Commentary Magazine

Why the Republicans Lost, and Won

What was it that made the Republicans such hapless contenders in last November’s race for the presidency?

One short answer is: peace and prosperity. In 1996, the combined rate of unemployment and inflation was as low as it has been in 30 years. Fifty-five percent of the voters interviewed in exit polls on November 5 estimated the general state of the economy as good or excellent, and these people went heavily for Clinton, as did those who said their own personal financial situation had improved. As for peace, Clinton’s two biggest international gambles, Haiti and Bosnia, had paid off, allowing him a plausible claim of success with virtually no American casualties. Nowhere in the world were Americans dying under enemy fire.

Under such benign economic and international circumstances, said the conservative commentator Fred Barnes, “President Clinton’s defeat of Bob Dole [was] inevitable.” But was it? Throughout much of 1995, when the economy was no less robust, and the nation no less at peace, Dole had led Clinton in the polls. And notwithstanding the favorable circumstances of 1996, Clinton retained important areas of vulnerability, especially on the “character issue.” On election day, when asked if they believed “Bill Clinton is honest and trustworthy,” 54 percent of voters said no; asked how a Clinton victory would make them feel, 52 percent replied either “concerned” or “scared.” Exit polls also revealed that nearly half of those who voted for Clinton did so with reservations.

If peace and prosperity did not defeat Bob Dole, there is another short answer to hand: the manifest shortcomings of the Republican candidate himself. In the words of the columnist Charles Krauthammer, “But for Dole (and Kemp), it was winnable.”

Without a doubt, Bob Dole had personal shortcomings aplenty. And it was also true, as a New York Times analysis noted, that Dole’s “third run for the presidency was plagued by missteps, indecision, and strategic blunders so fundamental that they bordered on amateurish.” Yet were Dole’s undeniably mediocre rhetorical skills worse than those of other contemporary presidential candidates—George Bush, for instance, or Jimmy Carter, or Richard Nixon, or even Lyndon Johnson? Losing campaigns, moreover, almost always look poorly organized, for the simple reason that most campaigns are poorly organized, what with so much to be done in so short a time by teams of people who hardly know one another. Besides, whatever the weaknesses of Dole and his staff, he did win the Republican nomination, and he won it by beating all the other declared aspirants. However poor a campaigner he may have been, he was better than they.

In the end, whatever weight one attributes to the favorable economic and international circumstances that benefited Clinton, or to the deficiencies of Dole and his campaign, no presidential race can ever be adequately accounted for without reference to those things that lie at the heart of politics: issues and ideologies. As in past elections, November’s exit polls showed again that ideology is a more reliable predictor of voting behavior than economic circumstances. Even those reporting an improved financial situation were less likely to vote for Clinton than those calling themselves liberal; conversely, even those whose situation had deteriorated were less likely to vote for Dole than those identifying themselves as conservative.

The ideological key to the 1996 presidential election was twofold. First, Clinton as President had moved sharply to the Center. To be sure, there may have been more appearance than reality in this. The Clinton campaign claimed, for example, that the President had increased defense spending “three times in three years,” when in reality he had slashed spending by $127 billion in his first year and then grudgingly restored small bits under strong pressure. “He is of course a shocking liar,” wrote Michael Kelly, the newly installed editor of the New Republic, adding, “Fourteen of the accomplishments of which Clinton bragged in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention were actually GOP measures.”



But to say that there was more appearance than reality in Clinton’s behavior is not to say that there was no reality. Here, a bit of history is in order. In 1992, Clinton had won a large plurality of self-identified “moderate” voters by campaigning as a centrist or “new kind of Democrat.” But no sooner had he won than he executed a shift to the Left, ordering that his administration be staffed according to rigid rules of racial and gender preferences and proposing steep defense cuts, a new government jobs program for college students, a lifting of the ban on homosexuals in the military, tax hikes, and above all a convoluted program of national health insurance that would have assimilated a further 13 percent of the U.S. economy to the federal government.

