Bill Clinton: Campaigns and Elections

Bill Clinton: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1992:

Bill Clinton easily defeated the leading Democratic contenders in the 1992 primaries, despite charges about having avoided the Vietnam draft and his rumored affairs with women. He dealt with the infidelity issue on national television in an interview in which he admitted to having caused "pain" in his marriage. Although he said he had smoked pot as a college student, he added that he "didn't inhale," which struck his critics as disingenuous. Most voters seemed unconcerned with his private life or his stand on a war that had ended many years before. His opponent, President George H.W. Bush, ran a lackluster campaign that failed to convert his great successes in foreign affairs into a convincing argument to reelect him. Republican die-hards never forgave Bush for having broken his 1988 promise to not raise taxes. Middle-class Americans, moreover, had grown increasingly upset over Bush's refusal to act on the economic recession that had settled on the nation.

Clinton pounded hard on the advantages given to the rich by the Reagan revolution, the Reagan-Bush $300 billion deficit, and the dire economic prospects that faced America's younger generation. His campaign handlers, led by political strategist James Carville, posted a sign at Clinton headquarters that sprightly summarized the Clinton message: "It's the economy, stupid."

The Bush campaign was not helped by the emergence of billionaire Ross Perot's independent candidacy, which Perot personally financed. His "United We Stand, America" citizens group promised a White House dedicated to patriotism, candor, honesty, and a balanced budget. Dissatisfied voters of all stripes flocked to his call, creating one of the most powerful third-party movements in American history. Although Perot drew support from both Republicans and Democrats, he probably hurt Bush disproportionately more than Clinton, owing to his harsh attacks against the incumbent and the timing of both his departure and re-entry into the 1992 campaign. But ultimately Perot's candidacy was damaged beyond repair by his own inconstant commitment to running—a posture that benefited the Clinton challenge.

On November 3, Clinton received more than twice the number of Electoral College votes than did Bush. Perot drew support from both parties, winning approximately 19 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes. Clinton had delivered on his promise to do well in traditional Democratic strongholds, to win back large numbers of Reagan Democrats, and to attract middle-class Republicans. However, when his vote is compared to the combined Bush and Perot totals in 1992, it is clear that Clinton was a minority President. On the other hand, a larger percentage (55 percent) of the electorate voted in 1992 than in 1988, 1984, and 1980. And when the Clinton and Perot popular vote totals are combined (62 percent), the 1992 election amounts to a dramatic vote for change.

The Campaign and Election of 1994

Midway through his first term in office, Clinton's reelection prospects were dim, given the stunning victory of Republicans in the 1994 off-year elections. For the first time in forty years, both houses of Congress were controlled by Republican lawmakers. And almost everyone blamed Clinton. His campaign promise to reform the nation's health care system was soundly defeated. His controversial executive order lifting the ban against homosexuals in the military enraged conservatives and failed to generate significant public support. Clinton's work on behalf of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) split the Democrats, many of whom feared the loss of jobs to Mexico and Canada.

Additionally, a barrage of political and personal scandals plagued the Clinton administration in its first term. The most damaging issue surrounded charges that the Clintons had illegally profited from their involvement with a failed savings and loan that had dealings in Arkansas real estate on the Whitewater River. Charges swirled fast and furious, specifically linking the White House to a cover-up of the Whitewater affair and the suicide of Vincent Foster, a top White House aide and close friend of Hillary Clinton. Moreover, the administration was negatively affected by allegations of suspicious commodity dealings by the First Lady (she had turned a $1,000 investment in commodities into a $100,000 profit), and the rumored sexual escapades of President Clinton while governor of Arkansas (including allegations that he had sexually harassed an Arkansas state employee, Paula Corbin Jones).

Republican Contract with America

Although only 39 percent of the electorate voted in the 1994 congressional elections, the Republicans swept to victory. The well-organized right-wing of the Republican Party, under the leadership of Georgia congressman Newton ("Newt") Gingrich and assisted by the rise of conservative talk-radio (Rush Limbaugh, Oliver North, and G. Gordon Liddy), trumpeted their "Contract with America" to spectacular electoral response. The Contract, tested in focus groups around the nation, promised to complete the dismantling of the New Deal state that had been started under Ronald Reagan. (See Reagan biography, Domestic Affairs section, for details.) Gingrich became the Speaker of the House and Senator Robert Dole of Kansas became the Senate majority leader. Republicans controlled the House of Representatives 230 to 204 and held 53 Senate seats to the Democrats' 47 seats. Pollsters and political commentators predicted the end of the Clinton presidency—indeed, had the United States operated with a parliamentary system of government, Clinton would have been driven from office. Clearly, the 1994 election had been a dramatic political repudiation of the President.

