Posted on May 04, 1992 in Washington Watch
While America’s Presidential candidates bear party labels (Democrat or Republican), there is no national political party structure to speak of in the United States today.
Local political parties, consisting of a few hundred activists, exist in a weakened condition in most communities, compared to their status years ago. The national party headquarters have come to serve mainly as fund raising apparatuses for candidates and in many areas of the country there is very little functional contact between local and national party leaders.
Party membership and organization in the United States is not comparable to that of Europe, where parties are made up of dues-paying party loyalists. The U.S. system is more like a straw poll, in which citizens register with the municipal elections board and declare their “party preference.” This declaration enables voters to participate in the primaries that choose the nominees for that party. It is this looseness and lack of discipline that accounts for the volatility of the American electorate in recent years. Fewer than 20% of the eligible voters even participate in primary elections, and many switch their party registration from year to year if there is a candidate running in the other party who they wish to support.
In this vacuum organizational, the press came to play a surprisingly powerful role in the party nominating process. The press continues to play a powerful role in shaping the U.S. political debate and determining the viability of presidential campaigns.
After months of pounding in the U.S. media, public confidence in elected officials is at an all-time low. George Bush has gone from the “decisive” leader of the Gulf war to the “wimp” President who is afraid to make bold moves in the domestic arena. Bill Clinton has been transformed from an attractive and articulate conservative Democratic Governor to a “slick” politician of questionable character. Meanwhile the Texas billionaire, Ross Perot, has emerged as the “daring darling of those who seek political change.”
With his victory in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton continues to limp toward the Democratic party’s Presidential nomination. It now appears that Clinton can win the required number of delegates to secure his party’s presidential nomination. Most of the other candidates have withdrawn from the race. Former California Governor Jerry Brown’s campaign has run out of money and momentum, and has been reduced to winning only the 25% “protest vote.” One political pundit said that he has descended to the status of a “nuisance candidate.” But Brown remains in the race, hoping to do well in his home state of California, which holds its primary on June 6, in order to be in a position to influence the party platform on key issues like campaign reform.
Clinton supporters attempted to portray Pennsylvania as a “big” win, but doubts remain about their candidates’ viability. The vote in Pennsylvania this year was not very “big”. In fact, this year’s total voter turnout was less than 30%, lower than it was during the 1988 Pennsylvania primary when Michael Dukakis beat Jesse Jackson 67% to 27% and garnered more than one million votes. By contrast, Clinton received less than 700,000 votes and only 56% of the total votes cast. This spells trouble for the Democrats.
In a normal election year Clinton’s status as the only serious candidate would have brought Democratic elected officials rallying to the Clinton camp to proclaim him the party’s nominee. Pledges of support would follow to demonstrate party unity and strength. But this has not happened. The day after winning the Pennsylvania primary, Clinton went to Washington to woo the support of the almost 200 Democratic members of Congress who remain uncommitted to any campaign. Only thirty-one of those 200 members of Congress agreed to support the Arkansas Governor’s campaign at this time.
Concern about Clinton’s weaknesses were further articulated by Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor William Casey, who repeatedly spoke out during the last days before the primary and urged the party to find a new nominee. Casey’s concern was that while Clinton may win the Democratic nomination, he will be unable to defeat George Bush in November.
The Pennsylvania Governor’s skepticism was echoed by Willie Brown, the powerful Democratic Speaker of the California State Assembly (the name for California’s House of Representatives). Brown went so far as to suggest that the Democrats consider nominating Texas billionaire Ross Perot to run for President. “I’m pushing for a winner,” Brown said, “and at this point I don’t see Clinton in that role.” Perot is currently considering running as an independent—but is leading both Clinton and Bush in several states, according to the polls.
But the most shocking and unprecedented comments this week were made by Maryland’s Democratic Governor William Donald Schaefer when asked if he would support Clinton as the Democratic nominee for President. Schaefer responded by saying: “I am a Democrat. But I happen to like the President. He’s good. When you look at some of the candidates in the field, he’s good.”
The reason for the hesitation of Democrats to coalesce around the apparent nominee is simple. Democratic elected officials are having their own problems, and they do not see the presumptive nominee as a life raft who will lift them up and save them, but as someone who has the very real potential to drag them down even further. Among Democratic officials who are up for reelection in 1992, the last thing they want is for the person at the top of their party’s ballot in November to be someone who will lose by a large margin and hurt their own reelection chances.
Clinton’s weakness is, of course, the “character” issue. A three-month barrage of negative press and his own feeble and conflicting responses to the various charges against him have taken a serious toll on the candidate’s credibility. A recent poll showed that only 24% of the voting public believes that Clinton “has more honesty and integrity than most in public life”, while a substantial 59% believe that he does not. It is this factor, by itself, which is driving Clinton down so low in the polls. Yet his carefully crafted message, which was designed to restore people’s hope and confidence in government and to produce a compassionate, fair and responsible administration in Washington, has attracted a following. But while many Americans accept Bill Clinton’ message and his criticisms of the Bush Administration’s domestic policy, they do not yet accept Bill Clinton.
Can Clinton turn this around? Some political analysts have publicly suggested that Clinton address the “character” issue head-on, as Nixon did in 1952 when, as Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice Presidential nominee, his character was questioned. Nixon went on national television and delivered a powerful and emotional defense of his integrity. The tactic worked and he went on to become Vice President.