When all this resulted in the great Republican triumph of 1994, Clinton turned around again in one of the most amazing political makeovers in memory. His about-face began with the 1995 State of the Union address in which he proclaimed a “middle-class bill of rights.” Banal as that may sound, it was a departure from liberal Democratic orthodoxy, as expressed canonically by Mario Cuomo in his famous address to the Democratic convention of 1984 when he described America as “a tale of two cities,” one rich and one poor, “the lucky and the left out, the royalty and the rabble.”

A year later, in his 1996 State of the Union speech, Clinton made a still sharper break with Democratic orthodoxy by declaring that “the era of big government is over.” By then he had rehired his old strategist, Dick Morris, who helped hone the tactic of “triangulation”: positioning Clinton midway between the Republicans and the Democrats in Congress. Soon the President was abandoning earlier budget proposals that had assumed deficits of hundreds of billions of dollars and was embracing first the principle of a balanced budget and then the Republican deadline for it of the year 2002.

The most remarkable of Clinton’s moves focused not on the economy but on an area long ceded to conservatives: social issues, or, as they are now more often called, “values” or “family-values” issues. This is the area in which George Bush had clobbered Michael Dukakis in 1988, and Clinton absorbed the lesson. In 1995-96, he set about making these issues his own, speaking up for school uniforms, V-chips, and restrictions on teen smoking; signing the welfare-reform bill (which aimed to stem the tide of illegitimacy) and the defense-of-marriage act (which denied automatic legal recognition to homosexual wedlock); proposing an extension of the family-leave act for new parents; and above all taking a hard line on law and order.

Politically, law-and-order was perhaps the most powerful of all the social issues, and also the one that had long been the virtually exclusive property of the Republican party. Clinton’s “initial strike” on this front, reported Time magazine in its blow-by-blow post-election account of the campaign,

was a series of crime ads to be aired seventeen months before the election. . . . “The idea,” as [one aide] said, “was, ‘This is not the guy you think you know.’ ”

Throughout the campaign, Clinton boasted incessantly that he had put 100,000 new policemen on the beat (his Justice Department confessed that the actual number was 17,000), and in the end he won the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police. By October 1996, a small plurality of voters said they preferred the Democrats to the Republicans on the issue of crime.

All in all, Clinton’s transformation, striking in its audacity, was even more striking in its success. By the time his makeover was complete’, Fred Barnes was writing that Clinton had “become in many ways a more conservative president than Ronald Reagan”; on the other side, the liberal apparatchik Richard N. Goodwin was lamenting in the New York Times that “the venerable principles of the [Democratic] party . . . have been abandoned.” True, Clinton paid a price for his maneuver in the coin of credibility. Not only did a majority of voters doubt his honesty, but when asked whether they expected Clinton would “stay in the political Center” after the election or would “move in a more liberal direction,” they were nearly evenly divided. But still they reelected him. In November, moderates, who constitute a little under half of the electorate, favored Clinton over Dole by 57 percent to 33 percent, by far the most uneven division in the two decades for which we have such data.



Why was the moderate vote so lopsided? To explain that, we need to look at the second side of the ideological story of this election, which is that while Clinton was claiming the Center, the Republicans were disdaining it.

Upon assuming the role of Speaker of the House in 1994, following the historic GOP victory that he had helped to engineer, Newt Gingrich declared: “I am a genuine revolutionary. [Democrats] are genuine reactionaries. We are going to change the world.” Later, Gingrich would wax bitter at Democrats who called him an extremist; but it was he who had used the term revolutionary, and in America, revolutionaries are extremists.

The congressional Republicans, who had been swept to power on a wave of popular reaction against the Clintons’ health-care proposal, were guilty of overinterpreting their mandate. True, the voters had rejected any contemplated enlargement of the welfare state; but to oppose government expansion, or even to believe that the government was already too large, is not the same thing as welcoming drastic cutbacks, or being anti-government. Americans are especially loath to contemplate reductions in the one area in which government has grown the most drastically: namely, the so-called entitlements of Social Security, Medicare, and the like. (An exception is welfare, which most voters are ready to see reduced, but it is a relatively small federal program.) This is a reality Clinton would exploit against the Republicans, at first haltingly and then mercilessly.

