Posted on September 02, 1996 in Washington Watch

President Clinton emerged from the 1996 Democratic National Convention in command of his party and with a growing lead over his challenger Republican Bob Dole. But like so many other times in Bill Clinton’s career, his moment of political triumph has been clouded by the scent of a threatening political scandal.

The roots of both his current victory and difficulty go back to the dramatic Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections. At that point, Bill Clinton’s Presidency seemed to be over. His popularity was at its lowest. His party had lost control of both Houses of Congress and with that his ability to shape the nations agenda appeared to have ended.

As he had on other occasions when faced with defeat, Clinton turned to a little known but highly effective political advisor, Dick Morris. Morris, who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats, is a controversial figure considered to be a wizard by his supporters and an amoral Machiavelli by his adversaries.

Adding Dick Morris to the group of his political advisors produced a creative tension between liberals and new Democrats that generated the themes and initiatives that helped restore the President’s leadership.

By co-opting several of the Republicans own themes, introducing White House initiatives toward families and values and limiting his own legislative proposals to a few significant issues, Clinton succeeded in recapturing the leadership mantle from a Congress that increasingly appeared to be extreme.

While reestablishing his own status, however, the President appeared to be in danger of dividing his own party. Liberals, for example, felt that Clinton had betrayed them by giving up on health care reform and by passing welfare reform.

But Republicans had so polarized the nation’s political debate that Democrats continued to support the President fearing a complete Republican takeover if they were unseated in November.

Still there was the problem of the convention. The problem faced by the party leaders was how to bring the largely liberal Democrat activist base together in one hall without signs of disunity and intra-party strife?

Weeks of preparation and focus on the fear of a Republican victory in November succeeded in providing a unified convention. The leading liberal supporters from the party, Jesse Jackson, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Senator Ted Kennedy stirred the Democratic delegates with their appeals for party unity. Noting their differences with the welfare reform bill and calling for more support for health care reform, convention speakers urged Democrats to unify despite their differences noting that the best chance to move government back in the right direction was to return Bill Clinton to the White House and elect a Democratic Congress in 1996.

Clinton made his own unique contribution to the convention by doing what he does best. His four day train trip through American’s heartland brought the President before hundreds of thousands of Americans who cheered the President on his way. And Clinton’s address to the convention was vintage Bill Clinton. His speech was optimistic, positive, and very upbeat; it was a personal effort to directly speak to millions of Americans; and it was a combination of targeted programs to meet the needs of most middle class American families and a visionary statement describing the role of government now and into the future.

Polls conducted in the convention’s last day show that the President has regained his pre-Republican convention (13 – 15%) lead over Bob Dole.

Not only did the convention succeed in restoring Bill Clinton and unifying the Democratic party, but it also better defined Al Gore (Clinton’s campaign asset, and the prospective candidate for the White House in the year 2000) and revived the strength of First Lady Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton has been much maligned for her roles in several business deals during Clinton’s term as governor of Arkansas and her conduct as a significant player and decision maker within the White House. Polls are now showing that the First Lady’s convention speech was viewed so positively that for the first time in over two years she is rated positively by a significant percentage of Americans.

Finally and maybe most importantly, the convention succeeded in clearly defining the core differences between Republicans and Democrats in their definition of the role of government.

When Bob Dole, in his acceptance speech before the Republican convention, criticized the First Lady’s book It Takes a Village with the retort, “No, it does not, it takes a family,” he was attempting to make clear the distinction between the philosophies of the two parties. The meaning of Mrs. Clinton’s title is that there are many forces that contribute to the rearing of our children and that, as a society, we share a collective responsibility for creating the environment and opportunities necessary for the family to succeed.

Dole and other Republican speakers criticize this theme because their party’s philosophy holds that individual liberty and responsibility is to be promoted over collective responsibility. Hence the Republican idea that it is better to cut taxes and return money to individuals, whom Republicans say can decide how to spend their money better than government. In their view taxes can be cut, social programs can be reduced, and the burden of providing for those with needs can best be taken care of by private charity—which Republicans hold will be enriched by private donations which will increase as Americans have their money returned to them. They criticize Democrats for having a negative view of human nature by insisting that government must provide services and by not trusting that citizens will not do the right thing with their own money.

Just as speaker after speaker at the Republican convention echoed that theme, Democrats used their convention to draw attention to the necessary and constructive role that government can play to create opportunity for people and to provide services that no one else can and to work constructively and collectively to solve nagging social ills.

One speaker even noted how Bob Dole himself benefited from the village. It was his community that cared for him and it was government benefits that provided him hospitalization, recovery, and scholarship money enabling him to be educated.

Despite the expected negative turn that this campaign will undoubtedly take, this philosophical debate over the role of government will be an important and edifying one.

Amidst the glow of a restored candidacy, a revived popularity and a unified party, a cloud hung over the Clinton campaign on the day of the convention’s close.

Dick Morris, who has made such a useful contribution as part of the President’s strategy team was forced to resign amidst rumors of a sex scandal.

The question that plagued Democrats as they left Chicago was “Would the Morris story affect the President’s standing as well?” It is possible that this will be but a bump on the road to Clinton’s victory in November, or it could mark a detour to his downfall.

Will Republican’s use the Morris story to paint a negative picture of the Clinton’s colleagues or to remind voters of the President’s own past? Will the press feed on this story denying the President an opportunity to run his campaign and project his message? Already one major U.S. daily seemed to point in this direction. The day after the convention that paper had nine stories on Dick Morris and only six on the convention itself.

The President’s campaign seems confident that the Morris story is just that, a Morris story. That voters will decide that it is not significant and that ultimately the election will be decided by the choice voters make between two distinct philosophies, two distinct visions for the country, and two distinct candidates whom Democrats say are profoundly different because one (Dole) seeks to take the country backwards to the past while the other (Clinton) hopes to lead the country into the twenty first century.

In the weeks to come, it will be clear if their projections are correct.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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