Whatever Outcome, The Suburbs Win
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday November 1, 2000
DESPITE THE desperate closeness of the races to control this country, already there is one clear winner-the American suburbs.
This has been obvious in the way George W. Bush swam so furiously from the far-right bank, where he clung dur-ing March's South Carolina primary when he rallied religious right and rural whites against John Mc- Cain's more mod-erate suburban-based appeal.
This has been evident in the way Al Gore cleverly redefined populism for the prosperous in a rousing convention speech that attempted to revive the urban-suburban, liberal-moderate coalition that New Democratic candidate Bill Clin-ton created eight years ago.
In the end, the candidate who seals the deal with suburban voters, particularly in the industrial heartland, will cap-ture the White House and a majority in Congress. Once again, a plurality of all votes is expected to be cast amid the sprawling subdivisions and industrial parks between city and country. But in the last week of the closest race in a gen-eration, baby-boom suburbanites remain a big share of undecided voters.
And the messages of the presidential candidates are aimed squarely, if differently, at the Crabgrass Frontier.
The continuing triumph of Clinton's "third way" - which was tailored to appeal to cautious, Republican-leaning suburbanites -has been clear below the national radar screen in the swing states and congressional districts I visited as part of this series: In general election campaigns, Republicans and Democrats alike became remarkably more moderate in both style and substance.
It isn't enough any more to simply talk more softly, as Ronald Reagan did after winning the 1980 primary even as he continued to deliver a message that was archly conservative. This year, congressional candidates were going out of their way to show how much they care about children, the elderly and the environment.
During the Republican primary in Florida's Eighth District, in and around Orlando, Republican Ric Keller's Web site bragged about his pro- gun, antiabortion views. Now facing moderate Democrat Linda Chapin, Keller soft-sells his ties to the National Rifle Association and, unless he is appearing before a Christian conservative group, mostly speaks about abortion only when asked.
And as Republican Todd Akin is doing in a similarly conservative suburban district outside St. Louis, Keller pushes tax cuts and improvements in education, Social Security and medicare.
This is a "sandwich generation" agenda. Baby boomers, who dominate the suburbs, have come to understand that the cost of caring for children and parents is so great that government should play a role in easing the burden. In ways that Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich and the GOP congressional leadership didn't understand, suburbanites are not anti-government or even antitax. That is why conservative Republican rants against one agency or another have sounded flat or, as the party seemed during the defining national convention of 1992, even alarmingly shrill.
Suburbanites are cautious, but not conservative in a hard ideological sense. They didn't move to get away from government or taxes. In fact, they often moved for better services -better schools, police, parks, roads and more open space -and don't mind paying more if they feel they're getting value for their dollars. By speaking for welfare reform and reinventing government, Clinton made them feel they were.
Suburbanites also tend to shy away from extremism of any sort. During the Vietnam era, the Democrats made themselves unwelcome in their neighborhoods by seeming to be captives of the left. In the '90s, Republicans frightened many people with their socially conservative policies and strident tone. Clinton made them, especially independents or nominal Republicans, feel that he and his party were the more reasoned alternative-that they would stay out of their bed-rooms and out of their boardrooms.
If Clinton understood the need for his party to move to the middle, so does Bush. And while the Texas governor has moved there more in style than substance, he has made his party safer for the suburbs.
Gore's policies are more suburban-friendly, more realistically serving the aspirations and concerns of middle- and upper-middle-class voters with the futures of three generations on their minds. He is selling essentially the same pro-grammatic formula as Clinton, the master of making a country filled with people feel he is talking directly to them. Gore is a true New Democrat. But Gore has done a poorer job than Bush, not to mention Clinton, in connecting emo-tionally with suburban boomers. And for the first generation to be brought up on television-the first for whom candi-dates have always been marketed like toothpaste-this failure to personally connect is why Gore isn't leading by a wide margin in a time of unparalleled prosperity and relative peace.
Bush's ability to sell his "compassionate conservatism" has gone a long way to improving not only his chances but also those of GOP congressional candidates trying to save the party's seven- seat majority. His ability to make himself more competitive with a kinder, gentler approach to policy, as well as his seemingly likeable personal style, has helped ease concerns that the party is in the hands of Newt Gingrich extremists.
This may be more rhetoric than reality: Based on his proposals and preferences, and the possibility of no Democ-ratic Congress to rein him in, a Bush presidency could turn out to be more conservative than Reagan's. But unlike Bob Dole in 1996, Bush has managed to get suburbanites to give him a fair chance to make his case. And by doing so, he has given some Republican candidates new life.
In the Silicon Valley suburbs between San Jose and San Francisco, where the GOP once dominated, Jim Cunneen is trying to hold on to the region's last Republican congressional seat. Despite a record and campaign rhetoric that would make him a mostly progressive Democrat in most regions-supporting abortion rights and gun controls and opposing school vouchers-Cunneen remains the underdog against the real Democrat. That's a function of the national GOP's im-age -scaring local voters away from otherwise fine and far more moderate candidates.
But Bush's resurgence in California, as well as his softer sell, has kept Cunneen in a position to win a seat his party can't afford to lose. The same is true outside Philadelphia, where Bush's recovery in the ever less conservative Main Line suburbs has put Pennsylvania back in play and given Republican Stewart Greenleaf a shot, albeit still a long one, at overtaking Democratic incumbent Joe Hoeffel. As a result, Hoeffel has had to scramble toward the right and been forced to defend votes against free trade and tax cuts.
Even the chances of Rep. Jim Rogan (R-Calif.) have improved in the most expensive House race in history. Rogan, a very conservative lawmaker already in trouble with a district that was growing more moderate and Democratic by the day, made his own life all the harder by leading the House's impeachment effort against Clinton. But with help from Bush (who was in California yesterday) and by focusing on education and medicare reform and tax cuts, Rogan could save a seat essential to the Democrats' majority math.
The home of moderate Republicanism is New York City's suburbs. In the Bill Clinton era, Westchester has be-come an almost reliably Democratic county because local GOP officials either didn't get with or have strayed from the program. Hillary Clinton, who is running for Senate as a New Democrat, is almost certain to carry the county. Republi-can Rep. Rick Lazio, despite too many votes with the Gingrich majority, has tried to portray himself as a true moderate in the mold of Gov. George Pataki.
The picture in Nassau, the mother of all suburban counties, is muddied by the fiscal failures of local Republicans. But the county GOP long understood that its once-reliable record of delivering services had as much to do with its suc-cess as its once-despicable rhetoric of welfare-bashing and even race-baiting. In the last 10 years, local leaders have moved the party-in record and reality-more to the middle. If Greg Becker had been seen as less of a reactionary two years ago, the Lynbrook Republican might have beaten Rep. Carolyn McCarthy. Now with Gore certain to bring out more Democrats than in an off-year election and McCarthy working to expand her image beyond gun control, she should hold on.
Huntington's Steve Israel also has shrewdly staked out the middle ground in his efforts to put Lazio's House seat in the Democratic column. He has been helped by a branch of the Republican family related to the congressional leader-ship that didn't understand its moderate suburban members needed to be protected if it wanted to retain a large majority. A revolt by social conservatives against Islip's Joan Johnson, about as progressive a Republican as you will find in sub-urbia, could drain enough votes to ensure a Democratic win.
Like Ralph Nader's supporters on the left, these Republicans on the right either don't get it or don't want to get it: Swimming in the middle of the stream, not just shouting from either bank, is the way to win in suburbia.