Campaign Analysis '96:
'Tis the season when primary candidates are
transformed into their party's respective nominees
for president. The conventions are upon us. The
Gazette editor, Steve Libowitz, asked Benjamin
Ginsberg, professor of political science and
director of the Washington Center for the Study
of American Government, to reflect on the
primary season, preview the conventions and
speculate on the general election.
Gazette: Has anything surprised you about the
way the primary
Ginsberg: Only that Bill Clinton has been behaving in an extraordinarily presidential way. He's avoided introducing legislation that would offend three-quarters of the taxpayers, and he has been above the political battle, making speeches, bringing peace to the world and comfort to the bereaved. And that, more than anything else, helps explain his current standing 20 or so points up in the polls.
Gazette: Is this personal maturity on Clinton's part or is he just exercising his ability as a campaigner?
Ginsberg: He's certainly developed the feeling of the presidency and what the president can and can't do. He's learned that it's very hard for the president to be victorious on the legislative front, but it is relatively easy for presidents to be successful kings. And once he stopped being chief legislator and had himself anointed king, he did very well indeed.
Gazette: Is it possible that in this era of combative politics a president cannot hope to make a significant legislative impact?
Ginsberg: It's even difficult for leaders of Congress to be legislative leaders. The deck is very much stacked against a president with legislative ambitions.
Gazette: So maybe Mel Brooks was right when he said in one of his films, "It's good to be king."
Ginsberg: Absolutely. People seem to love a king. Reagan was a very good king. And Clinton has been, too.
Look at the past few days, particularly his handling of the TWA tragedy in relation to other politicians. Clinton has been a model of propriety. He's sought to comfort the bereaved, promised that the government would do whatever it could, he reassured the nation. But [New York mayor Rudolph] Giuliani and [New York governor George] Pataki jumped in on television with rash predictions and promises. Politically, Clinton has capitalized on the disaster without appearing to.
So, because of these sorts of things, you have Clinton being more popular, but on the other hand, he's not doing much of anything. I'm not sure this is a trade-off that's necessarily desirable.
Gazette: Does our apparent embrace of a royal president tell us more about ourselves as a society than it tells us about Clinton or the presidency?
Ginsberg: Yes. I think it points out how desperate people are for leadership. So many people want their president to have this quality of charisma. They want to believe that their public officials really understand.
Gazette: Has Dole been as bad as the media says he has been? Has he changed this campaign season?
Ginsberg: Most Republicans have as grim a view of Dole as the media has presented. Bob Dole hasn't changed in decades. Bob Dole is what he is.
The most difficult part of his candidacy to understand is that he's been campaigning for the better part of a year and still neither he nor his campaign has developed any sort of message that would answer the question, Why would you want to be president?
As we've discussed previously, it's amazing that a party poised as it is historically--with so many things in its favor-- could not put forth a more viable candidate. And the folks who do generate some heat for the Republicans, who don't offend social conservatives, are unelectable. So you're left with bland candidates. And the possible vice presidential choices are also bland. It's a case of the bland leading the bland.
Gazette: Still, it's on to the conventions. Might we expect some heat there?
Ginsberg: Well, the Democratic convention will be a bore, unless you like that sort of thing. There will be a bit of mystery to the Republican convention. [Colin] Powell will speak, and there'll be a last-ditch effort to draft him as the vice president.
One innovation will be that the Republicans are broadcasting gavel to gavel coverage of their convention on Pat Robertson's CBN channel. This is very interesting. Conventions are like high school football pep rallies for the faithful. So the Republicans are going to hold an electronic pep rally to try to expand their audience by putting it on cable watched by social conservatives and party activists, which I think is very clever use of the media.
Gazette: Is it not simply preaching to the converted?
Ginsberg: The party is not after these viewers' votes. They want the party faithful to work in the fall campaign. But they also don't want their party regulars to watch the convention on network television, where the anchors spend their time debunking the candidate and so on. On CBN, the commentators will be Republicans who will spend their time saying things like, "Gee whiz, this is great!"
Gazette: After the conventions, what then?
Ginsberg: Well, Bob Dole will continue to search for something to talk about. Bill Clinton will continue in his kingly ways, and come November, he will be re-elected.
Gazette: The debates will not work in Dole's favor?
Ginsberg: Well, he's never won in a presidential or vice presidential debate before.
Gazette: And will the character questions that continue to swirl around Clinton not do him in?
Ginsberg: Short of some disaster befalling him, which given Bill Clinton could happen, I expect him to be re-elected. If a character problem were to undermine him at this juncture, it would have to be a major disaster, because the public has already become accustomed to a president who has not always been faithful to his wife. People have accepted that the president and his wife were just a little crooked back there in Arkansas. People are accustomed to the idea that the president's wife and some of her advisers were snooping through FBI files. Not even the president's supporters argue very hard that this is not true. It's just sort of been accepted and discounted.
Gazette: Have we accepted it because Dole is the alternative?
Ginsberg: That's part of it, but we have become jaded. And we, and the press, might have just reached an overload on this sort of thing.
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