Drift or Mandate?: The 1996 Elections

The
American political system has been passing through one of its rare bursts of
sweeping convulsive change, culminating thus far in the electoral earthquake of
1994. That midterm election abruptly terminated a reasonably stable
institutional balance, major parts of which had lasted for more than 40 years.
Only five years ago, the Oxford professor of American politics, Byron E. Shafer,
could credibly describe this system in these words:

In the current era, the presidency is about foreign policy and
cultural values. The House of Representatives is about social welfare and
service provision. And the Senate is amenable to both concerns, while leaning
toward the latter. There is a conservative majority in the nation . . . on
issues of foreign policy and cultural values, and the presidency is accordingly
Republican. There is a liberal majority in the nation on issues of social
welfare and service provision, and the House of Representatives is accordingly
Democratic. Either majority can reach into the Senate, but the tendency of that
institution to focus more on welfare and services than on foreign relations and
cultural values means that it is more often Democratic than Republican. Yet both
political parties are dedicated to maintaining these arrangements, albeit in
spite of themselves.

Few would describe Newt Gingrich's House of Representatives today as being "about
social welfare and service provision." Fewer still would suppose that both
parties "are dedicated to maintaining" the arrangements Shafer
describes. Today it is Congress that is Republican and the presidency that is
Democratic. And in mid-1996, the prospects for Bill Clinton's re-election over
Robert Dole seem remarkably robust.

ALIGN="RIGHT" SRC="../images/27burn1.gif" ALT="Illustration by Taylor Jones" BORDER="0" WIDTH="200">Reversals
of this magnitude are rare. Occurring suddenly and often unexpectedly, they
scramble previous rational calculations. At such times, it is striking how
rapidly essays among even the best and brightest of us can become period pieces,
guides to what is not happening in politics today. Our task here is to explore
some of these institutional consequences and their implications for 1996 and the
years ahead.

Despite the earthquake of 1994, a basic reality of American public opinion,
noted by Lloyd Free and Albert Cantril in 1967, remains in place. As Free and
Cantril famously observed, Americans tend to be operational liberals and
ideological conservatives. If respondents are asked questions tapping into
general ideological attitudes, notably toward Big Government, the mode (at least
among white, non-Jewish voters) is conservative. Such antistate values have been
embedded in the political culture since the American Revolution. But if
respondents are also asked concrete policy and service-delivery questions, the
mode is liberal. Most of these respondents have wanted collective goods—in
other words, programs—that government began providing in the 1930s, and
that only government could provide. Infuriating to tidy-minded intellectuals of
left or right, this bifurcation into two distinct and potent opinion modes has
shown astonishing tenacity over the years. There is little reason to suppose
that the 1994 election has done away with it. An earlier great realignment—that
of the 1960s—inaugurated a process that polarized the two major parties
along this dimension. Republicans became increasingly the party of ideological
conservatism, with two major "pulses" (Barry Goldwater's nomination in
1964, Ronald Reagan's nomination and election in 1980) mightily accelerating the
process. Democrats were more and more the program-creating, service-delivery
party of operational liberalism. This, connected with the structural
transformation of the parties themselves and the emergence of candidate-centered
campaigning, produced the unprecedented institutional specialization that Shafer
and others have described.

The most significant structural feature of the post-1968 regime-order was
the emergence of divided government as a normal state of affairs. The policy
consequences of this development were monumental—most dramatically the
quadrupling of the national debt within a dozen years, creating a cumulative
barricade against further development of the programs central to operational
liberalism. As Gary C. Jacobson observed in his penetrating analysis of the 1992
congressional elections,

Divided government in the Reagan-Bush years emerged from the
electorate's unwitting attempt to have its cake and eat it too. Poll after poll
taken during the 1980s and early 1990s found solid majorities in favor of an
imposing combination of low taxes, generous social spending, and a balanced
budget. It is hardly surprising that, given a choice, people would declare
themselves for benefits and against costs. The surprise is that electoral
politics in this era gave them the option of voting simultaneously for
Democratic congresses so they could receive the benefits they enjoyed, and
Republican presidents so they would not have to pay for them.

