Posted on August 07, 1995 in Washington Watch

It is now midsummer in Washington, and both the weather and the political climate are extremely hot.

The candidates for the 1996 presidential election have turned up the heat on one another – campaigning with real intensity. At the same time, President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress are locked in a number of bitter debates over budget matters, as well as several critical foreign and domestic policy disputes. And both Republicans and Democrats are engaged in serious intra-party ideological battles.

But what is most interesting about these summer political storms is that they are largely Washington-based phenomena – consuming events within the nation’s capital but attracting little attention in the rest of the country.

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Ten Republican candidates are campaigning for their party’s nomination to run against President Clinton in November 1996. The group recently made a joint appearance before an annual Republican Party leadership meeting and devoted more time and energy to attacking one another than their future Democratic opponent. Observers were somewhat surprised, since there is an unwritten rule in the Republican Party, which dates back to the days of Ronald Reagan, that Republican candidates are not to speak ill of one another.

This was not the case last month, nor is it the case now. The first exchange of fire took place between conservative candidates Pat Buchanan (the former CNN commentator) and Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, both of whom are competing to be the leading spokesman for the conservative cause. Buchanan challenged Gramm to a debate to prove who is the more genuine conservative. Gramm’s spokesman responded that it is “impossible to have a serious debate with [Buchanan] since he distorts facts.” Buchanan refused to back down, characterizing the situation in this way: “Phil Gramm is in my way and I’m in Phil Gramm’s way.”

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, the most moderate of the Republicans, challenged Buchanan to a debate about social issues such as abortion, immigration, and the role of the Supreme Court.

Buchanan at first dismissed Specter, then agreed to a debate, but focused his fire on the other Republican moderate – California Governor Pete Wilson – calling him a “pro-gay, pro-abortion, big taxer.” Wilson responded angrily, comparing his experience as a Senator and Governor of a state with the equivalent of the world’s sixth-largest economy with Buchanan’s lack of experience. “Buchanan has only to manage his mouth,” Wilson quipped.

Former Tennessee Governor and Bush Cabinet official Lamar Alexander was next to enter the fray. Describing himself as the only “outsider” in the field (meaning that he is the only candidate whose experience comes from outside of Washington – which is his claim, although it is clearly untrue), Alexander suggested that Republicans should choose a nominee based on more than their “long-term service in the Senate,” an obvious reference to the age (72) of the front-runner, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. If elected, Dole would be the oldest man ever inaugurated to serve as President. His age has become an issue – although it was not expected that a Republican would raise it.

Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the least known member of the group, at first attempted to play the peace-maker and chided his colleagues for their bitter internecine attacks. But then he too delivered a nasty blow while addressing the issue of “family values.” This theme is a big one for the Republican candidates this campaign season, and Lugar shocked the press and some in his party when he noted that among the top Republican candidates, most were divorced and remarried (Dole, Gramm and Wilson).

Senator Dole, the runaway Republican leader at this point in the race, also attacked his rivals. When Gramm scolded Dole for compromising on several issues, including tax cuts, welfare reform and abortion, implying that he was “unprincipled,” Dole responded that passing legislation is not simple – implying that Gramm was a bit of a “gadfly,” interested in scoring political points but not necessarily in achieving concrete ends.

The intensity of this intra-party fighting among the Republicans is in direct response to the lack of voter interest in the candidates themselves. Most observers were quite surprised by the figures when the candidates released their mid-year fundraising totals last month, as required by federal election law. The combined total of all the candidates is a presidential campaign record $54 million raised since the beginning of the campaign cycle, of which more than $30 million has already been spent.

And yet, with $30 million spent, there is a substantial lack of interest among voters in the presidential campaign as a whole, and the candidates in particular.

Although President Clinton’s approval ratings are still higher than his negative ratings, they are under 50%. A recent poll showed his positive rating at 45% and his negative rating at 42%. And yet, even with such lackluster public approval, no recent poll shows any Republican candidate defeating Clinton if the election were held today. Dole comes the closest of any of the Republicans in a mock race against Clinton, though the polls show that even he would lose to the President by three or four percent of the vote.

Among Republicans, Dole is favored by more than 40%, with Buchanan and Gramm getting slightly more than 10% apiece. None of the other candidates score higher than 6%.

What this suggests is that although they are facing a weakened Democrat in Bill Clinton, the Republican challengers have not yet excited voters and won them to their campaigns. Hence, the Republican fireworks are an effort to create heat and increase voter interest.