Clinton has rejected this approach so far. His advisors seem to be convinced that once he can focus his campaign on the issues and the differences between his program for economic recovery and that of the President, Clinton will rise in the polls. Whether that approach will work or not remains to be seen. But once public confidence in a candidate begins to slide, it is very difficult to turn it around.
Meanwhile, over in the Bush camp, things are not much better. By all counts the President has secured the nomination of his party and the economy is turning around, albeit slowly. But his campaign is also plagued by weaknesses: the constant attacks from campaigns on the President’s right and left have hurt the President.
Bush scores high in polls asking about his leadership qualities (69%) and his honesty (55%), but other questions remain. A respected Republican analyst, Kevin Phillips, wrote recently of George Bush’s “stunning personal weaknesses,” referring to his 56% disapproval rating (against 39% approval rating). This gap is partly due to the earlier recession and the press’s intense focus on it. It is also due to a media-induced cynicism in the voting public that has caused widespread discomfort with government and all political leaders.
Republican leaders around the country are complaining that the President’s campaign is not been fully organized and has not developed the themes needed to inspire the faithful. This can be turned around in the fall campaign where highly charged and well-crafted media campaigns by candidates can control and direct news reporting and image-making. Bush did this effectively, it should be recalled, in 1988 with themes like “patriotism”, “Anti-liberalism” and “leadership”. But in the fall there will in all likelihood be a three man race and such image and massage crafting will be more complicated.
Clinton’s “character” and Bush’s perceived weakness continue to provide the impetus for Ross Perot’s independent effort to get on the presidential ballot. If Bush and Clinton have been victims of a “feeding frenzy” of a cynical press, Perot continues to be the main beneficiary of its praise. Scarcely a negative word has been written about the Texas billionaire despite the fact that he has been featured on the front page of the major news weeklies and hosted on the prime time talk shows.
It appears, at this time, as if the media is running the Perot campaign. Never in history has an unannounced candidate received so much free coverage—not even Mario Cuomo’s Hamlet-like flirtation with the Democratic primary a few months ago. And all of the coverage is positive. The results are easy to see.
Recent polls in Texas and New Mexico show Perot beating both Bush and Clinton! And in state-wide polls in California and Indiana Perot finishes second behind Bush, beating Clinton rather soundly in both states. Of even more concern to Bill Clinton was this week’s Newsweek poll which shows Clinton finishing third nationally to Bush and Perot (with 32% for Bush, 27% for Perot and 23% for Clinton.)
Leading Republicans are also worried. Bob Dole, the Republican Senate leader called Perot “very credible…with a message that attracts a lot of people—Democrats and Republicans.” And Congressman Newt Gingrich, a Republican leader in the House of Representatives, called Perot “a very impressive candidate.” White House spokesperson Marlin Fitzwater noted “We’re always nervous when somebody that has that many hundreds of millions of dollars to spend to influence the public… when you can buy [advertising on] television you exert an extraordinary amount of control.”
What is clear at this point is that Clinton’s negatives, Bush’s “weakness” and Perot’s “star quality” have been bestowed on them by the press. In this regard their campaigns and their standings in the polls appear to be quite fragile—the results of media hype rather than solid core constituencies. Should the press turn against Perot or decide to “rehabilitate” Clinton’s character, the results will be reflected in the polls—and very probably in the voting booths as well.
AIPAC & Democrats Against Bush
At the recent convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Executive Director Tom Dine delivered a veiled but ominous threat to President George Bush. In his keynote address, in reference to AIPAC’s failed attempt to secure the $10 billion in loan guarantees for Israel, Dine noted:
The campaign to win support for the guarantees may take several rounds before we succeed. Let us remember that the landmark Jackson-Vanik legislation to free Soviet Jewry itself did not succeed on the first effort in September 1972. The Nixon Administration adamantly opposed the legislation as a threat to detente and, by extension, to world peace. It took two and one half years of debate, plus Nixon’s resignation, before the Jackson-Vanik amendment was adopted in December, 1974.
It was therefore interesting to see AIPAC’s newsletter, Near East Report, feature a special section on “How the U.S. Aided Iraq”—a four page article on U.S. policy to Iraq during the period from 1989-1990.
And even more interesting to note is that on the same day as the Dine speech, April 27, New York Times columnist William Safire referred to Representative Henry Gonzalez’ effort to link the Bush Administration with Iraq’s 1989 diversion of U.S. agriculture credits to weapons programs. “The Democrats have their election year Watergate” issue to use against George Bush.
Then, in rapid succession, a flood of articles and editorials appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and the Boston Globe. Here is a sample from a New York Post editorial: “A political scandal is hanging over this year’s presidential election: at this point it’s barely hit the newspapers… raises troubling questions about Bush…this is not a story that will go away.” And from the Democratic Party’s Research Director, “Democrats will make an issue of it.”
While the White House adamantly denies any scandal in its dealings with Iraq during and after the Iran-Iraq war, one can be certain that the combined pressure of the press, the Democrats and AIPAC will be working overtime to create a “feeding frenzy” in the press to bring down George Bush.
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