Posted on February 12, 1996 in Washington Watch

I was invited to a meeting with President Bill Clinton last week in the White House residence. In all, there were fifteen people at the session, most of whom were ethnic leaders from across the U.S. We came to discuss with the President ideas and themes for his 1996 reelection effort.

The ninety minute session gave us an extraordinary opportunity to engage the President in a dialogue, to present our views and concerns on a variety of issues, and to learn how he is working to shape the national debate in this critical election year.

Clinton is an engaging and brilliant thinker with an ability to absorb tremendous amounts of information. What is most striking is the President’s ability to distill data in a conversation and formulate detailed policy options – workable solutions to complex and chronic problems. What he has found frustrating, of course, is the difficulty of implementing these policies in a situation where Republicans control both houses of Congress and Democrats are themselves divided.

In a briefing prior to the meeting, officials in the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection noted that in their view this was the most critical election facing America in the past fifty years. This assessment, of course, is based largely on the effects of the Republican takeover of Congress in November, 1994. Since then the Republican leadership has attempted, with some success, to dramatically reduce the role of government in domestic affairs – most notably by ending federal regulation and reducing government funding for a wide range of programs in education, social welfare and health care.

Should Republicans maintain control of Congress and gain the White House in November of this year, their efforts to continue and complete their “revolution” would be uncontested. Democrats believe that the effects of such action would be devastating to the poor, the elderly, the environment and the economy as a whole. For the President, it is therefore a question of two fundamentally different views of America that will be competing in November of 1996.

Clinton is the first sitting Democrat in over fifty years who will not face a primary challenge. As such, his reelection strategy will follow the model established by Ronald Reagan in 1984, who also ran unopposed in his party primary that year.

Having successfully stopped other Democrats from creating divisive primary challenges, the White House proceeded to render the President’s financial position unassailable. Instead of allowing fundraising efforts to drag on into the campaign season, the Clinton-Gore 1996 leadership labored to complete that task before the beginning of this year. By December, 1995, the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign had raised almost all of the $25 million it was permitted to raise under federal election laws. Then came the forging of the image the reelection team wanted to project during the campaign.

Clinton’s determined stand on Bosnia, despite weak public opinion support and in the face of strong opposition in some quarters, significantly enhanced his status as a leader; as did his firm stand against Republican efforts to include tax cuts so large that they required deep cuts in program spending as part of their approach to a balanced budget. The President’s stand on this latter issue helped to rally and unify the ranks of the Democratic party so that even some of his Democratic antagonists in the Congress have come to see him, as one of them dramatically put it, as “the Democrats’ last protector in front of the gate of hell.”

At this stage, without having to fend off a primary challenge, the Clinton reelection strategy is to fight complacency among his supporters, build a strong grassroots base of volunteers in every state, and not directly engage his Republican challengers.

While the President will make some campaign appearances in key states to increase the Democratic turnout on primary day, he will not directly confront the members of the nine-man Republican field. Until later this year, he will not be candidate Clinton, but will remain President Clinton – focusing on the broad themes laid out in his State of the Union address, working to craft solutions to the ongoing debates with Congress over the budget, welfare and immigration reform, health care, and projecting American leadership in areas of the world where American interests are at stake.

While Republicans engage in a bloody intra-party battle, Democrats will observe without comment. It is no secret, however, that Democrats today are feeling better about their chances in ‘96 than at any other time within the past three years. Several factors have contributed to their optimism, including:

– the extremely high negative ratings of House Speaker Newt Gingrich;
– the success of the President’s strategy, thus far, in the budget debate with the Republican Congress. By agreeing to a balanced budget while demanding less of a tax cut which he argued would necessitate too extensive cuts in programs for the elderly, the President has won strong public approval;
– the President’s State of the Union address was, by all accounts, a success and stood in sharp contrast to the stiff response offered by Republican presidential candidate, Senator Robert Dole; and
– the sudden emergence in the Republican primary of millionaire Steve Forbes, who has vigorously attacked Dole and created chaos in the overall Republican campaign.

Dole had hoped to finish off his opponents easily and early, so that by March he would emerge unscathed and begin his campaign against President Clinton. Given Forbes’ rise and Pat Buchanan’s new-found strength, it now appears that even if Dole wins (as it still seems that he can), it will not be as early as the Republican establishment had hoped, and nor will he emerge unscathed. The negative campaigning and deeply divisive Republican campaign will take its toll on the eventual nominee and party unity.

But while Republicans have suffered the danger from the kind of unexpected pitfalls that can create havoc in an election year, Democrats are wary of unpredictable factors beyond their control that may cause problems for them as well. Most obvious of these is the “Perot factor.” Perot’s Reform party will appear on the ballot in many states in November. If Perot runs himself as his party’s candidate (as many expect that he will) analysts predict that he will siphon votes from the Republican nominee, but if Perot nominates someone else to run at the head of his party’s ticket, Democrats might have some cause for worry.

There is already some concern in the Democratic camp over the fact that consumer advocate Ralph Nader (an Arab American) will appear on the California ballot for President in November. California is a state Clinton must carry if he is to win reelection, but the Nader campaign will be popular with many liberals in California. If Nader were to win even 5% of the presidential vote in November, he may jeopardize Clinton’s chances of winning the most important state in the electoral college.

Interestingly, Democrats do not seem as worried about Whitewater or the host of other “mini-scandals” that continue to haunt the Clinton White House. It appears that despite intense Republican efforts to raise questions and focus public attention on Whitewater, the firings at the White House Travel Office, the death of White House Aide Vincent Foster and assorted alleged extra-marital affairs , none of these issues has as yet damaged the President’s standing with his core constituency. Some of those matters appear too minor or confusing for the public to understand, while others have lost their shock value.

Voters who support Clinton do so because, in comparing his vision and ideas about the future of America with those of his Republican challengers, they have not been swayed by what most regard as partisan Republican attacks. This is not to say that new problems may not appear in the future – but, for now, Democrats are feeling that they have weathered enough storms to feel confident.

Other dangers lurk just outside of everyday thought and include such possibilities as a violent setback in Bosnia or the Middle East. But here, too, the President and his campaign team have found a new confidence in foreign policy, and in the U.S.’ international leadership role.

And so Democrats and the President are, at this point, cautiously optimistic about November 1996. They boast about their record: reducing the growth of the federal budget deficit, helping to create new employment, passage of a comprehensive anti-crime bill, reducing the size of the federal workforce to its lowest level in 35 years, protecting the environment, supporting free trade and business exports, and helping to secure peace in Haiti, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and the Middle East.

Democrats also boast about what they feel is their greatest asset: the President himself. Clinton is eager to begin his campaign and to challenge American voters with his record, his vision for the future – a non-ideological middle ground that emphasizes personal responsibility and free enterprise which at the same time supports the role of a compassionate government that can, when necessary, create opportunity and protect basic values.

In September of 1996, the real contest will begin. A Republican nominee will have been chosen to face the President in a race that will most probably also include at least one major independent candidate. The field will be set. And while Democrats are optimistic now, they fully realize that the final race in November could be close. No matter how positive the President’s standing versus Bob Dole, his core support has never exceeded 52%.

It will indeed be a critical election, but it will also be closely fought and hard to forget – with or without landmines.

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