A Victory For The Centre? Americans Re-Endorse Clinton And The Politics Of Divided Government

John Heathershaw

Originally published in 1996/1997, Issue 1

In one of the more memorable moments of the otherwise dull BBC coverage of US election night, veteran political commentator Charles Wheeler pointed out that President Clinton had just been re-elected by American voters who had little if any idea of his agenda for his second term in office. ‘What is his agenda?’, he asked Democratic Party advisor David Doak. Wheeler, clearly perturbed by the lack of debate in the 1996 campaign, was amazed when he was clearly unable to give him an answer. ‘I watched a debate-‘ , Wheeler began, charitably trying to move the discussion along for the embarrassed Doak while BBC presenter David Dimbleby looked on with glee. ‘Let me tell you something,’ Doak interrupted, attempting to regain face, ‘you aren’t going to learn anything from an American Presidential debate.’ This pointedly revealing interchange highlighted a truism that had triggered a widespread debate in the American press: in ’96, and certainly not for the first time, image had seemingly triumphed over ideas in the presidential election campaign.

Nevertheless, Bill Clinton has won an incredible victory which will make him the first two-term Democratic President since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, and surely assure his place in history as one of the greatest ever election campaigners. Clinton’s ability in public speaking is only surpassed by his ability to connect with the audience and their mood. In the novel Primary Colors, Joe Klein the Newsweek columnist and its formerly anonymous author, describes the ‘fictional’ Democratic presidential candidate Jack Stanton visiting an adult literacy programme, where he measures his audience and reduces them to tears. Clinton’s handshake, ‘the threshold act of politics’, has subsequently become legendary – ‘the strength, quality, duration of it, the rudiments of pressing the flesh.’ [1] In campaign he is a master, particularly when battling against adversity, as he had to for so long in winning the Democrat nomination in the Spring of 1992. However, his victory is somewhat hollow, and it is clearly not a signal from the American electorate for him to proceed with a Clinton agenda. To be re- endorsed as the holder of the most powerful office on earth he attained 49% of the vote, from the 49% of the electorate that were sufficiently motivated by their responsibility as American citizens to chose a President to take them into the next millennium, to turn out and register their choice – the lowest turn-out rate ever. Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, concluded: “High turnout in elections can be driven by anger, sustaining participation rests on hope. And this election offered neither.” [2] Yet the most important Clinton-induced history-making was the re-election of the Republican Congress, to ensure divided government and a continuation of the centrist policies that characterised the latter half of his first term in office. It was the first time ever a Democrat [3] has been elected President while the Republicans control Congress. Indeed, while the Republican majority was lessened slightly in the House of Representatives, they gained three seats in the Senate to increase their advantage. This, despite nominating a dud presidential candidate in the ageing and uninspiring Bob Dole. Was this chance or premeditation by American voters? A Time poll, two weeks prior to the election, suggested the latter, with 56% saying if Clinton is elected they would prefer a Republican Congress.

It is indicative of the nature of American politics, and perhaps western liberal democracies in general, that a man deeply despised by both left and right, and with an unconvincing record as President can nevertheless gain popular support. Essentially American politics is not polarised and thus election campaigns have become a battle for the ‘Radical Centre’. Newt Gingrich, the champion of the right two years ago when the ‘Republican Revolution’ regained the control of Congress, became the devil of the campaign for democrat candidates in ’96. His disastrously over-zealous bid to cut federal debt spurned what Gingrich, with due cause, estimates to be 75,000 negative adverts on American TV associating Republican candidates with this attack on public entitlements. At the other end of the spectrum Minnesota Senator Paul Wellestone, an old-liberal of American politics who travelled around the state canvassing from his motor-home, was dismissed as ’embarrassingly liberal’ by his Republican opponent. However, Wellestone was re-elected and overall the Democrat congressional campaign was only a partial success with a small number of Gingrich’s 1994 freshman defeated.

However in considering the election of the federal government, the election of the President and overall government picture is more indicative of the national mood, and the American electorate sent its message to Clinton: We have little enthusiasm or concern for your presidency but we realise you are the better of our two options. We do not wish for you to implement a liberal agenda (as you attempted to in 1993). We want you to be pragmatic in making policies out of conflicting American political ideas. Clinton’s attraction to the American body politic is his broad appeal and catch-all philosophy. This attraction was nevertheless limited, and yet the irony of the democratic system is that rarely do the victors get majority support, in Clinton’s case 75% of the population was ambivalent to his message. The Independent comments, ‘As Abraham Lincoln might have said, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time but one in four will do nicely.’ [4] Moreover, Dole offered no hope of a better America, no inspiring policies to challenge Clinton’s fudged ideas. The Presidents course to victory was aided by his success in keeping key issues out of the campaign, such as welfare and health-care reform. Clinton touted the apparent stability of the US domestically, and in its position in the world. He reminded voters of the strength of the economy, the fall in the deficit, and the millions of new jobs he had created. Rhetoric was employed above debate, it was better for Clinton’s voters to be vague rather than have a substantial knowledge of the issues. His strategy was aided by the tendency of the debates in American politics to be about the precise and often tedious differences between the two sides policies. Once the debate becomes less interesting and too hard to find, apathy can take over and lead to ignorance.

