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.

Illustration by Taylor JonesReversals 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.

Illustration by Taylor JonesPerhaps 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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