"1994-1996: A CONSERVATIVE REALIGNMENT?"
William Kristol Editor and Publisher The Weekly Standard
Center of the American Experiment 1996 Annual Dinner Keynote Address
Radisson Hotel South Bloomington, Minnesota May 22, 1996
In introducing William Kristol at American Experiment's 1996 Annual Dinner this past spring, Vin Weber noted how a small number of people have a profound effect on the political process because they "sort of float between the different worlds" which must come together if we are to have "good public policy." These worlds, he said, include the intellectual, "where our ideas our nurtured." The political, where ideas are "tested in the marketplace." And the governmental, "where ideas are actually put into practice."
Vin went on to say that very few people are able to move among these three realms with any regularity, but that among conservatives, Bill Kristol -- who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, served as chief of staff to Education Secretary Bill Bennett and Vice President Dan Quayle, and now publishes and edits the increasingly pivotal The Weekly Standard -- is "the best we have." Suffice it to say, I agree (though I suspect if Dr. Bennett were in the room that evening, all 750 of us might have bowed rightly in his direction, too).
As a perfect example of how Bill Kristol is, in fact, masterful in melding scholarship and political practice -- and not small measures of candor -- my colleagues and I are very pleased to share with you his keynote address from last May, "1994-1996: A Conservative Realignment?" Here's a sampling of what he had to say:
While conceding that Newt Gingrich "has become unpopular for reasons I don't understand," Dr. Kristol was quick to acknowledge that it was the Speaker from Georgia "who brought the Republican Party back to a Reaganite vision and a Reaganite agenda in 1993-'94." You could say, he continued, that the 1994 election was "Ronald Reagan's fourth national election victory."
But why has the Republican revolution (as he put it) "run out of steam a little"? The answer, he contended, is that the United States,
had a revolution about 220 years ago and it went pretty well. Now most Americans, sensibly enough, look around the world and think most revolutions don't go very well, and they aren't crazy about having a second one. All the easy talk about revolution got lots of normal, nonideological Americans nervous about exactly what was going on in Congress.
Correspondingly, why did President Clinton's fortunes improve so dramatically, starting in 1995? If Mr. Clinton wins this fall, Dr. Kristol said,
historians will date his comeback to April 19, 1995, with the terrible Oklahoma City bombing. Clinton's reaction to it was impressive and presidential. But it also highlighted the extremism of a certain kind of anti-government rhetoric. It's not fair to blame any politicians for what some nut does, but it highlighted the extremism of certain anti-government rhetoric that seemed alarming to lots of Americans. It was unfair to tie that to the GOP, but the bright line between the GOP critique of big government and militia-like conspiracy theories about government wasn't as bright as it could have been.
And in a summing up of conservative prospects, he argued:
The question for 1996 and the rest of the decade is this: Can conservatives -- mostly Republicans -- succeed in doing what Roosevelt succeeded in doing? It depends on whether conservatives can act as skillfully and advance an agenda as skillfully as Democrats and liberals did in the 1930s. So far, the evidence is mixed.
As mentioned at the outset, Dr. Kristol gave this speech last spring, in May. And as the date above indicates, I'm writing this Foreword in October, just weeks before presidential and congressional elections in November. It's fair to say that under other circumstances (which is to say if this oral essay were by most anyone else) I would be reluctant to publish it a near-half-year after the fact or to write this prologue so soon before Election Day. But as I'm sure you will agree, this is no ordinary political analysis with the half-life of a TV half-moment. It's the work, rather, of one of the conservative movement's most substantial and, perhaps most valuably, constructively critical voices.
American Experiment members receive free copies of almost all Center publications, including "1994-1996: A Conservative Realignment?" Additional copies of this essay are $4 for members and $5 for nonmembers. Bulk discounts are available for schools, civic groups and other organizations. Please note our phone and address on the previous page for membership and other information.
Thanks very much, and as always, I very much welcome your comments.
Mitchell B. Pearlstein
The most important thing to understand about American politics today is that November 1994 was a watershed election. It marked the end of a long political era in American history; an era that featured a lot of good developments and some not-so-good ones, especially in the last couple of decades.
