As the Democratic Convention got underway, the assembled party seemed to have forgotten everything Bill Clinton’s two successful terms had taught them. Every speaker on Tuesday night mentioned the hot button issues of abortion and gay marriage. And then on Wednesday evening, as the prime time window opened, the convention trotted out Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who came to prominence when earlier this year she was shut out of a hearing on contraception, to talk, once more, about abortion and contraception.
At that point, some Democrats like me, pro-choice but veterans of earlier campaigns, were getting a bit nervous that in a year of intense concern about the economy, the Democratic Convention was turning into a Planned Parenthood Convention. And then Bill Clinton spoke and did what no one had yet managed to do – create the economic case for re-electing Barack Obama with a 50 minute parade of devastating one liners that will keep Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan on their heels for weeks.
In these first two days we’ve learned that the Democrats need Bill Clinton but frankly, they need “Clintonism” even more. Clintonism is a way of understanding the modern American political world. It starts with the recognition that in every presidential election since 1980 the number of conservatives has substantially outnumbered the number of liberals. In presidential years the electorate has averaged 20 percent liberals, 33 percent conservatives and the remaining 47 percent moderates. From election to election this has varied — but not by much. For instance, in 2008, 22 percent of the electorate was made up of liberals; in 1988, the liberal quotient was 18 percent.
What this means as a practical matter is that winning the moderate vote is more important to Democrats than Republicans. And sure enough since 1980, no Democrat has been elected President without winning at least 60 percent of the moderate vote cast for the two major parties.
Moderates, as opposed to Independents, are close to liberals on the social issues; favoring abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research. But they differ from liberals on one critical dimension; they tend to be more religious than self-identified liberals. Bill Clinton’s party platforms were famous for their sensitivity to these values.
By Wednesday afternoon, President Obama was preparing to join Bill Clinton on the stage and to practice a little Clintonism as well. Turns out DNC organizers had left God out of the Democratic platform, along with a long-standing pledge that Jerusalem remain the capital of Israel. Under direct orders from the President, the convention, in its first piece of business on Wednesday, voted to put Him back into the platform. The vote, however, was not unanimous and in an embarrassing moment – in an otherwise perfectly choreographed convention – it took three votes before He was gaveled back into the platform.
This episode should remind Democrats of two things that Clinton never forgot. One, the number of secular liberals in the electorate is simply too small to elect a president. And two, for victory Democrats rely on that broad swath of voters who call themselves moderates.
As the delegates rehearse Clinton’s great lines about the economy they might want to add another one that will help them win over moderates. When Bill Clinton talked about abortion he said that it should be safe, legal, and — rare.