Within two years, however, the Republican ascendancy and Contract with America was in a shambles. In January 1996, President Clinton delivered a State of the Union address that waxed eloquently about the future. His ratings were on the rise, and it looked as if the Comeback Kid stood a good chance to do what no Democrat had accomplished since FDR: serve two consecutive elected terms to the presidency. What had happened?Part of the answer rests with the over extension of the Republican charge. House Republicans had used the Contract as an inflexible governing plan when in fact American voters had never clearly endorsed its particulars. By 1996, Gingrich's no-holds barred attack on government programs had frightened many moderate Republicans. Americans began to wonder about the long-range consequences, for example, of dismantling environmental protection programs. Most importantly, when the Republicans proposed drastic cuts in Medicare expenditures coupled with a tax-cut disproportionately pegged to benefit the wealthy, an anti-Gingrich backlash began to roll across the nation. Americans grew weary of the nonstop personal attacks on Clinton and the First Lady by conservative ideologues they linked to the House Republicans. Millions of Americans began to identify the Republican majority in the House with a fringe "mean streak" in politics that offended their sense of fair play.

Finally, the Republican majority stumbled badly when it decided to force a government shut down unless Clinton signed its budget. Clinton, sensing the opportunity to show his mettle, vetoed Republican-passed spending bills in the fall of 1995, citing proposed cuts in education and Medicaid as being unfair. The U.S. government closed its doors twice, first for six days in November and again for twenty-one days in December 1995. Three-quarters of a million federal workers were caught in the middle of this political jousting just before Christmas, left to wonder whether they would be paid during the holiday season. Angry Americans, faced with locked government offices and closed national parks, blamed the Republicans, forcing them to back down and pass a temporary measure to reopen the government on January 5, 1996. Voters who had once urged the Republicans onward in their attacks on big government now applauded Clinton for protecting their interests.

Republican Challenger Robert Dole

For most of the time after 1994, Senator Robert Dole was the hands-down front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. The only serious question was whether retired general Colin Powell would run. But Powell removed himself from contention, in 1995, leaving Dole as the man to beat. Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, millionaire publisher Steven Forbes, and right-wing gadfly Patrick Buchanan squared off in the early primaries. Buchanan did well in New Hampshire, and Forbes's expensive commercials (in which he advocated a universal "flat tax") forced Dole to spend precious dollars in response. Nevertheless, Dole took the key South Carolina primary on March 2, which positioned him to win enough delegate votes to sew-up the nomination by April.

Mindful of the disastrous Republican convention in 1992, Dole's handlers tried hard to distance the candidate from the far right without losing its support. In his nomination acceptance speech, he promised a 15 percent tax cut and announced his commitment to a "fairer, flatter tax"—a clear attempt to appeal to Forbes supporters. Moderate Republicans worried that the nominee's acceptance of a tax cut and a flat tax meant his conversion to Ronald Reagan "supply-side" economics, a sharp contrast to Dole's traditional interest in balancing the budget. When he announced that New Yorker Jack Kemp, a conservative, tax-cutting former congressman and member of the Bush administration, would be his running mate, Dole's moderate supporters feared the worst. A high point at the convention came with an informal and chatty speech by Dole's wife, the popular Elizabeth Dole, who went right into the audience, imitating the style of television talk-show hosts.

Dole headed into the campaign significantly behind Clinton in the polls. Although Dole received high marks for his integrity, his age (seventy-three), speaking style, and excessively dry wit worked against him. Dole tried hard to play up his combat record in World War II (during which he had lost the use of an arm) and his experience in office. But he seemed out of touch with a more youthful America. At one point, he criticized Hollywood and its amoral values. But instead of giving him a boost, the pitch came across to many as the ramblings of an old man. Most voters were fully aware that Dole would most likely be the last presidential candidate to have fought in World War II, a war that seemed like ancient history to the "baby boomers" (those born just after the war) of Clinton's generation.

The Ross Perot Candidacy

As with the 1992 election, Ross Perot again jumped into the fray, using his newly organized Reform Party to mount an independent bid for the presidency. The former governor of Colorado, Richard Lamm, challenged Perot for the Reform Party nomination but lost badly. Similar to his 1992 campaign tactics, Perot attacked both major party candidates. However, he failed to capture the public's attention to the same degree as in 1992. His selection of the little-known Washington author Pat Choate as his running mate did not help his campaign. Neither Clinton nor Dole agreed to debate Perot, and when the federal courts denied Perot's suit for a place in the debates, the third party candidate remained largely on the sidelines.