Thus far, however, the only heat generated is among political insiders, and the only interest and excitement created by the ten Republican candidates appears to be within the political circles of Washington. But if that is true about the 1996 presidential campaign, it is also true about the other highly-charged elements of the hot Washington summer of 1995.

The House and the Senate are holding hearings on the Whitewater controversy (a confusing financial affair involving an investment the Clintons made while he was Governor of Arkansas and on which they claim to have lost money – a claim disbelieved by some Republicans who believe that it was the fear of a Whitewater “scandal” that drove a White House aide to suicide in 1993); and the Waco disaster (a two-month ordeal following the attempt of federal agents to serve an arrest warrant against a cult religious leader, which ended up with the government storming the cult compound and the cult setting its buildings aflame, resulting in the deaths of some 50 people including many children). But while the hearings generate a good amount of press, the rest of the nation is paying more attention to the murder trial of former sports hero O.J. Simpson and the recently completed murder trial of Susan Smith (who was convicted of drowning her two young children.)

When the complex issues of Whitewater and Waco are explained to voters, they agree that an investigation into each case is in order, but they still dismiss the current hearings as mere partisan efforts to embarrass the President. Both sets of hearings may lead to new discoveries that could prove troublesome for the President, but for now both Whitewater and Waco are of concern only to those who live and work “inside-the beltway.”

The more serious battles between the White House and the Republican-led Congress are over legislation: balancing the federal budget and reducing the federal debt, reforming the nation’s welfare system, and charting a new U.S. policy on Bosnia.

While Republicans have won the opening rounds on each of these and other legislative battles before the Congress, the threat of a White House veto has forced the Congressional leadership to move more cautiously as is prepares to send the President their final products for his consideration. This strategy has worked so well for Clinton that, despite heated partisan bickering, Clinton has vetoed fewer bills to this point in his tenure than any president in the modern era.

As a result, either controversial issues have been shelved or compromises between the Republican-led Congress and the Administration have been arranged. In almost all instances, aside from a few ideologically committed individuals, most of the most of the public seems to be unaware of the legislative matters at stake; the debates seem to almost wholly internal to Washington life.

The one issue before Congress that may explode into a national concern is the deep division between the Congress and the President over the federal budget.

In an effort to keep their 1994 campaign promise to balance the federal budget, the Republican Congress has proposed deep cuts in the federal budget – cuts so deep that the Republicans plan to eliminate the budget deficit by the year 2004. Complementing the Republican-proposed cuts is the fact that they have added significant tax cuts to their program as well. To pay for these tax cuts (so that the budget deficit still shrinks despite the lost revenue) the Republicans have not only proposed massive cuts of existing federal programs (including entirely eliminating the Department of Commerce), but they have also drastically downsized medicare – a national health care program for the elderly that has been considered to be untouchable since its founding.

As Republican shave shown some internal divisions on the budget issue, with House Leader Newt Gingrich proposing more radical cuts than those proposed by Senate Majority Leader Dole, the Democrats are far more deeply divided.

Recognizing that some cuts would be inevitable and that pressure to eliminate the deficit is a popular campaign theme, President Clinton responded to the Republican proposals to eliminate the deficit by the year 2004 with a plan of his own to accomplish the sam aim by 2007. The three extra years allow the President to save some important social programs and to protect medicare.

Clinton’s compromise on this issue, however, angered most Congressional Democrats, who felt abandoned by their party leader. They felt that Clinton had surrendered to the Republicans and that cuts in any social programs would negatively affect Democrats in 1996 elections.

While these internal party debates are important, the central issue, of course, is the fact that very soon the Republicans must present a budget bill to the President for his approval. Since the gap between the White House and the Congress is still large, a veto seems likely. The Republicans have declared that if the President vetoes their budget, they will not approve the temporary legislation necessary to keep the government operating (as had happened in the past when Republican Presidents disagreed with the Democratic Congress) until a full budget bill is approved. In essence, the Congressional Republicans are willing to shut down the federal government in a test of wills with the President.

Both sides are committed that a shutdown of the government will work in their favor. Republicans are saying, “That’s what the voters want anyway – an end to big government.” The President feels that if Republicans shut down the government they will have to answer when needed services and social security checks aren’t delivered to a public that expects the government to work for them.

It, in fact, may take a shut-down of the government for the public to become aware of and interested in the heated debates raging in the nation’s capital.

Until now, the battles and debates have been largely an “insider” game. The stakes are high, the outcome will be decisive for the future of the U.S. – but for most Americans the debates remain abstract and the elections are still a year and half away.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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