The Indianapolis News
November 5, 1998
Alan W. Dowd
The president and other Democratic leaders emerged from Tuesday’s mid-term elections claiming victory. It was a dubious victory at best.
While the president is making noise about his party’s nominal gains, it pays to step back and look at the picture painted by these elections. The voters chose to extend the status quo—a status quo that is quite favorable to the Republican Party.
Consider the facts: For the first time since the Roaring Twenties, the Republican Party kept control of the House of Representatives for three consecutive elections. The GOP maintained its ten-seat cushion in the Senate. The GOP has not controlled this many state legislative bodies since World War II. And Republicans continued to dominate governorships across the nation, holding 32 governor’s seats at this writing—a reality which will have long-term political implications because of redistricting in 2001 and 2002.
Indeed, the man from Hope has left his party in a rather hopeless predicament.
Much has been said about the president’s ability to stave off the so-called "six-year itch," during which the party of a lame-duck president loses seats. However, Bill Clinton’s "six-year itch" came in 1994, after only two years in the White House.
In fact, voters have been expressing their dissatisfaction with Bill Clinton in every election since his presidency began, and the Democratic Party is bearing the brunt of their disenchantment. In 1992, a united Democratic Party, a weakened Republican base, and a fractured electorate cleared the way for Bill Clinton to become president. The new president’s party maintained a commanding Congressional majority of 258 seats in the House and 56 seats in the Senate. The Democratic Party also held 31 governorships.
However, there were already indications that Bill Clinton’s success didn’t translate into success for his Democratic brethren. Democrats lost ten seats in the House and one in the Senate in 1992. And while his electoral vote total amounted to a majority, fully 57% of the electorate voted against Bill Clinton.
Just two years later, the voters lashed out at the president. His party paid the highest price, from top to bottom and from East to West. This was not a normal mid-term shift; it was a GOP tsunami. The tidal wave turned Congress on its head, as the Republican Party won a majority in the House for the first time since 1954, and regained the Senate. A sitting Speaker of the House was ousted for the first time since the Civil War, as the GOP swept 30 governorships and wrested control of 13 additional state legislative bodies.
After the 1994 election, the president seldom acted like the leader of the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton sought to distance himself from Congressional Democrats by playing his party off against the Republican leadership on such issues as welfare reform, Medicare, balancing the budget, and cutting taxes. By "triangulating" the legislative process, the president enhanced his own re-election prospects but dashed any Democratic hopes of reversing the landslide of 1994.
1994 would prove not to be an aberration. Republicans held onto the House for the first time in 60 years, retained their majority in the Senate, picked up two more governors, and kept the Democrats at bay in 1996. What was once the nation’s majority party was relegated to the status of a presidential game piece.
This year was a replay of 1996.
Consider some of the stark features of the post-Clinton political landscape: In just five years, Bill Clinton squandered his party’s national majority, and with it, the Democratic Party’s legislative and budgetary power. By alienating traditional Democratic constituencies for his own political gain, the president’s triangulation strategy split the party’s base, perhaps permanently, and made certain that a Democratic majority in Congress would be a thing of an increasingly distant future. Pollsters and demographers predict that by 2000, the Republican Party could easily have Congressional delegation majorities in 35 states. (The GOP already holds majorities in 29 states.)
The last ten months have only exacerbated the situation. Disgusted with the president’s ethical lapses and the Democratic leadership’s apparent willingness to look the other way, more people vote Republican now than vote Democrat. It is ironic that Bill Clinton now relies on the party he used, ignored, raided, and blighted for his very political life. Because of his abuse and disloyalty, the Democratic Party is a shell of what it was in 1992. However, because of the party’s loyalty to him, he remains in office. As a consequence, Congressional Democrats will continue to comprise a legislative minority well into the future.
Do Tuesday’s election results mean voters are now satisfied with Bill Clinton and ready to end the impeachment process? If election returns from the Judiciary Committee are any indication, the answer is no. Every Republican member of that committee, each of whom voted to proceed with the impeachment investigation, was easily re-elected. (Even Rep. Inglis, who vacated his seat, was replaced by a Republican.)
Bill Clinton has left an indelible imprint on his nation, his office, and his party. Scrambled by the president’s spinning and double-speak, the nation splits hairs over things that once were undebatable: What is a lie? What is sex? Underscoring the insignificance of his presidency, his office deals with such weighty issues as defining "is" and quashing lawsuits. Abandoning the high ground it once occupied on workplace harassment and sexism, his party debates whether certain harassments are tolerable, whether certain perjuries are permissible.
The once-proud Democratic Party now accepts the net loss of 48 seats in the House, 11 Senate seats, and 15 governorships with relief. For Democrats, these are the bitter fruits of Bill Clinton’s victories.
One wonders how many more such "victories" the Democratic Party can withstand.