However, Clinton is a policy freak and his abundance of idea’s are part of his appeal across the ideological and demographic spectrum that helped re-elect him despite his uninspiring first term. After the Republican victories of 1994 Clinton showed the necessary ability to fudge his ideas to make divided government work, in doing so he showed up the arrogance of a party willing to shut down government and simultaneously stole all their best ideas from the centre and centre-right, and reinvented himself as the centrist candidate. Time describes, ‘The President won the votes of 1 in 5 self described conservatives; 1 in 4 members of the religious right: 1 in 8 Republicans; half the nation’s catholic voters.’ However, his chief supporters were the young and women. Dole didn’t seek to challenge Clinton’s validity to make these issues his own, he embellished the rhetoric, speaking of a ‘bridge to a time of tranquillity faith and confidence’. [5] His words were an open invitation for Clinton to make political gain, at the Democratic Convention he used his two greatest weapons: Dole’s antiquity, and the Republican induced closure of government in 1995. ‘The real choice is about whether we will build a bridge to the future or a bridge to the past, about whether we believe our best days are still out there…about whether we want a country of people working together or one where your on your own’ [6] Bridge metaphors became the principal campaign slogans for Clinton and reminded American voters about their contrived choice: the future or the past. It easily became tiresome, but essentially it worked.

Charisma triumphed over character. Dole with a reputation for decency but a dour public persona could not challenge the image of Clinton, the vibrant campaigner and yet perceived to be of dubious character. Clinton wasn’t elected for being him, rather for the role in government he was to play. To avoid dangerous debates on issues to be tackled in the next four years, it was essential for Clinton to avoid any consideration of those candidates and voters disillusioned by the two main parties. Chameleon-type pragmatism might be an essential part of the political process, but this necessarily means that to discuss the issues on a level playing field with single-issue candidates who have no hope of victory and thus endanger revealing Clinton’s original ideological position, which is to the left of the position that divided government forces him to take, could open him up to charges of hypocrisy and worst still ‘liberalism’, an idea largely out of fashion. Both candidates insisted on Ross Perot, the Texan billionaire leading his own Reform Party for a change in ‘politics as usual’, and Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, be kept out the presidential debate, presumably to maintain the absence of debate. Dole’s willingness to evade debate shows him to be merely a more conservative version of Clinton: a career politician shaped by the political system and diversity of ideas within the electorate he serves. Yet it is Clinton who is the King Chameleon with his slick political manner, and a more sophisticated populist approach born out of the political lesson which was his first two years of office. Moreover, despite his rude awakening of 1993/94, Clinton still has many ideas, perhaps too many, but seemingly enough to appeal across the spectrum, however contradictory that might be. Dole is less prolific and more cagey with his ideas, perhaps because of his experience of practical politics and is conservative beliefs. Time summarises their differences: ‘Clinton went around their country, mirroring voters’ every hope and hunger, saying, “I’m just like you”; Dole went looking for himself, asking, “Are you like me?”‘ [7]

To look behind the gloss and examine Clinton’s record and future ‘agenda’ a broad ideological position is found which isn’t as much centrist or pragmatist, as it is blatantly contradictory. He nevertheless seems to find something for everyone. He is very definitely pro-choice, vetoing a bill banning late-term, partial birth abortions, and he favours a federal statute barring discrimination against gays, but signed a law against gay marriage. Clinton is very definitely tough on crime, in part of his attempt to appeal to the conservative right, with a $30 billion crime bill in 1994 with funding for 100,000 new police officers and death penalties for 60 types of crime, and he favours trying violent youths as adults. However, he supports the assault-weapons ban (wow – a pacifist!) and some other gun control measures, and claims to be something of a greenie due to his opposition to Republican attempts to weaken environmental legislation. He has cut the defence budget yet proposes to spend more on education and the fight against drugs. Although his sweeping health-care reform was thrown out, he managed to block Republican attempts to control the cost of Medicare saying it would hurt pensioners. Claims the economy is at its strongest level since the 1960’s, favours a $107 billion package of tax cuts and a bi-partisan effort to balance the budget. He strongly backed the rise in the minimum wage, and yet received heavy criticism from liberals within his own party for signing a Republican welfare reform bill which requires participants to find work in two years and limited life-time welfare to five years. Furthermore he adopts moderate protectionism for American workers in the south-west by getting tough on illegal immigration, yet pushed through the GATT and Nafta trade deals that anger Pat Buchanon and his protectionist cronies. [8]

His whole position on the issues seems to find something to please members of every ideological and demographic position, while simultaneously annoying them all. How can Americans re-endorse such an ideological contradiction? A more substantial answer than that of Clinton’s wizardry as a campaigner, Dole’s antique approach, and the strength of the American economy, is unearthed by an examination of the interaction of American political ideas. In the 1950’s many believed that such a position can only mean the end of ideology. That the United states was so progressive that it no longer needed ideologies. America’s belief in its own exceptionalism came to a consensus. Michael Foley writes, ‘It saw itself as the vanguard of western societies, showing how under the right conditions, clashing political ideas could wither away to a residue of democratic competition between endlessly compatible interests.’ [9]

