Posted on May 30, 1994 in Washington Watch

Although the 1994 Senate and Congressional elections are only now beginning, an active discussion is already underway about the 1996 Presidential campaign.

Republicans sense that the President is in a somewhat weakened state. Personal problems from the Whitewater real estate deal to his alleged sexual encounter with Paula Jones have plagued Clinton for months. These “character” issues, coupled with growing criticism of the Administration’s handling of foreign policy, have encouraged several potential Republican challengers to step up their pre-campaign activities.

But while the Republicans are feeling hopeful, most political analysts believe that it is much too early to count Clinton out or to count the Republicans back in.

What follows is an assessment of the factors that are shaping the early stages of the 1996 Presidential race, and an evaluation of the potential Republican challengers to Clinton’s bid for reelection.

1) Personal Issues
The Paula Jones affair and her lawsuit charging the President with sexual harassment while he was Governor of Arkansas now competes for newspaper space with the other major scandal that’s been nagging the Clinton Administration: Whitewater. While both issues have affected the White House spin masters, occupying their time and denying them opportunity to focus “like a laser” on the economy, neither issue has done much to alter the public’s attitude toward Clinton.

Surveys of television and radio call-in programs, White House mail and analysis by the press show that Bill Clinton is the most-bashed President in U.S. history. But the attacks are coming from expected quarters: right wing enemies of the Democratic President. As virulent and sustained as these criticisms are, they have not yet seriously affected Clinton’s standing with his supporters. Even women’s groups have refused to criticize Clinton in the wake of the Paul Jones affair, with some of them going so far as to dismiss the charges as part of a partisan campaign to discredit the Democratic White House.

And public opinion polls show that many voters feel that the charges aren’t very serious. One poll shows that a surprisingly large number (almost 70%) simply dismiss the charges against the President as unimportant.

Some analysts conclude that one outcome of the repeated sexual relations charges against then-Governor Clinton and his public admission of infidelity may be to almost entirely dilute the power of this type of charge. Even among the press there is a growing self-criticism about how such personal issues are reported, how they’re taking space away from more substantive stories, and how they have been used in the past to destroy people’s political careers.

2) Foreign Affairs
In recent months the Clinton White House has come under repeated fire for the way it handles foreign policy. Several Republican hopefuls have sought to compare what they term Clinton’s indecisiveness with the strength of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. Most recently, former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Secretary of State James Baker and former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney have all on separate occasions challenged Clinton’s policy toward a variety of hot spots.

And if that were not enough, the President has also been criticized by members of his own party, particularly by some powerful members of Congress who believe that Clinton has not been sufficiently willing to use for to restore Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.

The press, in general, has supported these attacks and has drawn attention to what they see as the “weakness” of Clinton’s foreign policy team. Not a few major newspaper editorials have called for the resignation of one or more members of the Clinton foreign policy establishment.

Yet although there are some signs that the public is also dissatisfied with Clinton’s performance in foreign affairs, it is also true that foreign policy is not a major concern of most voters. This is the reverse of the situation President George Bush faced in 1992. He received very high ratings for his handling of foreign affairs – but he lost his bid for reelection because voters were so dissatisfied with his standing in domestic affairs.

Clinton’s foreign policy problems can be easily addressed, and experts believe that he will take action before the end of this year to remedy the situation. A major reshuffling of the foreign policy team is expected, as is some drastic action to win a foreign policy victory. A new team and a win can erase public doubts overnight. This “win” need not involve a major hot spot, as Ronald Reagan proved with his “victory” in Grenada in 1984.

3) Domestic Issues
So far Clinton can point to a fairly positive record. As is their custom, Republicans will want to challenge him by claiming he raised taxes, but the White House will be able to counter by saying they have succeeded not only in lowering the deficit but also taxes for lower- and middle-income families. In addition, the President will be able to point to his early legislative victories in fighting crime, passing gun control legislation, the family and medical leave bill, and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

As of this writing, the national economy is in better shape than it has been at any time in the past six years. With lower unemployment (3,000,000 new jobs were created in the past two years) and a consistently expanding economy, the White House will hope for substantial progress in both areas through 1996.

