Bill Clinton was the first Democratic president since the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. Could this “New Democrat” fend off the rising tide of conservatism? Or would he follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter and become a one-term president?
The Last Four Years
From the beginning, President Clinton faced intense Republican opposition to his agenda. His 1993 economic package, which included taxes increases (mostly to the upper class) and spending cuts (which were toughest on the poor) passed without a single Republican vote in Congress. Clinton oversaw an economic recovery that his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, could have only hoped for. He lowered the deficit by almost $90 billion in two years. That number continued to improve and, by the end of his time in office, there would actually be a surplus. Americans once again enjoyed low inflation, low interest rates, and low unemployment. Combined with the end of the Cold War, this economic strength reasserted America’s global dominance. Although Republicans were quick to find faults in his leadership, Clinton held true to his moderate New Democrat label by compromising with them frequently. Together with Congress, he passed a crime bill, reformed welfare, and signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Sometimes, that compromise went too far, and left no one happy. One of the clearest examples of this was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Clinton’s attempt to allow gay men and women to serve in the military was diluted down to a policy of nondiscrimination, only if those individuals did not discuss their same-sex relationships openly.
Clinton’s most ambitious agenda item was health care reform. By the 1990s, the US was already the only industrialized nation without universal health care. Costs had risen sharply throughout the previous two decades and millions of Americans were under-insured. Successful passage would have been an achievement on par with Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security and could have rebuilt the New Deal Coalition. As lovers of small government and haters of things that benefit Democrats, Republicans vowed to stop it. Controversially, the President chose First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a strong political activist and lawyer in her own right, to lead the task force on health care. She had similarly helped pass education reform during Bill’s time as Arkansas governor. Unfortunately, this decision brought additional complications. Putting the First Lady in a position of political power was a jarring deviation from precedent for many politicians. It also allowed criticism to come in the form of personal attacks on the couple, not simply on policy. Internally, advisors felt that they could not disagree with the First Lady. The biggest mistake, however, was the exclusion of actual legislators in the bill’s writing. The task force hoped to provide Congress with a finished product, but in doing so, they alienated any would-be supporters. The resulting bill was long and complicated. Republicans seized the opportunity to attack. They argued that the plan was Socialistic and would prevent Americans from seeing the doctor of their choice. Insurance companies funded a series of negative television ads that featured “Harry and Lousie,” a middle-class couple in the near future complaining about the loss of quality health care. President Clinton initially threatened to veto any bill that did not provide universal coverage, but the plan didn’t even make it that far. By the summer of 1994, health care reform was considered dead. Opinion polls showed public support for the general concept of health care reform, but those numbers dropped significantly when Clinton’s name was attached. The missed opportunity was one of the greatest policy failures of Clinton’s presidency.
Clinton’s tendency for scandal followed him into the White House. Beginning during the 1992 campaign, Bill and Hillary were accused of misusing their political and legal positions in Arkansas to profit from a real estate venture known as Whitewater. What started as a relatively trivial allegation slowly gained national importance. In 1994, former Solicitor General Ken Starr was appointed to lead a federal investigation that would follow Clinton for several more years.
Republicans capitalized on Clinton’s early stumbles during the 1994 midterm elections. Led by Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich, the party whip, Republicans offered the “Contract with America,” a collection of conservative bills and reforms that the next Congress would enact. Candidates across the country ran on this package, nationalizing the Congressional races in a new way. The strategy worked. The “Republican Revolution” allowed the party to capture both houses of Congress. In fact, it was the first time Republicans held the house in forty years. But their success was short-lived. The most crucial showdown between the new Congress and the President came during the 1996 budget debate. Republicans took the blame for two government shutdowns that resulted from this dispute. In the first, Clinton vetoed Congress’ budget, and a temporary replacement was enacted. Gingrich, now Speaker of the House, later admitted that he knew this bill would be unacceptable to the President, but was partially motivated by his grudge against Clinton for seating him in the back of Air Force One on a long flight back from Jerusalem. When negotiations continued to stall, the government shut down once again. Clinton didn’t flinch, and Republicans backed down. It was a huge win for the incumbent president as the election neared. It’s worth noting, however, that the shutdown prompted the White House to rely heavily on unpaid interns to fill the roles of Clinton’s staff.
Although Clinton’s term wasn’t perfect, the improving economy and his victory in the budget debate made him a strong contender for re-election. Conservatives complained endlessly about his informal style and preference towards big government programs, but Clinton did his best to stay on the moderate track. His policy compromises and adoption of Republican concerns (mainly reducing the deficit) made him popular with centrist voters.
No drama for the Democrats! President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were re-nominated without any serious opposition.
The Republicans, on the other hand, faced a contentious primary. A long list of candidates entered the race. The main contenders were Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole from Kansas, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, and New Jersey publishing executive Steve Forbes. Retired General Colin Powell, a potential frontrunner, chose not to run. Dole, who turned 73 during the campaign, represented the old, moderate party establishment. He was known for his integrity and dry wit. Buchanan was a religious conservative who still had strong support following his 1992 primary loss to Incumbent President George H.W. Bush. Forbes gained fame by promising a flat 17% income tax through expensive television commercials. Buchanan had his best performance in the New Hampshire primary. Dole took the momentum, however, after winning South Carolina. He went on to secure the nomination. Although he was traditionally a moderate, Dole was careful not to alienate the far right like President Bush. In order to win over former Reaganites and Forbes supporters, he proposed a 15% across-the-board cut to income tax in his acceptance speech. For his running mate, he chose economic conservative Jack Kemp, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and New York Congressman.
