WASHINGTON--No, Bill Clinton's astoundingly poor approval rating won't make any difference in 1996. Clinton's popularity can't go anywhere but up, and an American attention span honed on USA Today won't remember the leaner days.
But it might make a difference in 1994, in the election for the House of Representatives. At least, that's what Republicans are hoping. A year from now, Congressional offices will be in full campaign mode. The summer before the hunting season, Republicans are doing their best to lay the groundwork for a successful election.
It is the Republicans, far more than the Democrats, who are leading the pre-campaign offensive. That makes sense; for one, the burden is on the GOP to close the gap between the minority and the Democratic majority. For another, the Republicans have an easy target. Bumbling Bill taints his entire party with his personal poll troubles. And any free-market mogul knows that you've got to capitalize on an opportunity.
The National Republican Congressional Committee; whose specific mandate is to elect Republicans to Congress, is busy churning out print and radio copy. True to the Republican stereotype, these publicity efforts are attack ads, launched for the time being at the tax-and-spend tendencies of House Democrats. The theme: "They're at it again."
While these ads are gaining minor press coverage, they aren't prompting floods of complaint calls to the members accused of raising taxes with reckless abandon. Maybe that's because the ads' creators--who spice their copy with the sounds of cash registers and chomping dinosaurs, the strains of a take-off from the "Jaws" theme--have chose the wrong genre. Attack ads don't turn heads because they're more of the same.
Attack ads aren't solely a Republican domain, although you'd think so, to hear the complaints of campaign reform crusaders. That's not because Democrats can't wage successful negative ad campaigns; when he ran for the Senate in '92, Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone launched a brilliant ad initiative against incumbent Republican Rudy Boschwitz.
The low budget television spots had little substance--their main message amounted to "vote for me because my opponent is a millionaire"--but they were clever and witty, and perhaps most importantly, they made Wellstone look like he was a born loser, coming from behind. The candidate looked the part: short, unattractive, with disheveled hair and a goofy demeanor. (To gain pity point, you've got to cultivate the right image; although Wisconsin candidate Russ Feingold eventually won a Senate seat, his come-from-behind ads, though similar in content to Wellstone's, were far less effective. Feingold, a visibly slick state politician, announced that he was a Rhodes Scholar and then declared himself "the underdog running for the Senate.")
So why have Republicans been plagued with the perception of negativity so much more than their Democratic counterparts? The late Lee Atwater, whose brainchild was George Bush's successful 1988 campaign, would understand that it's matter of execution. Ads like Atwater's infamous Willie Horton spots and Sen. Alphonse D'Amato's (R-N.Y.) vicious attacks in '92 weren't like the cheerful Wellstone spots. They were vitriolic and penetrating; they burned their way into the memories of television viewers. To the standard newspaper reader or radio listener, a negative ad might look a little too much like the Republicans, at it again.
As Al Gore '69 and his White House staff have set about reinventing government, the Republicans, a scattered group, are attempting to reinvent themselves. They know that in 1992, Bill Clinton did not receive an over-whelming mandate from the American people on the power of his campaign goals (an idea that the media took up with relish in the post-election period, but have since abandoned in their growing disdain for the White House.)
Voters trickled away from the Republicans because the Republicans seemed to lack initiative and drive, because the GOP wasn't taking an active approach toward tackling the nation's problems. Bush deserters didn't just vote against the status quo. They voted against the implicit Republican pledge to "elect me because I won't do anything."
Republican leaders like Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett and Jeanne Kirkpatrick are beginning to get the picture. Their organization, Empower America, picks up where Kemp's verging-on-visionary HUD left off, devising free enterprise solutions to social dilemmas. Ventures like, that will do far more for the Republican Party than RNC chair Haley Barbour's Perot-modeled National Policy Forums. Activist conservatism is the future of the party.
Unfortunately, the Republicans in Congress aren't complying, for the most part. In voting against the Clinton budget in a unanimous block, they look like the sources of gridlock, not activity. Their tepid efforts to devise an alternative package weren't promoted early enough or publicized hard enough. Smaller Republican efforts to play up the White House "Travelgate" scandalette are likely to be both ineffective and counterproductive. Attorney General Janet Reno, who was bypassed in the White House use of a few FBI agents, doesn't seem particularly distressed. And if representatives and senators think every case of political cronyism ought to be investigated, they're not naive--they're hypocritical.
These kinds of Republican activities are getting media play, far more than any legislative initiatives or long-term policy planning. Scores of articles have quoted prominent Republicans who gleefully relate how much the unpopular Bill Clinton has done for their party. But while the spark of Clinton-bashing can start the GOP engine, the party will have to provide its own motive poser. When your party is out of the White House, it's certainly harder to gain attention for proactive steps. Harder, and far more critical. For initiative is the key to destroy a reputation for stagnancy.
Republican advertising, too, has to shake its reactive tendencies. Current NRCC publicity efforts expound on the evils of greater taxation, detailing the harm that tax hikes are likely to cause. But they don't offer an alternative approach, or any indication that the Republican mantra of cutting spending first is achievable. And they don't address the standard Democratic rebuttal: Look what 12 years of lower taxes did to the economy. It's simplistic and misleading, but effective, and the Republicans don't provide a satisfactory response.
The NRCC ads implicitly urge voters to knock the Democrats out of Congressional control, because the Democrats are bad. Perhaps they are; but what would make Republicans govern better? That question is never answered. The message is that the Republicans want control; they'll figure out what to do with the power after they get their hands on it. Today's Republican propaganda, no matter how justified, still doesn't deviate from the standard image of Republican propaganda--and it's that standard image that has to change.
It's early yet on the campaign calendar, and Republicans have hundreds of ads ahead of them. But the foundations of a Congressional drive will set the tone for the program to come. Highlighting errant Democrats is a one-sided strategy that will take the GOP only so far. If the party doesn't outline a Republican program--even a minimal, skeleton program--it's unlikely to be convincing. And if Republicans can't wage convincing campaigns, then 1994 promises, indeed, to be more of the same.