Liking our policy, but not our performance

Shortly after Democrats lost a then-historic 52 House seats in the 1994 midterms, incoming Democratic National Committee chair Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), gathered some party strategists to assess what happened.

One of my always optimistic ad-making friends opined, “It’s not as bad as it looks. People agree with us!” He then proceeded to reel off poll data demonstrating that voters supported a host of Democratic Party policies.

“Which proves,” I interjected, out-of-turn, “that people don’t vote for platforms.”

Months earlier, before the 1994 election, Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) asked me to brief House Democrats at a caucus meeting on the House floor.

I’d done lots of caucus briefings, but never on the floor itself, a setting selected to underscore the gravity of the topic under discussion—the Clinton-Gephardt heath care reform bill.

I told the assembled members that this was not just a question of passing or defeating a particular piece of legislation, it was, I said “a matter of political survival.”

Above and beyond the specifics of the bill, the specter of division and incompetence was haunting our party. Democrats controlled the White House, the Senate and the House. Health care reform was the much-discussed “top priority” of the administration and of congressional Democrats. Yet we weren’t getting it done.

Many of us grasped the political difficulties arising from the bill’s provisions. But as I said to the House caucus, “from a political point of view, the only thing worse than passing this bill is not passing it.”

Though the events I’m narrating occurred a quarter-century ago, they bear an eerie similarity to our present condition.

One of the few messages escaping from Washington in recent months is the ostentatious internecine battling among Democrats. I understand that legislating, especially with a tiny majority in polarized times, is arduous. I look at where we are and say, “Miraculous.”

But no stranger to the process (a group comprising over 99 percent of Americans) could look at what has transpired in Washington over the last few months and conclude that Democrats are running an effective, smoothly functioning machine, united behind a core vision of the public good.

Voters like our policy but not our performance—two quite different dimensions.

One only need look at our withdrawal from Afghanistan to understand the distinction. A majority consistently approved of the policy, while an even larger majority faulted the administration for the way they handled the exit.

In my view, the Afghanistan critics are wrong on the facts, but that’s not the point, at least not here. Voters endorsed the policy, while, at the very same time, recoiling from the performance.

They can also support the specifics of the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better while being repelled by the process that got us one of the two, with the other still awaiting final action.

In the ’90s, many Democrats were wholly convinced that the proposed health care reform would be politically devastating, and that unless the changes they advocated were made, the electoral consequences would be catastrophic.

In the end, the catastrophe resulted from everyone focusing on their own specific objections, while ignoring the bigger, and far more important picture — the need to look strong, unified and successful in achieving central priorities for the American people.

One important difference between the ’90s and today is timing. The failures of ’94 took place literally on election eve. President Biden has a year to reshape reality. 

Is that enough time? I don’t know.

But I do know this—just two years after historic loses in 1994, former President Clinton was reelected in a near landslide.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.

Whether winning for you means getting more votes than your opponent, selling more product, changing public policy, raising more money or generating more activism, The Mellman Group transforms data into winning strategies.