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The Double-Edged Mandate

Republicans misread the '94 voting results to their continuing regret. Will the two parties be any smarter this November?

September 22, 1996|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a political analyst on CNN

WASHINGTON — Here's the conventional wisdom on the 1996 presidential race: It's over.

No candidate this far behind this late in the campaign has ever turned things around and won. For GOP nominee Bob Dole to win, something dramatic would have to happen to destroy public confidence in President Bill Clinton. A stock-market crash. U.S. pilots taken hostage in Iraq. The first lady indicted by the Whitewater special prosecutor. Or the president named an unindicted co-conspirator.

Those are all dire scenarios, maybe dire enough to turn the election around. But remember two things: (1) A crisis tends to produce an initial surge of support for the president. Back in 1979, the hostage-takings in Iran initially boosted President Jimmy Carter's support enough for him to beat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the primaries. (2) Any move against the Clintons by the Whitewater special prosecutor now would be seen as highly political--and could backfire.

Pat Robertson told the Christian Coalition last week it would take "a miracle from almighty God" for Dole to win. For a guy in Robertson's business, that's a sign of optimism. Don't believe in miracles? Look at Clinton in 1994 and in 1996.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, the miracle happens. Dole wins. Would he come in with a mandate?

And how. Dole will have won the greatest turnaround in modern electoral history, surpassing even Harry S. Truman's in 1948. Republicans would almost certainly retain their majority in Congress, which would give them wall-to-wall control of government for the first time in more than 40 years--the presidency, the House, the Senate, most state governments, even the U.S. Supreme Court. The repudiation of the Democrats would be complete.

The pressure to pass the "contract with America" and the platform would be immense. That's why it's unlikely.

A more likely scenario? Clinton wins reelection and the Republicans retain control of Congress--most important, the House of Representatives, which has been the vanguard of the GOP revolution.

That outcome would be easy to interpret. It means 1996 is a status-quo election. People are basically satisfied with the way things are going, so they're voting to reelect incumbents. It's what they did in the 1980s, when voters regularly reelected a Republican president and a Democratic Congress. Only now its a Democratic president and a Republican Congress. Same difference.

It would mean that the voters really do prefer divided government. After their distressing experiences with health-care reform and the "contract with America," voters don't want to give either party complete control. No big agendas, please. Would it be a mandate for gridlock? No. It would be a mandate for both parties to stick to the center and turn out compromise legislation--like last month's highly popular welfare reform, minimum wage and health-insurance reforms. See? Divided government works.

Suppose Clinton wins and Democrats regain control of Congress. Clinton in, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) out--what a triumph for the Democrats! That outcome is beginning to look like a serious possibility. When voters are asked how they will vote for Congress, Democrats are now 10 points ahead of Republicans. A blowout. If the situation doesn't get any better for Republicans, Gingrich may announce he will not run for another term as Speaker. He will sacrifice himself to save the GOP majority.

Suppose the Democrats win a wall-to-wall victory. The sense of mandate would be powerful. Congressional Democrats would claim their own mandate, separate from Clinton's--especially if most of them run ahead of Clinton in their districts. A three-way presidential race makes that more likely. In 1992, most congressional Democrats ran ahead of Clinton. That's why they felt they could lead the new president along--to his doom.

One Democrat in particular would be looking for a mandate--Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the new Speaker of the House. Gephardt is likely to challenge Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic nomination in 2000. To do that, he'll want to use his speakership to build support in the party's liberal-labor base.

Liberals would assume key positions in the new House. African American Democrats would control important committees: Ways and Means (Charles B. Rangel. N.Y.), National Security (Ronald V. Dellums, Calif.), Judiciary (John Conyers Jr., Mich.), Economics and Educational Opportunities (William Clay Sr., Mo.).

Liberals and labor Democrats would take over other key committees: Appropriations (David R. Obey, Wis.), Commerce (John D. Dingell, Mich.), Resources (George Miller, Calif.), Government Reform and Oversight (Henry Waxman, Calif.). Not to mention Gephardt and Majority Leader David E. Bonior (D-Mich.).

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