Posted on August 31, 1992 in Washington Watch
For the first time in nine months Bill Clinton has a real opponent.
During the primaries Clinton ran against mostly one-dimensional candidates who had neither the voter base nor the financial support needed to compete on the national level.
Tom Harkin and Jerry Brown appealed directly to the left wing of the Democratic Party while Paul Tsongas appealed to its more conservative and pro-business elements. Bob Kerrey had the greatest potential to challenge Clinton as a national candidate, but he lacked the national fundraising base that the Democratic Leadership Council afforded Clinton and was therefore unable to mount a truly national campaign. At times Clinton’s biggest opponent was himself as scandal after scandal rocked his campaign during the months of January and February.
After surviving the scandals and watching his potentially more dangerous rivals drop out of the race, Clinton was left facing only Jerry Brown, whose marginal, left-wing constituency posed no threat to Clinton’s eventual victory.
In winning the Democratic primaries, Clinton moved the Democrat’s campaign to the political center. He did so out of conviction (he is a more conservative Democrat than Michael Dukakis) but also because Democrats have learned that in order to win a national campaign they must protect themselves against Republican attacks that they are too liberal.
In his platform and in his campaign speeches since the Democratic convention Clinton has emphasized themes that are new for Democrats. He has argued in favor of a strong national defense and foreign affairs, supported existing and proposed new weapons development programs. He has supported President Bush’s tough stand against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and has urged U.S. military intervention to end the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia. More surprisingly, in a meeting with the editorial board of a Jewish newspaper Clinton refused to oppose the Bush Administration’s plans to sell advanced fighters to Saudi Arabia.
Clinton’s conservative platform extends to social and domestic policy as well. He has attempted to modify most of the left-leaning tendencies in the Democratic Party. While, for example, he supports abortion rights, he stresses that he is not pro-abortion. And while he would not put any calls for limiting abortion in the Democratic Party platform, he favors individual states using their right to limit abortion and that the federal government under his leadership would do all it can to make abortion “as rare as possible.”
The Clinton campaign has stressed other untraditional Democratic themes such as family and patriotism, and in so doing they have blurred the lines between themselves and the Republican Party.
In addition to this attempt to define themselves into the political center and claim traditional Republican issues for themselves, Clinton and other Democrats have repeatedly bashed George Bush during the past nine months. They have sought to define him as an insensitive conservative out of touch with people’s needs, a dilettante president who is more concerned with foreign affairs than domestic needs, and a failed national leader who refused to take steps to end the nation’s long recession.
For nine months George Bush did not fight back. As a result, the Democrats got a boost in the polls and took a severe toll on George Bush’s popularity in the process.
The goals that George Bush hoped to achieve in Houston at his convention were the redefinition of his leadership role, reestablishing his leadership credentials, and to redefine Bill Clinton as a liberal disguised as a moderate.
During the convention and the weeks that followed Bush has emphasized a number of themes. He has focused on his leadership in foreign affairs, repeatedly asking the question `Who would you trust in a time of crisis?’ He has, for example, belittled Clinton’s pretense of strength in calling for military intervention in the former Yugoslavia by noting that he has served in the military and seen combat (unlike Clinton who did not), and that therefore he would not cavalierly send U.S. troops into such a dangerously complicated quagmire as the ethnic conflict raging there.
As Clinton seeks to emphasize traditional values and family themes in his campaign, Bush is trying to paint Clinton into the left-wing corner by pointing out his support for homosexual rights, Al Gore’s environmental positions, the more extreme positions of Clinton’s wife Hillary on children’s rights and the Democratic Party’s platform on abortion. And while Democrats push their plan to revive the economy and create jobs by “investing in America,” Bush argues that the Democratic platform only promises higher taxes, bigger government and less job growth.
For example, this week Bush lashed out at a Clinton proposal to tax foreign investment in the United States. He charged that raising the specter of foreign investment is fear-mongering of the worst sort; and that, since foreign investment accounts for four and one-half million American jobs, taxing such investment would discourage it and in the end cut back the number of American jobs.
