Posted on January 01, 1996 in Washington Watch

When 1995 began it appeared that the newly-elected Republican majority in Congress would completely eclipse President Clinton as the dominant force in Washington. Not only were the Republican exhilarated by their sweeping victory in November of 1994, , but they were unified behind an aggressive leadership with a focused agenda.

During their first 100 days the Republican “revolution” lived up to expectations, passing many of the provisions promised in the “Contract with America.” They appeared so dominant at that stage that at one point President Clinton felt compelled to protest to the press that he was still “relevant.”

At year’s end, the tables have turned somewhat, and there is greater balance between the President and the Congress. A number of factors have combined to produce this change.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the leading figure of the Republican Congress, has never been a popular figure, and with greater visibility he has become even more unpopular. His brash style has frightened many voters. While Gingrich has led Congress, it is increasingly clear that he can’t lead the American people. In fact, polls now show that most Americans feel that the Republican revolution has gone too far and is too extreme.

This perception has been helped by a newfound unity among Democrats. After a few months of sparring, the Democrats in Congress and the President have found common ground on a number of issues. They have also projected a unified message warning of the danger that will face the poor, the middle class and the elderly if the Republican agenda passes.

Another factor that has contributed to the Democratic success in late 1995 has been the rising popularity of President Clinton and his string of successful foreign policy initiatives. which has enhanced his leadership image in the eyes of many voters. Even in the foreign policy debates, the Republicans have appeared divided and therefore politically weak.

The Democrats have been so much more successful than the Republicans at getting their message across that all national polling data now indicate that the Democrats have a strong lead over the Republicans as the country heads into 1996. Not only is President Clinton favored at this point to win over his Republican challengers, but when asked to rate Democrats against Republicans, Democrats now lead by over 10%. This is a huge margin, and is especially notable in light of the Democrats convincing defeat in just one year ago.

To some extent, the Republicans have been victims of their own success. They moved too quickly with proposals too far-reaching in the eyes of many voters. But once the Republican Congressional majority assumed that Clinton was vulnerable, too many competing Republican candidates emerged to challenge the President’s bid for reelection. The results have not helped the GOP’s chances in 1996.

But even with the polls as they are in December 1995, it is difficult to predict the outcome of the voting in November of 1996, when the presidency, the entire Congress (435 seats) and one-third of the U.S. Senate (34 seats) will all be up for election.

Clinton’s standing now appears to be stronger than it has been for over two years. His popularity is up and he is clearly favored over all potential Republican challengers. But a great deal can still happen in the coming year to challenge the status quo or break it up entirely.

If the White House makes any serious errors in handling either the Whitewater scandal or any other issues it will face, or if any of the President’s foreign policy initiatives fail, he may experience a negative downturn in popularity. At the same time, once the Republicans decide who their nominee will be, they hope to present a more unified case against Clinton. But as divided as Democrats may be on a range of issues, the deep divisions among Republicans on social issues such as abortion make the goal of party unity an almost insurmountable challenge.

And while the Democrats have improved their national standing, it will be relatively difficult for them to use their new popularity to turn back the Republican control of the Senate and the House. In part due to the new negative atmosphere among Democrats following the Republican takeover, eight incumbent Democratic Senators and 21 incumbent Democratic members of Congress have already announced that they will not be running for reelection (compared to only 4 Republican Senators and 13 Republican members of Congress).

Since they are now the party in power, Republican Congressional candidates are also now leading Democrats in fundraising.

These and other institutional factors are leading most experts to predict that while Democrats may well win back some of the seats they lost in the November 1994 elections – especially if President Clinton remains popular and wins his reelection bid – Republicans will most likely retain control of both houses of Congress in 1996.

Many politician and pundits, both Democrats and Republicans, feel that the 1996 elections are the most important facing the U.S. since the end of World War Two. Not only is the direction of U.S. world leadership at stake, but two very distinct and competing visions of governance will be put before U.S. voters. Republicans will be asking voters to complete their “revolution” of dramatically downsizing government, ending the growth government-supported social programs, and decentralizing decision-making by giving more power to local and state governments.

Democrats will warn that the carrying through the Republican agenda will only deepen the divisions between the rich and poor, and whites and blacks to create a social upheaval. More positively, the Democrats will argue that the federal government still has an important role in providing not only for national defense but also for the social well-being of all citizens.

While there will be the normal amount of negative campaigning and 30-second television advertising that has disfigured U.S. politics over the past few decades, there will also be a substantive and critical debate about the nation’s direction.

Less than one year before the election it is impossible to predict the outcome with any certainty. But it is clear that Democrats are better-positioned to make their case than they were at the beginning of 1995.

It will be an exciting and critical contest between two parties more evenly matched than at any time in recent history.

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