The Battle For The Suburbs
Dole Gets Clipped At The Crabgrass Roots
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday October 23, 1996
IF THERE IS a tide in the affairs of men, it certainly rises and falls in politics. And this year, in the far-flung lands of green lawns and great dreams just beyond the city lines - in the string of politically cautious places where more than half the presidential vote will be cast for the first time ever - the tide is running high and hard against the Republican Party.
Bob Dole is drowning in suburbia. In a sudden and violent turn from only two years ago, Newt Gingrich's congressional majority also may be swept away in currents that could reshape the political landscape for years to come.
And Bill Clinton? Based on what I saw and heard in my travels this fall through dozens of diverse outposts along the "crabgrass frontier," the president is riding high by delivering just enough of what has made Republicans appealing to suburbanites - peace and prosperity. And by being easily enough of a buffer against the perception of the party as stridently insensitive to the needs of their families.
Clinton is an especially easy fit for the influential baby boomers who now are the biggest demographic bloc within the new suburban majority. For all his faults, and he is widely faulted, Clinton is being easily forgiven. Maybe it's be-cause - as a 50-year-old father of a teenage girl and the husband of a professional woman - he looks and talks and makes mistakes a lot like they do.
Not Dole and Gingrich. Thanks in part to an aggressive and expensive Democratic ad campaign, Dole and Gingrich and other Republican candidates have been joined at the hip as a single unappealing political entity. By and large, Dole has come across as an honorable but ineffectual political soul who simply does not speak the lingua franca of the American suburbs. With his doddering locution and expedient lurches to the right, he is seen as a "pre-suburban" candi-date whose concerns and solutions seem antique, simplistic and even a little scary.
In most of the suburbs I visited, in California, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Florida, as well as Nassau and Suffolk, Gingrich is the bogeyman. Even GOP congressional candidates who owe their election to the speaker - incumbents, such as Martin Hoke of the Cleveland suburbs, an aggressive defender of the Gingrich Revolution on the House floor - are trying to convince voters they never really liked him. Gingrich is widely viewed as an ideological conserva-tive whose arrogance and impatience after the 1994 election caused him to misjudge the limits of his mandate - and thus to frighten many boomers.
And neither Dole nor Gingrich seems to understand the quirky sort of conservatism that still lives in suburbia - an aversion to extremism.
As a result, the GOP is not holding up so well in prosperous traditional strongholds, such as DuPage County, Ill., and Long Island's Suffolk. And the party is not holding up at all in presidential races in less reliable "swing" areas such as Parma, Ohio, and Nassau County, especially among blue-collar "Reagan Democrats" and college-educated, independent "soccer moms."
Eight years ago, George Bush owned these blocs. Four years ago, it was Clinton and Ross Perot. Now, it's Clinton. "If Clinton wins by 13 percent, he'll take the House with him," said John Zogby, a respected pollster. "And the suburbs will decide it."
Dole is stumbling among the corporate headquarters and shopping malls of DuPage, one of the richest Republican counties. Although tradition, a tough local organization and a promise to cut income taxes almost guarantees that Dole will carry DuPage, just as he'll probably win a plurality in Suffolk, he won't do so by enough to offset a huge Democratic surge in Chicago.
Dole is playing worse in the Main Line suburbs outside Philadelphia. In a county where no Democrat has won a majority since the Civil War, Clinton is almost sure to do so and a once-safe GOP congressional seat is considered to be in danger. Unlike the race in DuPage or in other more conservative suburbs, but very much as in Nassau, Dole's cam-paign is falling deeply into a gender gap. Beyond prosperity and an appreciation of fine public services, such as some of the nation's best schools, what's killing Dole is the defection of women over social issues from abortion rights to envi-ronmental regulation.
In blue-collar Parma, the conservative Reagan Democrats are running home. Where once auto and steel workers bucked their union bosses and responded to Republican positions on abortion and race, they are returning to their De-mocratic roots over workplace issues. Paramount is Republican opposition to banning replacement workers during strikes and to on-the-job safety rules.
Unlike Clinton, who has shifted shrewdly (and perhaps cynically) with the times, Republicans have not adapted to changes in suburbia. Take the impact of new arrivals who followed their jobs to the suburbs - unlike those emigres of another generation who were frightened into fleeing Democratic-controlled cities.
The young aerospace engineers flocking from Long Island to Melbourne, Fla., for instance, have brought their moderate Republican sensibilities that appreciate higher spending for schools and parks and other civic amenities but recoil at the rhetoric of the religious right. Although the Christian Coalition remains a powerful force in southern sub-urbs, newcomers' concerns are enough to jeopardize what should have been a slam-dunk state.
Clinton and the Democrats also have benefited from a change in attitudes toward the cities. When urban centers are booming - when they become a source of pride, as has Cleveland and its new ballpark and refurbished waterfront - tra-ditional Republican tactics don't play so well. They can't drive wedges between city and suburban folks on crime, as Long Island Republicans have been successful in doing, when the rate of mischief and mayhem is dropping. They can't do it on the economy when there are jobs aplenty. As Clinton did by signing welfare reform and rapping black rappers, he took the race card right out of the deck.
Suburbanites are cautiously conservative but less interested in getting government out of their pockets than getting it - as well as activists - out of their bedrooms, out of their backyards, out of their school yards. It's certainly not about hating government.
They moved from the cities or country or other suburbs for better schools and cleaner air and less congestion, and they believe there is a role for Washington and the Albanys and Mineolas in their lives. They're also willing to pay a lot if they believe they're getting good value for their tax dollars. They want government to protect them not just from crime or foreign enemies but from big businesses that pollute or want to pave over the woods next door.
Suburbanites - especially those in the "sandwich" baby-boom generation with responsibilities to children and parents - have come to understand the extent to which they benefit from such middle-class entitlements as Medicaid and college-loan programs attacked in the Gingrich revolution. They also came up the learning curve on the importance of reducing the deficit and, despite the need to raise taxes to do it, they appreciate the resulting benefits of lower interest rates.
With the crime rates falling and the economy cranking out gaudy numbers with almost every business news flash, Republican-leaning suburbanites can easily forgive Clinton for what he hasn't done (cut taxes for most people). "They're not voting for First Son-in-Law," said Tim Hagan, a Cleveland Democratic official disgusted with Clinton for moving too far to the right. "They're voting for the president who they think sees the world more the way they do. Obviously, that's Clinton."
In fact, his strongest support is coming from the one group you'd think would be most offended by a man suspected of being less than a faithful husband - married suburban women. "Clinton will do a better job protecting me and my mother," said Susan Hopkins, a former Republican activist in Florida's Brevard County who has changed parties. "We're not voting for a saint, just somebody who will keep us safer than the other guy." In suburbia, that somebody is Clinton.
Still, the suburbs are up for grabs. Not this year, but in 1998 and 2000 and beyond. The question is: What do Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party do with what looks like certain re-election for him and a close contest for control of Congress? Will he be a mere transitional character, who slicked his way to a career-preserving consensus but will return, as he did after winning in 1992, to the left bank of big-government solutions? Or will he become a truly transforming figure who redefines the center of national politics, but without sacrificing the people who need government the most, without selling his soul for the most votes?
Wherever he ends up, the center is likely to remain smack in the middle of the American suburbs. In this election and those ahead, that's the site of the crucial battleground, where the new majority will decide the outcome.