CNN/TIME AllPolitics Vote '96

Our Journey Is Not Done

The voters hand Clinton a historic victory but send a message, not a mandate: work with the Republicans

Clinton waves

(TIME, November 6, 1996) -- A nation born of a distrust of kings won't easily forgive a President who behaves too much like one. And so every four years, the people give a test: first we hand someone the most powerful job in the world. Then we demand that he not be too proud of himself for having it, too desperate to keep it or too sure that he alone knows what to do with it. And then we sit back and watch, until it's time to decide whether to re-elect him.

In four years Bill Clinton learned that it is not enough to be smart or charming or plump with vision. His triumph on Tuesday night, for all the records it broke, was a victory for studied modesty; for a willingness to swallow his pride to preserve his power, embrace his enemies to steal their ideas and march into history as the first two-term Democrat since F.D.R., not with great leaps forward but one baby step at a time.

"It is time to put politics aside, join together and get the job done for America's future," Clinton said on the steps of the old statehouse in Little Rock on Tuesday night. "Tonight we proclaim that the vital American center is alive and well. It is the common ground on which we have made our progress." Four years ago, in that same place, the crowd was raw, the night was a party, dressed in Windbreakers and jeans and set to the tune of Fleetwood Mac. This year it was a press conference in a blue suit on a red carpet while a canned orchestra sprayed Aaron Copland: "'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free."

The most historic thing that happened on Tuesday was not that a Democratic President was re-elected for the first time since 1936 or a Republican Congress for the first time since 1930. Nor was it that both things happened at the same time. In 220 years, no Democrat has been elected to the White House when the Congress was controlled by the opposition. We have never been here before, ever.

Dole

And we did not get here by accident. After a campaign in which the two parties together spent more than half a billion dollars getting their messages out, the voters finally had their chance to send one back: We have too little faith in your instincts or discipline to let either of you govern unchaperoned. And we have too many problems that have to be solved to trust either of you to do it alone. All through the campaign, whenever Bob Dole and Bill Clinton stumbled into any issue that could sting them, they volunteered to "take it out of politics" and hand it to a bipartisan commission. But since the issues they wouldn't discuss--entitlement reform, spending cuts, campaign finance--were the ones voters took most seriously, in the end the voters did just as the candidates suggested. They appointed one huge bipartisan commission, and said, "O.K., get to work."

It couldn't be clearer if they had spelled it out letter for letter: voters elected a moderate Democratic President to carry out a moderate Republican agenda. And for once politicians on both sides seemed to understand, to the point that the campaign now looks like one grand conspiracy of cooperation. Clinton was so perfectly sensitive to voters' suspicions that he never really campaigned for a Democratic Congress. By the closing weeks, Republicans stopped even talking about Bob Dole and reminded voters that if they were going to vote for Clinton, someone needed to keep him in line.

But every campaign also opens new wounds, and this year's survivors have scores to settle. The Democrats and their allies spent millions drawing blood from Republicans for planning to restrain Medicare, knowing full well that any serious effort to balance the budget would require doing just that. The questions raised about Clinton's fund-raising machine are an invitation to months of congressional investigations that could paralyze both parties. So which will it be? A replay of July, when in one week the White House and Congress moved forward together on welfare reform, health-care portability and raising the minimum wage? Or a bitter trench war in which both sides hunker down, snipe at each other and avoid anything resembling common ground?

The Price Of Victory

Clinton Victory

Clinton paid dearly for a victory he probably could have had on the cheap; he was a masterly campaigner running against a hopeless one, in a moment of peace and prosperity. Yet the tactics of his fund-raising machine looked so greedy--and may prove to be illegal--that he squandered the chance at a margin he could have read as a mandate.

Clinton was cruising toward a clear majority of the popular vote and perhaps more than 400 electoral votes until two weeks ago, when the scandal surrounding D.N.C. fund raiser John Huang began to bite. Clinton lost ground he had held for months in part because he seemed to be forgetting the lessons he had learned about arrogance. He refused to answer questions about his party's fund-raising practices; this week the White House dribbled out new details of additional meetings between shadowy lobbyists and Administration officials, including the President. Ross Perot's sure slide toward oblivion was halted by his claim that he was the only guy in the race with clean hands.

Perot

Clinton's final unpretty week cost him heavily among Republicans, independents and even evangelicals who were prepared to cross over to the Democratic ticket. Of voters who decided in the last week, 47% went for Dole, 35% for Clinton and 17% for Perot. Many actually sent their message by not voting at all: turnout fell below 50%, to the lowest level since 1924.

