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Too Little, Too Late : How did the professional spinners let this case of bad timing slip by? : MIDDLE CLASS DREAMS: Building the New American Majority, By Stanley B. Greenberg (Times Books: $25; 320 pp.)

March 19, 1995|William Greider | William Greider writes regularly for Rolling Stone and is the author of "Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy" (Touchstone paperback)

Timing, they say, is everything in show business and politics, but it also matters in book publishing. If Stanley Greenberg had offered this treatise two years ago, it might have been greatly admired for insightful analysis, trenchant observations and the other cliches reviewers employ when they wish to sound sagacious. Alas, Greenberg missed his window. Published now, the book is kind of embarrassing.

Stanley Greenberg is a Washington political pollster of the Democratic persuasion, and his book is centered in the story of how he and the other campaign wizards helped Bill Clinton to become President. To move beyond the "stale orthodoxies" that have burdened his party. To reconnect with the "neglected middle class." To "put people first." Why does this sound so sodden?

Because the Republican sweep of the 1994 elections, as well as Clinton's muddled two years in offices, have revealed how ephemeral this supposed restoration of the Democratic Party really was. The vision thing, Clinton's agenda for governing, was really not much more than a concoction of slogans patched together by people like Stanley Greenberg--resonant phrases and poll-tested buzzwords that succeeded in winning an election but melted into formless mush once these guys had attained power.

Greenberg does not tell the story of Democratic meltdown. He did not see it coming. Nor does he try to explain why President Clinton diverged so blatantly from his own campaign rhetoric and governed on behalf of many of the same economic interests that he had assailed as a candidate. Instead, Greenberg savors the moment--1992--that is now quite stale.

This book was written before the big wipeout last November in which Republicans captured control of Congress, and the text was awkwardly adjusted after-the-fact to acknowledge the calamity. As an author myself, I can sympathize with the fix he was in--a freshly-written book that is preempted by reality before it even hits the bookstores. As a reader, I found my sympathy souring into something else as the evasions accumulated.

A political scientist before he became a polling professional, Greenberg expends many pages reviewing the historical formation of party majorities, from McKinley to Reagan. This discussion leads to a major insight about the present: Neither political party has a hold on things. Republicans crash, Democrats crash, everybody crashes.

The instability of party politics explains the great challenge that Clinton faced and overcame in 1992. With a little rejiggering to his text, Greenberg lamely uses it to explain away what has happened to Clinton's presidency.

Greenberg's basic formulation for fixing the Democratic Party is not new, but follows a familiar line offered by various right-of-center political books in recent years: Democrats need to get some distance from black people and the poor, so the angry white guys will like them again. Naturally, he does not put it quite that crassly.

His prose is a model of well-crafted euphemisms: "The plight of the poor and the unfinished business of civil rights are no longer the first principles of Democratic politics. Instead, Bill Clinton is seeking to reassociate his party with the American dream. That idea itself is a first principle that could potentially unite the poor and the middle class and change the face of politics in the United States."

The American dream, that's the ticket. Why didn't Democrats think of this before? Everybody on board for his "broad bottom-up vision," a political party that unites cities and suburbs and restores the American dream. If you want to ride, don't mention black people or poverty.

As an adviser to out-of-power Democrats in the 1980s, Greenberg's major contribution was the discovery of Macomb County, Mich., the blue-collar suburbs of Detroit where the discontented white voters are natural-born Democrats by class interests, but resent the party's special attention to blacks and other minorities. The pollster developed some language for how Democrats might talk to these alienated voters who were once the vital core of their party. His book details that research.

But, like previous authors of this line, Greenberg offers a high-minded rationale for a retreat from principle: Finessing the explosive issue of race, he argues, is the only way to assemble a stable political majority that can tackle the big economic issues that working people, white and black, really care about. If blacks and Hispanics will just cool it (maybe women too, though Greenberg doesn't really address their claims), then the Democratic Party can get back to the lunch-bucket political agenda that once made it great.

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