Michael Nelson. Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume 46, Issue 2. June 2016.
Republicans emerged from the 1988 election as confident of their supremacy in presidential politics as Democrats were of their dominance of Congress. Republican vice president George Bush’s 40-state, 426-electoral vote triumph over the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, was the GOP’s third victory in a row and its fifth in the last six elections, all but one of them by a landslide. The Democrats’ sole victory came in 1976 when former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated President Gerald R. Ford in the post-Watergate depths of Republican unpopularity. Entering the 1992 contest, some even speculated that Republican control of the presidency was so strong as to amount to an electoral college “lock.” Twenty-one states with 191 electoral votes had voted Republican in every one of the six most recent elections. Another 12 states, with 142 electoral votes, had gone Republican in every election but one. Only Minnesota, with 10 electoral votes, and the District of Columbia, with three, had been comparably loyal to the Democrats.
The Democrats’ primacy in Congress in this period was just as impressive as the GOP’s hold on the White House. The House of Representatives had been a Democratic preserve since 1954, never once going Republican. In 1988, the Democrats added three seats to their majority, raising it to 260-175. They added one to their ranks in the Senate, giving them 55 of 100 seats in that chamber, which they had controlled for all but six of the last 34 years. Bush’s election made him only the third newly elected president in history, after Zachary Taylor in 1849 and Richard Nixon in 1969, to take office with a Congress controlled by the opposition party. No new president ever had faced a Congress that included so small a fraction of fellow partisans.
Divided government, in which the political party that controls the White House does not also control Congress, long had been the exception in American politics. Nearly always the voters gave the president a Congress controlled by his own party and then assigned that party credit or blame for the government’s subsequent performance in the next election. From 1901 to 1969, divided government prevailed only 21% of the time, just 14 years out of 68. Starting with Nixon’s election in 1968, however, divided government became the rule, with Carter’s four years of united party government the single exception through the end of Bush’s tenure in 1993. In every instance, divided government in this period entailed a Republican president and a wholly or partially Democratic Congress.
Bill Clinton’s eight years as president marked not the end of divided government, but rather its redividing. In a mirror image of the previous 24 years, Clinton’s election in 1992 began a quarter-century in which Democrats presidential nominees handily won four of six elections (carrying the national popular vote in five) and lost the other two narrowly. In 1996, he became not only the first Democratic president in 60 years to be reelected to a second term, but the first in history to be elected with a Republican Congress-which in turn was the first since 1928 to remain in Republican control for more than two years. In late 1996, Clinton White House political director Douglas Sosnik declared “the beginning of a Democratic electoral college advantage” based on Clinton’s having carried 29 states with 346 electoral votes both times he ran, including 18 states that had gone Republican in all or all but one of the six previous elections (USA Today 1996).
In congressional elections, however, the Democrats soon became the minority party. Although Clinton enjoyed a Democratic Congress during his first two years as president, in 1994, the first midterm election of his presidency, the Republicans won control of both houses and maintained it for nearly all of the next 12 years. Never before had a Democratic president had to serve more than two years with a Republican House and Senate, but Clinton faced such a Congress for six of his eight years in office. The Democrats won back both chambers in 2006, only to lose the House to the GOP in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, the two midterm elections of Barack Obama’s presidency. The result was that the pre-Clinton era of Republican presidents and Democratic congresses was succeeded by one in which Democratic presidents and Republican congresses were the norm. What remained nearly constant was divided government.
What happened during Clinton’s two elections as president and the midterm election that occurred during his first term to help explain this reversal of fortune for the Republican and Democratic parties? What accounts for the persistence of divided government during the past half-century and for the change in its partisan makeup that began during the Clinton years?
Political scientists have created a substantial literature on divided government, a body of research and analysis that carefully explains why the once-uncommon phenomenon became common. In trying to account for the transformations in the partisan pattern of divided government that began with Clinton’s elections, however, the literature is less helpful. Therefore, in addition to published accounts of these elections and their consequences, I draw extensively on two oral history projects: the William J. Clinton Presidential History Project conducted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and the Diane D. Blair Project, archived at the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas. The Miller Center interviews, more than 50 of which have been released since November 2014, were conducted after Clinton left office by teams of political scientists and historians, and cover his entire presidency. The 64 cleared Blair Project interviews of Clinton campaign staffers were conducted by Professor Blair during and immediately after the 1992 election and released in 2010.
Oral history, like all historical methods, is an imperfect instrument. Memories are fallible, incomplete, and subject to conscious self-aggrandizement and unconscious bias. But as diplomatic historian and former Miller Center director Philip Zelikow (2014, ix) has argued from long experience serving in and studying government, “In weighing the value of oral histories, consider that there are only two kinds of primary sources about the past. There are the material remnants of what happened-documents, coins, statues. Then there are the preserved recollections of the human observers.”
