Posted on January 17, 1995 in Washington Watch

The 1996 election for the White House has already begun. During the past few weeks leading Republicans have officially announced the formation of committees to explore the feasibility of their presidential aspirations.

The most significant factors that have led to this early start to the Presidential campaigns are the Republicans euphoria over their national victory in November of last year and the fact that they continue to see the sitting Democratic President, Bill Clinton, as politically vulnerable.

Yet despite negative polls, it is far too early to call Clinton a one-term President or to predict an easy Republican victory. A realistic assessment of U.S. politics makes it clear that the conditions are quite volatile; and such an assessment must begin with the situation facing the President.

The November elections solidified a pattern that has been evolving in American politics over the last 30 years: a movement of white (especially southern whites) male voters away from the Democratic party and a deep voter alienation from and anger at government. In Presidential elections this trend has led pollsters to observe that the Republicans had an “electoral lock” on the southern states, and the most recent election saw the phenomenon move down into the grass roots at the Congressional level.

Compounding the President’s problems as a Democrat are a number of issues that have eroded public confidence in his personal leadership. His personal waffling on issues; his unique personal problems (which will continue to be played out in the courts, in Congressional hearings and in the press during the next two years); the extraordinary and at times embarrassing and insulting hostility of popular television comedians, popular right-wing talk show hosts, and the leading commentators in the mainstream press – all have contributed to making the Presidential tenure of Bill Clinton a difficult one.

Roughly 40% of the Americans still support the President (about as many as those who voted for him), but the rest have attitudes, described by one leading analyst as ranging from “disappointed and frustrated to hostility and contempt.” There is a striking lack of civility in our political discourse: Nixon and Carter and Bush have been victims of it. Now Clinton is, too.

Additionally, the President faces deep divisions within his own party. As he moves toward the center of American political spectrum on one issue, the liberal left publicly challenges him for abandoning the “traditional base of the Democratic party.” And as he moves again toward that base on other issues, the more conservative members of the party attack him by calling him a “minority, special-interest politician.” These attacks, not to mention countless attacks from Republican sources over the past two years, have stuck in the minds of voters, reinforcing the image of a “waffling” President.

Yet a recent poll showed the President’s popularity higher than it’s been since the 1994 election, higher than that of Congress (the President had a 47% approval rating to 31% for Congress). Clinton’s positive rating was also found to be higher than that of the leading Republicans, Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich. But the same poll found reported that almost two-thirds of all Americans predicted that Clinton will lose when he runs for reelection in 1996.

It is this high negative response that has contributed to six Republicans announcing the Presidential exploratory committees this month. But the road to ‘96 will be a bumpy one for the Republicans as well.

The Republicans who have tossed their hats into the ring so far are: Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas; Texas Senator Phil Graham; Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania; former Treasury Secretary and former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander; CNN talk show host Pat Buchanan; and Alan Keyes of Maryland who was an appointee in the Reagan State Department. To those names may soon be added those of former Vice President Dan Quayle and former Secretary of Housing Jack Kemp. There may yet be more (at least four other Republicans have expressed some interest in a ‘96 race), but the difficulties facing Republicans are clearly manifest in this group of eight potential candidates.

While the Republicans in Congress are unified on a few basic themes (downsizing government, reforming Congress and fiscal conservatism), there is no such unity in the national party. Winning Congressional elections district by district is one thing; but assembling a national majority behind one candidate is something else again.

There are deep divisions among the leaders themselves and within the broader Republican constituency. Dole and Graham have been barely able to contain their hostility toward one another. Dole, as Senate Majority Leader, blocked Graham’s move to a position on a key senate Committee; and Graham shot back by challenging the Majority Leader’s conservative credentials.

Graham and Dole are not the only two potential candidates sniping at one another. As Graham and Alexander have moved forward to build strong campaign staffs, assembling a who’s who of conservative political operatives from around the country, Marilyn Quayle, the wife of and leading political advisor to the former Vice President (who has been filling in for him at speaking engagements while he recuperates from recent surgery) publicly derided both by implying that they couldn’t “buy the election with big-name staffers.”

Yet there is more to the friction in the Republican party than personal rivalries. Abortion, the issue that most divided the party in 1992 will continue to play a large role in 1996. Specter and Kemp are challenging the party to be “inclusive” – a code word for not allowing socially divisive issues (including abortion, racial equality programs, homosexual rights and immigration) to stand in the way to the Republican party’s effort to become a national majority. Meanwhile, Buchanan and Keyes and Quayle will base their efforts primarily on these social issues, insisting that the party not fall prey to “social liberalism.”

