Clinton was able to learn from his early mistakes Rebound: President Clinton's comeback from the 1994 election debacle was helped by the arrogance of the Republican victors in Congress.; ELECTION 1996


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The rise, the fall and the comeback of Bill Clinton demonstrates the importance of good luck, the virtue perseverance, and the pitfalls of arrogance -- both his own and Newt Gingrich's.

More concretely, the president benefited from favorable economic conditions and bursting campaign coffers, which permitted him to hit the airwaves in crucial battleground states months before his opponent.

Clinton and his aides feel fortunate they drew a Republican candidate whose most loyal allies concede lacks the president's rhetorical gifts and the ability to connect with audiences.

When a frustrated Bob Dole implored voters by saying "Wake up, America!" White House press secretary Mike McCurry observed that this seemed like an odd way to appeal to the "soccer moms" and other working women who had been telling pollsters all year they didn't like negative campaigning. Women broke for Clinton early and stayed with him.

Clinton also was the first Democratic president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 not to face a divisive primary fight -- but this was more than good fortune. "We worked at not having a primary opponent," said George Stephanopoulos, a top White House aide. "It didn't just happen."

Clinton raised a ton of money early on, continued to visit New Hampshire even after being elected and made key policy decisions with one eye on likely Democratic opponents.

If Clinton's presidency can be divided into two halves, the first two years were characterized by what his own aides have conceded came across as arrogance.

In those years, Arkansas crony Harry Thomason orchestrated the firing of the White House travel office, Hillary Clinton oversaw a health care task force that met in secret and the president casually promised to integrate gays into the armed forces despite the opposition of the military, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In the 1994 midterm elections, voters let him know what they thought of the baby boomer president who ran as a "new kind of Democrat" but who governed more like Ted Kennedy.

But afterward, it was his opponents who overreached their mandate. Newt Gingrich, the new House speaker, didn't see the election as a scolding of Clinton, but rather as a sharp national turn to the right. Gingrich also took two highly visible actions that helped undo his self-described "revolution."

The first was purely symbolic, but it hit voters wrong: Gingrich's public complaints about the seating arrangements on Air Force One in the aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Said McCurry of Gingrich: "He called himself a revolutionary, but this made people think he was just in it for himself, for the perks of power."

The other step was Gingrich's fateful decision to allow the government to shut down rather than give in to Clinton's budget demands. Republicans still can't fathom how Clinton managed to get credit for holding fast against GOP-proposed budget trims while escaping blame for two government closings.

Clinton's aides believe there were two reasons: First, they successfully manipulated the political dialogue so that the programs Clinton was seen defending -- Medicare, education spending and environmental protection -- were the most popular ones in the budget.

Second, they say, the shutdown came at a time when the president needed to show the American people that he stood for something. Clinton emphasized this theme on the stump, where he presented the budget fight as the defining moment of his presidency.

Hammering home the point yesterday in his last campaign speech, Clinton said: "The other side said, 'They [the Democrats] love the government so much they'll never shut it down, we'll just make the president cave.' And they did it, and we didn't cave, and they did it again, and we didn't cave."

At the same time that Gingrich appeared to be misreading his party's mandate, Clinton was paying close attention to what he thought the voters had told him.

Listening to political guru Dick Morris and other pragmatic aides, the president embraced symbolic conservative issues such as school uniforms and the v-chip while signing on to two major Republican initiatives, a balanced budget and welfare reform,

"Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery," scoffed GOP chairman Haley Barbour, "but this was ridiculous."

House Democrats initially felt the same way, but there was a method in the White House madness. At the same time he was tacking toward the middle, Clinton went along with plans hatched by liberal House Democrats, such as raising the minimum wage, and portrayed the GOP as the party of the rich on issues ranging from school lunches to Medicare. The plan was to divide Republicans. It succeeded. Polls show it also bolstered Clinton's populist image.

In the spring, the Clinton-Gore campaign, with a $35 million assist from the AFL-CIO, began taking this message to the voters in a series of hard-hitting ads attacking Gingrich and the Republicans. Dubbed the "stealth" campaign by Barbour, the ads weren't even noticed at first by party leaders -- because they weren't aired in Washington.

But Clinton did not buck his party's traditional orthodoxy on the issues of prime concern to much of its core constituency, namely abortion and affirmative action. "We redefined the political center," said Rahm Emanuel, an assistant to the president.

But there is one final factor, often overlooked, that helps explain Clinton's comeback. Four years ago, during the transition, Clinton made a trip to California. After his visit, then-chief of staff Mickey Kantor called fellow California Democrat Tony Coelho and asked him to keep his ears open for California issues that the White House needed to know about.

"They carried California in 1992 and they were planning how to carry it again -- before he even took the oath of office," said Coelho. "That's how determined he was."

The sustained economic recovery was an ally.

"Obviously, a strong economy is going to benefit an incumbent -- especially when you can draw a direct connection between actions taken by the president and that economy," said White House aide Barry Toiv.

This is precisely what Clinton sought to do in his travels, which included 30 trips to the Golden State.

"He knew that getting re-elected is the currency of deciding whether someone is a successful president," said Stephanopoulos. "If you don't -- no matter what your accomplishments are -- all that is remembered is that you lost. You're a loser. Bill Clinton did not want to lose."

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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