Posted on September 30, 1994 in Washington Watch

With voter negativity and cynicism at an all-time high, President Clinton and incumbent Senators and Congressmen may face real trouble in the November elections.

The anti-incumbent/independent protest spirit that fueled the political challenges of Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and Gerry Brown in 1992 is still alive and breathing fire two years later – and it will have a definite impact on the fall campaigns.

While no one expects the same level of change that came in 1992 (when the incumbent President was defeated, and 25% of the House and one-third of the contested Senate races produced new winners), there will still be significant change in November.

And, of course, since the majority of the incumbents running for reelection are Democrats, they will incur the biggest losses. The only real debate is how big the Republican gains will be. Republicans, sensing a deep anti-Clinton mood in much of the country, are aiming for 7 Democratic losses in the Senate and 30 in the House. That would gain them virtual control of Congress for the first time since the Reagan sweep of 1980. Democrats, on the other hand, are hoping to limit their losses to 3 Senate seats and between 15 and 18 House seats – the normal rate of loss in a mid-term election.

Many independent analysts agree with the Republican assessment, especially with regard to the effect that Clinton’s low ratings will have on his fellow Democrats this November. But such an assessment may be confusing cause and effect. In fact, the real picture may be bleak for all incumbents, Democrats (including the President) and Republicans alike, because of voter anger over politics as usual and with all officials in Washington.

A recent polls shows voter disapproval of Congress at 63% – 15 points lower than the president’s rating. And almost 80% of the electorate believe it’s time to elect new people to Congress, a strong display of voter anger with elected officials. In fact, those candidates who seem to be faring the best are those who are running as anti-establishment outsiders.

All of this does add up to real trouble for the President. He began his term by winning in 1992 with a low 43% of the vote. By forcing a national agenda of controversial issues, he demanded that Congress and the nation tackle problems which long been ignored: the deficit, health care reform, anti-crime measures and campaign finance reform. What impeded his path to success was not only the difficult choices inherent in each of these issues and the resistance from special interest groups; but also the personal and policy failures of the President himself that have plagued his Administration. Continued attention focused on “character issues” and foreign policy miscues have only made the President’s task more difficult.

And now facing the likelihood of significant losses in November, the President’s problems become even more serious.

Under relentless Republican attack and facing voter backlash, many Democratic Senate and Congressional candidates are staying away from the President. In their local campaigns for reelection many are campaigning on the theme that, although they are Democrats, they have opposed the President on some issues. But the picture is not uniformly dark for Clinton, as a handful of Senate candidates have actually sought out the President’s active support in their reelections bids.

Yet overall, the growing distance between the President and his own party’s candidates has further weakened his ability to enact his agenda in Congress. The three major legislative programs Clinton had hoped to win before November (and cite as accomplishments for himself and his party on the campaign trail) –the passage of the GATT Treaty, health care reform and campaign finance reform – all seem doomed. While Republican obstruction is partially to blame, the reluctance of key Democrats to support their President on tough issues is also a factor.

And so the President faces a hostile media, a hostile Republican party and active resistance from elements of his own party – not a pretty picture. But after the November elections, it is apt to become worse.

A survey of the senate seats up for election shows how serious a potential problem Democrats face this November. There are 35 Senate seats being contested, of which 22 are held by democrats and 13 by Republicans. Of the 35, eight are open seats with five Democrats and three Republicans having retired.

Of the 35 contested seats this fall, an unprecedented 14 elections may produce defeats for the incumbent party holding the seat. Of these 14 seats, 11 are currently Democratic and only 3 are Republican. Even Senator Ted Kennedy, the senior Democrat from Massachusetts, is facing a tough reelection fight which most recent polls show him losing.

And this anti-incumbent mood can also affect Democrats in other races as well. In New York, for example, Governor Mario Cuomo who was once viewed as unbeatable is currently trailing in the polls. So, too, are Democratic stars Ann Richards, the Governor of Texas, and Lawton Chiles, the Governor of Florida, losing in the polls.

