Playing the Politics of Re-Election

One of the few bright spots in the recent flood in the Midwest has been the demonstrations of how well Americans react to disasters in their midst.

In the Mississippi's torrential wake, communities across the Midwest came together to salvage the remains. On Sny Island, crowds of volunteers and National Guard members reinforced the 54-mile-long levee which alone is blocking out the swollen river in this region and protecting 110,000 acres of top agricultural land.

And in legislative action last week, the House Republicans collectively responded with their own levee: blocking out billions of dollars of federal flood relief with political sandbags.

Call it flood politics and a united front. While the levee was finally broken by a narrow vote to approve a desperately needed $2.74 billion relief package, the point was well made. Senate Republicans are selflessly protecting the budget from a higher deficit, something which naturally took priority over those left without electricity, water and/or homes by the flood.

This was not an isolated incident. At a time when crises a Bosnia and Herzegovina have broken the dikes of non-coercive "agreements" abroad, when domestic problems have reached a critical stage, the Senate minority has conspired to filibuster or delay almost every major piece of legislation proposed by the Clinton administration.


Most recently, Republicans obstructed Clinton's $394 million-a-year national service bill, a measure designed to fund higher education while turning students into an immediate commodity in civic service.

If few of us recall the "season of service" urged in President Clinton's inaugural address, still fewer do on Capitol Hill. The latest of four major filibusters, the delay of the national service bill, only underlines how short that season was for many lawmakers.

How many senators would not find the word "emergency" in a record flood on our most important waterway? What particularly is at issue in a cost-effective plan to reduce the price of higher education?

These questions are hardly superfluous--yet they are not being asked in Congress. As the New York Times recently put it, "The Senate minority leader, Robert Dole, seems to be marshaling a filibuster to deny President Clinton a major legislative victory at any cost." At any cost.

Any legislation that would put the Clinton administration in even the shadow of favorable light must be flatly blocked by any good Republican--if they want to maintain their seat when election time rolls around again, that is. Can we have reached the point where nothing but the next election has any meaning to a lawmaker?

For the next election is reflected in every legislative decision. Every vote cast is placed in the larger picture of the upcoming campaign. During a senator's "season of service" any individual vote might be consider as follows: the president's approval rating is down; it may be wiser to vote against the party. No, a Presidential appearance will be needed at a campaign dinner; give a vote of confirmation, or better, delay action.

But the logic of Congressional voting is only a symptom of a graver malady--one that has spread all the way to the Oval Office. The election mindset has become as deeply ingrained in our society as the Gallup poll. George Bush, our first exemplar of this, spent his entire four year "season of service" gearing up for the following season.

Constantly feeling the air, Bush ran on huge approval ratings, always coming up with the right moves, until he got checkmated by the backwash of a past administration and an economy that wouldn't behave.

In the wake of the "approval rating" president, we are left with a way of thinking that has taken over the very language we use to discuss the presidency. The term "approval rating" itself lends to wishy-washy politics, and yet our foremost priority in gauging actions taken by the administration is to analyze the effect on the rating.

What is "approval" anyway? The consensus of a group of voters at a given moment? How many of us can qualify our opinions about the presidency as either a) approve, or b) not approve? We supposedly (those of us that actually voted) made this decision last November, after suffering a lengthy campaign. Must we suffer a continuous campaign so we can continuously make this decision?

The whole problem with the "approval rating" is that such a thing cannot be reflected in a single poll. Disproval can represent a strong ideological conflict, or simply a reaction to an immediate event. Approval, however, is gained slowly and cumulatively.

The election mindset has so dominated both parties in the first months of the Clinton Presidency that Clinton no longer represents a single conviction, but a coalition--the "43%" president.

Can we isolate any major legislation attempted in the last months from a basic desire to enhance the approval rating? And on the same token, can we find any substance behind the filibustering minority?

If every immediate decision must reflect the consensus of the moment, what can, in reality, be accomplished? In response to Clinton's plea to bring back the younger generation, he--and Congress--must first demonstrate conviction in their own "seasons of service."