Kemp recently learned how divisive national Republican politics can be. Before the November 1994 elections Kemp traveled to California (his native state) to urge Republicans not to support an anti-immigration resolution that was on the state ballot. In his speech to the California Republicans he warned that if they passed the controversial resolution (Proposition 187), “Republicans could be blamed for the anti-immigrant sentiment in America.” He went on to caution that the “Republican party has no chance of being a majority party without being the party of immigrants – a party that is inclusionary and not exclusionary.” But Proposition 187 passed that November, and when Kemp returned to the state to address another Republican group he was hissed and booed by the audience because of his opposition to the resolution.

Given this personal animosity and division over issues, it remains difficult to see how the Republicans will choose a candidate who can unify the party in 1996 and on what basis that unity will be forged. It was an easy thing to be anti-Clinton, anti-Democrat and anti-Washington in 1994; but the Republicans now control Congress and their challenger to Clinton must stand for something positive in 1996.

Added to the problems facing both democrats and Republicans is the growing national movement in support of third-party candidates. H. Ross Perot, while unable to build a real institutional presence on the national scene (his United We Stand America party is at best a personal vehicle for Perot), nevertheless remains a viable national troublemaker because of his willingness to spend millions of dollars to promote himself and to prey off the national malaise. Perot will not only be a factor in 1996, but others may decide to run once again for President.

Reverend Jesse Jackson of the National Rainbow Coalition has been speculating about the probability of a third-party run for the presidency. He has organized his supporters in New Hampshire and Iowa in case he decides to challenge President Clinton in the Democratic primaries, but many of his supporters are urging him to leave the Democratic party’s and forge an independent movement. In his past two outings in the Democratic Presidential Primaries has mobilized African American and liberal voters, winning as much as 25% of the democratic vote. Whether he can raise the funds to mount an effectively widespread national campaign remains to be seen – but if he does he could peel off as many democratic votes as Perot would peel off Republican votes and make the election a truly confusing picture.

There are also other “third” (or fourth or fifth) party efforts being discussed. One of the most intriguing possibilities involves the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell. What is interesting about Powell is not only that there is a national “draft Powell” effort underway that now boasts of an organization in 33 states or that his candidacy is being touted former senator and Presidential candidate Paul Tsongas, but that Powell himself is such an enigma. Polls show that Powell could easily defeat President Clinton in a two-way or three-way race (he is the only candidate who would easily defeat Clinton). Polls also show extremely high popularity for the former General, among all segments of the population – liberal and conservative, rich and poor. But what is most disturbing is that voters polled also display total ignorance of the issue stances or policy orientation of the man.

It appears that voters know who they don’t like – that is, any politician who they know (or who they have formed a picture of through media exposure). But the candidates they like best is the one they know very little about. Powell appears to strong and quiet (his African American descent apparently is not viewed negatively). But voters cannot identify his position on economic, political or social issues – primarily because since his retirement Powell has been most circumspect in his pronouncements on the issues of the day.

What if he were to end the speculation of the press and announce his intention to run? Could his public image withstand press scrutiny? Would his popularity remain high once he was defined? Or he be able to articulate and define himself in sufficiently ambiguous terms to be able to maintain his pre-exposure appeal to all segments of the political spectrum?

In Powell’s current appeal one sees clearly the dilemma of U.S. politics today. Voters are alienated from politics and see the political system as not working. They are tired of the endless debates and the one-upsmanship of politics as usual. Our politics today are the politics of sensationalist “tabloids” and argumentative and noisy talk shows (of which CNN’s “Crossfire” is the archetype). The yearning for a strong, quiet leader who can be whatever and whomever you want him to be borders on a cult-worship fantasy. But that is what the press and politicians have created.

The challenge facing the two major parties is to change this game or realize that they will face more and not less confusion in our national politics.

In any case, the race for ‘96 has begun. And in this race, the President and his defeated and divided party are facing a victorious but equally divided Republican party. With a solid 40%-45% electoral base the President can win a three-way race. If it is a four way race, the picture is quite confused.

The key to remember is that between now and November of 1996, the press and the political parties will focus even more on the elections. All issues, both domestic and foreign, will be examined to see what stances play best with the voters and the press in the all-important run for the White House.

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