From 1932 to 1994, the Democratic Party was the dominant party in this country. Roosevelt made it so in the 1930s, and the Democratic Party held the dominant position until 1994, despite Nixon's and Reagan's victories. On November 7, 1994, Democrats controlled the presidency, both houses of Congress, 30 governorships, and two-thirds of state legislative chambers. The Democratic Party was the majority party and liberalism was the dominant ideology. The Democratic Party believed in liberalism, in government activism, and in expanding the scope and size of government to address human problems. It was not an ignoble ideology, although it went off track in the last 25 years or so.
The Democratic Party's six-decade run as the majority party ended on November 8, 1994. The Democratic Party's run ended in what was an unusual election. It was the kind of election you get once in a generation. It was the kind of election our kids will study in history class, the same way they study the 1932 and 1896 elections -- really important elections that mark the end of one era and the beginning of another.
It was an extremely partisan election. I remember all the talk before November 1994 about
anti-incumbent sentiment, how voters wanted to throw the bums out no matter which party they were from. It didn't turn out to be true. The voters threw out only the Democratic bums and they
re-elected all the Republican bums. Every incumbent Republican governor, senator and congressman was re-elected. It was a huge partisan sweep. Republicans picked up eight Senate seats, 52 House seats, 10 governorships, and 18 state legislative chambers.
It was an unusual off-year sweep in what was an unusual, very ideological election. Most of the time, off-year elections in America are not nationalized and are not terribly ideological. Each congressman runs for re-election based on his own record. Each senator runs based on his own record. There isn't much of a national theme. In 1994, we had a nationalized election. Clinton attacked the "Contract with America" as a return to Reaganomics. The Republicans attacked the Clinton Administration as the last gasp of big-government liberalism.
The health-care plan was especially useful in helping to make the Clinton Administration embody big-government liberalism. Republicans offered a reasonably coherent conservative alternative with the Contract with America.
By American standards, this was a very big national victory. If you add up all the votes nationally, Republicans beat Democrats in the House races by about 52 percent to 45 percent, which is a huge margin in American politics. It was the first time Republicans got the majority of House votes in 40 years. Republicans got 58 percent of the vote cast nationally in the Senate and 59 percent of the vote cast nationally for governors. Republicans picked up 18 state legislative chambers and now control the majority of state legislative chambers for the first time in 45 years. It was a big, big victory for a party that had been the minority party in this country. It was a partisan sweep, and it was very ideological.
Reagan's fourth victory
You could say that the 1994 election was Ronald Reagan's fourth national election victory. He won in his own right in 1980 and 1984, and it was really Reagan who elected George Bush, who ran as Reagan's loyal vice president, in 1988. Bush then broke his pledge not to raise taxes, breaking with the Reaganite vision. Republicans didn't do particularly well in 1990, and Bush did very badly in 1992 at the polls.
Then Newt Gingrich brought the Republican Party back to a Reaganite vision and a Reaganite agenda in 1993-'94. One of the striking things about the 1994 election was that every Republican ran as a Reagan Republican. It was in 1994 that Reagan definitively won the battle for the soul of the Republican Party over the Bush Republicans, if you want to call them that. Even George Bush's two sons, running for governor of Florida and Texas, ran as Reagan Republicans in 1994. So, it was Reagan's fourth national election victory that brought to an end an era that had begun with Roosevelt's four national electoral triumphs.
The 1994 election was unusual in a couple of other ways. It wasn't just ideological in the sense that people felt ideological at the time. Subsequent polling data showed that people voted more ideologically.
In off-year elections for the last 15-20 years, two-thirds of people who describe themselves as conservatives have voted Republican. In the 1994 election, the percentage of self-described conservatives who voted Republican went above 80 percent. Self-described liberals traditionally had voted about 25 percent Republican and 75 percent Democrat. Despite the fact that Democrats suffered a huge defeat in 1994, self-described liberals voted more Democratic in 1994 -- above 80 percent.
Usually when there is a national sweep, pretty much everyone goes in one direction. Some groups might go more sharply in that direction, but everyone goes that way. In 1974, when Republicans were blown out after Watergate, they lost votes among every segment of the electorate. In 1994, Democrats lost hugely among conservatives, but picked up liberal votes. In other words, the electorate was more polarized and more ideological. And because there are about twice as many self-described conservatives as self-described liberals in America, Republicans benefited immensely from this increased polarization of the electorate.
