The New American Majority

Women and minorities swung the election to the Democrats. Can the Republicans now claim them?

No doubt it was preordained that the first president to owe his success to women would end up engulfed in scandals that threatened to alienate them. Instead, the farrago known as Zippergate has been a nightmare for Republican strategists, right-wing muckrakers, and pious prosecutors. Rather than dispriting the Democratic faithful, it drove them to the polls.

As the savants of the Weekly Standard put it, the Republicans "have been unable to leverage Bill Clinton's unprecedented disgrace [because] a great number of Americans, for reasons that do not flatter them, remain unprepared to reject a president who has committed multiple felonies right before their eyes." This sanctimonious imprecation betrays a stunning ignorance of the way a great number of Americans now live. For the rise of women and minorities has brought with it a profound change in values, especially about sex.

It is a shift from the puritan code of probity to a more ambiguous standard, in which the emotional quality of a relationship matters more than its adherence to tradition. From this perspective, Clinton's tryst with Monica Lewinsky plays as the kind of foolish but consensual love affair that shows up daily on TV talk shows, where mothers and daughters compete for the same man, and interracial passions abound. No wonder these shows—watched mostly by women and minorities—have become a prime target for William Bennett: They are a matrix of the new majority.

Republicans prefer the more vainglorious venue of talk radio, where the Angry White Male still rules and the mantra is that Bill Clinton has "defiled the presidency." This mentality is a major reason why the party of wrathful dads and self-righteous sons is slouching toward minority status. The talk-radio putzgeist is what led the GOP to conclude that slathering the salacious details of the president's sex life across the media would make the American people recoil. They were right about how white males would react, but for women and minorities, this $40 million impeachathon had precisely the opposite effect.

Media accounts of how Americans feel about Ken Starr and his magnum opus— which should have been called Tropic of Clinton—rarely mention the gender gap. But data from the Pew Research Center show that women are more likely than men to disapprove of Starr, and to think Republicans have pushed too hard for impeachment. And blacks are dramatically more inclined than whites to want the whole thing dropped. These numbers, compiled two weeks before the election, forshadowed the outcome. They could have saved the pundits a lot of embarrassment, if only those "experts" had bothered to look.

As the Pew data demonstrate, most white men regard Zippergate the way the commentators do: as a sordid example of presidential culpability. But women and minorities tend to see the president as a victim of the very system that has made their own sexuality an issue. Not that they necessarily approve of Clinton's behavior, but the tactics of his enemies seem all too familiar. Here is the same righteousness masking envy; the same morbid fascination with perverse sexuality; the same impulse to police and punish: the whole macho megillah being wielded against a president whose most distinctive quality is his appeal to women and blacks. This perception of a conservative vendetta against the leader who embodies political change overrides concerns about perjury—and it should.

yet for all his virtues as an emblem of change, Bill Clinton has hardly behaved like a progressive. His policies have only broadened the most dangerous gap in American life—the one between the rich and the poor—and his appeal to women and minorities has not been reciprocated by a dedication to bettering their lives. If anything, Clinton has used sexual politics to cover his programmatic tracks. This dirty trick—and not his sex life—is the real reason to call him Slick Willy.

Clinton's failure of leadership—much more grievous than his so-called character flaws—is a major reason why the new majority has not coalesced into a movement. With no heroic figure to shape the strivings of this vast electorate, its politics remain inchoate—and subject to the siren song of conservative compassion. Already, this shtick has brought Republicans the only bright spot in their recent rout: the triumph of the Bush boys. This dynastic duo arose on its auspicious ability to communicate across the gender gap. Both Bushes also were able to attract Hispanics, motivated by the nativist backlash against immigrants to become one of the most heavily voting ethnic groups. Though they are partial to Democrats, Latinos went for George Jr. (who aggressively courted the Chicano vote) and Jeb (whose wife is Hispanic). That sent a powerful message to GOP strategists.

If the Republicans are right in their reading of the election, all they have to do is schedule a convention speech about immigrant vitality (are you ready for your close-up, Mr. Giuliani?), put a woman on the bottom of the ticket, and find a presidential candidate who can say multiculti with a smile. The American people, they might reason, are no more inclined to abandon fiscal conservativism than when Ronald Reagan swept to victory. Feminism and even black power can coexist with Big Capital, as the rise of Christie Todd Whitman and J.C. Watts attests. If the GOP can mute the rabid right, they may well discover that the new majority can be divided and conquered. After all, this coalition isn't held together by bonds of race, class, or sexuality. It's as fragile as a big tent with wide open flaps can be.

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