Engineering a Presidential Comeback

Starting in 1995, after Clinton defeated the Republicans in the budget battles, he engineered one of the most impressive comebacks in presidential campaign history. Clinton moved decisively to emphasize his earlier commitments to reforms aimed at the middle class. To that end, Clinton brought Dick Morris back into his strategy team. As the President's old friend and political consultant who had helped engineer his gubernatorial comeback in 1982, Morris quickly identified the key issues where Clinton could preempt the Republicans: crime, welfare reform, the federal budget, and affirmative action. Morris came up with a strategy in which Clinton distanced himself not only from radical Republicans but also from the liberals in his own Democratic Party.

Clinton embraced much of what Morris recommended. Seeking the public endorsement of police associations, Clinton supported a crime bill, claiming it would put 100,000 new police officers on the streets; he also championed anti-assault weapons measures. In addition, the President promoted the goal of a two-year limit on how long a person could remain on welfare—a stance that angered many in his party. He also focused on tax policies which targeted the middle class while shifting the burden to the upper class.

Along with his shift in strategy away from health care to more acceptable middle-class goals, Clinton capitalized on various opportunities during 1995 to improve his public standing. He delivered a stirring eulogy for government workers who had died when home-grown terrorists destroyed a federal building in Oklahoma City. He sprang to the defense of religious congregations whose churches had been burned in what appeared to be racially motivated arson attacks. The President's much-criticized decision in August of 1995 to authorize air strikes against the Serbs in Bosnia had unexpectedly produced a cease-fire within a month, giving Clinton the image of competence in foreign affairs.

Meanwhile, the Republicans seemed to be dooming themselves. The public soured on the political zeal of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, especially evident in his complaint over seating arrangements on Air Force One en route with the President to the funeral of assassinated Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. Then, when the Senate investigation (headed by Senator Alphonse D'Amato of New York) into the economic activities of the Clintons in Arkansas yielded little tangible evidence linking them to any criminal activity, the whole Whitewater investigation looked more and more like a partisan gambit. (This investigation ran parallel to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's Whitewater probe.) Most importantly, the economy had rebounded in the previous five months, allowing Clinton to take credit for low interest rates, a low unemployment rate, and a dramatic decline in the federal budget deficit. Thus, for Clinton, the harmonious August 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago, in which he won renomination without any opposition, was a vindication of his first term and reflected his successful strategy of offering centrist issues to the public.

On the Campaign Trail

As the campaign unfolded, it looked as though Dole would go down to certain defeat. Clinton offered the public more of the same, including "McIssues" such as school uniforms and after-school programs for teenagers, none of which constituted major policy initiatives, but all of which preempted the Republican attempt to portray Democrats as dangerous radicals. Instead, Clinton became the candidate of "family values" and successfully won the suburban family vote, especially that of the "soccer Moms." The one negative for Clinton proved less than fatal. Press reports broke a story alleging improper contributions to the President's campaign war chest. The story embarrassed the Democratic campaign but failed to turn public support to Dole. The seventy-three-year-old senator from Kansas had announced his resignation from the Senate to focus on the campaign, and then he barnstormed the country nonstop to demonstrate his energy. While both tactics won him great respect, they did not change the outcome of the election.

The Democratic Clinton/Gore ticket won more than twice the number of electoral votes than the Republican Dole/Kemp ticket. Perot captured no electoral votes and garnered less than half of his 1992 popular vote. California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and the Republican strongholds of Florida and Arizona were among the thirty-three states Clinton won. The President failed, however, to win his desired mandate with a popular majority, and thus he remained a minority President. Still, the victory for the "Comeback Kid" was especially impressive in view of his predicted demise in 1994.

Although Clinton had won a personal victory, his party remained in deep difficulty. Republicans continued to control the House and Senate, proving that their congressional victory in 1994 had been no fluke. Moreover, Republicans maintained their recent gains in state legislative seats and in governorships, particularly in the South. In 1993, Clinton's first year in office, there had been 30 Democratic governors; that number fell to 17 entering 1997. Moreover, almost all the large states had Republican governors, and the Republicans had achieved parity in a long-time Democratic stronghold: state legislatures. The electorate was about evenly divided in party identification. In the South, a large majority of whites were now firmly aligned with the Republicans. During Clinton's two terms, the President failed to stem the slow but steady disintegration of the New Deal coalition toward a realignment favoring Republicans and independents.