WASHINGTON — The 1996 election, which once loomed as a momentous referendum on the role of government, now seems likely to result in an extension of the current political stalemate enlivened mainly by stepped-up partisan hostility as well as bickering within the two parties.
With President Clinton enjoying a comfortable lead over GOP challenger Bob Dole in virtually every national poll, both parties are focusing on the battle for control of Congress. But most independent analysts and party professionals agree that whichever one gains that prize, it probably will be inhibited from undertaking bold initiatives.
The analysts and party pros point to these reasons for this restraint:
* The narrow majorities by which both houses likely will be controlled.
* The reverses each party suffered during the last four years when it sought to enact major social and economic changes.
* The severe restrictions imposed by the basic commitment each party has made to balancing the budget.
"The public has put both a ceiling and a floor on government involvement in our lives," said Brookings Institution senior fellow Tom Mann.
"There are not going to be any slack resources to fund the substantial new government programs" that Democrats would ordinarily be expected to favor if they regain control of Congress, said George Edwards, director of the Center for the Study of the Presidency at Texas A&M University.
"And you can't play with tax cuts," as Republicans ordinarily like to do, "because the new rules are that you have to pay for them up front," Edwards added.
As for Clinton, even if he were to rack up an especially large personal victory margin today, he also is expected to be held in check by the same factors that hamstring the legislative branch. There is also the matter of what Mann calls the "itsy-bitsy agenda" he set forth during the campaign.
In effect, analysts say, the result of today's balloting likely will amount to little more than ratification of the two signal developments of the last two years--the repudiation of the conservative revolution mounted by the Republican 104th Congress and Clinton's shift to the center.
"The Republicans marched into battle with Clinton after the 1994 election and were defeated and discredited," said Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg. "Even if they retain control of the House, they are not going to be able to resurrect the agenda of the 104th Congress."
Clinton, of course, ended his reelection campaign by pushing hard for Democratic congressional candidates in hopes that his party will recapture the House and Senate. But the president's former top political strategist, Richard Morris, argues that under those circumstances, "the most important thing for him to do would be to reach out for Republicans and form a truly national bipartisan government."
That would mean, Morris said, bringing Republicans into the Cabinet for a second term and taking GOP congressional leaders into his confidence.
"Democrats would hate it," Morris conceded, "because it would mean that they can't control Clinton. But if Clinton wants to be able to control his own administration, he needs to use Republican votes to offset the power of the Democratic left."
Norman Ornstein, congressional affairs specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, joins some analysts in contending that Clinton would be better off with the GOP in charge of at least the House.
If Republicans lose the House, Ornstein reasons, they will be embittered and inclined mainly to obstruct Clinton. "But if they win the House, they are not going to have the votes to do anything on their own and they are going to bear some of the responsibility for governing."
He added that Republicans "have learned in the past few months that if they worked with Clinton, they would be rewarded," citing the agreements Clinton and the GOP were able to reach on reforms affecting welfare and health care.
One sticking point for Clinton in dealing with a Republican majority in either chamber of Congress is the authority GOP lawmakers would have to pursue investigations into the continuing Whitewater controversy, recent disclosures about Democratic Party campaign financing and other alleged ethical transgressions by the administration.
"Recent revelations give the investigative staffs of Congress several years of work," said John J. Pitney, Claremont McKenna College government professor and a former House GOP staffer.
Such probing would be bound to heighten the severe ideological differences between the Capitol Hill contingents of the two parties. Analyses of current lawmakers' voting records indicate the differences between the parties are greater than at any time since before World War I, said University of Texas political scientist Walter Dean Burnham.