Certain advantages lacking in “material” sources attend oral history. In contrast to written documents and data sets, which are indispensable in their own right, scholars can ask questions of interviewees, probing deeply for elaboration, clarification, and context as well as seeking comment on apparent contradictions with the written record or the accounts of others. In contrast to journalistic treatments of events that are based on unattributed quotations, oral history interviewers place respondents on the record. In addition, presidential campaigns (and, more recently, the subpoena-sensitive White House itself) generate few written records concerning sensitive or important matters. Consequently, argues political scientist Russell L. Riley (2007, 86), they operate largely as “oral cultures” in which “much of the most important business occurs only in spoken, not written, words.”
The Republican ascendancy in presidential elections that began in 1968 followed a period in which they usually lost. In nine elections from 1932 to 1964, the GOP won just twice, and then mostly because Dwight D. Eisenhower headed the ticket, a war hero whose personal popularity transcended the party’s. Starting in 1968, however, Republicans worked hard, steadily, and successfully to attract to their national coalition groups of voters that previously had been either Democratic (southern whites; blue-collar northern Catholics) or politically dormant (evangelical Christians) with a host of racial, religious, cultural, and economic appeals. The Republicans’ perceived toughness on national security issues, which historically had little effect in elections, also was important during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Democrats usually played into their hands by nominating candidates for president whom many voters perceived as being more concerned about racial minorities than the white majority; squeamish on matters of security, whether against criminals at home or communism abroad; insufficiently respectful of religion and traditional values; and determined to protect every domestic federal program regardless of effectiveness or cost to the taxpayers. The lesson from the Democrats’ shrinking vote in recent elections, chief Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet observes, “was that if all the groups in the Democratic coalition, including labor, liberals, minorities, and women’s rights advocates, were in the same tent, we could still get clobbered.”
During the Nixon and Ronald Reagan years, the GOP grew at the national level while becoming more homogeneous: white, conservative, Christian, employed. Most of its quadrennial national conventions were united, confident, even scripted gatherings that conveyed a sense of competence to the country. The Democrats, in contrast, were raucously heterogeneous: white, black, and Latino; liberal and conservative; Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and nonreligious; working and on welfare; uneducated and professionally educated. Its conventions often revealed these divisions in ways that were contentious and therefore less confidence inspiring.
In a presidential election, a party chooses one identity-one nominee, one platform. This proved an advantage to the less-conflicted Republicans. In congressional elections, however, a party can be almost as many things as there are states and districts. Consequently, in fielding candidates for Congress, the Democrats’ diversity, far from being the obstacle to success that it was in presidential contests, was advantageous. The party was able to offer liberal candidates in the North and conservative candidates in the South; pro-gun candidates in the countryside and pro-gun control candidates in the cities; blacks, Latinos, or whites depending on each district’s ethnic composition; and so on. Republican candidates, in contrast, seemed everywhere to have been cut from roughly the same cloth (Nelson 1989).
A final source of divided government in this era was, in political scientist Gary Jacobson’s phrase (1993, 155), “the electorate’s unwavering attempt to have its cake and eat it too.” Pro-government Democratic candidates for Congress promised the voters that they would protect popular but expensive social programs while antitax Republican presidential candidates promised not to make voters pay for them, and both were elected.
As a young man and then as governor of Arkansas, Clinton was immersed in the divided politics that these differences in the parties produced. From 1946, the year of his birth, through the 1980s, Arkansas regularly sent Democrats to Congress. But from 1968 to 1988, it voted Democratic for president only once.
In 1978, Clinton was elected governor at age 32, only to be defeated in 1980 at age 34, making him the youngest governor in the country and the youngest ex-governor, all within a two-year span. He was returned to office in 1982 and then reelected in 1984, 1986, and 1990 (making him the nation’s longest-serving governor). Of all these elections, the defeat in 1980 made the greatest impression on Clinton. Determined to transform his state in the progressive manner he had embraced as a student at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale, and as the Texas co-coordinator of the George McGovern presidential campaign in 1972, Clinton staffed his first administration with bearded out-of-state liberals and raised taxes on motor vehicles. Hillary Rodham’s decision to keep her last name rather than take her husband’s added to Arkansans’ sense that Clinton was no longer one of them. So did his apparent acquiescence in President Carter’s decision to take in more than 100,000 Cuban deportees from the communist Fidel Castro regime, many of them criminals or mental patients, and house about 20,000 of them at Fort Chaffee in northwest Arkansas.
Clinton learned from his mistakes, jettisoned the bearded aides, apologized for raising the car tax, reintroduced Hillary Rodham to the voters as Hillary Clinton, and won back his office in 1982. Proud of what he then was able to accomplish in Arkansas, with her help, in the areas of education reform and economic development, Clinton’s ambitions turned national. To pursue them successfully, he would have to persuade his party that a small-state governor could be elected president, something that had not happened since Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire won in 1852. Working in his favor was that the Democrats’ only recent victory had come when, acknowledging their leaking southern base and the voters’ growing estrangement from Washington, they nominated southern governor Jimmy Carter in 1976.
