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Heeding the 'Unstatus' Quo

November 10, 1996|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

WASHINGTON — The elections are over, and now the post-election analysis begins. Even before the polls closed, pundits and wizards began to lay the conventional-wisdom markers for the '96 campaign. You've heard it all by now--status-quo election, the more things change the more they stay the same, blah, blah, blah.

Don't believe it. A close look at the returns (by people who actually know something about campaigns) turns up lots of interesting clues to the mood of the electorate and some important warnings for both parties. Because Bill Clinton will stay in the White House and Republicans will keep control of Congress, the analysis suggests nothing much has changed. Politicians who buy this line will come to regret it.

Let's start with Clinton. Exit polls indicated, by 2-1, that voters were more concerned about issues than character. Hence, the analysis by the wizards that the public didn't care about Clinton's character problems and tuned out Bob Dole's late-campaign tactics. In fact, 70% of the electorate indicated in exit polls that they had made up their minds about Clinton and Dole by Labor Day. Of this group, Clinton won handily.

But of the 30% who made up their minds late, most broke to Dole and, by much larger numbers than early deciders, think character is important. Congressional Republicans were quick to stress last week that they were not inclined to open broad new investigations of the president, but would concentrate on the people's business. High-minded? Not on your life. Republicans know the special prosecutor, the courts and the media will continue to investigate the Clinton administration, allowing Republicans to avoid much of the dirty work.

But GOP congressional leaders did indicate last week that they will investigate the various allegations concerning fund-raising irregularities by the president's campaign. But a caution. Republicans raised more money than Democrats this year and are liable to be burned themselves by following the money trail. Even if the Republicans get wise and go easy on the money issue, there will be plenty of character issues that will haunt Clinton.

Far more damaging for Republicans was the very "unstatus"-quo gender gap that marked this election. For the first time in history, men voted for one candidate for president (a close 44%-43% for Dole) and women voted for the other (Clinton by a staggering 16%). Clinton's problems may be settled soon enough (I suspect Kenneth W. Starr will play out his hand before the end of the month), but the gender gap poses long-term problems for the GOP that won't be fixed quickly. Women believe, with good reason, that the Republican Party has become intolerant and uncaring. From abortion to opposition to family leave, women voters think Republicans just don't get it.

Republicans could fix this, of course, by changing their positions on these issues--but don't hold your breath. The problem is simply that most Republicans in Congress believe they are right on these issues and will not change. For this intransigence, Republicans will continue to pay a high price. The only hope for Republicans, at the presidential level at least, is to put a woman on the ticket in 2000. It may not work, but you can bet it's a real possibility, and probably their only chance to close the gender gap.

The status-quo analysts will tell you the electorate is content with the way the president and Congress worked together earlier this fall. What was achieved was a series of Band-Aids that both sides used to get through the election. Now, the real surgery has to begin. The public wants a balanced budget, as promised, by 2002. That means only one thing: The time to duck on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare is over. If the parties go into the '98 elections with no resolution to these problems, incumbents will pay a terrible price.

So what to do. For the president, dealing with the character issue early is essential. His campaign made a terrible mistake by not addressing the character questions during the campaign, when he was at the height of his political popularity. He must do it now. To begin, Clinton should hold a press conference soon, one dedicated to all the character allegations, and take all the heat the press will surely give him. I would suggest the first lady face the press as well. Both have proved they can handle the heat. Do it.

Clinton may not be able to control the various investigations by the special prosecutor and the Supreme Court's coming decision on the Paula Jones case, but he can affect congressional actions. He should request that congressional investigations be ended by a certain date and offer all assistance from his administration that Congress requests. If Congress doesn't agree or prolongs the investigations, then Clinton will have the upper hand with the public.

For Republicans, it's time to get their right-wingers under control. The only thing they should close down is the printing press publishing the "contract with America." If they haven't gotten the point by now that the public doesn't want to close down the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education, they never will. The great lesson of the GOP shutdown of the government last year is that the public believes the central government does important things. They want it leaner, to be sure, but not closed down.

And so with the end of the '96 campaign comes the end of this campaign's tactics series. I want to thank my various Republican colleagues who have written the other half of this series. They are quality politicians. And, remember, it's only 1,150 days till the Iowa caucuses. See you soon.

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