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The Danger of a Big Victory

Just What Can These Parties Do?

September 01, 1996|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is editor and publisher of the American Political Report and his books include, "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics."

CHICAGO — President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Mary Elizabeth "Tipper" Gore and friends used words like child, family and parents so often in their speeches that Chicago seemed more like a convention of pediatricians than politicians. The Democratic Party seems to have moved out of liberalism's Memory Lane into Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

But even so (or perhaps as a result), the Man from Hope, with a 15-point lead over challenger Bob Dole, is coming out of the Windy City's equally windy convention as a solid favorite to be the first Democratic president elected to two consecutive terms since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.

His lead could erode, but it is unlikely to be wiped out. No incumbent president ahead by 15 points at the beginning of September has ever gone down to defeat in November. Several non-incumbent nominees have seen early September leads in the 15-point range shrivel (Richard M. Nixon in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1976) or end in defeat (Thomas E. Dewey in 1948), but that's a different situation. A sitting president has a far more solidly established image. History suggests that Dole has little more chance to win in November than Ross Perot.

Increasingly, the more important question is not whether Clinton will be reelected, but by how big a margin and with what coattails for other Democrats. If Clinton actually does win by 15 points on Election Day, the effects could be far-reaching.

In doing so, he would probably carry in a Democratic Congress. The precedents are compelling, because the last time a winning Democratic presidential nominee failed to bring in a Democratic Congress was back in 1884. What's new is that some Clinton advisors worry they can't govern any more successfully with a Democratic Congress than with a Republican one.

A Democratic victory of this still-hypothetical magnitude would ensure chaos in the defeated GOP. Only two years ago, after the 1994 elections, the GOP believed it was on the verge of its own successful revolution. Defeat for the presidency and loss of Congress in the same election would confront the GOP with a crisis of ideology, leadership and even identity. Pie-in-the-sky supply-side economics would sink with the Dole-Kemp tax-cut ship. Patrick J. Buchanan and Lamar Alexander could say: I told you so. Third-party pressures would intensify.

It's almost a cliche, though, that the Democrats would face stresses of their own from a Clinton landslide and a recapture of Congress. By perceiving such an outcome as a national repudiation of Republicanism and harsh ideological conservatism, hang-dog liberalism could, overnight, transform itself into hubris. And remaining in the political center could become ever more difficult for Clinton, as liberals clamored for the return of government as Big Brother.

The second November possibility, however, is that Clinton wins--but his margin is only seven to 10 points. This could reflect a partly successful early-fall conservative counterattack, which could keep Congress narrowly in Republican hands and eliminate the possibility of Clinton and the Democrats interpreting the election as a liberal mandate. For now, at least, this remains the most widely held assumption among Washington pundits and election analysts.

Call this scenario "neo-gridlock" or an extension of the status quo--it's one, nonetheless, that many politicians, on both sides, would be comfortable with. After all, it would perpetuate their power and patronage. And maintaining divided government would give both sides an excuse and a scapegoat for not fulfilling the wish lists of their ideological cadres. By contrast, if one party gets control of both Congress and the White House, then it might have to govern more and posture less.

Suppose Dole does come from behind to win. The tidal wave that would be involved would almost certainly keep the Republicans with roughly their current majorities in Congress, Democrats would be stunned by the explosion of their August dreams--and infuriated. Intraparty recrimination would be massive. But the Republicans, in turn, would be so elated, so full of beans, that they might well try again to enact the same sort of ultraconservative policies that failed in 1995-96: Call it "contract with America II." Succumbing to this kind of internal "wing" pressure would be as bad for the GOP as it would be for the country.

As of Labor Day weekend, however, the first two possibilities are the better bets--the chance of Clinton winning a landslide 15-point victory and recapturing Congress for the Democrats, together with the lesser alternative of Clinton winning by seven to 10 points and narrowing the Republicans' edge in Congress to a few seats.

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