Posted on July 06, 1992 in Washington Watch

Since the beginning of this presidential election season, a number of issues have taken center stage in the national debate. For a period of time, each was viewed as a “defining issue”, i.e. issues that would sharply define both the differences between the candidates and the nature of the presidential debate itself. In time, however, the lines between the candidates positions on these issues became blurred, the issues themselves became less clear, or the press had moved on to yet another “defining issue” and relegated all others into the “black hole of media obscurity.”

The first major issue, of course, was the Gulf War. The war served for a time to define George Bush’ presidency. Moreover, the Gulf War and the diplomatic crisis preceding it defined the qualities most Americans want to see in their president in the post-Cold War period. Bush was strong, decisive, and principled.

As a result of his performance during the war, his public opinion ratings were so high just one year ago that the 1992 presidential elections looked like no contest. Today, of course, the poll numbers are reversed and George Bush is not only trailing, but he is also having difficulty defining the Gulf war as a victory.

A combination of factors—the Democratic assault on his pre-War pro-Iraq tilt, the fact that Saddam remains in power, the behavior of the Kuwaitis since liberation, and a constant bashing from both liberal and conservative foes—have weakened the president’s victory claim and even tarnished the memory of the war itself.

On the domestic front, the first great issue was `national health care’. This “defining issue” came to the forefront of the debate after the November 1991 victory of Democratic Senator Harris Wofford in the Pennsylvania Senate race. Wofford defeated the very popular (and thought to be unbeatable) Dick Thorburgh, a former member of Bush’s Cabinet and former Pennsylvania Governor. Democrats were elated by Wofford’s surprising victory, and they thought that the primary theme of Wofford’s campaign might hold the promise of a winning election strategy against George Bush in November of 1992.

As each Democratic presidential candidate announced their own health plan, however, the public became saturated with the issue. The most elaborate of these plans was proposed by Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, and served as the cornerstone of his presidential bid. Bush co-opted the issue with a plan of his own, and the press and the public grew tired of “the” issue. Kerrey’s campaign failed and the debate moved on to the state of the economy and taxes.

Pat Buchanan challenged Bush in New Hampshire for breaking the `no new taxes’ pledge he made in that state four years ago. The six Democrats who were running entered the tax debate and proposed their own tax reform packages. Clinton, for example, pledged to restore tax equity with a tax break for the middle class.

Evidence that this issue, too, has fizzled came last week when Clinton issued a “new, revised economic plan” that no longer included a middle class tax cut. Ross Perot was quoted on a few occasions indicating that he might even raise taxes to reduce the federal budget deficit. When both of these stories passed with barely a mention in the press, it was clear that another “defining issue” had passed into media obscurity.

Next came the issue of character. The public debate was focused, for a time, on Clinton’s alleged extra-marital affair(s) and his “draft-dodging” and his fuzzy and contradicting stories about these “failings.” The press viewed this crisis with such seriousness, and Clinton’s opponents’ exploited the issue with such ferocity (Kerrey, for one, said that Clinton could not possibly win because of it) that Clinton came to be seen as a fatally wounded candidate.

Clinton has since won the nomination, Kerrey has endorsed him, and the debate moved on.

The issues of race and urban America took center stage for a time after the Los Angeles riots. Yet, as critical as the question of race is to almost every aspect of U.S. politics, the specter of a burning Los Angeles is now only a faded symbol. The approaches of Bush and Clinton to the riots were so similar that the issue stopped being a “defining one.”

In the intervening months, U.S.-Israel relations, the environment, and `family values’ have also emerged to take their turn as “defining issues”—the latter showing the most potential to take center stage until Vice President Quayle (who had been raising this question) committed a very public spelling error which took him out of public view for a while.

With all of this movement, it might appear that once off the front pages, these issues are forgotten. They are not.

Issues emerge, in part, in reaction to events. When newsworthy events occur they generate a set of issues. While they might be replaced by yet another event and issues, the impact they have made remains in the public consciousness and the basket of issues and policy formulations of the various campaigns. They may fade from view, but they can reappear at another stage of the campaign season.

What is true in this year is that both Bush and Clinton in particular, and Ross Perot as well, have not been cast into traditional, defined liberal and conservative molds, and so the issues debate will be different than it was during the Reagan-Mondale or Bush-Dukakis campaigns. While Democrats will still try to cast Bush as an insensitive conservative and Republicans, for their part, will still try to cast Clinton as an unthinking liberal—the way the campaigns have thus far defined themselves and , more importantly, the way that the issues have emerged have made these past stereotypes an almost impossible fit. Even the way the abortion question emerged on center stage this week helps to make the case.

