Public opinion was very conservative in the 1990s
Caution is good, but today's possibilities are much broader
Lately, some people have suggested that the Democratic Party could use an ideological recalibration, specifically invoking the legacy of Bill Clinton and often the idea of a “Sister Souljah moment.” Brett Stephens in particular loves Sister Souljah moments and also recently invoked the execution of Ricky Ray Rector as a model for Democrats to follow.
I don’t think this is a good idea on the merits, nor a constructive intervention in the discourse. In part, this is because people both misunderstand and overrate the electoral impact of what actually happened there.
But mostly it’s because actual public opinion in the 1990s was very different from public opinion in the 2020s. It was mostly much more conservative, with a limited exception for gun control, which was more popular when crime was much higher —but in a way that otherwise mostly bolstered conservatism. There’s no good reason to run in 2022 or 2024 as if it’s 1992 or 1996. But at the same time, it’s not constructive to act as if the only possible form of ideological recalibration is to literally return to political strategies from a generation ago.
To use a military metaphor, there’s a difference between trying harder to pick your battles with care and retreating on many fronts in order to preserve a few, as Clinton did.
Bill Clinton’s policymaking was very conservative
The 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary featured something like three million candidates arrayed on different points of the ideological spectrum.
But the difference between Bernie Sanders and Steve Bullock was that Sanders ran proposing very left-wing policy ideas on every issue under the sun while Bullock ran proposing moderately progressive policy ideas on only a limited number of topics. What Bullock did not do was counterbalance some progressive stances with some proposals to move the policy status quo to the right. As far as I can recall, not a single person in that whole field proposed right-leaning policies in any area. Everyone either favored the status quo, didn’t mention the topic, or supported a progressive change.
That is quite different from Clinton’s presentation on the national scene, which always included a firm promise to eliminate the provision of unconditional cash assistance to low-income parents.
Clinton had a Democratic Congress his first two years in office, and together they made some progressive laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act and the “motor voter” bill to make it easier to register to vote. The 1994 crime bill also included plenty of progressive measures, including an assault weapons ban and various investments in social services. But that crime bill was essentially a partisan Democratic bill, and even so, it included plenty of conservative provisions aimed at increasing incarceration and expanding the death penalty. After Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 midterms, the bargaining dynamic shifted to the right, and Clinton signed lots of bills on a wide range of issues — the welfare reform bill, IIRIRA clamping down on immigration, Gramm-Leach-Bliley reducing bank regulation, the 1996 Telecommunications Act reducing telecommunication regulation — that mostly moved the policy status quo to the right.
Some of this was congressional math — when the GOP wins big, the policy dynamic shifts right — but the biggest factor is that public opinion was much more right-wing back then.
American opinion was very different 30 years ago
Looking at Gallup poll data for a few comparable issues, it’s easy to see that the public was much more conservative on a range of issues from taxes to LGBT rights. It also featured, per the interracial marriage question, a much higher level of overt racism than you see these days.
This was just not a very promising situation for making progressive policy. If we look at other issues, we see that public opinion has also gotten much more left-wing on the death penalty, marijuana, and the desirability of immigration restriction.
Gallup, it’s worth saying, also identifies two areas in which public opinion has arguably swung to the right — gun regulation and abortion rights.
On abortion, the polling is a little bit all over the map and highly sensitive to question-wording, so I hesitate to draw any strong inferences. That said, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Clinton was a clear champion of abortion rights, putting Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven Breyer on the Supreme Court and vetoing Republican efforts to ban late-term abortions. On gun regulation, the generally high murder rate and accompanying high levels of public anxiety about crime drove both a lot of right-wing views and also enthusiasm for gun control. Again, it is probably not a coincidence that while policy has moved left in almost every area since Clinton left office, guns are an exception, and the gun provisions of his crime bill represent the high watermark of American gun control.
An interesting lacuna — environmentalism as an abstract concept was more popular in the 1990s than it was today.
I don’t really count that as an area where opinion has shifted to the right since the basis of discussion has shifted away from clean water and air pollution and toward climate change. Gallup asked how worried people were about climate change in 1991 and 1997. In the first poll, 35% said they were very worried, which fell to 27% after Clinton’s reelection. By contrast, we had 46% very worried in March 2020 and 43% in March 2021 — so I think climate is another issue where the scope for action is clearly greater today than it was in the past (though still probably less than climate activists would like).
Recalibrate, don’t time travel
In many ways, I think looking at the climate polling is a better way to think about the needed recalibration — with 43% of the public worrying “a great deal” about climate change and another 22% saying they worry “a fair amount,” there is a reasonable basis in public opinion for doing good things on climate change.
That said, 43% is less than 50%. If climate activists can persuade a larger share of the public to worry “a great deal” about climate change, that’s great. But so far, they have not. And so people running in frontline House districts and tough Senate races and trying to win presidential elections are probably well-advised to take a somewhat measured approach to this issue. You can see that Democrats know this in their hearts — when the going got tough earlier this fall due to high gas prices, Biden was calling for OPEC to increase production and Elizabeth Warren bashed oil company price gouging. But on the campaign trail, Biden pledged to ban new oil and gas drilling on public lands, only to not actually do it in the face of an adverse court ruling.
But how would Biden have weathered the political backlash if he had blocked all permitting and then gas prices had spiked?
I think you saw a version of that dog who caught the car dynamic on immigration where Biden made some splashy announcements in January, only to furiously back-pedal starting in March when a lot of asylum-seekers showed up. Unlike in the 1990s, voters are no longer clamoring for huge cuts in immigration. At the same time, voters don’t want large irregular inflows of people from non-adjacent countries showing up at the border making asylum claims. The current posture of trying to hold the line at the border while pursuing pro-immigration strategies like visa recapture is smart, but they should have done that from the beginning.
The point is that across the board, there is a broad space between “endorse every random activist demand” and “act as if public opinion has not changed at all in the past 25 years.”
It’s harder to get comparable data on core economic policy questions, but I think you see something similar on that front.
Medicare buy-in polled poorly in 1998 but quite well in 2019, for example. And Pew also found decent support for means-testing Medicare in the 1990s. In 1997, people expressed more favorable opinions of business than of unions while it’s been the opposite more recently.
The case for a repositioning, not a retreat
So what does all this have to do with present-day politics?
On some level, not that much. One thing that hasn’t changed since the nineties is that I do think it’s still important to pay attention to actual public opinion and what is and isn’t realistic or plausible. There wasn’t much upside to successfully pushing Biden to flip-flop to a less popular position on the Hyde Amendment when there’s no chance of getting it changed anyway.
But almost nothing that Clinton did on a specific level is relevant or applicable today because opinion on economics, race, gender identity, immigration, and climate change has gotten considerably more progressive.
You don’t want to overdo it on any of these fronts, but “don’t overdo it” is actually a very different approach than passing bank deregulation and signing DOMA.
I really do think and have frequently said that progressives need to chill out a bit. They need to curtail their ambitions somewhat, be more open to people who agree with them about some stuff rather than everything, and otherwise moderate. But that’s a very different strategy than actually moving policy rightward in several areas in response to a very conservative electorate.