Posted on January 03, 1994 in Washington Watch
During the last two weeks I reviewed President Bill Clinton’s legislative successes during the past year and the challenges he faces as he prepares to introduce much-needed but controversial legislation to Congress in 1994.
Not only will the President be proposing legislation this year on health care, welfare reform and an anti-crime package, but all members of Congress and one-third of the Senate will be running for reelection. The very fact of the upcoming elections, as much as the substantive issues involved in the legislative proposals, will complicate Clinton’s work in 1994.
Given this tangled web of politics, what are likely to emerge as the issues in the 1994 Congressional elections? Before answering that question, it is necessary to set the stage.
Democrats are extremely worried for three reasons. First, the President’s party traditionally loses Congressional seats during these mid-term elections (that is, elections that take place in the years when there is no Presidential election); and because they have the majority of Senators up for reelection, many of whom are quite vulnerable to defeat, Democrats are concerned that they may lose control of the upper chamber. Second, there are still many Democrats in the House of Representatives whose seats are at risk due to the 1990 redistricting which put them in Republican-leaning districts. Yet those are rather traditional problems, while the third reason is not.
Close cooperation between the White House and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) helped Clinton win several of his early victories, and was important in countering Ross Perot’s advertising blitz against NAFTA. But the primary purpose of the DNC is to provide national help to local Democratic candidates across the country, and during the past year the DNC spent relatively little time or money on local elections. This will change in 1994, but the normal election-year activities of the party are getting off to a late start.
Many argue lack sufficient help from the DNC was a factor in the spate of Democratic losses that began with the Senate run-off in Georgia in December of 1992 and ended with the Republican victories in the New York Mayoral and New Jersey and Virginia Governor’s contests last November. In between were numerous special elections for seats in state legislatures, where Republicans also won most of the races. Critics of the DNC’s tactics argue that you can’t govern if you win legislative battles while losing election after election.
But the picture is not all bleak – there is a silver lining for the Democrats. By year’s end the President’s approval ratings were at their highest level in months, and he is pulling public attitudes toward the Democratic party along with him. By getting his legislation passed, and through a subtle but skillful handling of the press, Clinton has so far positioned his party well for the 1994 elections.
For example, recent polls show that the three most important issues in the minds of voters are the state of the economy and the need to create more jobs, combating crime and drug problems, and reforming the health care system. Voters thought by a margin of 49% to 32%, that the Democratic party would do better at creating jobs than the Republican party; and by an overwhelming margin of 61%-18% voters felt that the Democrats would do a better job than Republicans at reforming the health care system.
Even on the issue of combating crime and drugs, on which the Democrats have traditionally been vulnerable, 35% of voters feel that they would do a better job of bringing the situation under control, compared to 43% for the Republicans. Although the Republicans fare better in this poll, it is close enough that it shouldn’t hurt the Democrats in the 1994 elections, since most people don’t think the federal government can do much to combat crime and so don’t base their votes on that factor unless it is overwhelming.
So it unsurprising to note that 55% of the voters see Clinton as a different kind of Democrat, and that 67% see the Democratic party as changing. This last number is important since it might help Democrats hold off the anti-incumbent fervor better than if they were viewed as “the same old Democratic party,” as Republican challengers will undoubtedly try to paint them. And though it required significant effort, it was the highly ambitious and successful legislative agenda of the President that is primarily responsible for his good year-end polling numbers.
Though the President began 1993 with a rocky start, allowing the press to distort his issues agenda (by emphasizing gays in the military, Zoe Baird and other failed appointments), Clinton’s aggressive legislative agenda allowed him to control the debate for the remainder of the year. By holding news conference after news conference in which the main item was a piece of his legislative package, and through a carefully planned media strategy that focused on all the things the Administration was proposing and doing, the Clinton team left the press with very little time to write its own stories and set its own agenda. It is a little appreciated fact in Washington even now, but it seems clear that the President’s rigorous schedule helped to give his party a boost going into 1994.
