Republican Lite?

November 1, 1996

Bill Clinton looks set to bury Bob Dole in a landslide in next Tuesday's US elections. Not bad for a president who was hugely unpopular only two years ago. How has the Comeback Kid managed this latest resurrection, asks Huw Richards? If the main test of a politician is the ability to get re-elected, Bill Clinton's first term as president of the United States looks like being a resounding success. Barring a late shift to dwarf anything that happened in Britain in 1992, Clinton will defeat Republican nominee Bob Dole next Tuesday to win a second term.

Assuming he wins, Clinton will be the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 - and only the third since the civil war - to win consecutive presidential elections. The politician who labelled himself "the Comeback Kid" on the strength of surviving allegations about his personal life while pursuing the Democratic nomination in 1992, will have done it again.

Such an outcome looked highly unlikely during his early days in office. Elected with only 43 per cent of the vote, thanks to the intervention of Ross Perot, his approval ratings stayed consistently below 50 per cent: "unprecedentedly low for any first-term president", says George Edwards of Texas A and M University.

Clinton's unpopularity was reflected by the Republican sweep at the 1994 congressional elections, which ended the Democrats' 40-year hold on Capitol Hill. The president has a sexual harassment charge awaiting him when he finally leaves office, and the Whitewater scandal has seen former associates jailed and suggestions that First Lady Hillary Clinton may be indicted.

Pressures of this sort, highlighted by a relentless media, can easily drive administrations into operating tactically rather than strategically, a weakness which Edwards discerns in Clinton. "Presidents need a clear view of their priorities and agenda, and have to keep this in focus. Clinton was poor on this from the start. Neither his economic nor his health proposals were ready when they were promised. This gave a strong impression of ineptitude and created a vacuum which was filled by issues like gays in the military. It is difficult for any president to concentrate on any issue for more than a few days at a time, but Clinton's style is rather undisciplined."

Edwards points to a similar failure to control the terms of debate on major issues. "During budget debates, Republicans succeeded in focusing debate on tax increases rather than on reductions in the budget deficit. During debates on health care, there was a failure to keep a focus on the problems of the current system. The Republicans were allowed to set the terms of debate."

Any president has to balance considerations of what is expedient with what they consider to be right. Bert Rockman of the University of Pittsburgh points to the contrast between Clinton and his last Democrat predecessor Jimmy Carter. "Carter was very focused on doing what was right and rather inept at the politics. Clinton came into office with a reputation as a policymaker, thinking in terms of policies as much as votes. But he is also a politician to his bones and is determined not to make the perfect the enemy of the good."

This contributes to a reputation as an adept trimmer - "our adjustable president" in the words of Chuck Jones of the University of Wisconsin. The Dole campaign has done its best to portray him as a "flip-flopper", shifting views persistently in pursuit of political advantage.

The Clinton administration's record is indeed patchy. Members of his 1992 campaign team were wont to remind each other that "It's the economy, stupid", whenever tempted to home in for too long on other issues. And on the economy Clinton's record does look reasonable. But health reform crashed and few of the apparent foreign policy successes - Bosnia, Ireland and Israel notable among them - have shown much staying power. Russell Renka of Southeast Missouri State University points to "the lowest presidential success rate on record".

The fact that the Republicans control Congress may, ironically, have been his salvation. Clinton, though often compared with Tony Blair, has spent the past two years imitating a rather different centre-left European - French President Francois Mitterrand, who made brilliant use of opposition control of the French parliament to engineer his second election victory in 1988.

The Republican victory in the congressional elections of 1994 appeared to foreshadow the end of Clinton. Instead it appears to have rescued him. Dole, Republican Senate leader until earlier this year, may be the name on next Tuesday's ballot paper, but Clinton has in effect been running against Newt Gingrich, the abrasive, polarising and now deeply unpopular Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.

There have been two distinct phases to Clinton's first term. Before 1994 he was bogged down in policy detail, wrangling unhappily with Democratic congressional leaders who were often some way to the left of him.

The Republican victory, says Rockman, presented Clinton with two choices: "He could either use the Republican agenda as a counterpoint to his own and attempt to renew support for it. This was risky. Or he could set out to look reasonable, willing to compromise where necessary. He has largely done the second, and with great success."

Jones points to his "masterly use of the veto" as a means of restraining the fiercely ideological Republicans. "The message he has been sending to the electorate is that 'I'm for that, but not so much'. He also notes that Clinton has been greatly helped by the maladroitness of the Republican leadership in the House. "They have allowed themselves to be labelled extremist". When parts of the US government were briefly shut down following a budget deadlock, Clinton successfully shifted the blame on to the Republicans and their visceral dislike of government.

But there are costs in this. Both Rockman and Jones point to the extent to which Clinton moved on to Republican ground and gave up the policy initiative. He saw his own gas tax repealed and was forced into hardline policies on Haitian refugees and on Cuba. His welfare reforms have a brutal edge. One consequence of this shift is, as, professor of Emory University Elizabeth Fox-Genovese remarks, that voters face two choices; "Republican I or Republican Lite".

But Clinton, as befits an Arkansan, has always been a relatively conservative Democrat. His own party was described as "suffering from an identity crisis" - there is no definition of what it is to be a Democrat. And with opponents who can so readily be painted as vengeful and menacing, that lack of definition may yet prove advantageous.

There are other paradoxes in his likely victory. Some pollsters believe that a resounding Clinton victory may propel the Democrats to triumph in Congress.

The House Democrats would like that. But would Clinton? Rockman suggests not: "A Democrat majority in the House would be a return to 1993-94, which was a very unhappy period for him". Jones similarly notes that Gingrich "would almost certainly rather be Speaker of the House under Clinton than Minority Leader under Dole".

Party etiquette, though not as rigid as in Britain, demands that Gingrich cheer on Dole while Clinton endorses Democratic congressional candidates. But it is just possible , supreme realpolitician as he is, that the president will be quietly cheering on Republicans in marginal districts at the same time as he watches his own majority pile up.

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