7 November 1996
The Election That Put Politics Aside
Bill Clinton's victory over Republican candidate Bob Dole in the elections
for the presidency of the United States was no triumph for democracy, argues
For Living Marxism Online's views on the American economy, see Phil Murphy's
NOT the economy, stupid'
'The American people have told us, Democrat, Republican and independent,
to put politics aside, join together and get the job done.'
The first Democratic President to win a second term since Franklin Delano
Roosevelt in 1936, William Jefferson Clinton was making his victory speech
at Little Rock, Arkansas. Clinton's generous praise for the heavily defeated
Bob Dole was seen as a magnanimous response to a famous victory over a lacklustre
Republican candidate. In fact Clinton's unwillingness to
rub the Republicans' faces in defeat had a more serious point.
Clinton won 49 per cent of the vote not quite bridging the credibility gap
that had hung over his first term: he was elected in 1992 on a minority
of the votes cast, as support split between Republican candidate George
Bush and independent Ross Perot.
Flagging up the target of 50 per cent, though, was a tactic of the Democrat's
campaign team to try to ensure the election was interpreted as a Clinton
triumph. In other respects the election night was cold comfort for the Democratic
Party and for the authority of the presidency.
It is true that Clinton won a decisive victory over Bob Dole. But voting
was at an all-time low, dropping below half of those registered to vote
to a 49 per cent turn out (George Bush was elected on 50 per cent of the
registered vote in 1988, the previous low point). That statistic and the
numbers of Americans not registered to vote means that Bill Clinton's mandate
in fact rests on the minority of a minority - 44.6 million of America's
250 million citizens. In practice, American politics, even more than Britain's,
is an almost exclusively middle class pastime.
More problematically for the Democrats, the other congressional elections
taking place, for the Senate and the House of Representatives, went in the
Republicans' favour. Increasing their majority in the Senate and hanging
onto a majority in the House of Representatives, the Republicans stymied
Democratic hopes of riding to power on the coattails of Clinton's success.
Having lost control of Congress for the first time in decades in 1994's
mid-term elections, the Democratic presidency has had to learn to work with
a hostile Congress under radical conservative Newt Gingrich. The return
of the Republican Congress explains Clinton's comments about 'putting politics
aside' and getting on with the job. A bi-partisan approach is the only one
available to the Clinton administration for at least the next two years.
But bi-partisanship is not just a matter of convenience, it is the new face
of American politics. One thing that the election process confirmed is that
American politics has become a contest for the middle ground. The key to
understanding the outcome of the elections is that the candidates who most
successfully present themselves as 'of the centre' and their opponents as
extreme are those that will win.
To most commentators the reorientation towards the centre seems to be a
triumph for common sense. In fact it is a staging post on the way to abolishing
democracy altogether. When the president of the United States imagines that
his democratic mandate is to 'put politics aside' what he is saying is that
no real differences exist in the way that the country should be run, and
that the only debate to be had is about which is the better man to do the
job. The narrowing compass of political contestation means that the opinions
of the electorate count for less. Faced with a choice between candidates,
but not their policies, it is little wonder that American voters stayed
away from the polling booths.
Of the major parties it is the Democrats, and in particular the Clinton-led
Democratic Leadership Council, that has done most to get rid of the ideological
baggage of the past. Consequently it is they who have been in the best position
to take advantage of the contest for the centre.
The Democratic Leadership Council pioneered the policy of reinventing the
old Democratic Party, with all of its associations with big-city politics,
welfare spending and organised Labour, as the New Democrats, appealing to
voters in the suburbs as well. On advice from the columnist and psephologist
Ben Wattenberg, the Bill Clinton administration pioneered the strategy of
winning the battle to define 'values' before worrying too much about policies.
Fixing the Democratic Party in the public imagination as inclusive, rather
than exclusive, tough on crime, and looking to the future, Clinton never
had to worry too much about the fine print. The sound-bite of 'building
a bridge to the future' captured the vacuous and technical idea of what
government can do. Not surprisingly the Clinton makeover is the model for
Britain's New Labour Party.
The icing on Clinton's cake came, ironically, with the election of the Republican
Congress under Newt Gingrich in 1994. Struggling to redefine themselves
as a radical party of the right Gingrich led a 'Conservative revolution'
with his programme of cutting back big government, the 'Contract with America'.
Gingrich momentarily took advantage of the public dismay with Washington
to win support. But Clinton's deft performance in the White House meant
that he could use Gingrich to tame his own party's taste for grand policy
initiatives, while taking on board much of Gingrich's programme, but leaving
the Republican Congress to take the blame
for what went wrong.
When Congress refused to vote funds for the administration in protest at
Clinton's 'excessive' budget, the federal government was literally closed
down, with government offices and libraries shut to the public and government
workers sent home. Gingrich had lost the plot. People might want smaller
government, but they did not want no government. The Republicans had walked
into Clinton's trap, casting themselves in the role of doctrinaire fanatics.
The Democrats had successfully defined themselves as 'the centre ground'.
Outside of the corridors of power the Republicans did not know whether to
strike out to the right or contest the centre. When they attempted the first
strategy they were isolated. In California Republican governor Pete Wilson
made some headway by attacking Mexican immigrants. But the proposal to deny
illegal immigrants government funds foundered on the spectre of children
going untaught and people losing their jobs on racial grounds.
By the time of the election, Bob Dole was boxed in. If he attacked the President
he was cast as a negative campaigner. But when he tried to contest the centre
he found that the Clinton campaign had already defined it.
Cynics have suggested that Clinton wanted a Republican majority in Congress
so that he could adopt their policies but let them carry the can for the
inertia of government - which is probably too arch even for the comeback
kid from a town called Hope. What Clinton has done is to ride the tide of
bi-partisanship, so that politics can be put aside as long as he is
For the American people bi-partisanship is no victory. It means that there
is little choice in policy and their own opinions weigh less heavily in
the balance. For them putting politics aside means that they are even further
from exercising real power over their own lives.
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