That is a classic sign of what political scientists call a realigning election, a watershed election. It was a not-business-as-usual election. It was one in which issues get focused and crystallized and voters break out of their normal patterns to vote on a national vision for the country -- as opposed to simply voting for their traditional incumbent for congressman or senator. It was a very unusual election.
Here's one last fact about 1994 that has been sort of lost in all the coverage.
If you look at non-presidential-year elections for the last 20 years, Democrats have gotten 31 million to 32 million votes nationally, if you add up all the congressional races, and Republicans have gotten 27 million to 28 million. Democrats were the majority party, and they consistently got 3 million to 4 million more votes.
In 1994, the Democratic vote did not go down much. Democrats held the bulk of their supporters from 1990 to 1994. Nationally, the Democratic congressional vote went from 31.5 million in 1990 to 30.5 million in 1994. They lost only 1 million votes. But the Republican vote went from 28 million in 1990 to almost 37 million in 1994, a nine-million-vote increase. It was the largest increase in an off-year election in American history. As a percentage of the vote, it was the largest increase in this century with the exception of the elections of 1930 and 1934, the two great Democratic landslides that marked the end of the previous Republican era and the beginning of the New Deal era.
There was a 10-percent increase in turn out from 1990 to 1994, breaking a 25-year pattern of decreasing turn out. Almost all those new voters voted Republican. Again, that is a classic sign of an unusual, realigning election.
Whatever the problems of the Republican Congress in 1995; whatever the weaknesses of the Republican nominee in 1996; and whatever the strengths of the Democratic president in 1996, I don't think they should distract us from the fact that 1994 was really a momentous election with repercussions that will be felt for a long time to come.
What caused 1994? It's pretty obvious and I won't dwell on it.
People used to believe the government could do good. They wanted an activist government. They wanted a stronger federal government as opposed to state and local government. That is what liberals believed in and that is why liberals won elections. Now, people no longer have much confidence in government. If governments do act, people prefer that they act at the state and local levels. That is a big reversal over the last 30 years. If you look at the polling data, the numbers are really astounding.
Seventy percent to 75 percent of Americans preferred the federal government 30 years ago, but 70 percent to 75 percent prefer state and local government today. Before, 70 percent to 75 percent trusted the federal government to do the right thing and trusted government programs to achieve their intended effects, more or less. But those numbers are now 20 percent to 25 percent.
A new conservative era?
That is what fundamentally underlies the end of a liberal era, the end of a Democratic era, and the potential beginning of a conservative era. The one thing we know is that the New Deal and the Great Society era are over. What we don't know is whether conservatives will succeed in doing in the 1990s what Roosevelt and the Democrats succeeding in doing in the 1930s.
Remember the 1930 and 1932 elections? In 1930, the Democrats picked up almost the exact same number of seats as the Republicans picked up in 1994. The 1930 and 1932 elections were not mandates for the Democratic Party, or for liberalism, or for the New Deal or for FDR. They were mandates against Hoover and against the Republicans and against the Depression. The political genius of Roosevelt and his colleagues was in being able to take a negative mandate and turn it into the basis for a long-lasting governing coalition, a long-lasting governing agenda that shaped America for better and worse for the next 60 years. Clinton's health-care plan was supposed to be the last piece of the Roosevelt agenda. The collapse of Clinton's plan symbolized the end of that long era that Roosevelt had begun.
The question for 1996 and the rest of the decade is: Can conservatives -- mostly Republicans -- succeed in doing what Roosevelt succeeded in doing? It depends on whether conservatives can act as skillfully and advance an agenda as well as Democrats and liberals did in the 1930s. So far, the evidence is mixed.
There's a lot of confusion and instability in American politics today, and this is because we're in a new era. This is what the transition from one era to another era looks like. It's very confusing when you're in the middle of it. It's very murky and it is hard to predict how things are going to come out. The rules of the game have changed and one is not sure what the new rules are. The 1930s looked a lot like this. It was not foreordained that Franklin Roosevelt would succeed and that demagogues like Father Coughlin and Huey Long would fail.
What should have happened during the last 18 months to prove that we are now in a new conservative era, an era of Republican realignment? Typically, when one era ends and a new one begins -- when you have a realigning election -- you have a lot of party switching the year or two after the election. We have had that. Fifty elected officials, including five congressman and two senators, have switched parties, and all but two have gone from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Party switching in one direction is good evidence of a potential realignment. It happened in the 1930s and it is happening in the 1990s.
