of Congress.

As a former Democratic congressman who has had some harsh words for his own party, would you prefer to see a Democratic majority? Has the party learned enough from '94 to deserve a second chance?

Not enough. I mean we've learned that we can lose. We've learned that being in the minority is no fun, and we've learned that there are firm issues that we can come together and unite behind. I think we realize that the arrogance and the isolation from people's concerns that we exhibited when we controlled Capitol Hill just caught up with us. But we're still divided on a range of issues, and this will not be an easy thing to bridge.

What specifically have the Democrats failed to learn? What are the major problems that you see with the party still?

There are several things. One is, there's still more interest in having power than in doing anything with that power. There are a lot of leaders on Capitol Hill who were accustomed to the perks and the privileges that come with powerful positions and were not necessarily focused on getting much of anything done. There's also, I think, strong resistance in the party to serious attempts to balance the budget. We now know that we must pursue that agenda without resorting to tax revenues.

I think that a majority of Democratic legislators are less than interested in completing the agenda because it requires too much restraint, from their perspectives. When you listen to the campaign rhetoric, we've demagogued the Medicare issue to such an extent that it will now be difficult for us to come back to it after the election. We'll have to count on Clinton to create a bipartisan commission to get us off the dime on this one. We've basically created the impression that no major change needs to be adopted in this area, when clearly anything short of major change will not be sufficient.

Then there's Social Security.

I don't think we're going to wrestle with Social Security until we first deal with Medicare. The Social Security crisis is a few years farther down the line, but we can't wait much longer to deal with that. And I think there's an unwillingness to admit that our defense of these middle-class entitlement programs really does crowd out everything else. After the Republicans cut $23 billion out of the domestic agenda this last year, it may finally have sunk in that if we don't move on middle-class entitlements, we're going to continue to give on important domestic programs. But truth be told, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill want to save virtually every program that's ever been conceived. There's still a reluctance to admit that we can no longer have it all.

Apart from sitting around waiting for the Gingrich revolution to fail, one doesn't sense much new thinking among Democrats.

No. We have this Family First agenda, but it's so generic and so non-controversial that we might as well put it up there alongside motherhood and apple pie.

Are there any signs of new blood in the party?

We lost some of the best and the brightest in the demise of 1994, but I think we may see a resurgence of this new breed of Democrat in 1996. As I've traveled the country, I've seen a number of new-thinking Democrats who could win in November. They're unencumbered by the old ideologies, fiscally conservative, socially moderate, very much focused on generational issues and investing in children. Those new Democrats, with a more limited agenda but one that's very much future-focused, are the genesis of the new leadership of the party.

We heard a lot of that talk all week at the Convention. But the country has enormous problems -- yards away from the convention center you're in a war zone...

Yeah, we haven't had much to say about that, have we? Neither party really has done an adequate job of speaking to the needs of the underclass in our inner cities. I don't pretend to have all the answers here, but I do think part of it is middle class entitlement reform. We're spending far too much government money on people that don't need the government's help. We just need to rethink that from top to bottom.

The other thing, Jack Kemp is going to try to tackle these issues in the next couple of months, as a way of demonstrating that the Republicans aren't brain-dead when it comes to the inner cities. The Democrats have to be careful of that, because he is very creative, and his language is inspirational, while we've basically got the same old programs that we created a couple decades ago, and we're hanging onto them for dear life. I think that we need to be open to innovation here.

Quote of the day

The noble profession

"It was pure journalistic greed. We don't really have a view of Clinton and the Democrats -- we're really a celebrity magazine."

--"Phil Bunton, editor of the tabloid Star, on why he leaked the Dick Morris story to the New York Post at the climax of the Democratic Convention. (From "Aide to Clinton Quits Over Tie To a Call Girl," in Friday's

New York Times

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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