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A Constituency of Numbers -- Every Hour on the Hour The Clinton Presidency


Washington. -- "Our democracy has spoken" said President Clinton on January 24, beginning his third State of the Union address. He accepted a 2.5 percent shift in congressional voting -- that is all that happened in the 1994 midterm elections -- as total defeat, surrendering to conservative Republicans who take no prisoners.

It was not that he believed in nothing. He believed in the numbers. Votes above all; polls between elections. He is the first true leader of the first true public-opinion democracy, the post-electronic United States. There is a new kind of language in a new Washington: Words and names and ideas have been replaced by numbers -- poll numbers and dollars.

In the old sense of the word, Bill Clinton has no constituency. The survey results that cover the desks of Washington each day show that Mr. Clinton has less core support than Richard Nixon did on the day in 1974 he was forced out of office -- the Clinton hard-support numbers are below 20 percent, pretty much just black Americans and the poor and older people who depend on government for paychecks or assistance of some sort.

Perhaps it would be more precise to say that the polls are Mr. Clinton's constituency -- numbers generated every hour on the hour. Returning to the White House from France last year after elaborately staged ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Mr. Clinton looked at the numbers on his desk, banged his fist on them and said: "All that work and my numbers went up just 1.5 percent. Can you believe it?"

Yes, I can. Numbers are the true fuel of public-opinion democracy. The Republicans use (and believe in) the 2.5-percent shift (according to Congressional Quarterly) as their mandate. The new majority's principal argument for its balanced-budget amendment was that the numbers were America of the moment, claiming that 80 percent of the nation want a balanced budget.

Of course. Most of the new Republicans, with their poll-generated "Contract with America," are not that different from Mr. Clinton. They are self-created young politicians hitchhiking along information highways. Geography, or geographical representation, does not matter as much as it once did. Many of the new politicians do not come from anyplace, really. Yale, maybe, or Harvard Law or celebrity, but not from a town or a city in districts that come and go with census numbers and lawsuits -- those are just places to survey and to pump in the information that creates changing alliances and constituencies.

The votes of the moment -- getting them -- are the moral imperatives of their business. In two conversations with the president, near the end of his first and second years in office, I was struck by his absolute belief in head-counts, that winning a public office is the sole qualification for that office and numbers the justification for any philosophy. In October 1993, when we talked of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the man U.S. troops were poised to forcibly reinstate as president of Haiti, Mr. Clinton answered my questions about President Aristide's legitimacy and stability by saying: "I know what they say, but he got 67 percent of the vote."

A year later, I asked him about the campaign of Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, who was running for the Senate with a basic television commercial that said: "Of course we're all angry at Washington. So is Jim Cooper, but he's done more than talk. . . . Across town, the Washington power structure was so frightened by the Cooper [health] plan they never allowed a vote on it. . . . But he stood like a rock. And a president retreated. . . ."

The White House's reaction to that was to send Vice President Gore home to Tennessee to campaign for Mr. Cooper and raise money for more of his anti-Clinton ads. "What kind of politics is that?" I asked the president. His answer defined him: "If it works and gets him elected, that's his business."

This is number-driven Washington, as described by one survey intellectual, Peter Hart, a numbers collector for the Democrats:

"The world of public opinion has come into great collision with the art of governance. In the old Washington there were two or three polls, principally Gallup and Harris, and each one took a couple of weeks to do, going door-to-door. . . . Now, with new kinds of telephones and computers for tabulation, in a half-hour you can come back and say, 'This is what the public thinks.' And the polling is 'spin numbers,' that is, 'advocacy analysis,' done by the parties, by associations, by corporations, by networks or newspapers who can use or release only the questions or answers that suit their narrow purposes, which often comes down to changing a number or a word in complex legislation. One word, one number, one comma means someone or some interest gets a few million dollars or someone else does not."

Mr. Clinton stiffened when I brought that up. Though his personal pollster, Stanley Greenberg, gets more than $2 million a year from the Democratic National Committee, the president said: "I can tell you categorically that I do not use polls to decide what position to take. It's important to know how you're being perceived and what people think. But that can't affect the search for what's right for America."

Affect the search? Even in the White House, President Clinton's own people tell you that polling is the search for what's right -- from the perspective of the new Washington, public opinion is right; public opinion is America.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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