Still, Clinton's victory hardly lacked for breadth. He won every state he captured in 1992 as well as Florida, a key state that eluded him that year. Clinton opened the gender gap to a stunning 16 points, nearly twice the previous record, while Dole ran 11 points ahead among white men. The President won the votes of 1 in 5 self-described conservatives; 1 in 4 members of the religious right; 1 in 8 Republicans; half the nation's Catholic voters. Clinton ran well ahead of Dole among every age group, including senior citizens, but among voters 18 to 29, the President ran 19 points ahead.

It is tempting to see the results as a Democratic triumph; it is also wrong. For this was no repudiation of Republicans or the Republican agenda. Clinton ran as a deficit-cutting, budget-balancing, welfare-reforming President who now believes 16-year-olds should have a drug test before they get a driver's license. Voters did reject the G.O.P. approach to education and the environment, but Republicans knew they were so badly out of touch that they began pumping money and life into both back in the summer.

Dole

Republicans widened their margin in the Senate, while they shaved it down in the House. They picked up open Senate seats in Arkansas, Nebraska and Alabama, which will have two Republican Senators for the first time since Reconstruction, but lost in South Dakota, where Larry Pressler fell to Representative Tim Johnson. Democrats held open seats in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Georgia and dashed G.O.P. hopes for further gains in Montana and Illinois. Gingrich, who on Election Day was privately predicting that he would pick up five seats, kept his balloons in the nets and his head down in a hotel in Atlanta long into the night as his margin slipped away hour by hour.

Nearly half the casualties came from Gingrich's militant class of 1994, who had pushed the Speaker hardest to the right and demanded the deepest cuts in popular domestic programs in their zeal for a balanced budget. Gone are at least six of 71 G.O.P. freshmen, including Dan Frisa of New York, who was defeated by Carolyn McCarthy, the widow of a victim of the Long Island Rail Road shooting, who ran on a single-issue platform: gun control.

Extremists in both parties either narrowly escaped or were forced into the witness-protection program in order to win. California's loopy "B-1 Bob" Dornan, who loves to brag about having piloted every bomber in the Air Force fleet, was in a dead heat with Loretta Sanchez in his increasingly Hispanic Southern California district. Even Jesse Helms, North Carolina's conservative firebrand, started sounding more tolerant about abortion, touted his ability to direct federal aid to his state after Hurricane Fran left $5 billion in damage and boasted of his success in protecting the state's tobacco and peanut farmers from Republican budget cutters.

Voters were so suspicious of ideology that they turned out the purists all across the country. New Hampshire actually elected a Democratic Governor, Jeanne Shaheen, the first female Governor ever and the first Democratic one since 1978; stubbornly Democratic West Virginia did New Hampshire one better, turning to a Republican for the first time since 1956--even choosing the exact same guy--Cecil Underwood. The first time he served he was the youngest Governor in the state's history; this time he will be the oldest.

By moving toward the center, the candidates were just behaving like voters. The TIME/CNN Election Monitor, a year-long poll that returned periodically to the same group of registered voters, found that while a quarter of respondents who called themselves conservatives a year ago now consider themselves moderates or liberals, fully 40% of the liberals now think they are moderates or conservatives.

How He Did It

If Clinton owed any lasting debts on Tuesday night, it was certainly not to his party; it was to Newt Gingrich, whose triumph in 1994 reflected more distaste for Clinton's excesses than fervor for Gingrich's cause. In 1992 Clinton tried to turn 43% of the vote into an imperial mandate to rearrange the planets. By the time he was accused of shutting down a runway at Los Angeles airport to get a haircut aboard Air Force One, the story was devastating not because it was true but because it was believable. He had become the Boy Prince. And the only thing that could save his presidency was another pretender to that throne.

Clinton in defeat learned humility; Gingrich in victory grew swollen with pride, until he reached the point where he said he was shutting down the government in part because the President had treated him rudely on Air Force One. The voters who elected Clinton in 1992 on a promise of change punished him two years later for delivering too much of it. But while Gingrich made the same mistake, overread his mandate and overplayed his hand, Clinton made a point of saying over and over again: I heard you, I listened; walk, don't run; cooperate, don't confront. There was a reason Clinton hardly ever mentioned his opponent from Kansas and even less often the Democratic Party: he was running against Gingrich, not Dole, as the better man to enact a Republican agenda.

Clinton's success owes most to his least liberal moments. He pushed through a crime bill whose federal portion paid for 100,000 cops by cutting federal employees and gave death-row prisoners a shorter lease on life. By signing welfare reform, he managed to win over moderates with his tough-love approach while convincing liberals they should stick with him as the best hope for fixing what they most hated in the bill he had just signed. In 1992 it would have been a wild, drunken Republican dream that by 1996 a 60-year-old entitlement like Aid to Families with Dependent Children would be demolished, the deficit reduced 60% and falling, a balanced budget pledged by 2002, the federal work force shrunk by 250,000 people--and that a Democratic President would have pushed for or okayed them all. Clinton won the battle, but the Republicans won the war.