If the economy remains healthy, and if the President can succeed in meeting his goal of passing national health care legislation that insures coverage for all Americans, he will have fulfilled his two major pledges from the 1992 campaign and will have a solid platform from which to run his campaign for reelection.

Democrats feel that personal and foreign policy issues aside, success in achieving the major economic goals will be the determining factor in 1996.

4) The 1994 Elections
One hurdle that both the White House and the Republicans will have to overcome before the 1996 Presidential election is the 1994 mid-term election. Should the Democrats lose their majority in the U.S. Senate, which could happen if at least five Senate seats change hands, the President will face more than the embarrassment of his party’s rejection at the polls. Losing control over this important legislative body would hurt his chances of passing the remainder of his legislative program during his last two years in office.

This would return legislative “gridlock” to Washington and paralyze the Administration. Since this was the dilemma that hurt the Bush Administration, it is a fate the Democrats want to avoid at all costs. To protect themselves, the White House is developing a national strategy to help Senate Democrats win their campaigns. But this is an area where the 1996 Republican hopefuls are hard at work as well.

Those seeking to run for the Republican nomination are already out campaigning for Republican Senate candidates in key states. They know that helping elect republicans to the Senate will do more than increase their party’s chances of recapturing the White House. It also could make them powerful friends who will feel a debt of gratitude when the race for the 1996 Republican nomination really heats up. In several ways, the 1994 elections are a trial run for the 1996 election.

5) Other Candidates
The final factor that will determine Clinton’s ability to win reelection are the other candidates he will face in 1996.

Will he face a strong Republican challenger who will be able to unify the currently divided Republican party? Will there be another independent bid by Ross Perot that will allow a candidate who wins a minority of the vote to win the election – as happened in 1992? And finally, will Clinton face a damaging primary challenge from within his own party?

Republicans are currently more divided than they have been since the mid-1960’s. The rift between the ideological right wing and the more moderate wing of the party is widening. Nixon and Reagan were able to create a winning Republican coalition – Nixon with his wily strategy and pragmatism and Reagan with his charismatic personality. But with the Bush defeat in 1992, the internal party debates have reopened as each side blames the other for the loss. Republican chances in 1996 will be strengthened if the candidate who emerges is capable of reengineering that coalition.

While Ross Perot’s national organization failed to realize its full potential and is in fact rife with internal divisions, the anti-Washington, independent spirit he captured in 1992 is still alive and well. Even if Perot ran again in his weakened and discredited state, he would still probably garner 15% of the Presidential vote, thereby guaranteeing that the winner of the campaign will once again be a minority President.

Clinton won with 43% of the vote in 1992. According to the latest polls, 60% of the public views the President favorably, indicating that his chances for victory in 1996 would actually improve with a Perot-like independent candidate in the race to split the disaffected, angry-at-Washington vote with his opponent.

Finally, if Clinton is challenged in the Democratic primary by a candidate from the liberal wing of the party, his chances for reelection may be hurt. So it will be important to watch how Clinton deals with this wing in the final two years of his term. One must recall that Ted Kennedy’s 1980 challenge weakened then-President Carter so much as to seal the fate of his campaign even before the November loss to Reagan. As Clinton continues to move to the political center to secure legislative victories on crime, welfare reform and health care, he opens the possibility of fracturing the Democratic party and fostering a liberal challenge in 1996.

But even if Clinton were to face a Republican opponent with the united support of his party and no independent campaign to siphon votes away from that opponent, it would still be unwise to count Clinton out. Clinton has proved time and again in the past that when he goes up against another candidate one-on-one, and has the opportunity to sway the media, he is capable of almost literally coming back from the dead. His ability to use the media to reach directly to voters, and his ability when pressed to put out a strong, consistent message make him a formidable candidate under any circumstances.

***

As I noted above, several Republicans have already indicated their inclinations to jump into the 1996 race for the Presidency. They come from all wings of the party, and the overall list is quite impressive. At this writing a partial list would include: Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, former Vice President Dan Quayle, Texas Senator Phil Graham, former Secretary of State James Baker, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, commentator Pat Buchanan, Massachusetts Governor William Weld, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, former secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, and South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell.

In my next article I will report on their efforts to date and offer an analysis of their chances for winning the nomination.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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