Though they succeeded in passing much of their “Contract with America,” the congressional Republicans soon found themselves deadlocked with the administration over the budget. Convinced that the voters shared their anti-government passions, they hit upon the tactic of forcing a shutdown until Clinton came to terms. But their actions were soon revealed to be highly unpopular. By the time the GOP threw in the towel, Clinton’s approval ratings were registering a marked improvement.

The Republicans’ anti-government zeal got them into trouble again over federal law enforcement. In the controversies over the deadly raid against the armed compound of the Branch Davidian religious cult at Waco, Texas, and the shoot-out between FBI agents and white supremacists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, GOP legislators managed to convey the unfortunate impression that they believed the real villains of the story were the federal officials involved. This had further reverberations when, as federal indictments charge, two or three individuals associated with the so-called militia movement commemorated the Waco tragedy by bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. Clinton seized the opportunity to project himself as a pillar of national unity and lawfulness, and opinion polls recorded an immediate spike in his public approval.

But Oklahoma City and Ruby Ridge did more than give Clinton an opportunity to act “presidential.” They also signaled that the Right had supplanted the Left as the home of radical misfits and violent extremists. Of course, the militia groups were no more Republican than the Weathermen had been Democratic, but in each case a faint penumbra of shame was cast across one side of the political spectrum. It deepened in this case when certain Republican figures like Pat Robertson and Patrick J. Buchanan echoed the ravings of the radical Right in their own warnings against the “new world order.”

Nor did it help that Republican legislators blocked Clinton’s proposed anti-terrorism measures on the grounds that enhanced powers of surveillance by the authorities would endanger civil liberties. By striking this constraining stance toward federal law enforcement, the GOP continued the process of squandering some of its most valuable political capital—its standing as the party of law and order. That waste had already begun in 1993 and 1994 when, under the impetus of the gun lobby, Republican legislators in both houses opposed the ban on assault weapons by margins of more than three to one, almost the exact inverse of the position taken by the electorate. Thus did Republican leaders help pave the way for Clinton’s capture of the crime issue.



Nor was crime the only “values” issue the Republicans flubbed. On several others they failed to exploit weaknesses in the Democrats’ position while magnifying their own. Since, for example, an important bloc of Republican constituents is not just opposed to abortion but sees it as murder, the party is bound to take a strong stand on the matter, even if doing so is an electoral liability. But Dole might well have elicited the sympathy of a majority by seizing on Clinton’s veto of the congressional ban on partial-birth abortions, a procedure repugnant even to many Americans who believe that abortion should be legal. Instead, after the Republican convention beat back a small compromise with the party’s pro-choice minority, the campaign shied away from abortion altogether.

Another such issue was education. The Republicans’ advantage here was their support for school choice, a popular idea. But Dole got off-track in his acceptance speech when he chose to attack teachers’ unions. The attack seemed gratuitous, and anyway fell flat: most people think teachers’ unions have a positive influence on education.

Then there was affirmative action. The November victory of the California Civil Rights Initiative, which passed by 54 to 46 percent, suggests that this issue could have helped the Republicans. Opponents of the California measure, which outlaws racial preferences, accused its supporters of racism; in truth, however, the case against affirmative action rests solidly on the great “dream” of Martin Luther King, Jr. that Americans be judged by “the content of their character” and not “the color of their skin.” Yet not only did the Republicans fail to argue compellingly for a return to these first principles, they made things harder for themselves by taking a harsh approach to immigrants and thus lending plausibility to the charge that they were motivated by bigotry rather than by a devotion to equal rights.