Thanks to policies he pushed and others he just borrowed, Clinton had a booming economy at his back, lower rates of unemployment, interest and inflation than any other President since 1968. These alone might have been enough to guarantee his re-election. But it was Clinton's special fortune to face a Republican who served in World War II, a man who distrusted polls, television and just about everyone who worked on his campaign, a Washington insider whose idea of mixing with the voters was going on the Sunday talk shows, a deficit hawk who, with 90 days to go, decided to pose as a tax cutter, and a man who never learned George Bush's First Rule of Politics: If you have to attack a member of the media, go after Dan Rather, not Katie Couric.

Shotgun Marriage

The ace Clinton played at just the right moment was the one that trumped his own party--saying to an electorate that is sick of politics that he is sick of it too. That may be the theme of the second term. "We're trying to get away from the old D's and R's," said a campaign aide. "The President wants this term to be an affirmation that that's all gone, washed away."

In a postpartisan age, anyone who hopes to fix anything will have to swallow hard and reach out across the aisle to find the needed votes. So if Clinton learned a lesson about hubris, the Republicans face one about bitterness. Late last week a senior White House official quietly telephoned a plea to a top Gingrich adviser. The White House knew it would win, and on the assumption that the Congress would stay in Republican hands, the aide was angling for a favor in advance. When the polls close on Tuesday, he asked, might the Speaker and Senate majority leader Trent Lott be willing to make just a few, genuine-sounding bipartisan noises? It was a lot to ask after such a nasty campaign, and yet the question is unavoidable for Gingrich, Lott and the rest of the G.O.P. leadership. Do they want to get something done in the next two years or just keep the blame-game going?

Gingrich

Long before he knew the exact makeup of the House, Gingrich knew that his majority would be smaller, his freshmen chastened and, as Clinton completed his tack to the center, that the leverage of moderate Republicans would increase. There are nearly two dozen members of Gingrich's caucus who are moderate enough for Clinton and Dick Gephardt's Democrats to peel off. Last week Gingrich began exploring with his advisers, including his wife Marianne, how to reach out to the moderates whom just a year ago his freshmen openly attacked. The man who once criticized Clinton as a "work in progress" might chuckle now as he moves to the center too. On Tuesday night, after Clinton spoke of "common ground," Gingrich talked about "common sense" just to let him know they were speaking the same language.

Still, as with Clinton, not everyone believes Gingrich can stick to the script. "It can't just be a one-night theme," said Gingrich friend Ken Duberstein. "It must be a governing philosophy." Early Wednesday morning Gingrich said he had an "obligation, frankly, to reach out" to Clinton. "If he actually meant all those nice things," said the Speaker, "it's going to be a very productive year." But if Gingrich strays too far onto Clinton's common ground, he may find that his troops aren't behind him. His top lieutenant, majority leader Dick Armey, thinks Gingrich failed in his revolution not because he was too confrontational but because he was too ready to appease his moderate members.

Meanwhile, Lott says he wants to get things done as Senate majority leader and can offer as evidence his efforts last summer to pass the minimum-wage increase, health-insurance portability and welfare reform. Yet the Senate that Lott inherits is more Republican than it was before, and run by more conservative Senators than the group that Dole herded around for years. The Lott-Clinton relationship is the newest, and therefore holds the most promise for cooperation. Put all the Southern charm of these two men in a single room, and the walls would melt, so it will be interesting to watch them work their wiles on each other.

Lott respects Clinton, though he doesn't know him very well, and has been astonished by how smoothly the President has co-opted the Republican agenda. Each man is privately fascinated with the other, both have relied on consultant Dick Morris, and both can turn shirty on camera if they aren't careful. Lott brings one big advantage to the job that Dole lacked. Because Lott and Gingrich were House backbenchers in the 1980s together, he can give the Speaker advice in a way Dole never could.

Gephardt

Perhaps the trickiest role belongs to Gephardt, the House minority leader. Clinton came back from his Little Rock economic summit in 1992 saying, "I love Dick Gephardt!" But after Gephardt opposed NAFTA and pushed Clinton away from centrist measures such as welfare reform, their interests diverged. A centrist who turned liberal when he ran for President in 1988, Gephardt has tacked back toward the center lately, promoting a distinctly moderate "families-first" agenda of baby steps such as portable pensions and health insurance for children. The two men could work together again, gluing Democratic votes to Republican moderates to get to 217 votes in the House. "We've all learned a lot from the last four years," Gephardt admits. But he may run for President in 2000 and face Vice President Al Gore when he does, which means the Missourian has to decide the same thing everyone else does: whether to go along or go his own way.

Progress Or Paralysis?