Polls over the last few weeks have indicated that Bush’s tactics may be working. He has narrowed the gap between himself and Clinton but also, more importantly, he has significantly increased his favorable ratings and succeeded in casting Bill Clinton in a less favorable light.
For the first time since the early part of the primary season, Bill Clinton is on the defensive. He is being forced to respond daily to new charges from the Bush campaign. To the extent that George Bush can remain in this aggressive campaign posture, he may continue to whittle away at Clinton’s lead.
Jim Baker is already having an impact on the Bush campaign effort, which he has given a clearer direction and focus. Many commentators give the credit for Bush’s immediate response to Hurricane Andrew’s devastation of Florida and Louisiana—both key battleground states in the fall election— to Baker’s strong direction over the White House and campaign staff. Many also believe that it was Baker who saw that the “family values” theme, which has been emphasized by numerous Republican spokespersons, had run its course and that it was time to focus the campaign’s attacks on Clinton to economic issues.
In this entire period, Clinton has not missed a beat. He has responded to each new Bush charge with a quick defense and an original attack of his own. This, perhaps explains the difference between this year and the 1988 campaign, when Bush was way down in the polls going into his convention, but was leading Dukakis the very next week. Although he is closing the gap, Bush is still down about ten points in most polls.
Clinton is no Michael Dukakis, he is a tough and smart fighter—something the Republicans are learning. But Bush is no campaign wimp, which is something the Democrats are rediscovering.
This will be a bitter campaign. The fight will be over issues like values, a new policy to promote economic growth, and a strong stance in foreign affairs—issues that both candidates stress as important but define very differently.
TWO ADDITIONAL NOTES:
1) The President and the Press
George Bush has not only been battered by the Democrats during the past nine months. The press has been extremely critical as well.
As I have previously noted, a report issued by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) noted that press coverage of Bill Clinton from April to June has been 56% positive, while during the same period the press coverage of President Bush was 66% negative. Similarly, the CMPA has noted that coverage of Dan Quayle has been 3-1 negative while coverage of Al Gore has been 96% positive.
This same bias held sway during the two parties’ conventions. Reporters’ comments during the conventions were evaluated by the CMPA which found that comments during the Democratic convention were 69% positive, but only 35% of the comments during the Republican convention were positive.
Following these startling findings, Republicans have been counter-attacking and charging the media with bias. Their attacks appear to at least have caused some journalists to reexamine their treatment of the President. Morton Kondracke, a liberal media analyst recently noted, “I can not believe the way the press is rolling over for Clinton…There is no objectivity left. The New York Times batters everything Bush says one day, and the Washington Post guy who’s covering the Clinton campaign is doing nothing but slobbering all over him.” Hal Bruno of ABC concurred, saying, “There’s been a media stampede, a rush to pronounce Bush as dead.” Another liberal writer, Eleanor Clift argues that “Reporters were oohing and aahing” over Clinton and Gore.
Perhaps the best advice came from The New York Times’ media critic, Walter Goodman, who wrote on August 19th: “Much of the convention reporting did have an edge that hinted at partisan pleasure in the Republicans’ trouble. No one wants to deprive the reporters of their fun, but possibly a little less animus with a little more analysis might enhance the credibility of the network news as the political season heats up.”
2) Here comes Perot, again
In the midst of the Republican convention, Ross Perot once again raised his head and threatened to reenter this year’s presidential race.
His name will appear on the ballot in at least 42 states, the most recent of which is the electoral gold mine of California. To fulfill that state’s ballot requirements, he sent out a letter dated August 26 to the California secretary of State which said: “I am a candidate.”
And it was recently reported that Perot spent nearly half a million dollars in New York state to ensure that he secured enough endorsements to qualify for that state’s ballot.
In an interview on CBS television Perot, after coyly dodging the issue of whether he will reenter the race said, “If both parties refuse to listen, if both parties continue to listen to the special interests who give them the PAC money, then, if the volunteers came together another time and said `you’ve got to do it’, we’d have a spirited conversation.”
While it is clear that Perot has discredited himself with many of his former supporters after his abrupt and surprise withdrawal from the race in July, he still has enough of a following to create problems for either Clinton or Bush in several key states where the voting will be close.
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