True, once Clinton decided to compete for the values issues, the Republicans were hard put to match him program for program. Not only is Republican philosophy skeptical of government programs in general, but this is an area particularly ill-suited to government-engendered solutions. That, however, makes simple acts of moral advocacy and example all the more important. Nancy Reagan’s “Just-Say-No” initiative, Dan Quayle’s critique of Murphy Brown, William J. Bennett’s crusade against violence and obscenity in popular culture have demonstrated how public figures can use their platforms effectively for moral purposes. Possibly the best moment of Bob Dole’s own campaign was his May 1995 polemic against the glorification of “mindless violence and loveless sex” in Hollywood movies. But this was virtually a one-shot effort. Dole’s failure to stress such themes during the next year and a half remains a great mystery.



Could the Republicans have recouped some of the ground lost on the values issues by reasserting their well-earned stance as the paragons of national security? Perhaps. Although foreign policy was of little interest to voters in this election, Clinton provided an opening by his hollow response to Saddam Hussein’s thrust into Iraqi Kurdistan.1 But instead of castigating Clinton for his fecklessness, Jack Kemp inexplicably said that Clinton should have tried “diplomacy first,” and Dole bizarrely called for more consultation with the UN.

Finally, Dole compromised his effectiveness, and also squandered his advantage on the “character issue,” by his decision to push for a $550-billion tax cut. Ever since 1995, when the House Republicans insisted on pursuing a (much smaller) across-the-board cut, the Democrats and their allies in organized labor had been claiming that this was a “tax cut for the rich,” to be financed out of Republican-demanded “cuts” in Medicare. This was demagogic: the Democrats knew that the Republicans were proposing only to cut Medicare’s rate of growth, and that this was inevitable under any circumstances. Still, the attack bit, because a large proportion of the tax benefits would have gone to the better-off and because the federal budget is all one pot: the size of cuts in Medicare or other programs is indeed affected by a reduction in tax revenues. And the attack was given added force by Dole’s announcement in July of a much more sweeping cut. Now, just as the Democrats had long been seen as pandering to special interests, the Republicans were seen as pandering wholesale.

Dole expressed frustration late in the race that voters would chose someone like Clinton over someone like himself: “Where’s the outrage?” One answer was given by the economist Herb Stein, a Dole supporter, in July:

The voters know that his advisers are urging Mr. Dole to recommend a big tax cut because they are desperate about the election, not because it represents his policies and principles. Can Mr. Dole afford to be seen doing that? The biggest thing he has going for him against Mr. Clinton is that voters think he sticks by his beliefs, that he tries to do the right thing even though it’s hard. Should he sacrifice that public estimation of him now?

When Dole took to claiming that he was more trustworthy, he sounded (as John Podhoretz pointed out in the Weekly Standard) merely egotistical. To demonstrate true superiority of character, he might have talked turkey to the American people about the national debt and the mismatch between taxes and entitlements. He might have spoken of the need for shared sacrifice before the aging of the baby-boom generation makes our problems all the more dire. At the very least this would have made for an arresting contrast with Bill Clinton’s smooth bromides. Perhaps the electorate would not have wanted to hear painful truths, but polls did show that voters were more keen for deficit reduction than for tax cuts. By October, however, between Dole’s tax proposal and Clinton’s adoption of Gingrich’s deadline for a balanced budget, the Republican advantage as the party most trusted to reduce the deficit had shrunk from a 21-percent margin in mid-1995 to a mere 3 percent.



In sum, the Republican party came across less as conservative than as right-wing, thus creating the impression that the Center was up for grabs. And the Center was precisely where Bill Clinton was strenuously, and effectively, positioning himself.

Still, that too is far from the whole story of the 1996 elections, and may be even less than half of it. For the Center of American politics has itself shifted rightward in recent years. Moreover, Clinton victory or no Clinton victory, so far it shows no signs of shifting back. Exhibit A for this are the November election returns for the House and Senate. There, the Republicans confirmed that in some underlying sense, they have become the majority American party.

Even their vulnerabilities confirm this fact. It is because the majority party sets the agenda that the opposition party can fall back on counter-punching—which in politics, as in boxing, is often a winning tactic. Nixon, Reagan, and Bush won presidential elections largely by making an issue of Democratic foibles, and Bill Clinton won in 1996 largely by doing the same to the Republicans. But what a single candidate can do at the presidential level is very hard to replicate in mass at the congressional level.

