Posted on May 12, 1997 in Washington Watch

The ever expanding campaign finance scandal (now threatening to engulf both U.S. political parties) and the recently completed budget agreement continue to dominate the news in Washington. But under the surface there are signs of the beginning of the national elections for the year 2000.

Revelations, last week, of Chinese and other foreign money bailing out the Republican party in 1994 have served to establish that the campaign finance scandal is now a bi-partisan affair. Whether the parties’ leadership will recognize this and work together to admit their misdeeds, punish wrong-doers, and move toward bi-partisan reform remains to be seen. For the time being both Democrats and Republicans seem content merely to hurl accusations at one another. And the end is not yet in sight.

It is somewhat ironic that in the face of the partisan campaign finance wars, the White House and the Republican Congressional leadership worked out a tentative agreement to produce a balanced budget for 1998.

While the details of this agreement remain to be worked out, and may yet produce a bitter political battle, for now both sides have secured enough compromise from each other to announce agreement and victory.

Behind the scenes of these two unfolding developments, however, is yet another story in the making—and that is the 2000 elections. This struggle is taking place both between the two parties and within each party.

Despite the fact that both Republicans and Democrats won significant victories in 1996, the elections did little to resolve historic debates both within and between the parties.

Republicans maintained control of the Congress for only the second time in this century and Bill Clinton’s reelection made him the first Democrat to accomplish that feat in sixty years. Nevertheless, today both parties are in disarray. Both are in debt (although the Democrat’s debt is clearly the biggest of the two), and both parties are facing serious internal battles for leadership and direction. Victories were won, but little else was decided in 1996.

By campaigning as a non-traditional Democrat, Bill Clinton was able to forge an electoral coalition that included both traditional Democratic voting groups (trade union members, African Americans, Hispanics, and women) and strong support from groups that had not voted Democratic for over two decades (Catholics and Middle Class white ethnics).

While it was possible for the President to create the political themes that brought together such a coalition in an election campaign, it is more difficult to hold together such a coalition while enacting specific policies and programs while governing. Already there are signs of stress showing between the President’s centrist policies and the demands of the traditional Democratic voting groups.

Republicans heady from their victory in 1994, faced much the same stress in 1996. It was easier for them to run and win on an ideological hard-line program in the 1994 Congressional elections. In 1996, they found it difficult to shed the politics that worked in the Congressional races and develop a more centrist agenda necessary to win a national Presidential race. Each time the leading Republican candidate would reach out to new voter groups the Republicans needed to win on a national level, their right-wing traditional base voter groups would threaten to rebel.

The Democrats will face their first test this year in trying to build support for the President’s budget compromise with the Republicans. Already there are signs that some key Democratic Congressional leaders will not easily fall in line. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt who most likely will challenge Vice President Al Gore for the Presidential nomination in 2000 has not endorsed the agreement. Gore, of course, will be called upon to sell the White House proposals. But because the compromise makes cuts in some social programs (although it does preserve many and even restores some which were cut from the last budget), and provides some tax cuts favored by Republicans, the plan is sure to spark some opposition from traditional Democrats. Gephardt, who has been championing these key Democratic voter groups, may seek to exploit their anger to support his bid for leadership.

But Gephardt will not be alone. African Americans angry at this year’s cuts in social programs, labor unions, and liberal groups disenchanted by White House compromises during the past four years will be looking for leadership to champion their causes in 2000.

Gore has also been identified with these causes and has addressed many of these groups during the past few months. But he now faces the dilemma of keeping the support of these traditional Democrats while at the same time supporting his White House and protecting the broad coalition-building effort that won the White House in 1996 and may be needed to win it again in 2000.

Challenging both Gore and Gephardt from even further to the left of the Democratic Party may be Senator Paul Wellstone, a two-term liberal Senator from Minnesota or Reverend Jesse Jackson who has twice before run for the Presidency.

While most analysts still believe that Vice President Gore remains the favorite to win the Democratic nomination in 2000, it is clear that a challenge from the traditional wing of the party can be damaging. It can harm the Administration’s efforts to pass critical legislation now, since liberals in the President’s party are determined to be more assertive. It can also threaten to break-up the new coalition that brought Democrats to the White house in 1992 and 1996.

The picture is no rosier on the Republican side. With Bob Dole in retirement the party lacks leadership. House Speaker New Gingrich has been wounded by ethics problems and is now being challenged from the right within the Congressional Republican Caucus. The new chair of the Republican party is a relative unknown party activist who lacks charisma. And even Senate Leader Trent Lott is looked at as lacking in the stature and leadership qualities of his predecessors.

There are Republicans waiting to run in the year 2000 but many of them have run and lost before (like their Democratic counterparts most of whom failed in Presidential bids in 1988 or 1992 or 1996). And so far even the new candidates who have been suggested may not be able to fuse together the deep divisions that cost the Republicans victories in the last two national elections. The “traditional morality” wing of the party (represented by Pat Buchanan and the Christian Coalition) and the more socially liberal but fiscally conservative wing of the party (represented by Jack Kemp and Steve Forbes) continue to be on a collision course with each other.

Despite the unfolding scandals and the hard work that remains to be done to craft a budget, during the past month, a half dozen leading Republicans and Democrats have traveled to New Hampshire and Iowa (homes of the earliest presidential contests) to test the waters for possible campaigns in 2000.

These and the other aspiring candidates (who now number more than a dozen) are already working at crafting their campaigns. And their responses to each other and to the challenges that face their parties and the country in the next four years will increasingly be shaped by their political aspirations. In a real sense politics in the U.S. is a never ending campaign. It makes governing difficult and establishing a national consensus almost an impossibility.

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