Another thing to keep your eye on is retirements. Typically, the former majority party starts to lose people who don't want to serve in the minority, who don't like their party much anymore, who are dissatisfied with politics. Lots of their people retire. Not just people at the end of their careers, but people in mid-career. That has happened to a considerable degree.
Democrats have suffered eight retirements from the Senate, Republicans have had six counting Bob Dole. I think 29 Democrats have retired from the House compared to 18 for the Republicans, which is a striking difference because there are more Republicans in the House now than Democrats. Lots of these retirees are people who were not at the end of their career, like Bill Bradley and Norm Mineta. They are people who had promising futures in their parties but who don't seem to want to serve in that party or serve in public life with that party anymore.
It's a bad sign that eight out of 15 Democratic senators standing for re-election this year chose not to run. Only once before in this century has a majority of either party's senators up for re-election chosen not to run in any one election cycle. That was in 1932 when a majority of Republicans chose not to run with Hoover. So, it is a bad sign for Democrats and a good sign for potential realignment that we have had all this party switching in one direction as well as disproportionate retirements on the part of the former majority party.
We also should see sharp changes in public policy if we are in a realigning era. There should be a sharp break between pre-November 1994 and post-November 1994. Even though the Republican Congress has been prevented from doing a lot of what it hoped to do, there has in fact been a sharp break.
Domestic discretionary spending -- the spending that is easiest to control -- has gone down in real dollars, not just inflation-adjusted dollars. It will go down for the first time in 45 years. Despite being frustrated in their attempt to get a handle on Medicare and entitlements, this Congress really did change the direction of federal domestic discretionary spending. If you look more broadly at the debate on the Hill, the change is quite dramatic. We have gotten used to it after 18 months.
If you had said in January or February of 1993 (when we had a Democratic president for the first time in 12 years and a Democratic Congress) that two-and-a-half years later we would be debating tax cuts and not tax increases, incremental health reform and not a big national makeover of the health plan, a conservative welfare agenda, cuts in domestic discretionary spending, and reductions in the growth of entitlements, people would not have believed you. It is a pretty striking change in direction.
Like all changes in direction though, it takes a while to really show results. The most useful metaphor for thinking about such a change is a fork in the road. You go down one fork rather than the other. When you have gone 50 yards, you are not that far from where you would have been if you had taken the other fork. When you have gone 200 yards, 2,000 yards, 10 miles, 20 miles, you start getting quite far away.
The best way to think about 1995 is that the Republican Congress started down a fork in the road. It didn't get as far as it had hoped, but it started down the road and it's going to be hard to bring it back in the other direction. Indeed, Bill Clinton, whose initial hope as president was to complete the agenda of Roosevelt and Johnson, now doesn't even pretend to want to take it in another direction. The most astounding change has not been the change in Congress, it is has been the change in the presidency.
"Never in American history"
I believe that never in American history has there been a greater difference between the first two years of someone's presidency and the second two years of that presidency. It is remarkable for a Democratic president to stand up and say that the era of big government is over when, three years earlier, in his first State of the Union speech, he said that we needed to have a newly energized, newly engaged government.
Again, for a Democratic president to say that the era of big government is over is remarkable. The Democratic Party was the party of big government, and it once was proud to be the party of big government. That was the historic contribution of the Democratic Party in the 20th century. It activated and energized government to address a great range of problems, including the Depression at home and fascism abroad. It is not a dishonorable tradition. Clinton really did signal something very fundamental when he stood before Congress in January 1996 and said that the era of big government is over. He probably didn't mean it, but he said it nonetheless.
It really has gotten out of hand recently. Some Republican somewhere says something and Clinton is in his state the next day, moving a step to that Republican's right. Someone in my office told me this afternoon that we expect Clinton to announce tomorrow that he is reconsidering fluoridation of the water supply.
I have two more pieces of evidence that the momentum of 1994 continues in the broader culture.
It's easy to see that many of the premises of the last 60 years are being reconsidered. Shortly after the election in 1992, the Atlantic Monthly published a piece by historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead saying Dan Quayle was right when he used Murphy Brown as an example of the disastrous effects of family break-up. It would have been nice if they had printed her piece before November of 1992, but that is asking too much. That they printed it at all is significant in itself. In regard to those issues, the momentum is now with conservatives and away from the complacent view that all the changes of the last 25 years have been for the better and that people have been liberated to live more fulfilling lives. We now see some of the human costs of that liberation.