It is unsurprising that this formula proved politically unsustainable.
Another theme central to this story is a constitutional one developed with
particular clarity by Yale legal scholar Bruce Ackerman in his 1991 book, We
the People
. American history, according to Ackerman, has been punctuated by
three "constitutional moments," those of the Founding (the 1780s),
Recon struction (the 1860s), and the New Deal (the 1930s). Each of these latter
events so substantially reshaped the operational meaning of the document of 1787
that it created in effect a new "American republic." But, as we shall
see, very special conditions must be met before such moments can be said to
occur: Just as there can be failed critical realignments, so it is also possible
to have aborted constitutional moments.

The
Republicans of the 104th Congress see themselves as having a forceful mandate "direct
from the people" to produce another such constitutional moment. The goal is
the substantial dismantling of the strong federal government created and given
judicial sanction in the 1930s—the creation of a fourth republic on the
ruins of the third. In 1994-96 this thrust produced a number of concrete policy
initiatives, including not only the Republican budget and Contract with America
but also Supreme Court decisions that rediscovered virtues in pre-1937
jurisprudence long thought to be extinct. Thus, it is not for nothing that
Republican presidential candidate Dole has been advising people to take out
copies of the Tenth Amendment and re-read it.

As we all know, much of this initial transformative push was halted in its
tracks by President Clinton's use of the veto power. Confusion ensued in
Republican ranks; they were forced to resort to a coercive strategy—shutting
down the government, threatening default on payments on the national debt—that
clearly backfired. Acutely polarized stalemate dominates the institutional
scene, while opinion negatives both for House Speaker Gingrich and the
Republican Party generally have climbed considerably.



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The failure of the congressional Republicans to consolidate their gains
nicely confirms Ackerman's insight. As our history demonstrates, constitutional
"revolutions" in American politics require what he calls "extended
deliberation." Those who propose a constitutional revolution cannot achieve
their goals by winning only a single election. Repeated victory is required, for
the Constitution itself stands as a great breakwater against parliamentary
decision-making.

ALIGN="LEFT" SRC="../images/27burn2.gif" ALT="Illustration by Taylor Jones" BORDER="0" WIDTH="200">Perhaps
it was assumed by the new majority's leadership that the President would go
along with their republic-changing program, or that he could somehow be
steamrolled. But the Constitution prescribes fixed terms of office, and the full
use of their power by officeholders—including presidents—until the
moment when they are replaced by others. So much for elementary Government 101,
enriched by Professor Ackerman's important gloss. After a prolonged feint in the
direction of acquiescence, Clinton in the end did not go along, and—unlike
the very rare situations under Andrew Johnson (1866-69) and Harry Truman
(1947-48)—the votes were not there to override most vetoes. The failure of
the government-shutting campaign during the winter of 1995-96 also demonstrated
that the President could not be steamrolled. Out of this stalemated situation a
rare bipartisan consensus emerged; subsequent developments would have to await
the results of the 1996 elections. The issues at stake make these elections of
enormous substantive importance quite apart from the candidates. Before dealing
more fully with 1996, it is worth considering what seems likely to survive—to
be a durable part of a newer political order—regardless of whether Clinton
or Dole wins in November.

Most
likely to endure is the partisan polarization of Congress. Con gressional
Quarterly
's surveys of 1995 roll calls document a story that became clear
almost from the moment the 104th Congress assembled. In 1995 the percentage of
total recorded votes in which a majority of one party was opposed to a majority
of the other climbed smartly to 73.2 in the House and 68.8 in the Senate. Both
are all-time highs in a series that extends back to 1954. Indeed, as Texas A&M
political scientist Patricia Hurley has pointed out, if these levels of
partisanship hold up for the whole of the 104th Congress, they will mean a
degree of partisan polarization not seen since 1909-11 in the House and 1921-23
in the Senate.

To realize how far upward we have come, it is worthy of note that an
all-time low was reached as late as 1968-70—27 percent in the House, 32
percent in the Senate. Even in the first half of George Bush's administration
(1989-90), the partisan-vote scores reached only 49 percent and 35 percent
respectively in the House and the Senate. It is also notable that extensive
rules changes were adopted in the House. Centralized decision power is now
vested in the majority leadership to a degree not seen since Speaker Joseph
Cannon's wings were clipped in the St. Patrick's Day revolt of 1910.