Although the Republican majority in the new Congress is narrow, there are reasons to think that it will endure. Two years from now, in 1998, the GOP will enjoy the advantage that traditionally accrues in off-year elections to the party not in the White House, an advantage especially strong during a President’s second term. In addition, there is not likely soon to be another election in which the prospects for the Democrats will be as favorable as they were in 1996.

In recent decades, congressional incumbents have won reelection more than 90 percent of the time. An insurgent’s best chance is against an incumbent who has served only one term and is not yet a fixture in the eyes of voters and donors. Thanks to their epochal victory in 1994, the Republicans had a whopping 70 freshmen Representatives in that vulnerable position last November. Naturally, these were the races especially targeted by Democratic funders and organized labor. But in the end, 59 of the 70 survived.

Democratic candidates last year had another advantage that will not come around again, namely, Bill Clinton’s substantial margin over Bob Dole; during the last weeks of the race, Clinton was comfortable enough in his lead to campaign in Republican strongholds and help boost the rest of the Democratic ticket. The Democrats also had the benefit of the unhappy performance of the Republican-led Congress of 1995 and 1996, a performance highlighted by the two shutdowns of the federal government. “If the GOP can keep control after [such] monumental stupidity,” the columnist Ben Wattenberg wrote, “their base is strong.” Clearly, it is.

There are also demographic reasons for believing that Republican dominance is fairly secure, at least in the near term: the class composition of the American electorate has evolved from mainly blue-collar to increasingly college-educated and white-collar, a source of growing strength for Republicans. And finally, the electorate also continues to tilt ideologically toward conservatism. Several public-opinion surveys suggest that a plurality of voters, though unhappy with specific policies, favor the long-term direction signaled by the Republicans and, no less significantly, fear that a Democratic-controlled Congress would be too liberal. In November exit polls, 33 percent of voters described themselves as conservatives, as against only 20 percent who said they were liberals. Asked whether government “should do more to solve problems” or “is doing too many things better left to business and private individuals,” a majority, 52 to 41 percent, said that government was doing too much.



The big question remains what will become of the Democratic party. If, after Clinton, the Democrats revert to the Left-liberalism that has characterized their politics for a quarter-century, then the Republicans will continue to benefit from a wide margin of safety. There are signs that this may happen, in particular in the newly assertive role being played by organized labor. With the forced retirement of Lane Kirk-land as president of the AFL-CIO and his replacement by John Sweeney, who recently enrolled in the Democratic Socialists of America, the unions have taken a dramatic turn. Having once fought to keep the Democratic party in the Center, labor will now be tugging it to the Left, just as the trade unions tug the Labor party in Britain. The advantage can only redound to the Republicans.

On the other hand, novice Democratic candidates for Congress this year mostly imitated Clinton, and others in the party may be spurred by his successful example. (“We’re all New Democrats now,” said House minority leader Richard Gephardt.) If the party should indeed remake itself in Clinton’s 1996 centrist image, then the Republicans will face a more serious challenge. It is, however, a challenge they can meet—not by presenting themselves as right-wingers, harsh on social issues, reckless on budgetary issues, and isolationist or opportunist on international issues, but instead by competing forcefully for the Center that is theirs to define. This does not mean abandoning conservatism; quite the contrary, it means consolidating it.

Decades ago, Irving Kristol branded the GOP the “stupid party” for restricting itself to promises to clean up after the messes made by Democratic profligacy, and failing to articulate an alternative political vision. Today, there are signs that the American electorate, after a long era of self-indulgence, hungers for such a vision, whose essence is a return to responsibility, moral no less than fiscal (and, one hopes, international as well). That is the basis for a mature conservatism, and the party that becomes its vehicle will probably assure its dominance in the post-Clinton era.



1 For a discussion of this episode, see “What Saddam Hussein Learned from Bill Clinton” by Harvey Sicherman in last month’s issue.


About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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