In addition to making his candidacy plausible, Clinton knew, he would also have to remake the party to free it from its losing ways. He found national homes in the National Governors Association, of which his long tenure leading Arkansas eventually made him the senior member, and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a group formed in 1985 to help make the party more acceptable to middle-class voters in presidential elections by proposing innovative centrist policies that transcended orthodox conservatism and liberalism. As a “New Democrat,” Clinton became the leader of both organizations, a natural pairing because, as his chief domestic policy advisor, Bruce Reed, points out, “The DLC essentially represented the governors’ wing of the Democratic Party.” In contrast to congressional Democrats, governors “had to solve problems all the time…. They actually had to balance a budget every year, make progress on schools and health care. As it turned out, the governors after whom we modeled ourselves had figured out pretty much what the country wanted: a less ideological, more pragmatic approach to policy and politics that appealed because it worked.”
The DLC’s emphasis on winning presidential elections rather than appeasing the party’s varied and conflicting constituencies was consistent with this approach. “We had done a whole lot of work on a whole bunch of ideas,” says DLC executive director Al From: “national service, charter schools, welfare reform, community policing, reinventing government, our [nonprotectionist] position on trade-a whole host of those ideas, which later became the policies of the Clinton administration.” The “watchword” for Clinton and the DLC, according to veteran media consultant Frank Greer, was “new common sense solutions, putting aside false choices, being different in the sense of having values, having religious faith, and having a sense of patriotism and love of country,” all of which “Democrats have too often run from.” “Liberal passions, but conservative governing values” (Reed) and “a shift of Democratic economic policy from redistribution to growth” (From) were hallmarks of the DLC approach. In addition, DLC scholar William Galston observes, as the organization’s chair in 1990-91 Clinton reaped a collateral benefit: he “could move around the country on somebody else’s dime in the guise-a legitimate guise-of establishing chapters in various states, but also plant his own political flag” as a future presidential candidate.
The highlight of Clinton’s time at the DLC’s helm came at the organization’s May 1991 convention in Cleveland. A showcase for several better-known potential candidates for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, including Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, the convention became a pep rally for Clinton, who gave a stunningly effective keynote address. “He put ‘opportunity, responsibility, community’ into the lexicon on that day,” says From. “What he convinced a lot of people of is that you could be a centrist with passion.” “Democrats have been talking about opportunity since [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, if not longer,” adds Reed, “and community since [Lyndon B.] Johnson. But they’d gone a long time without talking about responsibility, and that was Clinton’s obsession over the course of our search for ideas at the DLC.” At the 1991 convention not just the delegates but also “the national press corps was blown away,” Reed recalls. “In that speech he laid out the basic themes of his  campaign: that for too long Democrats had failed to represent the economic interests, defend the values, and stand up for the security of the forgotten middle class.”
Clinton’s decision to seek the Democratic nomination in 1992 was not an easy one. Other prominent Democrats looked at President Bush’s post-Gulf War job approval rating, which peaked at 89% in March 1991 and did not fall below 70% until September, and decided not to run. Clinton himself, recalls Greer, “pointed out to me that a sitting president who had won a war had never lost an election.” Clinton worried that rumors about adulterous relations with women might sink his candidacy as they sank Colorado senator Gary Hart’s bid in 1988, or at a minimum embarrass him before his family. And he feared that breaking his pledge to the voters of Arkansas to serve a full four-year term during his 1990 reelection campaign-a pledge “he had to make-polling indicated that he did”—to win that election, according to campaign congressional liaison Gloria Cabe, might make it impossible for him to win another term if a bid for the presidency fell short.
But Clinton also believed that by Election Day voters’ dissatisfaction with the weakening economy would eclipse their appreciation of Bush’s international triumphs. Indeed, he hoped, the victory in the Cold War over which the president had presided and the defeat of Iraq he engineered might have the perverse effect of removing foreign policy, the incumbent’s greatest strength, from the public agenda. The unwillingness of prominent Democrats to run cleared the field of the party’s most popular figure, Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, as well as others who would have competed with Clinton for the southern and DLC vote, especially Gore, House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia. In addition, Clinton counted on political reporters being so chastened by adverse public reaction to the “feeding frenzy” they had engaged in against Hart that they would tread lightly on similar matters in the coming election. Finally, speaking before audiences that aides secretly seeded with supporters urging him not to be bound by his 1990 pledge, Clinton was pleased to conclude that Arkansans would be proud rather than angry if he ran for president.
What decided the matter for Clinton was his certainty that a campaign based on ideas would overcome all obstacles. “He had a better idea of what he wanted to do as president,” says Reed, which offered “a good contrast with Bush, who didn’t have much of an agenda, and with the other Democrats, who hadn’t thought it through.” In his October 3, 1991, announcement speech and in three subsequent policy addresses at Georgetown University, Clinton built his campaign on a work-centered platform. Government would foster opportunities for people seeking employment, and those without jobs would be responsible for taking them. At the heart of this appeal was the promise to “end welfare as we know it” by limiting welfare payments to two years at a time and five years in a lifetime. As Clinton said in his announcement speech, “Government’s responsibility is to create more opportunity. The people’s responsibility is to make the most of it.”