In part, the quasi-parliamentary situation in the 1995 Congress is the
culmination (so far) of longer-term processes by which each party has
progressively lost its deviant tail—liberal Republicans, conservative Demo
crats. The party unity average scores (for both chambers) compiled by Congressional
Quarterly
reveal a 15-year trend toward only slightly elevated levels on the
Republican side (1975-90), but a conspicuous rise among Democrats in the early
1980s—undoubtedly in response to the challenge of a Reagan presidency. From
then through 1993, indeed, Democratic legislative cohesion in Congress usually
exceeded the GOP's. It is in the 1990s—even before the 104th Congress—that
this Republican cohesion dramatically im proved, from 74 percent in 1990 to 83
percent in 1994. The process of Republican consolidation was virtually completed
in 1995, with a score of 91 percent; the Democratic score, on the other hand,
fell modestly to 80 percent.

There are various ways of presenting this picture. One-third of the 148
white Democrats, a little more than one-fifth of all Democrats, but only 1
percent of the 236 Republicans, voted with their party less than three-quarters
of the time; for the House as a whole, the figure in the center is only 10.8
percent (47 out of 434 members, excluding the Speaker). On the Republican side,
only 9 of 236 members followed the party line less than 80 percent of the time.
Still, the lowest scorer, Representative Constance Morella, Republican of
Maryland, gave it a 65 percent support. She and eight of the other low scorers
came from the former bastion of moderate Republicanism, the Northeast. Even so,
37 of the 45 GOP representatives from this region—the other four-fifths—lined
up with the party majority at least 80 percent of the time.

The younger the entering cohort, the more its members tend to cohere behind
the GOP party majority (no such trend seems to exist on the Democratic side):
78.6 percent of Republican members elected before 1992 supported the party
majority on these partisan roll calls at least 90 percent of the time. The score
for the 1992 sophomore class rises modestly to 80; and for the notable freshman
class of 1994, to a more impressive 85.9 percent. And barely less than half of
the House GOP consists of members elected in 1992 or later, while even among the
Democrats three-eighths of the party are freshmen or sophomores. So much for
term limits!

Among white Democrats, there is substantially less cohesion than among
Republicans, but considerably more than prior to 1995. A chief feature of the
story here is, of course, a long-term secular trend toward Republican
legislative strength in the South, through either defeat of conservative white
southern Democrats or capture of open seats vacated by them. Here the Republican
trend was decisively accelerated in 1994. A 1992 Democratic regional lead of 33
(85-52, including Kentucky and Oklahoma in the South) was replaced by a
Republican lead of 9 following the 1994 election (64-73). This is the first such
outcome since the initial Reconstruction elections of 1868-69. The Republican
lead was then expanded by the defection of 5 sitting conservative southern
Democrats in 1995, increasing the regional Republican lead to 19. In the 104th
House of Representatives, only 38 white southern Democrats remained, along with
17 African Americans and 4 Hispanics. And outright pro-Republican deviants on
the CQ party unity score numbered just 6 of these 38.

The
implications of this continuing and accelerating southern realignment toward the
GOP are far-reaching. Having now thoroughly spread to the level of congressional
elections, the effects of this shift are also likely to be permanent—as
will be the generally high level of Republican legislative cohesion. In fact,
there is every reason to suppose that this surge has not yet fully run its
course. Another Republican gain of half a dozen southern open seats, perhaps
more, seems quite likely in 1996. This points toward major difficulties for
Democrats attempting to regain control of the House this year, for a recapture
of virtually all the non-southern seats lost in 1994 would produce at best only
the barest of party majorities. There was a mean Democratic lead of 81 in the
whole House between 1980 and 1992. Nearly half of this lead was produced by a
southern margin of 39. With anything approaching a 39-seat Republican lead in
the South, the Democrats must do as well elsewhere in the country as they
typically did before 1994 just to break even.