This assertion was shown to be misguided with the social upheaval of the 1960’s, showing both the vibrancy and diversity of American political ideas given the right social, economic or political context. It is nevertheless still a popular assertion among Europeans in particular, and even Americans, that ideas are stagnant in the US. A large part of the reason for this assumption is obvious American distaste for European-style ideologies from the mass politics of the early twentieth century, principally communism and fascism, despite America’s flirtation with the latter in McCarthyism, the religious right and other such movements. By its rejection of European ideologies and the very nature of its government, designed by the founding fathers of the constitution to prevent ideologues from imposing an extremist agenda, America avoided the polarisation of the left-right clash. Foley asserts, ‘The United States possesses a little understood ability to engage in deep conflicts over political ideas, while at the same time reducing the adversarial positions to legitimate derivatives of American history and development. This often gives American Politics the impression of being non-ideological in nature.’ [10]

It is clear that there are passionately held ideas in American politics prove the ‘end of ideology’ only to be an ideology in itself. [11] Then what can explain the attraction of Clinton despite his contradictory conglomerate of ideas? One response is to contend that a confusion of the electorate is caused by the mass of different ideas that Clinton and America embrace and want to sustain. This causes periods of ‘ideological inactivity (e.g. the 1950’s) followed by periods of ideological activity (e.g. the 1960’s).’ [12] There is certainly a reactive element in the behaviour of the American electorate, however, this alone does not explain Clinton’s broad appeal despite his unimpressive record. Nor does it explain how contradictory ideas of freedom and equality co-exist in a period of stability as they have under Clinton. Foley contends that American political ideas are not simply employed randomly but are held together like the pieces in a conglomerate rock. It ‘contains a large number of jagged components which appear to be arbitrarily arranged with no pattern or logical relationship to one another. They retain their form and separate identities but are nevertheless held together in unison – albeit an unstable and imprecise unison.’ [13]

How is it that these contradictions can be held together in unison in the Clinton era and the majority of recent time without exploding into conflict? To cram all ideas into a universal ethos is an unfruitful task and can become a generalisation of everything American. Samuel P. Huntingdon contend that they are for the most part held together in an uneasy peace and occasionally they are exploded when America tries to reconcile the gap between its ideals and its achievements. [14] This is true enough, but fails to explain how American voters are not dismayed by the contradictions. They seemingly, as a group, want to attain all the ideals that their society espouses. This leads to a dichotomy between ideological principles and their operational reality observed by Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal. He found that most Americans consider that they believe in the principle of equality regardless of how they treat blacks. [15] From these assumptions, Foley concludes that the binding force to keep Americans together is the binding force of American historical experience, and their diverse ideas have arisen out of this experience. It is an ideology of American heritage and the exceptionalism of American history, the contradictions do not have to be analysed because the constitution provides the separation of powers to hammer out a coexistence for these values. What is clear is the only consensus of any sort in American politics is on the need not to let one strand of ideas dominate over another, and leads to the concept of split-ticket voting and divided government. [16]

Bill Clinton has respect for his audience, even if they have no respect for him, and his re-election is in part born out of this ability to mirror their ideals. His march from left to right and allover the centre-ground shows respect for all of America’s historically induced ideas. Clinton is the champion of the radical centre for the 1990s’, and he is necessarily pragmatic in approach – a political lesson learned from two years in executive office. It is often asked what does Clinton represent. Is he a liberal? A Pragmatist? A centrist? Answer: he is all three and more, espousing ideals of liberty and equality, and conserving other rights (e.g. to property) that American history has created and Americans as a conglomerate hold dear. This is not to say this puts Clinton and America in a superior position to other nations. There are many dangers behind appealing to a numerous collection of contradictory beliefs, as America’s history shows it can bring many a cruel irony. The richest state on earth has 1 in 7 without medical insurance and a severe inner-city poverty problem. A nation that espouses the freedom to carry a gun suffers over 10,000 murders by bullet each year. Moreover, Clinton’s second term may crash under weight of scandal, or less likely social upheaval, however, he is the President they deserve. With a chameleon- like abilities Bill Clinton can be all things to all people, but he may well satisfy very few at all.


footnotes

1. See Primary Colors, by Anonymous [later revealed to be Joe Klein] (1996)

2. Quoted in The Times, 4/11/96.

3.

4. The Independent, 4/11/95.

5. Dole at the Republican Convention, quoted in The Times, 6/11/96.

6. Clinton at the Democratic Convention, quoted in The Times, 6/11/96.

7. See Time 4/11/96.

8. ibid.

9. Foley, Michael, American Political Ideas (1991) p.2

10. ibid. p.4

11. See ibid. p.2

12. ibid. pp.217-19

13. ibid p.22o

14. See Huntingdon, Samuel P. American Politics: the Promise of Disharmony

15. See Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilema: The Negro Problem and Democracy; for a discussion see Foley op.cit. p.227

16. Foley, op.cit.pp. 228-30

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