I was struck by the talk Bill Galston, a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House, gave here a month ago at an American Experiment event. Tim Penny introduced Galston, and Tim pointed out in his remarks that Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, signed the first law establishing no-fault divorce in 1969. That was a signal that even though it was Reagan, all the momentum was to the left, towards liberation, so to speak, and away from traditional morals and customs. Now, Democrats like Bill Galston and Republicans like Bill Bennett are urging a re-thinking of no-fault divorce and moving in the direction of a "hold-harmless" divorce standard in which you try to hold children harmless. That's cultural change, and that change has accelerated since November 1994.
One last sign of realignment is the success of lots of conservative or moderately conservative governors and mayors. You see public policy made most concretely, and you see change most dramatically, at the state and local levels. Twenty-five years ago, John Lindsay of New York was the mayor whom almost all other mayors in America hoped to emulate. He was the standard of the modern progressive mayor. Now it is Steve Goldsmith of Indianapolis or Norm Coleman of St. Paul -- if I am allowed to say that without ruining Norm's political future.
It really is striking which mayors are doing interesting things. They are mayors who are setting priorities, who are shrinking government, who are looking for ways to get power back to local community organizations and private charities, who experiment with school choice and the like. The election of 1994 marked a watershed, not just at the federal level, but also at state and local levels, and not just in politics, but in the culture more broadly.
Shortage of steam, no shortage of obstacles
Now, having said all that, obviously things haven't gone quite as a Republican like myself would have hoped in November of 1994. The model that Republicans had in mind -- that Gingrich had in mind -- was that if the November 1994 off-year election was like the off-year election of 1930, then Republicans would win the presidency in 1996, and that they would further increase their margin in Congress so that they would really have a chance to govern. The GOP would do in the 1990s what the Democrats did in the 1930s. But history never repeats itself neatly and it doesn't look as if it will repeat itself this year. There is no question that the Republican revolution has run out of steam a little, and that part of it has run into some real obstacles. Why is that?
It's not enough to simply complain about the press or be unhappy about GOP leaders. There are real lessons in the failures of conservatives and Republicans over the last year and a half. One failure was calling what happened in November of 1994 a "revolution."
There was much too much talk about a Republican revolution. It made expectations much too high in the sense that you cannot change long-term, built-up public policies overnight. Certainly not when you control only Congress but not the presidency. And certainly not when you control Congress by narrow majorities only. Never in American history has a party succeeded in making really fundamental changes in public policy when it controls only Congress and not the presidency, and when it controls Congress by only a narrow majority. That's why it typically, takes two elections to really change public policy in America.
The Republicans were just much too optimistic. They had good motives. They wanted to do the right thing for the country. But they were much too cavalier about the possibility of bringing about big changes when they only controlled the Hill. They were much too optimistic about the possibility of governing from the Hill. Their expectations got too high, plus they alarmed a lot of people with all the talk about revolution.
Americans had a revolution about 220 years ago and it went pretty well. Now most Americans, sensibly enough, look around the world and think most revolutions don't go very well, and they aren't crazy about having a second one. All the easy talk about revolution got lots of normal, nonideological Americans nervous about exactly what was going on in Congress.
What was going on was a serious attempt to change public policy and a particularly serious attempt to balance the budget. The trouble with balancing the budget is that it tended to swallow everything else up. The whole Republican reform agenda -- fixing welfare, fixing education, getting power back to states and localities and families -- all got lost in budget balancing. Everything got sucked into the vortex of the budget, and the budget is a hard issue to explain to people, especially when balancing the budget means taking on entitlements, and when taking on entitlements means taking on Medicare.
It is easy for those of us who are sympathetic to the Republican agenda to blame the people or to blame the media for all the distortions that Clinton was able to sell on Medicare and other issues. But to be fair to the people, the Republicans they voted for in 1994 didn't say they would fix Medicare. So voters thought it was a little odd to see the Republican National Committee playing commercials on TV, in September 1995, touting the Republican plan to reduce the growth of Medicare. I think Republicans simply over-reached by going after the biggest, most popular middle-class entitlement program months after winning a big victory but without also controlling the White House.