With so many wounds to lick and decisions to make, it might be reasonable to expect everyone to take a month off just to map strategy. But this moment of greatest exhaustion collides with the moment of greatest opportunity. Throughout the campaign, no one wanted to do anything very big or dared do anything very brave. The minute the votes are in, though, the gun goes off on another race. If Clinton and the Congress are going to face any of the hard issues, the reality is they don't have much time.

Medicare will not actually go bankrupt for four years, but in the meantime it is losing billions every month. There is already talk of putting together a blue-ribbon commission by the first of the year to provide the cover for the obvious solution that no one else will propose: the Republicans want to save $158 billion over the next six years; the White House $116 billion; the two sides are $42 billion apart. All the commission needs to know is how to divide by two. "It's real easy," says a Republican strategist. "They do a report by March that gives both sides cover to come off their numbers."

Clinton will have a harder time persuading both parties to wean themselves from the special-interest cash spoiling American politics. He needs to make good on his 11th-hour promise to fix the system, partly because he knows the Republicans will dangle John Huang in his face until he can get it done. But Clinton will first have to persuade his own party to break its addiction to soft money, the large contributions from fat cats that go to "party-building" activities. It is a measure of Clinton's lack of seriousness about reform that he simply informed his allies on Capitol Hill about his latest proposal two weeks ago. "We weren't consulted," said a Democratic official, "just told." If Clinton wants Democratic votes, he will have to fight for them.

For some at the White House, the whole fight for Congress was motivated by two words: subpoena power. The West Wing is already consumed with responding to questions and document requests from Republican committees investigating Clinton's operation. The risk is that Clinton will go from the Permanent Campaign to the Permanent Cross Examination without passing through Governing. The atmosphere surrounding these probes could grow shriller if, as some predict, the leadership of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee probing the travel-office affair and the FBI-file flap passes from retiring Representative Bill Clinger of Pennsylvania to the more volatile Representative Dan Burton of Indiana. Overseeing Senate probes will be Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, who worked on the Watergate Committee in 1973. But Thompson isn't without misgivings. He is worried that the spread of these inquiries could paralyze or even permanently damage the presidency at a time "when we need a strong Executive."

Which is why Clinton must move quickly to set the tone. "There is going to be a tension between getting bipartisan reform and fending off investigations," said Al From, who heads the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group Clinton helped found. "It's very important that Clinton move early to draw Republican and centrist Democrats in, work from the center out and build a broad coalition around reform. If he lets the thing deteriorate into partisanship, it will be a lot more bitter and a lot less productive."

Left to his own devices, Clinton would finish in the second term what he started in the first: more family leave for parent-teacher conferences and doctor's appointments; a broader Brady Bill to deny handguns to people convicted of domestic violence; more cops on the beat. After failing to provide health insurance for all Americans, Clinton sounds intent on doing it in pieces, covering children first, then the unemployed--getting to universal coverage one patient at a time. And he has promised to repair the parts of the welfare bill he doesn't like--the exclusion of benefits for legal immigrants and the food-stamp reductions. The parties are unlikely to find a compromise on providing benefits for legal immigrants, but only a few billion dollars separate them on food stamps.

Clinton's education policy remains an unfinished symphony. Most school reformers agree that some kind of performance standards for students are necessary as well as greater competition among public and private schools. Until now, Clinton has offered a lot of ideas but few that go far enough to alienate his staunch supporters in the public-school teachers' unions. He has proposed a $10,000 tax deduction for higher education, a $1,500 tax credit for two years of college or vocational school, tax-free iras that can be used to finance college tuition, a plan to mobilize a million reading tutors, a $5 billion program to fix decrepit schools and a program to connect every classroom to the Internet by 2000. There is virtually no chance that a G.O.P. Congress will agree to all this. But Clinton can find enough votes in the House and Senate if he accepts a pet program of the G.O.P.'s (and one that's anathema to the National Education Association): providing vouchers for parents to send their children to the public or private school of their choice.

So while everyone in Washington is talking about baby steps and incrementalism, it is possible that the next four years will produce a flurry of change: a balanced budget, a solution to the Medicare shortfall, campaign-finance reform and continued education and welfare reform. "These are big deals," said a Clinton aide. "We all laugh when everyone says, 'This is a small agenda.' They won't be saying that in June."

Perhaps that's the irony of the Clinton presidency, and the lesson too. Having campaigned in 1992 to make grand changes--only to fail--he ran in 1996 promising to tinker at the margins--and won. And that show of modesty, however carefully staged, was enough to convince a majority of voters that maybe he could now even be trusted to do the big things. He passed the test. As a result, the first Democrat in two generations to win a second term may actually have earned the chance to make some history.

--With reporting by Jay Carney with Gephardt, Dan Goodgame with Lott, J.F.O. McAllister with Clinton and Karen Tumulty with Gingrich

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