Evidently, we are well on the road to a goal ardently desired by generations
of political scientists and other critical observers of American politics—a
responsible party system with sharply defined differences between the two major
contestants. To the extent that congressional elections now provide a normal
condition of closely balanced and sharply polarized legislative parties, the
centripetal force of intraparty cohesion will likely be intensified, and the
issue distance between the two contestants maximized. To this extent and on this
dimension, realignment has already occurred. Whether liberals of the
party-responsibility school will be happy with the consequences of its
achievement may well be debated.

Whence this surge toward this explosively polarized world? Two factors
deserve special note. First, this decade has been marked by a vast boiling over
of public wrath directed against established parties, politicians, and policies.
Fundamental to this development has been long-term stagnation or decline of real
income among widening segments of the electorate. Equally fundamental are the
social effects of the current burst of capitalist revolution—downsizing,
job termination, and job substitution from better to less well paid. The result
is a pervasive anxiety for the future of oneself and one's children. Established
politicians of both parties, including Presidents Bush and Clinton, have seemed
caught in the grip of surging economic forces that they cannot control—and,
what is worse, forces that no one wishes to discuss, much less come to terms
with. The theology of the market is firmly in the ascendant, from economics
departments to radio talk show hosts. Stress abounds, but democratic politics as
a means of coping with it seems increasingly excluded in practice.

The search for answers thus feeds into a politics of repudiation with much
attention being paid to candidates at the fringes of politics who promise
answers: thus Ross Perot in 1992, and Patrick Buchanan in the Republican
contests of early 1996. One good rule of politics is that when a vacuum of this
sort comes along, entrepreneurs will come along to exploit, and if possible,
fill it. The more disturbed the sense of loss of control over individual and
family destiny becomes, the greater the impact of these entrepreneurs is likely
to be.

But
there is more to the story. The distancing effect, alienating large parts of the
public from politics and politicians, grows directly out of fundamental changes
in the parties as institutions that occurred in and after the critical
realignment of the late 1960s. John Aldrich's recent analysis (Why Parties?)
of the transition from the old cadre parties that go back to Martin Van Buren's
time to newer "parties-in-service" to candidates is particularly
relevant. Linked to these changes, in Aldrich's analysis, is a fundamental shift
in the identity of major benefit seekers closely associated with party
operations. The older "labor-intensive" parties were densely populated
with people chiefly interested in divisible material benefits—jobs,
patronage, and the like. The mode of operations is well captured in the title of
a book by Milton Rakove on Chicago's Daley machine: "We don't want nobody
nobody sent." Candidates as well as others worked their passage within a
tightly organized structure of action. The newer "capital-intensive"
parties, on the other hand, became increasingly populated with a second type of
benefit seeker. Typically more upscale and better educated than their
predecessors, these were people who were primarily interested in policies and
party as only a means to achieving the policy goals they favored. Closely linked
with this new type of benefit seeker is much greater receptivity to broader
political ideology. And, as Alan Ehrenhalt has recently noted, the answer to the
question, "Who sent these candidates?" is "They sent themselves."

You can't do policy in any authoritative sense without getting elected.
Candidates in this newer world must first deal with the party-nomination
process, where policy and ideological activists are particularly thick on the
ground. But candidates recognize that somewhere close to the center is where
elections are usually won or lost—though ascertaining where that center is
in an electorate with two opinion modes is no simple task. Thus Richard Nixon
could once advise Senator Dole to run to the right to get the Republican
nomination, and then run back again to the center during the general-election
campaign. (It will be interesting to see whether, or to what extent, Dole
follows that advice in 1996.)

The activist pull on candidates away from the center and toward their own
more polar policy-ideological agendas has grown systematically more intense,
particularly since 1980. Sometimes the activists themselves directly enter and
win an important election as candidates, as was the case in 1994 with Senator
Spencer Abraham, Republican of Michigan. The 1994 Republican freshman class
seems particularly populated with members who had no prior legislative
experience (26 out of 73) and no experience with the local activist network more
generally.