There is a reason we remember Presidents in American history -- Wilson, Roosevelt, Johnson, Kennedy, Reagan -- and we don t remember Speakers of the House or majority leaders of the Senate. To bring about big changes in public policy, you need the presidency. You need the
White House and the executive branch to persuade the American people to go along with you. It's very hard to do that on Capitol Hill without the presidency. Medicare was the issue on which the Republican Congress ran into the toughest political flack and suffered the most damage. And they are still suffering. Clinton was irresponsible and demagogued the issue. Nonetheless, the Republicans should have expected it and probably should have been less confident that they could take that on.
Another political error was that Republicans allowed themselves to be portrayed as simply the anti-government party. Americans do want government reduced, limited and cut back, but they are not simply hostile to government. I think some of the rhetoric made it possible for Americans to associate Republicans with a kind of kooky anti-government sentiment.
If Clinton wins this fall, historians will date his comeback to April 19, 1995, with the terrible Oklahoma City bombing. Clinton's reaction to it was impressive and presidential. But it also highlighted the extremism of a certain kind of anti-government rhetoric. It's not fair to blame any politicians for what some nut does, but it highlighted the extremism of certain anti-government rhetoric that seemed alarming to lots of Americans. It was unfair to tie that to the GOP, but the bright line between the GOP critique of big government and militia-like conspiracy theories about government wasn't as bright as it could have been. That also helped Clinton begin his comeback.
Finally, Republicans had some bad luck in terms of their leader, Newt Gingrich, who is a very capable leader, but has become unpopular for reasons I don't fully understand. It's hard to lead a political revolution with a figure who is personally unpopular with lots of Americans. I don't think his unpopularity is fair, but it is a fact.
For these all reasons, the Republican Congress has run into choppy waters. But in the end, I think Republicans will probably hold Congress for the first time in 70 years. If you look hard at the polling data, voters don't want to go back to a Democratic Congress. The voters describe themselves as conservative by two-to-one over those who describe themselves as liberals. There has been no erosion in that basic underlying ideological division of the electorate. Also, 50 percent of Americans now say they are basically happy that Republicans won Congress; versus 44 percent who say they aren't.
It's amazing that the Republican Congress is holding up as well as it has against the Democrats.
All the talk about Dole running away from Congress has it backwards. The Republican Congress is now running about 12 points ahead of the Republican presidential candidate. Assuming the presidential race narrows, the Republican Congress should be OK. Republicans will lose some seats, but it's likely some Democrats also will lose some seats, especially in the South. Also, there are a lot of open seats that are in naturally Republican districts. So absent a Democratic presidential landslide, Republicans should hold the House and the Senate, and that would be very significant. It would be the first time in 70 years that Republicans would have held the House of Representatives in two successive terms.
The presidential race
Several people have chided me to not be too pessimistic on the presidential race, so I will do my best. The problem is that regardless of what Republicans and conservatives think, the economy has been pretty good and the country is at peace. Clinton is the first president in a quarter century who will not have had a recession in his first term in office. Also, Clinton was lucky to get a Republican Congress. Now, voters aren't scared anymore of what a liberal Clinton might do. In fact, they are a little bit happy to have him there to check the alleged extremism of the Republican Congress.
With those circumstances -- the economy being pretty good, the country being at peace, and voters not being alarmed about the president -- incumbents tend to get re-elected. Clinton's approval rating is at 56 percent. Incumbents tend to win re-election if they have approval ratings of 56 percent. Could that change? Yes, but there will have to be one or two more jolts to the race such as the one Dole offered last week when he announced his resignation from the Senate. It was an impressive move and a genuine surprise.
It bought Dole a new window of opportunity to convince the American people that a Dole Administration would be better than a Clinton second term; that it would be different from a Clinton second term; that voters should be alarmed about a Clinton second term. Dole doesn't have a lot of time to make this case. He has six to eight weeks, because then the Olympics begin, then you have the conventions, and all of a sudden you are in the fall stretch. It is hard to get a clear message out at that point because there is so much noise from everyone. If Dole doesn't make up some ground in the next few months, it will be very tough to beat Clinton.
The question is how aggressive Dole will be in framing the choice for the American people. Between him and Clinton, the starker the choice, the better it is for Dole. When an incumbent is running for re-election, people need to be alarmed about what his second term will look like. If they are not alarmed about Clinton, they will stick with what they have, even if they are not thrilled with it, even if they don't have the highest regard for Clinton. Dole has to shake it up and get some traction during the next few weeks. It would helpful if he could be imaginative and make an exciting vice presidential pick to give the race another jolt.