“Welfare was the best example of what Clinton would prove to be a master of,” says Reed: “taking an issue that Republicans had demagogued for years and turning it into an affirmative political and substantive agenda for Democrats.” Although Clinton’s agenda placed him at odds with many traditional Democrats, who thought more in terms of public than private sector jobs and resisted any change in welfare policy, he counted on them caring more about breaking their long losing streak in presidential elections than about preserving ideological purity.
Clinton won what campaign manager David Wilhelm calls the “pre-primary primary” and emerged from 1991 as the frontrunner for his party’s nomination heading into the February 18 New Hampshire primary. His campaign’s ideas-based rationale, deep pockets (with Arkansas business leaders a particularly strong source of funds), and effective organization surpassed those of any other Democratic candidate. In an effort to dissuade national political reporters from pursuing allegations about his marital infidelity, Clinton even met in September with the “Sperling Breakfast”- described by Greer as “a kind of political reporter insider group”-to declare, “What you need to know about Hillary and me is that we’ve been together nearly twenty years. It has not been perfect or free from problems, but we’re committed to our marriage” (Germond and Witcover 1993, 169). As a consequence, the issue vanished from the mainstream media for several months. Reporters barely acknowledged a January 16, 1992, story that appeared in The Star, a supermarket tabloid, with the headline “DEMS’ FRONT RUNNER BILL CLINTON CHEATED WITH MISS AMERICA ANDFOUROTHERBEAUTIES.”
Ignoring these allegations was no longer possible, however, when, one week later, The Star’s front page blared “THEY MADE LOVE ALL OVER HER APARTMENT.” This story was based on public testimony, loosely supported by taped telephone conversations, from Little Rock lounge singer Gennifer Flowers that she “was Bill Clinton’s lover for twelve years.” He and Hillary Clinton did much to defuse the charge when they appeared before a massive television audience on CBS’s 60 Minutes, which aired right after the January 26 Super Bowl. “You’re looking at two people who love each other,” Clinton declared. “This is a marriage” (Germond and Witcover 1993, 186). But eight days later a second allegation was published in the widely respected Wall Street Journal recounting Clinton’s apparent efforts to avoid military service during the Vietnam War. Pollster Stanley Greenberg told Clinton that in New Hampshire his candidacy suffered a “meltdown,” and “that’s my phrase about what happened in the polls” right after the Journal story was published. In Washington, Gore “bet me Clinton would not be the nominee,” recalls Gore’s chief of staff, Roy Neel.
What enabled Clinton to survive the Gennifer Flowers and the draft controversies with a solid second-place finish in New Hampshire behind Paul Tsongas, a former senator from neighboring Massachusetts? Part of the answer is personal: “he had the tenacity and the courage to stand up and take it,” says Greer, “when a Gary Hart or somebody-I mean the tradition in American politics has been, Let’s just collapse, let’s walk away.” Clinton translated his own adversity into the idiom of a small state whose economy was suffering. “That’s when he said [to the voters], ‘The hits I’ve taken are nothing compared to the hits that you’ve taken,'” Reed points out. “They loved that about him.” A second part is organizational. Well funded, the Clinton campaign not only proposed a detailed economic plan but also had the money to publicize it in multiple ads and televised town meetings, which gave him “the strength to withstand two major bits of scandal, largely on the strength of his plan,” according to Greer. “Even the national press corps said, ‘We may be a little carried away with this'” and backed off for a couple weeks. Finally, the DLC’s From credits the substantive nature of Clinton’s entire campaign for his comeback, based on the new centrist policies he had embraced. “A lot of the people were engaged in this process to redefine the party.”
Endowed with the money, organization, and message to compete widely, Clinton nearly swept the Super Tuesday primaries on March 10 and effectively wrapped up the nomination one week later with landslide victories in Illinois and Michigan. In further demonstration that Clinton was not a traditional liberal Democrat, says Deputy Communications Director Robert Boorstin, “We went to an AFL-CIO hall in Flint and we said we are for NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. Heretical. We went to [white working class] Macomb County and we talked about race. Heretical. Then the next morning we went to the black church [in Detroit] and we gave the exact same talk.”