All this produces a severe and evidently growing dissonance between what the
campaign producers offer and what much of the consuming voting public seems to
want. If one adds this dissonance to the sociological implications of shifting
upscale from Type I to Type II activists of Aldrich's analysis, the public
dislike—some would call it hatred—of politics becomes much easier to
understand. It is very doubtful that many voters care either about saving whales
or about product liability reform. They tend to want practical solutions to very
practical and important problems they encounter in their lives.

At the same time, the disappearance of lift-all-boats economic growth and a
pervasive public sense of eclipse of traditional values ordering society have
contributed to a search for ways to escape the impasse. The party of ideological
conservatism provided one set of ways in 1994. The party of operational
liberalism had very little to offer in response. Programs no longer seemed
enough, and the Democratic congressional establishment was effectively targeted
as corrupt, self-interested, and out of touch. But the mismatch between a
relatively centrist-bent electorate and a new crop of polar ideological
politicians and benefit seekers has by no means been reduced thereby. The rise
of the Republican congressional mountain has in fact made it much more acute
than ever.

The
context for November involves a continuing, exceptional fluidity and high
negative charge in electoral opinion and voting behavior. This has clearly not
subsided since 1994. In early 1995, President Clinton was limited to insisting
that he was still politically relevant. In early 1996, a steep decline in
support for the Republican Congress and his apparent lead over Republican
nominee-designate Robert Dole has permitted him to achieve some real ascendancy—so
far—in the 1996 sweepstakes.

Evidence of this fluidity includes the eruption of Patrick Buchanan's
economic-populist candidacy early in the season. In Illinois, the thoroughly
party-endorsed Republican lieutenant governor lost the GOP Senate nomination to
an obscure and far-right state legislator. The mainstream state leadership in
Illinois has always tended toward a more moderate-centrist kind of major
candidate than have many other such organizations, but this time to no avail. In
Texas's 14th District, ex-Democrat Greg Laughlin was defeated for renomination
by former representative and former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ron
Paul in a runoff, despite monolithic national and state GOP leadership support.
On the Democratic side, in Texas, meanwhile, a completely unknown schoolteacher
named Victor Morales defeated Representative John Bryant of Dallas, a solid
liberal who also had unified party-leadership support behind him.

Surveys in mid-1996 imply that the more voters have learned about the
details of the Republican program in Congress, the more support for the party
and for Congress vis-à-vis the President has declined. Moreover, in 1994,
71.5 million Americans voted for members of the House of Representatives: The
Republican revolution rests squarely upon the support of exactly one-fifth of
the potential electorate. Turnout is always much higher in presidential years
than in off years. This year we will inescapably have an extremely
issue-polarized campaign, which we can expect to provide a special stimulus to
turnout. Additionally, the 1993 Motor Voter Act, opposed to the bitter end by
the congressional GOP, will add more millions to the total. We could have a
total turnout of 115-120 million in 1996, perhaps even more. Will this
much-expanded 1996 electorate make a real difference to the outcome? It just
might.

Viewed
in institutional-control terms, and assuming that no third entrant wins the
presidential election, the 1996 election consists of eight possibilities. Two of
these involve unified partisan control of the presidency and Congress. The other
six various outcomes are those in which one major-party presidential candidate
wins while the opposition gains or keeps control of one or both houses of
Congress. Three of these eight represent a cluster of most likely results, so
far as one can determine: (1) Clinton wins while Republicans maintain control of
both houses of Congress; (2) Clinton wins while Republicans hold on to the
Senate but lose the House; (3) Dole wins while Republicans maintain control of
both houses of Congress.

Either of the first two scenarios would clearly frustrate Ackerman's
extended-deliberation condition as requisite for producing a "constitutional
moment." One would thus have a failed moment to analyze and an aborted
realignment to deal with. Needless to say, a Democratic capture of all three
institutions (a less likely fourth scenario) would emphatically underscore such
conclusions: Far from being a realignment signal, 1994 would appear comparable
to a 1946, as 1996 would be comparable to a 1948. In that case, the Republican
revolution would have been stopped dead in its tracks. But even barring that,
and particularly under the second scenario (Democratic presidential and House
victories), the net forward thrust of the Revolution would surely have been
crippled.

