RALL: A Postmortem For The 1996 Election

The 1996 election is over. The only question now is whether Bill Clinton will pick Fleetwood Mac or Steely Dan to play at his second inaugural. It's an amazing reversal of fortune for our New Age prez, when one considers that many Democratic pundits were discouraging him from seeking reelection as recently as 1994. According to conventional wisdom, the success of Newt Gingrich's 1995 blitzkrieg copresidency, Pat Buchanan's early primary demise and Bob Dole's tactical resignation from the Senate should have spelled a trip back to Little Rock for the former Tyson Chicken employee.What happened?The analogy between Clinton and Kennedy's Camelot has moved beyond bad hair, affinity for fast food and infidelity. Like Kennedy, Clinton has proven to be a remarkably unaccomplished president in terms of developing and passing a legislative agenda. So far he rates mentions for passing Republican-sponsored legislation that hurt him with traditional Democrats -- NAFTA and GATT -- and for presiding over a period of economic and social optimism for which he can claim little credit.The truth is, Gingrich and Dole saved Clinton's formidable tuckus from political annihilation. These guys aren't stupid, but one wonders how much they got paid to act so dumb.First, Gingrich stormed Capitol Hill without ever noticing that no one was manning the barricades behind him. The Republican Party mistook winning a midterm election for holding the launch codes. Although the Democrats lost their precarious control of the House, the 1994 election results didn't portend a widespread rejection of welfare-state liberalism any than the 1974 and 1982 Democratic sweeps represented the end of conservatism.Traditionally the party in the White House always loses congressional seats during off-year elections. It helps if, as in 1994, the economy is soft and the president has failed to articulate a strong agenda. Gingrich's wishful-thinking freshmen tried to ram through their retro-Reagan/Bush Contract with America under the guise of delivering on a national mandate. But Gingrich committed a crucial error when he believed his own hype: voters don't think nationally when they pull levers for their local representatives and senators.Clinton wallowed in unseemly wimpiness by promising to fully cooperate with the nutty professor from Georgia. By appearing to bend over backward to accommodate Newt's "revolution," Clinton put the onus for the Contract's more mean-spirited planks squarely on the Republicans. The PR subtext was brilliant: "If the people want a return to the supply-side policies that put them out of work under Bush, I'll accommodate them. It's not what I prefer, but I'll give the Republicans their chance."The Contract fizzled along with Newt's Gallup ratings late last year, but the real damage didn't get done until the GOP made the mistake of squandering its nomination on Bob Dole, a man with the charisma of a yam. Dole gave young voters the heebie-jeebies and made older voters wonder why he wanted the job at age 72. If the best opposition candidate our political system can give us is Bob Dole, there's no wonder no one votes anymore. They should have given the gig to Pat Buchanan, who with all of his nativist faults would have tested Clinton's rhetorical skills over free trade and immigration and made the contest exciting. Dole's strategic incompetence was stunning. He spent all of his pre-convention campaign funds to kill off Buchanan back in March, resulting in a premature end to the primaries and confirming the sense that the GOP contest was fixed by party bosses. Now there's no televised Dole antidote for newscasts of Clinton doing presidential stuff, at least through August.Then the senator from Kansas added to the unemployment rate by resigning. In exchange for one night of breathless analysis on the evening news, Dole lost nearly a year of free coverage on C-Span and the ability to counter Clinton's advantage of incumbency. Any Republican who believes that Dole can pitch himself as an outsider six months before the election -- after three decades inside the Beltway -- has grossly overestimated the idiocy of the American public.Now Clinton has exploited the fickle electorate's distaste for Gingrich by portraying his use of gridlock as a bulwark of Democratic resolve against rampaging right-wingers. Far from shying away from the role of obstructionist counterpresident, Clinton holds his veto stamp up high. Two weeks ago he told a Chicago rally: "If the American people want the budget that they passed in 1995 that I vetoed, they can get it. Six months into 1997, if they had the White House and the Congress, that budget would be the law of the land. If you think that it's a bad idea that we're putting 100,000 police on the street, and you want to abandon that commitment and just throw money at the problem, you can get that. They did that once, but I stopped them."Apres moi, le deluge.Last week's announcement by Dick Lamm and Ross Perot that each man will seek the nomination of Perot's Reform Party-which is holding its convention concurrent to the Republican gathering in San Diego -- puts the final nail in the sarcophagus of the Dole campaign. If Dole had had anything on his mind other than his World War II exploits, he would have announced his candidacy for that nomination as well, putting himself back into the arena and displaying a rare sense of imagination and bravado in an effort to land a voting bloc he needs to win in November.So Bill Clinton becomes the first Democrat in half a century to get reelected. Bob Dole starts planning his 2000 campaign. The only question left for journalists is how many congressional seats the Dems will pick up. It looks like Election Day will be another Blockbuster night.

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