Clinton ran out the string, winning every one of the remaining 22 primaries except Connecticut-“more primaries than anybody who’d ever run,” notes strategy consultant Paul Begala. “No one cared.” Although he defeated former California governor Jerry Brown in his own state on June 2, the last day of primary voting, polls showed Clinton running second or even third in the general election. He trailed Bush and, in some polls, also ran behind the wealthy, self-financed independent candidate, Texas businessman Ross Perot, whose folksy demeanor on television talk shows made his promise to reduce the soaring national debt by “taking out the trash and cleaning out the barn” sound appealing (Thompson 1992). Polls aside, however, Clinton’s problems were fixable in a way that Bush’s and Perot’s were not. Two of the president’s three most recent predecessors-Gerald R. Ford in 1976 and Carter in 1980-had faced renomination battles that unleashed ideological animosities within their parties. Bloodied, both then lost the general election. Bush faced a similar challenge from right-wing pundit Patrick Buchanan in 1992. The president’s domestic agenda, which mattered most politically now that victory in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and the hot war against Iraq had reduced voters’ concern about foreign policy, was disdained by Republican conservatives as too moderate-especially his willingness to raise taxes after famously pledging not to in his 1988 campaign. Perot was congenitally testy and suspicious, qualities that were bound to diminish his appeal when voters and the media began scrutinizing him as a potential president rather than an entertaining iconoclast.
In contrast to his two rivals, Clinton’s main weakness as a candidate was grounded as much in misperception as in accurate perception. This conclusion emerged from the “Manhattan Project,” a study by Greenberg, Greer, senior strategist James Carville, and advertising director Mandy Grunwald, who peeled off from the campaign late in the primary season in a secret effort to figure out why Clinton was not more popular. According to David Kusnet, focus group research revealed that many people “assumed he was a rich kid whose family were big shots in Arkansas and who had bought his way into government or inherited it or something. Yale, Georgetown, Oxford …people assumed he had grown up in very different circumstances from how he actually had grown up-the son of a single mother who worked as a nurse anesthetist.” This finding meant “our main task was biography,” says Greenberg, so “we went to popular culture shows” like The Arsenio Hall Show, Donahue, Good Morning America, and MTV “because we could talk about biography, which is hard to do in newsrooms.” These appearances reintroduced Clinton to voters and “changed their opinion of him…,” says Grunwald. “And it also changed their opinions of everything he was proposing. They put it in a totally different context because it came from somebody who was one of them.”
Along with the Manhattan Project, Clinton’s campaign took off when three events broke in his favor during the summer, the latter two outside his control. First, on July 9, four days before the Democrats gathered in convention, Clinton tapped Gore as his running mate. Months earlier, Clinton had told campaign chair Mickey Kantor, who helped run the vice presidential search, to “throw out all notions of what the criteria politically had been in the past and think about this from a new perspective.” Although Clinton and Gore “had been natural rivals” (Reed) and “had virtually no relationship” (Neel), they had a professional respect for each other and hit it off personally in a three-hour, late-night meeting. Clinton’s choice of Gore defied all the traditional canons of ticket balancing: both men were southerners, Southern Baptists, baby boomers with young families, policy “wonks,” and ideological centrists. In these obvious ways Gore reinforced rather than offset Clinton’s most visible qualities. In more subtle ways, however, Gore did bring balance to the ticket. Clinton’s potential vulnerabilities as a foreign policy novice, pro-industry governor, skirt chaser, and draft avoider were counterbalanced by Gore’s Senate experience, environmentalist credentials, stable family life, and service in the Vietnam War. To most voters, Gore also provided a welcome contrast to Bush’s gaffe-prone vice president, Dan Quayle. An election year poll found that voters thought that Gore was “more qualified to be president” than Quayle by 63% to 21%.
Second, Perot, besieged by critical news stories about his naval service, business dealings, and testy, suspicious temperament withdrew from the race on July 15, the third day of the Democratic convention. Even more important, he halfway endorsed Clinton, saying that “the Democratic party has revitalized itself” by moving toward the political center (Germond and Witcover 1993, 371). Although Perot resumed his candidacy on October 1, his initial withdrawal contributed to Clinton’s emergence from the convention with a 55% to 37% lead over Bush in the Gallup Poll.
Third, the mid-August Republican convention focused on social, not economic issues, and in a severely conservative way. More than by Bush’s acceptance speech, the convention was dominated by Buchanan’s opening night address, in which he declared, “There is a religious war going on in our country … And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side and George Bush is on our side.” Buchanan had secured a prime time place on the program in return for endorsing Bush, whom he had opposed in a series of pesky primary challenges. The convention ended on August 20, recalls Clinton’s campaign chief of staff, Eli Segal, and “in the course of the next five days …I got a phone call [every day], direct and indirect, from a prominent Republican leader, announcing that they wanted me to know that they were going to make a six-figure gift, which was still legal at the time, to the Democratic National Committee.” The callers “included people like Augie Busch, the beer tycoon, Ernest Gallo, the wine man, Thomas Watson, Dwayne Andreas, and one or two others. One a day, it was like clockwork.” Bush’s postconvention bounce was modest. He trailed Clinton by 51% to 39%.