The question of abortion is the single most divisive most emotion-laden issue in American politics today. The conventional wisdom has been that this is a classic liberal/conservative question. During the past decade the Democrats were defined as pro-abortion and the Republicans as anti-abortion, and both parties helped defined themselves in the same way.

This year the Republicans had an intense internal debate on this question during their party’s platform hearings six weeks ago. A new group of Republican women has emerged and several prominent Republican elected officials (including Governors and Senators) have publicly disagreed with their party’s view on this subject.

Meanwhile the Democrats have been challenged within their own party as well.

This question is a serious moral issue for Americans, and knows no political boundaries. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 to allow abortions, the public debate has focused on how to strengthen this ruling, or on how to overturn or limit it.

While Reagan and Bush’ appointments to the Supreme Court have been designed, in part, to create a majority to overturn the abortion ruling, the public attitude toward abortion rights has shifted. In the mid-1980s the polls showed an almost evenly divided public, but today the public supports some form of legal abortion by a margin of 2 to 1. On the other hand, as the number of abortions have risen (today almost one-third of all pregnancies in the United States end in abortion, or nearly 1.6 million abortions per year) there is serious concern on how to, at the very least, limit that number. In recent polls, 80% of the public supports at least some regulation of abortion.

This past week when the Democratic Party’s Platform Committee met to finalize their platform, Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey issued an appeal to fellow Democrats to join what he called the mainstream, and to support limits on abortion. The “reasonable regulations” he called for included:
· not permitting abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy;
· the requirement that a woman notify her husband if she is considering an abortion;
· the requirement that a child notify her parents about an abortion;
· that doctors be required to give women alternatives to abortion, and that there be a 24-hour waiting period after the initial doctor’s visit before an abortion can be performed.

So divisive and intense is this question that, when these measures were introduced, the motion received loud boos and hisses and only received the support of two of the committee’s 186 members.

This issue, which has been simmering under the surface of the national debate for some time, erupted in a fury this week after a the announcement of a Supreme Court decision which upheld many of the Pennsylvania Governor’s suggestions (all of which are part of state law in Pennsylvania). The Supreme Court decided to uphold the Pennsylvania law, thus declaring that abortion was a right which states may restrict. But the decision was reached on a 5-4 vote, with the four being total opponents of abortion rights.

While conservatives and anti-abortion activists had hoped that the Supreme Court would use this decision to overturn the right to abortion, the court did not do this. Instead, the court’s majority view upheld the 1973 decision to allow abortion, but placed limits on that `right.’

This has enraged supporters of abortion rights who want to see abortion made a “fundamental right” and not restricted in any way. The most liberal judge on the court added fuel to their fire by noting in his opinion that he is 83 years old and will probably retire and be replaced by an appointee of the next president.

Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, leapt into the post-decision debate, noting that those who want to protect the 1973 abortion decision should vote for Clinton in order to guarantee the court’s position on this issue.

But most analysts feel that while the issue will always be part of the debate, the Supreme Court decision has done the president any fatal damage, nor has it given his challengers (Clinton and Perot both support abortion rights) any favor. Given the ambiguousness of the decision, many voters will not be swayed. Those voters for whom abortion rights is a central issue were not going to vote for George Bush anyway, and those who see ending abortion as their number one issue were not going to support his challengers.

At last count these two groups whose votes are decided primarily on the abortion issue equal about 25% of the whole and are more or less evenly divided between the two camps.

The net legal effect of the Supreme Court decision is that the question of abortion rights, pro or con, will be decided at the state level. So the issue of abortion will now move to become a key issue in deciding state and local elections. On the presidential level, abortion will now join the other issues of 1992 as part of a basket of issues which the three presidential campaigns will draw from in the fall to define themselves and their vision for the country.

In 1988, what finally emerged as the defining issues that set George Bush apart from Michael Dukakis were, on the symbolic level the “flag” and “Willie Horton”, and on the issues level it was a commitment to strong national defense and a strong anti-crime agenda. It was these two sets of issues, selected from the 1988 basket of issues, that gave George Bush his victory. It is not yet clear what the defining issues of 1992 will be, but they most probably will be drawn from those that have passed through the national debate already this year.

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