In the post-election crease of opportunity, between
conciliatory speech and pitched battle, The Gazette concludes its
series of conversations on Campaign '96 with Benjamin Ginsberg,
the David Bernstein Professor in Political Science and the
director of the Washington Center for the Study of American
Government. Editor Steve Libowitz asked Professor Ginsberg his
thoughts on the conduct of the campaign, the meanings teased out
of the election exit polls and what the future holds for
Congress, the president and the American people.
Gazette: Why did Bill Clinton win reelection and the Republicans hold onto Congress?
Ginsberg: I think Clinton won for three reasons. One, the economy is healthy. A sitting president running at a time of prosperity is terribly difficult to dislodge. Two, the Republicans presented a candidate who was not suitable for a contemporary media election. Bob Dole is the last of the dinosaurs, better able to campaign in a pre-media age.
Third, Clinton won because of Newt Gingrich and the Republican-controlled 104th Congress. In many ways, this election was a referendum on Gingrich. Voters reacted poorly to the budget crisis in 1995 and '96, which eventually led to Congress shutting down the government. Gingrich gambled that the president would not allow the bureaucracy to stop churning, and the president called his bluff, showing a spine for the first time in two years. The result was an abject defeat for Gingrich and the Republican Congress.
Gazette: Yet the Senate picked up one seat more than it held in 1994, only 12 of the 71 freshman Republicans lost and incumbents nationwide generally won their seats back.
Ginsberg: That's the irony in all of this. There's a total defeat for the Republicans during budget crisis. Bill Clinton moves far to the center, making him a much more difficult target for people to dislike and for Republicans to attack. Clinton's polls start to improve while Gingrich's approval rating starts to fall.
By 1996, everything Dole tried to do in the campaign was linked to what he had done in the budget crisis. Bob Dole perceived that his great handicap would be an association with the Republican Congress and the militant wing of the Republican Party. So he did everything he could to disassociate himself from them. He resigned from the Senate, he alienated the religious right by keeping Pat Buchanan off the podium at the convention in San Diego. And then he named Jack Kemp as his running mate, a man he dislikes personally. Once all of these strategies were implemented, Dole never talked about any of the Republican hot button issues that would generate voter enthusiasm. What happened to abortion, which had mobilized millions of voters around this issue?
Gazette: So he abandoned his base but had no other foundation upon which to build support?
Ginsberg: Nothing whatsoever. What was he running for or against? The 15 percent tax cut? No one really understood how that was going to work, including Dole, I think. He tried to criticize the economy, but the voters had tired of it. Then the people decided to vote against the 104th Congress and to vote for Clinton; however, they then decided they had to elect a Republican Congress or else Clinton would be too free to push liberal social policies.
So, poor Bob Dole; he's now left to ponder this unfair state of affairs: he's out of a job and Gingrich is returned to power.
Gazette: Were you surprised that voter turnout was the lowest since 1924?
Ginsberg: I think the media played a big role in that. The story that was generally presented was that there was no story. This was a campaign between two less than ideal candidates: Clinton was ethically challenged, Dole was old and boring. The Washington Post editorial endorsing Clinton for re-election made you want to vote for Boris Yeltsin. As a result, I think, voters stayed home on election day.
Gazette: So, can we make anything of the fact that Bill Clinton is the first Democrat re-elected president in 60 years and the Republican Congress is the first to return in nearly 70 years?
Ginsberg: Keep in mind that prior Democratic presidential candidates didn't have the good fortune to run against Bob Dole. As for Congress, the significance is that there has been a real realignment, especially in the South and West, and the Republicans are solidifying their hold there, and this pattern will likely continue.
Gazette: Is Bill Clinton now a lame duck president or can he relax and present a vision and make policy somewhat unburdened by politics?
Ginsberg: I think Bill Clinton's historic vision of himself has been as a man who runs for election. He's now been there, done that. On a personal level it will be extremely interesting to see how he handles himself. At the age of 50 he has achieved his lifelong ambition to be president, and now has nowhere to go. The historic pattern is that presidents usually face domestic stalemate to varying degrees, so they turn their attention to foreign affairs, much like [President Franklin D. Roosevelt] did, becoming doctor-win-the-war after doctor-New-Deal was blocked. In foreign affairs, the president has a little more of a free hand and a greater opportunity to make a mark on history. Who remembers a president for his housing programs? We remember the Truman Doctrine, the Monroe Doctrine.
Gazette: Yet we remember Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.
Ginsberg: But we remember Vietnam more.
Gazette: What might a Clinton Doctrine be?
Ginsberg: Well, Clinton wants to pin down peace in Bosnia, he wants to bring about a more lasting settlement in the Middle East. There will be an effort to firm up our relationships with Russia and the former Soviet satellites. There will be an effort to expand American commercial markets while preserving jobs.
This, I think, will be the arena that Clinton will operate in in order to make his mark on history and to accomplish something that likely will not get blocked by the Republican Congress.
Gazette: Do the cabinet resignations announced right after the elections potentially hinder or help Clinton's efforts in this regard.
Ginsberg: Oh I think it helps him. This gives Clinton a chance to assemble a new foreign policy team with a view toward finding a more active set of cabinet members who will help him make his mark on history.
Gazette: Any chance Bob Dole will end up in the cabinet?
Gazette: Where do you think he will end up?
Ginsberg: Probably around his Washington apartment. He's said that after he rests up he'll continue in some sort of public service. But we expect our ex-presidents to fade away gracefully and our defeated presidential candidates to just disappear.
Gazette: Might Clinton be more bipartisan in his next cabinet?
Ginsberg: It's not unheard of. I'm sure if Colin Powell wanted secretary of state or defense, he'd be cheerfully welcomed.
Gazette: Is there anything significant about being president at the turn of the century or the millennium?
Ginsberg: There's nothing magical about the calendar. The first day of the 21st century will be very much like the last day of the 20th century. We are in a period of incredible technological and social change. It's rapid and taking us in totally unanticipated directions. I think it is important at this historical juncture to have strong leadership, but our political process produces stalemates and a lot of Americans say that's okay.
Poll data suggest voters like the checks and balances we have elected, which is a generous term for gridlock. It's hard for leaders to do more than just rhetorically wave at problems and then sit back and hope everything will be okay. Maybe sometimes things do work out. But this would be a good time to have a government capable of leading, capable of making a difference. I just don't think we've given ourselves a government that can govern.
People say that God shines on the United States and smites its enemies and makes our problems disappear. And I hope God continues to be so benign because we certainly don't help ourselves very much.
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