Part of the prevailing lore of American politics in 1992 was that to be elected president a candidate must run to the party’s ideological extreme to get the nomination and then tack toward the center to win the general election. Clinton did not do that: from October 1991 to November 1992 his centrist message hardly changed at all. Clinton “kept saying to me, ‘I need a new stump speech,'” says Begala. “I would give him one and he would say, ‘There’s nothing in here that wasn’t in my announcement speech.’ And I would say, ‘That’s because on announcement day you knew why you wanted to be president.'” The campaign’s “workhorse” ad all year, according to Grunwald, was “the first spot we did on welfare … It was a really boring spot.” But Clinton’s promise to move people “from welfare to work” continued to air because the campaign’s research showed that it connected with voters.
Ironically, the real temptation for the Clinton campaign after he won the primaries but still trailed Bush and Perot badly in the polls was to adopt what Reed disparagingly calls “the 34 percent solution”-namely, to run left in the fall campaign to motivate the Democratic base and thereby win a plurality election. Clinton rejected this strategy and, according to deputy political director Nancy McFadden, “traditional Democratic constituencies,” desperately tired of losing presidential elections, accepted that “this election is bigger than them. It is bigger than a labor union. It is bigger than the Sierra Club. It is bigger than the Gray Panthers. It is bigger than the choice issue alone.”
Perot’s revived candidacy in October, buttressed by impressive debate performances and a nearly $70 million self-financed media campaign, earned him 19% of the national popular vote but no electoral votes. Clinton won a convincing 370 to 168 victory in the electoral college and outpolled Bush by 43% to 37% in the national popular vote.
In the 1992 congressional elections, Clinton’s party made no gains in the Senate and actually lost ten seats in the House, while still remaining the majority party in both chambers. Most victorious Democrats ran in safe constituencies and therefore had no incentive to abandon their party’s traditional liberalism in favor of Clinton’s centrist strategy. Virtually all won a higher share of the vote than Clinton, providing them with further confirmation that no change in approach was necessary. The ranks of Democratic women and ethnic and racial minorities rose substantially, moving the Democratic caucus several degrees to the left.
These developments, added to the new president’s lack of a popular vote majority, “left Clinton without the strength of his own convictions to govern from a majority standpoint,” according to Reed. Instead he ceded control of his first-term agenda to conventionally liberal Democratic congressional leaders, putting welfare reform aside in pursuit of his failed proposal for national health insurance. Although James Carville had famously posted a sign in the “war room” of Clinton’s Little Rock headquarters listing “Don’t forget health care” as one of the campaign’s three major themes, in reality Clinton had downplayed the issue in his campaign advertising. After his health care proposal failed in Congress, recalls Greer,
I go to this dinner in the small dining room upstairs at the White House. Clinton is saying, “I just don’t understand, we ran on health care and we tried to do the right thing. I know there are a lot of interest groups that we’re up against and-” I turned to him and I said, “Mr. President, how many spots do you think you ran on health care in the general election?” He said, “I don’t know, four or five. We ran a lot on health care.” I said, “Zero. You didn’t get elected on health care. You didn’t run one spot on health care. You ran on welfare reform and you might have been better off if you’d started with that.
In the midterm election of 1994, Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. United by House Republican leader Newt Gingrich of Georgia behind a 10-point Contract with America that they pledged to honor with new conservative legislation, the GOP gained 54 seats to secure a 226-208 majority in the lower chamber. In Senate elections, Republicans added eight new seats, which gave them a 53-47 majority. Gingrich was elected speaker of the House, and Robert J. Dole of Kansas became the Senate majority leader.
The seeds of Clinton’s 1996 reelection strategy were sown in the aftermath of the Democrats’ heavy losses in 1994, which restored divided government but in a new form: Democratic president, Republican Congress. “It was clear by the fall of 1994 that the American people had decided that the ’92 campaign had been a bait-and-switch operation,” according to deputy domestic policy advisor William Galston-baiting with innovative centrist promises and then governing with conventional liberal policies. “He’d been listening to advice from advisors who were oriented toward congressional Democrats The fact that the New Democratic strategic course had never gotten a careful examination during the first two years was not lost on the president. I don’t think he felt very happy about it.”
During the first half of 1995 Clinton gradually adopted a two-pronged strategy for reelection, the elements of which were firmly in place by the end of the year. The first prong was to preempt any challenge to his renomination at the Democratic convention by raising so much money (about $35 million in 1995 alone) that no serious opponent would dare to take him on. Among those who thought about running before backing off were senators Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, along with Gephardt and Reverend Jesse Jackson. Clinton’s success in this effort made him the first Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 not to face opposition for his party’s nomination.
