After the Gold Rush
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.
Not only did the AFL-CIO forget that a labor ad agency is no substitute for a labor movement; as a tail on the Democratic dog, it could not deliver its own members. Exit polls showed that 38 percent of union households voted for Dole.
Another strategic error: The Democrats, led by their Senatorial Campaign Committee chair, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, recruited fiscally conservative millionaires as candidates for eight of the 12 Senate seats in which the party thought it had a chance. The results were disastrous. In Colorado, an environmentally conscious state, Rep. Wayne Allard--a reactionary with a 7 percent League of Conservation Voters rating who favors public hangings to deter crime--won by 5 percent over million-dollar-a-year lobbyist Tom Strickland, who worked for corporate polluters. In South Carolina, wimpy textile heir Elliot Close lost to somnolent nonagenarian Strom Thurmond, a race that wasn't even, dare I say it, close.
In Idaho, neanderthal Larry Craig, thought vulnerable because of his position on nuclear waste dumping, wiped the floor with Democrat Walter Minnick, a former Nixon aide who made his millions by selling his lumber company to a major Canadian polluter. In Alabama, rich kid Democrat Roger Bedford--who campaigned for guns and the death penalty, and against gays in the military--was trounced by State Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a darling of the Christian Coalition who'd like to legislate Leviticus.
In Virginia's Warner vs. Warner race, incumbent Republican John aced out Mark, whose spending of a huge chunk of the $300 million he made in computers became a campaign issue. Millionaires Harvey Gantt in North Carolina and Jill Docking in Kansas went down to defeat against hard-right icon Jesse Helms and knee-jerk ultraconservative Sam Brownback. And in a face-off of millionaires in Oregon, Republican frozen food king Gordon Smith won by four points over computer software magnate Tom Bruggere, whose company outsourced hundreds of jobs to Indonesia.
Kerrey's millionaires were not the only ones to lose: In Georgia, Republican Guy Milner, who spent $4.5 million of his own money, lost by less than 1 percent of the vote to folksy triple-amputee vet Max Cleland, even though Dole carried the state. But Kerrey's most embarrassing defeat undoubtedly came in his home state of Nebraska. There, he browbeat popular Democratic Governor Ben Nelson, who had a 70 percent favorable rating, into running for the Senate, even though Nelson had signed a public pledge to serve out his full term in the statehouse. Nelson was nearly as conservative as his Republican opponent, Chuck Hagel, and so the pledge became the only issue. Nelson lost.
There were not many bright spots in the congressional elections for Democratic progressives. The most liberal-left new House member is Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, a former press secretary to longtime liberal Rep. Joe Moakley, who beat two-termer Peter Blute in a district that combines industrial Worcester and Fall River and the high-tech corridor along route I-495. (Local labor's field operations and Blute's anti-abortion position made the difference.) In the Indiana race to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Andy Jacobs, a legendarily frugal social liberal who'd held the seat for 20 years, Julia Carson--a black county commissioner--defeated her white female GOP opponent in a district that was only 30 percent black, thanks to a large vote from Indianapolis's university community. California's Walter Capps--a warm-and-fuzzy ACLUer, religion professor, and author of a book called The New Religious Right--knocked off kooky rightist frosh Andrea Seastrand (who proclaimed California's earthquakes the judgment of God upon the state's decadent morality) in a district once represented by Michael Huffington that includes Santa Barbara and Vandenberg Air Force Base.
But many of the newly minted House Democrats are "blue puppies" who can be expected to give aid and comfort to the 23 Democratic conservatives of the Blue Dog Caucus, among them North Carolinians Mike McIntyre and Bobby Etheridge, Florida's Allen Boyd, and likely Texas run-off winner Ken Bentsen (nephew of "Loophole Lloyd" Bentsen, the wealthy former senator and treasury secretary). And the National Committee for an Effective Congress--the nation's leading liberal PAC--estimates that 28 of 45 Democratic freshmen this year are "New Democrats" in the right-drifting Clinton/Democratic Leadership Council mold.
In the Senate, three of the four fresh Democratic faces--Georgia's Cleland, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Louisiana's Mary Landrieu--are fiscal conservatives who support the Balanced Budget Amendment, which failed by only one vote this year and is now certain to be enacted in the next. When ratified, (30 states are already in favor, and only eight more are needed,) the amendment will forever cripple the ability of any new president or Congress to initiate major social welfare or job programs, even if the country undergoes a '30s-style economic crisis.
In fact, 1996 will prove in the long run to have been more important than the so-called "Republican Revolution" of 1994. In '94, the GOP victory was driven not by the Contract With America--of which few voters had ever heard--but by disgust at a long series of Democratic scandals (from Abscam to Jim Wright to Dan Rostenkowski, culminating in the House Post Office affair that brought down dozens of check-bouncing Democrats that year). But 1996 means 1994 was not an aberration, and portends a permanent Republican Congress. Why? In 1998, when the party that holds the White House traditionally loses seats in both chambers, Democrats can be expected to see their ranks reduced even further--especially after Indiana pit bull Rep. Dan Burton (bad cop) and slick Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson (good cop--he's the former Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee) spend two years trashing Clinton as the respective chairs of the House and Senate investigating committees on government.
Furthermore, most economists not on the White House payroll are expecting an economic downturn by the end of the second quarter of 1997, which means that voters will blame Clinton and the Democrats for the economy's woes in '98. By the year 2000, Republicans will have cemented their majorities with six years of incumbency, gorging themselves as the majority Democrats once did with PAC money. Obviously we should not expect any real campaign finance reform from the new Congress next year. Even if Democrats manage to hold the White House with the seemingly inevitable Al Gore, the GOP will in all probability retain congressional control. After that, it will take a major economic depression to dislodge them.
In the wake of this year's voting, Clinton campaign top guns like Peter Knight, Doug Sosnick, and Doug Schoen openly boasted that the key to their victory was their gargantuan fund-raising operation in 1995. Clinton's overfilled coffers frightened off any potential Democratic primary challenge, saving him a wounding internecine struggle and permitting him to spend at least $1 million a week on TV ads from June 1995 right through to the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
But in their reckless haste to win the money primary, the Clintonoids created the Indogate/Huang campaign contributions scandal for which voters--unable to stomach Dole--punished congressional Democrats, as pre- and post-election polls show. If, as I suspect, this year's results presage a new and unbreakable Republican era in Congress, that will turn out to have been Bill Clinton's most important legacy.
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