A Second Term?
Clinton Is Well-Poised for a Presidential Comeback in 1996
With the Republican presidential field lacking any superstars now that Colin Powell and Newt Gingrich have declared themselves non-candidates, the prospects of President Clinton's reelection are very good.
After stumbling badly in 1994 and spending much of 1995 fading from the public view in the face of the GOP revolution, he was given little chance of attaining this rare prize; indeed, only 14 out of 42 presidents have gained reelection.
But Clinton has emerged in the last few months as a very capable leader, possessing greater maturity, having firmer convictions and at last connecting with the general public. He has, frankly, acted "presidential." He is trouncing Dole, the Republican's most likely nominee, in the latest polls. Barring any major lapses or foreign policy debacles, Clinton will enter his second term heading a revived party and with a chance to set governmental priorities as this country heads into the twenty-first century.
Clinton owes much of his political fortune to the Republican party, which earlier this year was hailed as the party of the future. Instead, it will end this year with even lower approval ratings than the Democratic 1993-94 Congress that it replaced. By appearing harsh towards the poor and senior citizens at the same time as it pushes for tax cuts for the upper and upper-middle class, Congress has provided Clinton with the perfect chance to reposition himself with voters.
Gingrich, the often infantile Speaker of the House, misinterpreted last year's midterm elections as a mandate for the destruction of the federal government. Unfortunately for him, voters may speak of their dislike for large government but they nonetheless enjoy the benefits provided by that government. Last year's election now can be seen as voter dislike for the status quo instead of an affirmation of the Contract with America. Instead of appearing as a tax-and-spend liberal who wants to take away Americans' health care choices (as Republicans effectively portrayed him in 1994), Clinton now looks like the only sane voice in government, a centrist who will curb the excesses of Congress.
Republicans believed that their mandate would allow them to push through their agenda with Clinton in full retreat. But Clinton has outmaneuvered the Republicans, allowing them to demonstrate to the public their extremism and providing himself with the perfect political ammunition. He is retreating no further; in recent weeks, emboldened by increasingly favorable polls, he has stood up to Congress, most notably during the government shutdown.
And after a year in which they blamed Clinton for losing Congress, congressional Democrats have found his leadership crucial in leading them back from the wilderness. Recent polls show voters identifying more with the Democrats than with the Republicans, a remarkable change from this last January. Even with the spate of Democratic retirements, the Democrats stand a good chance of gaining back the House of Representatives. This off-year proved that using Newt as the bogeyman in campaign ads works. Next year, his face will be in every negative ad against the Republicans. Though he has had several missteps along the way, Clinton deserves credit for giving the Democratic Party a much-needed facelift as he moves the party to the center.
Clinton has been helped by a resurgent economy and a string of foreign policy successes. His 1993 budget has brought the deficit to its lowest point in ten years. Although the economy is not exploding like it did during the Reagan years, it has nonetheless shown steady growth over the last couple of years and it will likely continue this trend at least through next year's elections. The president is traditionally the figure who Americans give credit to or blame for the economy, as Ford, Carter, and Bush all found out to their distress. Clinton will inevitably benefit from a growing economy as Reagan did. An astonishing 51 percent of Americans (in a CNN poll, Nov. 10) feel they are better off now than three years ago. These voters are hardly the ones to vote for a change. At the same time, Clinton has racked up a very impressive foreign policy record. During his administration, major peace initiatives have been achieved in the Middle East, Haiti, Northern Ireland and Bosnia. As he did with Haiti, Clinton is going against public opinion to send troops to Bosnia to enforce the peace. This is extremely risky because it's a mission that could end in disaster. But Clinton has found that the American public admires politicians with backbone, even when it doesn't agree with the particular policy. It is no coincidence that his approval rating has gone up when he has boldly followed through on an initiative.
Clinton is also helped by an ability to deliver soaring rhetoric. This year he has given several magnificent speeches: in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton spoke words of comfort and pledged that the justice would be served: at Rabin's funeral, Clinton eloquently described the greatness of the slain prime minister; throughout the budget showdown, Clinton's radio addresses framed the argument as a decision between a future of e pluribus unum or a free for all in which special interests dominate.
Clinton was the clear winner against the petty whining of Gingrich about how he was treated on Air Force One. And yet again in his Bosnia speech on Nov. 27, Clinton changed the minds of many, with polls before sharply against involvement and afterwards showing a majority agreeing with his decision.
He is easily the most gifted politician of this generation and his advantage would be highlighted against Dole's sometimes mean, sometimes rambling style in the general election.
Thus, Clinton enters election year in a remarkable position of strength. The Republicans have erred again by attempting to make the election an ideological battle about the size of government.
Clinton has pledged to balance the budget, taking away the most effective, and traditional, argument against Democrats. The election instead becomes a question of how gradually the budget will be balanced.
With support for the Republican Congress evaporating in the face of White House and congressional Democratic attacks, Clinton can very effectively argue that he will balance the budget but not at the expense of senior citizens in the form of Medicare cuts or of the poor by removing social programs. Ads focusing on the fact that these painful cuts are paying for tax cuts that primarily help the richer members of society are political dynamite.
Some columnists have argued that the Republicans, through control of the governorship in 31 states and having a strong base of support in states with large numbers of electoral vote, have a lock on the presidency in two-way races. But this is just not consistent with the latest poll data. Clinton is currently crushing le by 16 percent overall and lead. Role in every state except for a handful of states with few electoral votes (Time-CNN poll, Nov. 19).
Even though it is early, Clinton is in a phenomenal position, especially after the beating he's taken from the press and public in his first term. Further helping him, Dole isn't exactly generating any enthusiasm; he's the best of a poor field. Despite his character faults and sometimes unsteady first term, Clinton has emerged as a leader with increasing public support.
Clinton will then have his first chance to truly set the agenda for the country as it enters a new century. While the electorate will not allow him to push through liberal programs like LBJ's Great Society, he can establish a moderate, slightly liberal coalition that could help reestablish the Democrats as the majority party.
The coalition would, of course, contain the traditional elements of the Democratic Party but Clinton would have a good chance of reaching out to moderate Republicans alienated by the right-wing of their party and to both old and young voters, who disproportionately bear the burdens of the Republican budget. Though his coalition perhaps would not possess the size or endurance of FDR's New Deal coalition, Clinton would have a solid majority behind him, united by socially liberal, fiscally conservative stances on the issues-a return to his New Democrat platform.
Just a year ago, Clinton was written off as irrelevant, the end of liberalism. Now he has a good chance of reversing the country's rightward path and at last becoming the president that many had hoped he was in 1992.