The other prong of Clinton’s strategy was aimed more directly at winning the general election against the Republican nominee. In an effort to regain his centrist appeal, he pursued a version of campaign advisor Dick Morris’s goal of “triangulation.” Morris (1997), along with Reed, Galston, and eventually Clinton himself thought that it was important for the president not only to stake out a position at the political center, midway between liberal congressional Democrats and conservative congressional Republicans, but also to find new issues that would allow him to rise above the conventional leftright political spectrum. The three points of the new political triangle would then be occupied by orthodox Democrats and Republicans at opposite ends of its baseline, with Clinton hovering at a point above and between them. Part of the strategy’s appeal was that the midterm election had made the baseline longer. GOP gains in 1994 were concentrated in the South, which added to the party’s conservative ranks while draining moderate “Blue Dogs” from the Democratic caucus, thereby making the Democrats’ congressional party even more liberal.
Triangulation (Clinton’s preferred term was the “third way”) explains, for example, the president’s approach to the defining controversy of his third year in office-the budget battle with the Republican Congress. Fresh from their midterm triumph, the Republicans went beyond the promises of the Contract with America by vowing to balance the budget by 2002 while cutting taxes. Congressional Democrats opposed them on both counts, aiming most of their fire at the spending reductions in many popular federal programs that would be required to achieve these purposes. In mid-1995 Clinton angered Democrats by boldly embracing the Republican goal of a balanced budget but infuriated Republicans by insisting that Democratic mainstays such as Medicare, Medicaid, support for education, and environmental enforcement be left substantially unaltered. A year later, he vetoed two Republican welfare reform bills but fulfilled his 1992 campaign promise by signing the third, which included time limits on welfare while providing additional funds to help recipients move into the work force and an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit to enhance the economic value of low-paying jobs. “We knew most of the Republicans, especially Dole, who at this point was in the heat of the Republican presidential primaries, didn’t want the president to sign welfare reform,” says Reed. “They wanted it as an issue for the ’96 campaign.” Public support for Clinton, who had consistently trailed Dole in early polls, increased dramatically. He opened up a solid lead against the Republican front-runner in January 1996 and never lost it.
Clinton’s centrist triangulation strategy had clear implications for the way he conducted his general election campaign in the fall of 1996. In dozens of appearances around the country, Clinton pointed with retrospective pride to the economic progress of his first term: four consecutive years of low inflation, a drop in the unemployment rate from 7% in 1992 to 5% in 1996, steady economic growth, and a reduction in the annual budget deficit from $290 billion the year before he became president to $106 billion in the fourth year of his term. But Clinton’s discussion of the future was gauzily content lite. Standing under banners that proclaimed “Building America’s Bridge to the 21st Century,” Clinton repeatedly offered empty “bridge” rhetoric to the voters. He promised (in language later echoed in his inaugural address) a bridge “big enough, strong enough, and wide enough for everybody to walk across” and asserted that “everyone has a right to walk on the bridge.” By one count he used the word an average of more than nine times per speech (New York Times 1996a). Aside from some specific promises concerning tax credits for education, Clinton’s campaign was short on proposals for the second term. Clinton won 49% of the popular vote to Dole’s 41% and Perot’s 8%, along with 379 electoral votes to Dole’s 159. “Never asking for a specific mandate,” wrote political scientist Gerald M. Pomper (1997, 198), “it was inevitable that he would not receive one, regardless of his popular vote.”
Nor did Clinton tie his campaign to the fortunes of congressional Democrats, even as his lead in the polls remained consistently in double digits. Hoping to win 51% of the national popular vote despite Perot once again being on the ballot and wary of alienating voters who might fear giving him too cooperative a Congress, Clinton never called for the election of a Democratic House and Senate. When endorsing individual candidates, White House press secretary Michael McCurry noted, “The president does not make this appeal solely on partisanship” (New York Times 1996b). Only late in the campaign did Clinton raise significant amounts of money for congressional Democrats and adjust his campaign schedule to help them out. Even more concentrated in safe districts than before the 1994 midterm, the Senate and, especially, the House Democratic caucuses remained as wedded as ever to the party’s traditional liberalism. The Democrats lost two seats in the Senate, outweighing their modest gain of nine seats in the House, and failed to regain control of either legislative body.
Although Bill Clinton appeared on the ballot for the last time in 1996, other elections occurred while he was still in office. At Gingrich’s direction, Republicans fought the 1998 midterm election on the issue of Clinton’s fitness to remain in office in light of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich was confident of success, especially considering that midterm elections at the six-year mark of a president’s tenure historically have been punishing affairs for his party. Yet Democrats gained five seats in the House and broke even in the Senate, a remarkable outcome that prompted Gingrich to resign both as speaker and as a member of the House. The results were largely a measure of Clinton’s unflaggingly high job approval ratings in polls of voters. Despite this public endorsement of his performance as president, however, Republicans continued to control both chambers. Taken together, Clinton’s popularity and the large number of politically safe, mostly urban, and traditionally liberal legislative constituencies placed a high floor on congressional Democratic success. But House and Senate Democrats’ unwillingness to embrace Clinton-style centrism also left them with a low ceiling.
