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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 James Heartfield

For Living Marxism Online's views on the American economy, see Phil Murphy's commentary, 'It'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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