This looks strikingly like the pre-1994 order, but with horse and rider
having changed places. A great many Americans may well back a second term for
President Clinton as a means of imposing a check on a Republican Congress,
reinforcing the arguments of some scholars that divided government of yesteryear
was in substantial part the deliberate choice of critical minorities of voters
to block unified party control in Washington. But the character of divided
government now, as we have seen in 1995-96, is basically different from what it
was then. Particularly under the first scenario, but to some extent under the
second scenario as well, the President, other politicians, and the country would
now be condemned to a particularly virulent politics of deadlock. Republican
majorities could be rationally expected to hamstring both the President and
bureaucracy to the utmost limits of human ingenuity. In short, if you liked
1995-96 as an exercise in government, you'll just love 1997-98.

The earlier order, as Professor Shafer observes, rested upon parties that
were committed to the then-existing divided-government arrangements. In practice
this meant that congressional Democrats and Presidents Reagan and Bush, despite
their profound policy disagreements, operated under a certain normative
constraint. At the end of the day the King's government had to be carried on.
When this limit dissolves, as it did virtually the moment the 104th Congress
assembled, our complex constitutional structure seizes up. There is little
enough reason to suppose that a continuation of 1994's institutional outcome
would make congressional Republicans much more accommodating in a 105th Congress
they controlled. The implications for policy and public legitimacy alike are not
cheery ones. They raise the most profound questions about whether the political
crisis has reached the point where proliferation of ideologically polarized
interests has made the country practically ungovernable.

About the third scenario—an across-the-board Republican victory—rather
less needs to be said. In that event, a very strong presumptive case could be
made for the fulfillment of Ackerman's extended-deliberation condition for
producing a "constitutional moment," especially considering that a
much-enlarged electorate would have ratified the 1994 decision. A President Dole
would presumably have two chief domestic functions: first, to make the
appropriate conservative Supreme Court appointments, as he has already promised
to do; and second, to sign whatever Congress sends up to him. Naturally, like
all presidents, a President Dole would have a will and purposes of his own. But
there is very little in his recent record that shows that this will or these
purposes would pose major problems for the realization of most of the Republican
agenda. In that case, we not only stand at the threshold of a quite new regime
order but, what is more, a fourth American Republic largely based on liquidating
the legacy of the third.

As they all know, liberals in 1996 fight on relatively unpromising terrain.
Much of the institutional and policy landslide that has unfolded across the
1990s seems unlikely to be reversed in any near term. After all, we have it on
President Clinton's own authority that "the age of big government is over."
There is an obvious worldwide trend toward the hegemony both of the ideology and
the practice of the market in organizing human society and allocating resources
within it. The Keynesian world of yesteryear is long past. There is no room for
it, and thus declining room for state decisional autonomy or much of traditional
democratic politics, in a global environment marked by increasing
interpenetration of the "commanding heights" of capitalism. To be
sure, the United States has been a leader in developments on this front, in
large part because the country has never had an organized left in electoral
politics, and because the organized trade-union movement is a husk of its former
self. And here, to a degree not readily found elsewhere, the political right is
united behind a vision of society defined in terms of households, markets, and,
of course, churches. On the opposing side, a chief long-term mission must be to
develop an analysis that finds a credible role both for the res publica
and for democracy to perform, and this must involve some organized challenge to
the hegemony of market theology.

But
in the shorter term, there is no reason to draw the conclusion that the American
people must settle for the truncation of the national government that the right
has in view. It makes a world of practical difference which of our scenarios
prevails. For the Democrats, reactivating the power of the public's
operational-liberal preferences is a key to success; and—as the pollster
Stanley Greenberg has pointed out at great length and with much documentation—this
certainly involves placing a credible economic-issue story at the center of the
campaign agenda. To judge from the apparent state of public opinion regarding
candidates, parties, issues, and agendas in the spring of 1996, there seems
quite a bit of material to work with in framing such an effort. Big as the
problems of this extended political crisis are, this pivotal election is
obviously winnable by either side. It will at the end probably hang on which of
the two contenders' stories is believed by the median voter. Beyond that, one
should follow Napoleon's advice: On s'engage, et puis on voit—first
commit yourself and then see what happens.

Illustration by Taylor Jones



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