Clinton showed Democrats that the way to win presidential elections was by moving toward the political center in creative-that is, more than split-the-difference- ways, such as welfare reform joined to an increased Earned Income Tax Credit to encourage and reward work and a budget that was balanced while preserving long-standing Democratic commitments to the poor, the elderly, public school teachers, and the environment. The strategies pursued by the Democratic presidential candidates who followed in his wake, like their success in elections, have been more variable. Of the three Democratic nominees since Clinton, two-Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004-ran traditional liberal Democratic campaigns and lost, and one, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, took a more centrist approach and won. Although Gore was Clinton’s vice president for eight years, he ran a populist-style, “people, not the powerful” campaign more appropriate for a candidate challenging an incumbent in economic hard times than for a vice president seeking to extend his party’s control of the presidency in good times. Kerry centered his campaign on opposition to the Iraq War, a popular position in its own right but one that resurrected voters’ old concerns that Democrats are too dovish to forcefully defend America against foreign enemies, whether in the Cold War or the war on terrorism. Obama, in contrast, offered himself as a unifying candidate who, like Clinton, transcended conventional divisions between Democratic liberalism and Republican conservatism. In foreign policy, Obama balanced his opposition to the Iraq War with a promise to pursue the war in Afghanistan aggressively.
Yet Clinton’s success in reversing long-standing Republican control of the presidency coincided with a reversal of the even longer-standing Democratic control of Congress, a countertrend that began two years into his administration. This was partly because of Clinton’s own actions. In pursuit of personal mandates, he did little to help his party’s down-ballot candidates. Indeed, in his bid for renomination and reelection in 1996, he soaked up most of the available Democratic political money and fundraising talent, leaving slim pickings for the rest of the ticket. In Daniel Galvin’s stern judgment (2010, 225), Clinton was a thoroughgoing “party predator” during his first term; “he either ignored [his party] or exploited it for his short-term political benefit.”
Clinton’s centrist policies, which were popular among the national electorate, also fostered the creation of an ideological divide between him and the congressional Democratic Party. To be sure, it is hardly Clinton’s responsibility that the party’s core constituencies-minorities, singles, young adults, secular voters, and gays and lesbians-are both strongly liberal and “inefficiently” concentrated in a relatively small number of urban House districts, as well as in large states that, like the less populous and more conservative ones, elect only two members of the Senate. But when he moved rightward toward the center, Clinton stranded the majority of these Congress members, for whom a similar move would have invited primary challenges from the left.
Republicans have not been bystanders in recent political developments. The redividing of government also may be attributed in part to the recent southernization of the GOP. Although Clinton was a southern governor and his running mate a southern Democrat in both 1992 and 1996, he lost the South to Bush and Dole by a combined 90 electoral votes to 204 electoral votes while winning the rest of the country by a combined 659 to 123. In the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, Obama of Illinois’s balance of regional support was quite similar: 97 electoral votes to 208 electoral votes in the South, 600 to 171 outside the region.
In congressional elections, trends under way since the 1960s and culminating in the 1990s left Clinton’s party a disheartening southern legacy. As recently as 1992, Democrats won 77 of 112 southern seats in the House and held 13 of 22 in the Senate. In 1994, however, as much a watershed in congressional elections as 1992 was in presidential elections, Republicans gained 21 seats in the 11 southern states, giving the GOP a majority in the region of 66-59. Even though only six southern Senate seats were on the ballot in 1994, they also added four to their ranks, which gave them a 1399 by 2014 Republican representatives outnumbered Democrats by 101 to 37 in the South and Republicans held 19 of 22 southern Senate seats. The proliferation of “majority-minority” House districts in the 1990s, the result of an alliance between Republicans and African Americans in the South, now accounts for most of the 37 southern House seats held by Democrats, including 16 blacks and four Latinos (all Texans). Each of the eight House Democrats from the Deep South is African American.
In presidential elections, the result of these Republican gains has been to make the GOP seem more a regional than a national party. In the 114th Congress, for example, their southern-based majority status in both chambers sharply contrasted with their minority status outside the South, where they were outnumbered by 35 to 43 in the Senate and 144 to 172 in the House. The result has been to undermine the party’s appeal in contest for the presidency, of which it won only two of six from 1992 to 2012, none by a margin of more than one state. Like the Democrats who dominated the South but lost most presidential elections a century ago, the Republicans’ growing identity as a southern party has made it harder for their presidential candidates to compete successfully in the rest of the country.
Irony abounds in this account of redivided government. When Clinton won the presidency in 1992, Democrats rejoiced that the era of divided control had ended in their favor. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1992) heralded the arrival of a new turn of his father’s famous cycle of alternating “public purpose” and “private interest” in a liberal direction. No pundit or political scientist foresaw that the Republicans would capture control of Congress in 1994, much less hold onto it. Compounding the irony, Clinton’s success in forging a centrist Democratic path to victory in national elections proved unavailable to (and unsought by) his party in the state-by-state, district-by-district elections that constitute Congress. The Democratic Party’s Moses made it to the promised land, but his party’s people were expelled from it.