If Clinton wins re-election, he would become only the sixth president to win two elections in the 20th century, joining Wilson, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan. I am personally depressed at the prospect of Bill Clinton joining this list, but I can't control it, and life is often ironic and sometimes depressing.
If Clinton wins, it will be more like Eisenhower's re-election than any of the other presidents who won two terms. It sounds bizarre to compare Clinton to Eisenhower, but the comparison is appropriate when you consider that Eisenhower was elected in 1952 with a Republican Congress. His party lost Congress in 1954. Eisenhower was the only president in this century prior to Clinton who was elected with a Congress of his own party and lost control of Congress in his first off-year election. If you look at newspapers from 1955, you would see articles about how Eisenhower was very weak and about how the Democrats had a very good chance in 1956. It turned out that Eisenhower won easily over Adlai Stevenson because of his personal credibility and strength and because there were foreign policy crises that he was trusted to handle. In this respect, the analogy doesn't quite hold -- though I would add that Clinton's new apparent competence in foreign policy was necessary to his comeback.
In any case, Eisenhower won a personal victory. He didn't change the general ideological momentum of the country, which was away from Republicans and away from conservatives. Eisenhower won by accommodating to the victory of the New Deal and by working with and yielding in certain ways to Lyndon Johnson in the Senate and Sam Rayburn in the House. His victory didn't mean anything for the future. It had no coattails. Democrats won a huge off-year victory in 1958 and then, of course, John Kennedy and Johnson won and ushered in a new liberal era in the 1960s.
If I had to bet, I would bet on some scenario like that. Even if Clinton wins, he would win as a president who was slowing down and cooperating with the new conservative tide and not as someone who was going to usher in a new agenda of aggressive liberalism. Clinton doesn't even pretend to offer such an agenda anymore. All he talks about is how on the one hand he is going to go along with conservatives on issues such as welfare reform or, on the other hand, how he is going to stand up to them on issues such as on Medicare.
The challenge for conservatives
Conservatives face several challenges for the rest of the decade. One is leadership.
Nothing in politics is inevitable. Roosevelt and the Democrats were not fated to establish a governing majority in the 1930s. Republicans and conservatives are not fated to establish a governing majority in the 1990s. A lot depends on what leaders emerge and what decisions they make. It is always useful to be reminded that history is not deterministic, and I think we have seen that over the last 18 months. Particular decisions by particular leaders, including Bill Clinton, have made a lot of difference.
Second, there's strategy. It's not easy to shape a long-lasting governing coalition in America. The New Deal coalition was an amazingly diverse coalition that included farmers in the Midwest and union members in the East; civil rights activists like Hubert Humphrey in Minnesota and segregationists in the South; Catholics from the Northeast, and people in the South and Southwest who were hostile to Catholics. Roosevelt and his successors held together a very diverse coalition. Can Republicans and conservatives hold together a coalition that obviously has real strains and real differences within it? Can they find common ground and agree to disagree on certain issues -- or agree that certain issues should be resolved at the state and local levels so they don't split the party and the split the movement at the national level?
Finally, ideas are fundamental. There hasn't been enough intellectual groundwork laid for the Republican agenda. There's a lot of anti-government sentiment. There's a sense that the federal government is too big and must be cut; that power must be devolved; that we have to empower states, localities, voluntary associations and citizens; and that we have to strengthen families and traditional values. But there needs to be more thought about how to do this as well as about what "strengthening self-government" really means. This is a real intellectual task.
Conservatives will deserve to shape a new governing era if they do the hard work, hard thinking, and hard organizing. Obviously, you can never be sure that you will win. Sometimes people deserve to win and don't. Conservatives might deserve to govern but still fail to govern. But they certainly won't govern if they don't deserve to govern.
That leads us back to Center of the American Experiment and other groups like it. At the end of the day, the hard work has to be done by serious people all around the country, thinking through problems, working with other citizens in solving problems, discovering what works at state and local levels -- and then using all that as a basis for efforts in other states and localities as well as at the national level. This, I hasten to point out, can't be done simply by way of political tactics or political strategies from Washington.
Ultimately, the liberal era that lasted for 60 years can be followed by a conservative era -- but only if conservatives show that they deserve to govern America.
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