But there is an important caveat to all of this: in three weeks’ time Clinton could be in the depths of a slump and his ratings could be only half as good as they are now. In fact, in the last two weeks of the year and in the beginning of the new one, there is a sustained attack on Clinton’s popularity. He is being accused once again by Republican sources of extra-marital affairs and of questionable financial dealings while he was Governor of Arkansas. Why have these very old stories resurfaced and why is the press covering them again? The reason for this is partially that with Congress out of town and the news cycle slow the President is having a more difficult time setting the agenda, but a more important factor is the way the press covers politics – especially the Presidency.
Some will recall that the press had buried Clinton before he was even inaugurated, only to give him excellent marks for his inauguration address, then bury him again over several flaps involving problems with his political appointments, then resurrecting him again after his success on the budget bill before damning him once more over foreign policy problems.
And all this, of course, was after candidate Clinton was buried going into the nation’s first primary in New Hampshire only to be pronounced the “comeback kid” after finishing second in a primary he was once expected to win, and then buried by the press a few more times during the primaries and again during the general campaign.
What is the explanation for this? Can it be that Clinton is some kind of genie who can never be permanently held down in the polls – is there nothing he couldn’t come back from? Perhaps, but it is more likely a combination of public cynicism, press cynicism, and the fact that no one’s political memory seems to be much longer than three weeks.
There is a familiar argument that after the Vietnam War and the scandal of Watergate, and numerous scandals large and small since then, that the voting public has been increasing cynical about politics. This may explain to a large degree why voter turnout has been so low the past twenty years; and it may also help explain the cynicism of the press, since, as one White House officially recently noted that “the press tends to fall into patterns that tend to follow, rather than create, public opinion or public fashion. It’s well-known that we live in a cynical time and the press plays to that cynicism.”
But political analyst Thomas Patterson argues that the press, and not only the politicians, has created the climate in which public cynicism flourishes. In a study he conducted over the last thirty-five years, Patterson points out that in the 1960’s less than one-third of the media’s evaluations of political leaders were unfavorable. By the 1980’s fully two-thirds of the media’s comments about political leaders were negative. His study seems to show that the media’s shift toward negative coverage began before the Vietnam War, and that the war and Watergate simply accelerated a trend already underway.
White House officials generally acknowledge that they rely on the media to get the Administration’s message out, but that they worry about how the press will “spin” the story. In an interview with The White House Bulletin, one White House official put it this way. “The President is rarely able to speak to the American people directly and has to rely instead on passing his comments through the media filter. As a consequence, how the press is going to react to stories and strategizing about the best way to get a story out goes on all the time.”
Administration officials also pointed out to the Bulletin that, while the majority of reporters get their facts right, none are able to consistently explain events correctly. As one official put it, “When they report on what they saw or heard, they usually get it right. But as soon as they try to explain what it meant or what we were attempting to accomplish, they fall into the quicksand called `Washington journalism.’” And, as Patterson notes in his study, the majority of press stories written today are interpretive and not simple reporting.
By focusing on a “story of the day” and with two-thirds of their comments being critical, it is easy to see why someone buried as often as Bill Clinton can come back just as often. People can only hear so many negative stories about a single subject before the stories cease to have an impact. So while the press is busy making this or that judgment, it doesn’t resonate deeply with anyone in the media audience.
The other side of the argument, of course, is that positive stories are forgotten just as quickly. So although Clinton has achieved more in his first year than any President in almost forty years, very few Americans recall many of his victories. The same phenomenon explains how George Bush sank from a 90% approval rating in 1990 to 39% of the vote in 1992.
And with all the information available, it gets harder for any story, positive or negative, to get through. A study noted that it is almost twice as hard to reach voters through the media now than it was just ten years ago. And so it is that with the news cycle slow, the media turned to negative stories from the past. Although the White House seems to have gotten a little bit off the defensive, the President’s popularity will probably not begin to rise again until the days just before his State of the Union Address, when the press will again turn its focus to issues of policy and substance.
But even when the news cycle begins to shift his way, the President will not be able to rest on his achievements and he knows it. With health care and welfare reform and an anti-crime package to be followed by mid-term elections in which his party will lose seats, Clinton has a full plate in 1994. And of course, there is the matter of foreign policy and continuing crises in Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia where American soldiers will spent their second consecutive New Year.
American politics is never dull, and Clinton’s aggressive agenda has made it even more interesting. In all likelihood, 1994 will be an even more eventful year than was 1993. I’m looking forward to covering it.
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