Those last two races are especially worthy of note since the Republican challengers in Texas and Florida are none other than two sons of former President George Bush: George W. Bush in Texas and Jeb Bush in Florida. Victories in those two races would, no doubt, be sweet revenge for the Bush family.

And in what could be one of the most striking example of anti-incumbent backlash, a recent poll showed the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tom Foley of Washington, trailing his Republican challenger on the polls by a margin of 54% to 36%. If Foley were to lose, he would be the first Speaker of the House (the highest ranking position in Congress) to lose an election in almost 150 years!

One important note, however, is that there are still several weeks before the November elections, and a great deal can still happen. As I have noted in previous columns, Clinton’s poll standings are subject to extreme fluctuations, and it would be premature to assume disaster for Clinton or his party. Still, the pattern emerging to date – incumbent Democrats running away from the President and the ominous poll numbers many of them are facing – is not promising.

The Clinton Administration has been on the ropes before, and they have material to work with now that could help them come back. The Administration simply must make a much better case than it has so far of what it has accomplished. An editorial in a major newsweekly noted that “in less than to years, Clinton has already achieved more domestically” than Kennedy, Ford, Carter and Bush combined, and it notes Clinton’s economic plan, NAFTA, the Crime Bill, the Reinventing Government reform plan and a number of other bills as significant accomplishments.

But the Administration has been unable to get the message of its success – indeed it has found it difficult to any message – across to the nation. The unemployment rate is down, more jobs were created in the first year of the Clinton Administration than in the four years of the Bush Administration, the deficit will be smaller in the coming years due to the Clinton deficit-reduction bill, and that there was plenty of change to meet the demand of change voters made in the 1992 elections. These are accomplishments that are not in dispute, but the White House can’t seem to get them across.

Certainly the national media has done much to tarnish the image of Clinton and, by association, his party. A study recently issued by the Center for Media and Public Affairs showed that Clinton has received consistently negative coverage during his first eighteen months in office. The analysis of over 4,000 evening news stories found that 62% were negative and only 38% were positive, compared to a 51% negative 49% positive for Bush during his first eighteen months in office. And there were more stories on Clinton per night in this period under study (8.2), almost double the number of stories on the Bush Administration during a similar period. Even 65% of the comments the networks chose to use from Democrats were negative.

But despite these handicaps in Washington, Democrats will still attempt to change the center of the debate from anti-Clinton attacks to what Republicans and their obstructionism have done to the U.S. Preliminary polls have indicated that this may be fertile ground for Democratic campaigns.

More importantly, one should not forget the truism of former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.” In every instance, what is going on at the level of the campaign has a stronger influence than any national trend. So don’t count out such long-term incumbents and leaders as Ted Kennedy, Mario Cuomo, Ann Richards or Tom Foley. These are politicians who know the terrain in their states and districts, and are tough campaigners who not only know what it takes to win, but have proven they can do it.

A related point is that because Congress has been in session for the past few months, national attacks on Democrats have run in local papers but Democratic Congressmen and Senators were not on the scene to respond – but they soon will be. Republican challengers who were alone in the district will be joined by the Democratic incumbent they are opposing, and the Republicans will no longer have the luxury of making one-sided attacks. Democrats will respond with negative attacks of their own to expose the challengers’ vulnerabilities. As these attacks weaken the challengers and Democrats take their turn at defining their opponents, the poll numbers will become much more even.

But observers who see this shift in the campaign debate realize that it will have the unintended side-effect of further souring the public mood toward politics and politicians. It has been apparent for some years that while negative campaigning can help win elections, the public cynicism it produces can make governing that much more difficult. So the Democrats may save some seats that they now seem likely to lose, but the needed change in American politics will not come this year.

And whatever the outcome in November, the president’s job will be no easier with the new Congress than it was with the last.

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