Ross Perot was back! The Texas billionaire had gained national fame during his 1992 third-party campaign, even earning a spot on the debate stage. This time, he ran under the label of the Reform Party. After founding the organization, Perot initially planned not to seek its nomination. The party held a mail-in primary. Without Perot, the main frontrunner was former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, a Democratic defector. Perot eventually did decide to join the race in order for the party to earn federal campaign funds. He easily defeated Lamm for the nomination. Angry Lamm supporters walked out of the party’s convention and attempted to persuade their candidate to run as an independent, but he refused. Perot’s running mate was economist Pat Choate from Texas. As he did four years prior, Perot attacked both major parties, but faced with a popular president who was already reducing the deficit, his campaign was less effective.
President Clinton continued to campaign as a moderate New Democrat. He relied on his charm and centrist positions. He used a strategy of “triangulation” to adopt some Republican policies, while also creating the impression that his harshest critics, like Newt Gingrich, were radicals. Clinton went so far as to claim, “The era of big government is over.” Not the kind of thing a dangerous liberal would say! As he had in 1992, he ran on balancing the budget and reforming the welfare system, as well as supporting Social Security, Medicare, and liberal social issues. Anything that didn’t get accomplished could easily be blamed on Newt Gingrich, who was losing popularity. Bob Dole summed up his views on Clinton’s strategy when he said, “If this keeps up, Bill Clinton won’t have to make speeches any more. All he’ll have to do is find out my stance on any issue and say, ‘Me too!’”
Unfortunately for Dole, Clinton had a comfortable polling lead and his re-election was considered inevitable. To most of the media, the excitement of the Republican primaries did not transfer to the general election. Dole’s acceptance of trickle-down economics, necessary to attract the new Republican base, moved him to the right of the public. Attempts to seem more approachable, like dressing down with an open collar, a sports jacket, and chinos (he normally wore a three-piece suite in the Senate) didn’t fool voters. As one observer noted, “For a newer younger American, Bob Dole was always a black and white movie in a color age.”
To increase enthusiasm, Dole made a dramatic move by resigning from the Senate in order to focus on the campaign. He explained, “I will seek the presidency with nothing to fall back on but the judgment of the American people and nowhere to go but the White House or home.” He subsequently campaigned nonstop to prove his vitality. His polling improved, but he still trailed Clinton. As Republican pundit Bill Kristol put it, “If a month from now, nothing’s changed, then you just have a 72-year-old ex-senator without a message instead of a 72-year-old senator without a message.”
Dole had difficulty conveying his message. Like Bush, he felt that his long resume entitled him to the presidency. In a response about his goals for the country, the candidate seemed confused and instead talked about his record in Congress. He often meandered from issue to issue in speeches, making him appear like a rambling old man. Age became a serious issue during the campaign. At 73, he would have been the oldest president on Inauguration Day. According to Dole, he was from the Greatest Generation that won World War II, while Clinton was a spoiled Baby Boomer. Several minor gaffes highlighted his age. He once referred to the Los Angeles Dodges as the Brooklyn Dodgers, even though the team had moved 38 years earlier. When criticizing Democrats for opposing Reagan’s Star Wars initiative, he warned that the US was unprotected from Soviet missiles, despite the Cold War ending at the beginning of the decade. During the primary, when asked why he thought one opponent had stayed in the race so late, Dole replied, “I think [he] believes I’m going to fall off the podium somewhere and he’ll be there for the last rites. Not going to happen!” On September 19, Dole did indeed fall off a stage. While reaching out to shake hands with the crowd, a railing gave way and the candidate fell into a group of photographers. He quickly recovered with the help of Secret Service agents and only suffered my bruises. Dole joked about the incident, later claiming that he was trying to do the Macarena. Clinton attacked Dole’s age subtly, rather than directly. His campaign used the slogan “Building Bridges to the Future” as a play on Dole’s frequent assertion that he was a “bridge to the past” before the radical 1960s.
Unlike 1992, the Commission on Presidential Debates (made up of Republicans and Democrats) deliberately changed its rules to exclude Ross Perot. The third-party candidate’s already disappointing poll numbers were further damaged as it became obvious that he could not improve upon his last election result.
The 1996 electoral map was very similar to the results four years earlier. Clinton dominated the West Coast and Northeast, while also performing well in the Midwest and parts of the South. Once again, Perot did not win any electors.
Bill Clinton won a second term! With a slight improvement from his last campaign, he won 379 electoral votes, to Bob Dole’s 159. Sadly, he only won with 49% of the popular vote, meaning he would remain a “minority president.” Dole earned 40% of votes, and Perot fell to 8%. This was the last time a third-party candidate won more than 3%. Clinton was the first Democrat to win two elections since Franklin Roosevelt, and he was the youngest president ever to win re-election. Despite this decisive victory, Republicans maintained control of Congress. They also built a strong advantage in state governments.
What Did It Say About America?
It’s still the economy, stupid! The economy was good and there were no major international conflicts. It was a relatively boring election, but for an incumbent president, boring is good! Gingrich and the conservative Republicans had not held up their end of the “contract” and provided easy fodder for the Clinton campaign. In his election night speech, Clinton declared, “the vital American center is alive and well!” Unfortunately for him, this would not satiate conservatives who were still bent on destroying his presidency.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yeah! After a disastrous midterm election, the Comeback Kid did it again! As his second term will show more clearly, Bill Clinton was very far from a perfect president, but Bob Dole was not a viable alternative. He was old, uninspiring, and entitled. On top of that, the changing Republican Party forced him to take far-right positions. You might be surprised to learn that Bob Dole is still alive at 97 years old! He has attended every Republican convention since 1964 and was the only living party nominee in 2016 to endorse Donald Trump.