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Clinton's Odyssey Toward Center May Offer Lesson for Republicans

December 02, 1996|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

For a party whose past two presidential nominees have averaged less than 40% of the vote, Republicans are feeling remarkably satisfied with themselves. At a recent conference in Michigan, GOP governors strutted as if Bob Dole, not President Clinton, had just won 379 electoral votes.

"President Clinton only won because he made people think he thought like a Republican," huffed Michigan Gov. John Engler. "Republican ideology won the election," insisted New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

It's not just the governors whistling past Dole's electoral graveyard. In a post-election retrospective in the conservative magazine National Review, a dozen writers heaped scorn on the abundant failings of Dole and his campaign. Not a single analyst allowed for the possibility that Clinton's second electoral college landslide signaled any larger problem for the GOP.

To the contrary, conservative columnist Michael Barone, citing continued Republican control of Congress and most governorships, portrayed the GOP as still ascendant. In his first review of the results, Steve Forbes--the once and probably future Republican presidential hopeful--found the same silver lining. "The 1996 elections were a . . . ratification of the idea that the new, conservative Republican Party is America's majority party," Forbes told a conservative group in late November.


Up to a point, both of these arguments--that Clinton tilted right and that Republicans remain strong below the White House--are incontestable. But taken as far as Engler and Forbes stretch them, they amount to willful self-delusion--the same kind of destructive denial that derailed Democrats during the 1980s. "There is too much complacency," laments Republican strategist William Kristol, publisher of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, "and too little fresh thinking."

To say that Clinton won reelection only by sounding Republican is to read the evidence as selectively as the jury in O.J. Simpson's criminal trial. Since the GOP landslide in 1994, Clinton unquestionably has given ground to the demand for smaller government, particularly in putting forward his own balanced-budget plan, calling for tax cuts and signing the Republican welfare reform legislation.

But what Engler and like-minded Republicans conveniently ignore is that Clinton's reelection agenda was based equally on defending a continuing role for Washington--both in rejecting proposed GOP reductions and in carving out new affirmative uses of government. Clinton did not run to reverse the conservative drive to shrink the federal government; but he clearly promised to place a boundary on it.

Did Engler somehow miss the thousands of television commercials Clinton's campaign aired arguing that a Republican president, joined with a Republican Congress, would go too far in scaling back government? Or the president's persistent trumpeting of his decision to twice veto Republican budgets? Or for that matter, Clinton's promises to defend and expand the Family and Medical Leave Act, sustain the assault-weapons ban, regulate tobacco advertising, raise the minimum wage, guarantee 48-hour hospital stays for new mothers and widen the Brady Act?

This 1996 Clinton agenda may not add up to the Great Society--or even to Clinton's 1992 blueprint. It does reflect a rightward shift in the debate about government's place in society. But Clinton's vision is still a long way from the shrunken state that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) or Engler would design on a blank page.

Nor is the continued Republican success below the presidential level as powerful a measure of vitality as Forbes or Barone would suggest. During the 1970s and 1980s, Democrats made the same arguments to rationalize their own failures to win the White House. And during many of those years, Democrats held even more congressional seats and state legislative chambers than Republicans hold today.

But the presidential election is the pinnacle of American politics, the sole national referendum on the parties and the direction of the country. The White House is the indispensable lever for moving the country. A party that is repeatedly overwhelmed in the race for the presidency is in trouble, no matter its degree of success down the ballot. That was true of Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s; and it's equally true of Republicans today.

It took Democrats years of presidential drubbings to acknowledge that they were no longer the nation's majority party. But eventually, grudgingly, they did change.


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