After the Gold Rush

Bill Clinton raised a fortune for his campaign bid and became the first Democratic president re-elected since FDR. But his most enduring legacy may lie in the Republican Congress.

          There is a convenient symbolism in the fact that turnout in this year's presidential election was the lowest since 1924--because Bill Clinton is indisputably the most conservative Democrat nominated by his party since that year's deadlocked convention chose Wall Streeter John W. Davis. History buffs will also note that Clinton is the first Democrat ever re-elected while at the same time failing to carry his party to power in Congress since Grover Cleveland, who sold out to the robber barons and used the army to crush striking workers.

          The sharp drop in turnout--from 55 percent in 1992 to only 49 percent this year--means that voter cynicism about the two-party system is at an all-time high. Add Ross Perot's votes and those for third-party candidates (8 percent and 2 percent respectively) to the non-voters and you get 56 percent of eligible Americans opting out of the bipartisan duopoly.

          Hardly surprising: A president with no social program except to me-too the Republican shredding of the safety net while increasing the budget of the military-industrial/intelligence complex was opposed by a Dole campaign forced to adopt a gimmick--the 15 percent tax cut--in which neither Dole nor the voters believed. With the economy perceived as stable, this created a status quo friendly, and thus incumbent friendly, environment in which "the most accomplished liar in the history of the presidency," as muckraking columnist Jack Anderson recently put it, handily defeated the disastrously untelegenic Dole.

          But if this demotivational top-of-the-ticket campaign between a skilled prevaricator and an inarticulate one kept voters away from the polls in droves--costing Democratic congressional candidates their traditional larger-turnout advantage--those who did vote registered their disenchantment with Clinton in a variety of ways. Exit polls showed that 53 percent of them found Clinton untrustworthy, that Colin Powell would have beaten him by 10 points, and that nearly a third deliberately split their ticket in voting for a Republican Congress to watchdog the ethically feckless president.

          With Clinton hogging the campaign contributions available to Democrats and failing to campaign for a Democratic Congress until the final days of the long campaign, it was left to the Democrats' congressional campaign committees and the labor movement to conduct the battle for the House and Senate, and both made major mistakes.

          Even though Democrats picked up only eight House seats, the AFL-CIO tried to claim a partial victory by taking credit for the defeat of 12 House Republican freshmen from the class of '94. But on close examination these assertions fall apart. At least five of the 12 lost for local reasons that had little to do with labor's campaign.

          Chicago's Michael Flanagan, narrowly elected in a fluke against an indicted Dan Rostenkowski, was never going to win again in an overwhelmingly Democratic district against a non-felonious (as yet) candidate lavishly supported by the Daley machine. Three candidates self-destructed: North Carolina Rep. Fred Heineman was a gaffe-prone embarrassment who claimed that his congressional salary of $133,600 made him "lower middle class," while the same state's Rep. David Funderburk lost when he attempted to avoid responsibility for a nasty auto accident by falsely claiming his wife was driving; and Rep. Jim Bunn of Oregon committed electoral hara-kiri in Packwood country by dumping his wife, marrying his chief of staff, and paying her a six-figure salary. In New York, Rep. Daniel Frisa survived a nasty primary only to be boycotted in the general election by a significant part of the Republican apparatus in a faction fight for control of the Nassau County GOP, and he never overcame the celebrity status of Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed and whose son was disabled in the Long Island Railroad massacre a few years back. (Frisa opposed the assault weapons ban, and McCarthy--a political novice--switched her registration from Republican to Democrat to run against him.)

          Subtract these races and that leaves only seven GOP freshmen whose losses can be attributed with some fairness to labor's $35 million effort. No wonder that the president of one treasury-rich union, John Sturdivant of the American Federation of Government Employees, joked that labor needed a cost-benefit analysis of its campaign, adding that "it might have been easier to just give each Republican a million dollars and ask them to go away."

          The AFL-CIO also made a major strategic error in spending the lion's share of its war chest--some $21 million--on TV ads, plus millions more on polling and political consultants to design them. That left relatively little money for field operations, the kind of grassroots voter identification and turnout at the precinct level that could have spelled the difference in many House and Senate races where the GOP margin of victory was paper-thin. For example, 22 House GOP freshmen won with less than 54 percent of the vote, and five were re-elected with less than a majority.

          It's an elementary maxim of politics that field operations can save you in a low-turnout election, a point illustrated this year by three strong-in-the-field Senate winners: Minnesota's Paul Wellstone, who maintained the bottom-up networks that first elected him; Democrat Max Baucus, who won re-election in Montana while Dole was carrying the state and at-large Rep. Helen Chenoweth, the militias' favorite, was prevailing in the face of labor-financed TV ads; and New Hampshire Republican Bob Smith, who won a narrow re-election against a Democratic tide that captured the statehouse and gave Clinton the state by a 10 percent margin.

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