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ELECTIONS '96

Economy, World Affairs Boosted Clinton Comeback

Reelection: President claimed the center after midterm losses in 1994. His victory was built on well-funded campaign operation.

November 06, 1996|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton built his comeback victory around a coolly efficient, richly funded campaign operation that exploited all the incumbent's advantages and largely reached its top goal of recapturing the political center a full year before election day.

Blessed with a growing economy and manageable world scene, Clinton overcame a bitter repudiation in the midterm elections and displaced his GOP rivals in the 1995 budget battle as the public's preferred steward of middle-class interests.

From that turning point, Clinton relentlessly proclaimed his moderate values from the high road of the bully pulpit, while simultaneously waging a war of hard-knocks TV ads to warn of the GOP's "extreme" intentions. These campaigns together won Clinton an edge with voters on both traditional Democratic issues, such as Medicare and school aid, and on longtime Republican ones, such as crime, welfare and immigration.

Clinton and his team demonstrated their tactical skill, meanwhile, by quietly defusing the threat of a primary challenge, gaining an early jump on fund-raising--albeit with tactics that may yet return to haunt them--and crafting his final campaign themes before struggling rival Bob Dole had subdued his GOP opponents or settled on a message.

While campaign aides were pleased to take their bows, many acknowledged that the team's tactical smoothness counted for far less in this contest than powerful forces of a reborn centrism, peace and prosperity. "Our main job this year was to not blow it," one aide said, adding that as a growing campaign finance scandal unfolded in recent days, "I almost feared we might."

On Tuesday, it all added up to another chapter in a political history rivaled by few for its dizzying succession of triumphs and disasters. In four years, Clinton unseated an incumbent president, suffered the worst midterm drubbing in decades and now returned with a victory--that made him the first Democrat to win reelection since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"This is an amazing story: No one's ridden the roller coaster like Bill Clinton," said Bill Kristol, a top GOP strategist and former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle.

Clinton's most brilliant stroke of the campaign, analysts say, may be one he took two years ago, in his decision to largely drop from public view after the midterm elections, to give the public a close look at the GOP congressional team that now controlled the agenda.

What the voters saw over the next few months was House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) complaining peevishly about his accommodations aboard Air Force One, House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), brandishing knives before TV cameras as he tucked into his budget-cutting work, and House Whip Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) the GOP's top congressional environmental strategist, decrying clean-water rules and defending the controversial pesticide DDT.

The GOP's move to permit two government shutdowns perhaps sealed the public's view of the new Republican team. But the polls show that Dole had already lost his brief lead in one-on-one polls against Clinton by mid-1995, when Democrats began portraying the budget fight as an effort to stop the GOP from cutting $270 billion from future Medicare spending to finance a tax cut for the rich.

Clinton drew howls from some Democrats as he edged toward the GOP with plans to balance the budget in seven years. But when Clinton, pivoting, declared he would yield no further, a drifting president suddenly appeared a resolute one--standing up for ordinary Americans to preserve Medicare, Medicaid, school aid and environmental safeguards.

In its contribution to victory, Clinton's move to redefine the center was "everything," declared Rahm Emanuel, a senior White House policy aide.

Rivaling this in significance was the economic expansion, which provided a nearly unbroken series of good breaks for the Clinton team.

Partisans could argue how much the spending cuts and tax hikes of the president's 1993 economic plan contributed to the expansion, but this much was clear: When the plan passed, Republican leaders in Congress predicted it would lead to economic disaster. Instead, unemployment was down, the budget deficit was off by 60%, the Dow Jones industrial average had doubled and consumer confidence was at a level that in the past has always guaranteed an incumbent's reelection.

In July 1995, when government statistics showed 10.5 million new jobs had been created in the term, one senior White House aide remarked to a colleague: "If we lose this election, we're the stupidest people in America."

Also lengthening the odds was comparative calm on the world scene.

When Clinton carried off a nearly bloodless invasion of Haiti, and then shouldered the risks of a U.S. troop deployment in Bosnia, it fostered an impression that the president would risk calamity and unpopularity if he believed the cause was just. As public opinion shifted in favor of the Bosnia mission, it also shifted toward Clinton.

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