past is prologue

Clinton and Biden Bookend the Era of the Swing Voter

Former president Bill Clinton and then-Vice-President Joe Biden. Photo: Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images

As part of a series marking MSNBC’s 25th anniversary, Steve Kornacki recently discussed the differences between the 1996 and 2020 presidential elections, and the shift during the intervening years toward a nationalized political culture “defined by the clash of red and blue”:

The story of the last generation is of Americans deciding which of those sides they’re on — or, more to the point, which one they’re against. It doesn’t seem coincidental that, just as voter participation has risen, split-ticket voting has continued its steady decline. More than ever, Americans take their cues from the national level and work their way down from there.

Indeed, the rise of straight-ticket voting, and the decline in the numbers of Americans who “swing” between the parties or split tickets, in the last quarter-century is key to understanding the evolution of America’s political culture, and how the current president is governing. On paper, Joe Biden and Bill Clinton look very similar. They’re less than four years apart in age, and they’re both card-carrying centrists who have sometimes seemed to thrive on distinguishing themselves from more liberal Democrats, while infuriating Republicans with their refusal to play the part assigned to them in conservative demonology. But due to differences in the partisanship of the electorate, the two men ran very different campaigns in 1996 and 2020 — leading to starkly dissimilar attitudes toward progressive Democrats and the Republican opposition once they were in power.

In 1996, Bill Clinton easily crushed Bob Dole, just two years after Republicans won a famous landslide midterm election and recaptured control of Congress for the first time in decades. He pulled off this feat by dominating the political center, appealing to “swing voters” and even ticket-splitters as no presidential candidate has done since then. With Dick Morris and Mark Penn in charge, Clinton-Gore ’96 scientifically identified and targeted voters who had supported the GOP in 1994 but were having second thoughts, even if they intended to vote for Republicans down-ballot. Penn famously divided them into Swing I voters (moderate suburbanites, especially women, who liked many of Clinton’s bread-and-butter policy proposals) and Swing II voters (culturally conservative but economically liberal voters who were the object of Clinton “ideas” like school uniforms and youth curfews). The president did well enough with both to beat Dole like a drum.

But Clinton paid a price among progressives for all this flexibility. Morris was notorious for championing a “triangulation” message whereby the president pushed off ideologues of both the right and left and their congressional factions. This strategy reached its peak in August of 1996, when after vetoing two “welfare reform” bills sent to him by the Republican-controlled Congress, Clinton signed the third, redeeming his 1992 campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it” but horrifying more traditional liberals who deplored its termination of any personal entitlement to public assistance in favor of work requirements and time limits.

Had such heresies gained Democrats a big party-wide victory, progressives might have been more forgiving. But instead, while Clinton beat Dole by a substantial 8.5 percent of the popular vote (with Ross Perot winning over 8 percent in his second independent run for the presidency), Democrats basically tied Republicans in the House popular vote and won just two net House seats while losing two Senate seats in a bitterly disappointing outcome. Congressional Democrats, and not just progressives, blamed Clinton and his handlers for not placing a higher premium on straight-ticket voting, and indeed, for sometimes seeming to run against the party (it also didn’t help that even as the presidential campaign refused to share its wealth with the congressional wing of the party, it was hit with a fundraising scandal that tainted all Democrats).

So while rank-and-file Democrats were largely pleased with their newly reelected president, Clinton’s standing with congressional Democrats, and with progressive activists generally, was low as he prepared for his second term. At the time I worked at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and accompanied DLC president Al From to a private retreat of the House Democratic Caucus at Gallaudet University. These unhappy campers took turns blasting Clinton and his “triangulating” centrist co-conspirators, and a particularly tense moment occurred when it was announced that Mark Penn, who was supposed to appear to defend his point of view, would be late because he was “at the White House meeting with the president.” A feral roar emanated from the disrespected lawmakers.

Party unity continued to be a problem, with Clinton’s two big 1997 legislative priorities being a bipartisan “balanced-budget agreement” negotiated with Newt Gingrich that Republicans regarded as a historic achievement, and a bid for “fast-track” presidential trade-negotiation authority that was defeated in the House with most Democrats in opposition to Clinton. Only when Republicans began their impeachment drive against the Democratic president subsequent to the Lewinsky scandal did Democrats close ranks behind Clinton, who reciprocated by abandoning any talk of working with Republicans toward “reform” of Social Security and Medicare. This implicit abandonment of what had come to define Clintonism was consummated in 2000 when Vice-President Al Gore ran largely on a message of “the people versus the powerful” rather than the record of the Clinton-Gore administration.

The displacement of swing-voter persuasion by base-voter mobilization in national politics in the ensuing decades was a herky-jerky process. George W. Bush was seen as a far more partisan and ideologically conservative president than his father. But his political strategist Karl Rove complemented base mobilization with policy proposals carefully targeted to swing-voter constituencies: Medicare prescription-drug benefits for seniors; No Child Left Behind for married women; and comprehensive immigration reform for Latinos. Barack Obama famously campaigned as the man who could unite red and blue America. But like Biden, he wound up relying on party-line votes to achieve limited success in Congress, and the partisan and ideological polarization of our current era clearly began during his presidency. Donald Trump paid the least lip service of any modern president to bipartisanship or outreach to “swing voters.” The fact that he very nearly won a second term with a savage campaign focused on culture-war themes and insults aimed at his many enemies showed pure partisanship can work.

The electorate had changed so thoroughly by 2020 that it didn’t make sense for Joe Biden to run a Clinton-esque campaign, though he shared many of the former president’s ideological predilections. Biden did not “triangulate,” even against his vanquished foe Bernie Sanders, recognizing that his ability to govern required Democratic control of Congress and a united party. The campaign put a premium on ensuring Democratic Senate wins. Yes, Biden appealed to anti-Trump Republican voters. But it was really a minor part of a strategy based on maximizing 2018 Democratic gains among suburban voters, with even greater emphasis being placed on maximizing turnout by traditional Democratic constituencies.

Biden talked frequently about bipartisanship during the 2020 campaign, and promised to bring back cooperation across party lines, touting his long experience in Senate back-slapping and deal-making in a bygone era. He still talks about it as he tries to get a symbolically freighted bipartisan infrastructure bill onto his desk. But at the same time most of his agenda is being enacted via strict party-line votes on reconciliation bills backed by the progressive “Squad” and opposed by every single congressional Republican. To the extent he appeals to Republicans, he wants to make them Democrats rather than using them to govern “from the center.” And at present he is working closely with congressional progressives to fight against centrist Democratic efforts to pare back his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, even as Republicans oppose his plans categorically. Assuming he runs for reelection in 2024, there’s little question Biden will emphasize and count on party unity to an extent Bill Clinton never contemplated in 1996.

We are, as I put it recently, “two nations, divisible,” and like it or not, our current president and presidential candidates for the immediate future will be talking mostly to just one of them. Joe Biden would probably prefer it otherwise, just as Bill Clinton may have later regretted how often he had to “triangulate” against his own party to get things done. But in this as in so many other respects, American voters are ultimately getting what they want. And while they may support bipartisanship as an abstract proposition, and regard themselves as open to a “swing” between parties, they are really as polarized as the politicians themselves.

Clinton and Biden Bookend the Era of the Swing Voter