WASHINGTON -- On the day after the '96 vote, everyone seemed to be spinning victory claims.
Republicans and Democrats alike found a bounty of positive nuggets in the national election returns. And from the Christian Coalition to the Rainbow Coalition to the Sierra Club to the Chamber of Commerce came competing boasts that they were the ones who had made the crucial difference Tuesday.
But in politics, as in life, everybody can't come out ahead. What follows is a highly arbitrary listing of some of the election's noteworthy winners and losers.
WINNER: Incumbents. Happy days are here again for the folks who promised to end politics as unusual. Re-election rates for incumbents soared above 95 percent, approaching the record levels seen in the 1980s. Only one senator and 20 House members went down to defeat. And Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win re-election.
LOSER: Mandates. Re-elected to do what? The president's sunny, morning-again-in-America campaign tasted great but left many voters less than fulfilled. Clinton never sketched out big ideas for a second term. And when he missed, by a whisker, his personal target of 50 percent of the popular vote, it made it that much harder to claim a mandate for his second-term agenda. As for the Republican Congress, there was no "Contract with America" this time; they're just glad to be coming back.
WINNER: Women. The new power brokers in American politics provided Clinton with his margin of victory, favoring him 54 percent to 38 percent for Bob Dole. Men split their votes evenly between the two.
LOSER: Soccer moms. The trendiest, most sought-after voter group of the year wound up on the sidelines when all was said and done. Women ages 25 to 49 who have children divided their votes evenly between Clinton and Dole. Instead, it was single women, including widows and divorcees, whose votes made the big difference for Clinton.
WINNER: Big Money. The most expensive campaign in history proved again that big bucks rule in American politics. That was particularly true in House and Senate contests, where a huge Republican advantage in campaign cash was decisive down the stretch, fueling a comeback by many GOP incumbents in the final 10 days of the campaign. The same did not happen in the presidential race, where Dole and Clinton were required by law to spend equal amounts of taxpayer funds.
LOSER: Big Labor. The AFL-CIO's much-ballyhooed crusade to overturn Republican control of Congress fell short. Organized labor was disappointed that only 18 of its roughly 100 targets were unseated. It appears the $35 million effort to soften up Republican incumbents peaked too soon, giving targets time to fire back. And Democratic challengers were left defenseless when Big Business counterattacked with ads warning voters that "labor bosses" were trying to buy the election.
WINNER: Republican freshmen. The Revolutionaries of 1994 are coming back. Only a dozen of the 71 GOP freshmen lost, fewer than some party officials had feared. Many freshmen, forewarned that they were prime targets for defeat, armed themselves with lots of campaign money -- much of it from special-interest groups -- and discovered in the process that there's no edge in politics quite like incumbency.
LOSER: Motor voter. A new law allowed millions of Americans to register to vote over the past three years when they renewed their drivers licenses. Tuesday's returns proved that you can lead a citizen to the voter rolls, but you can't make him vote. Participation fell below 50 percent of those eligible, by some estimates, the worst turnout since modern record-keeping began.
WINNER: Reform Party. By receiving more than 5 percent of the vote, Ross Perot's party can obtain federal funding for the election in 2000. That all but assures that independent voters will have another choice next time.
LOSER: Ross Perot. His theme of election reform was the hottest message at the end of the campaign, but voters rejected the messenger. A majority of voters who supported Perot in 1992 switched to other candidates this time, and the Texas billionaire finished with only about half the vote he drew four years ago. As it turned out, Perot's oft-repeated line proved right: This election wasn't about him after all.
WINNER: Seniors. Older voters flexed their electoral muscles in the sun-splashed retiree havens of Florida and Arizona. Both states voted Democratic in the presidential race for the first time in decades, in reaction to party claims that Republicans were out to cut programs that benefit the elderly. The warning to Washington politicians was a familiar one: Mess with our Medicare and Social Security at your peril.
LOSER: Baby boomers. The Clinton-Gore team became the first all-baby-boomer ticket to gain re-election to the presidency and vice-presidency. But the rest of their generation might not be so lucky. The president scarcely mentioned Social Security during his campaign, though he indicated he would appoint a commission to grapple with the program's long-term funding problems. Among the likely changes: delaying the retirement age for baby boomers, perhaps to 70.
WINNER: Al Gore. The vice president now becomes the nominee-in-waiting for the year 2000. All he has to do is hope that the second term doesn't degenerate into scandal, that he doesn't get splashed with too much mud for having attended that fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple and that the economy keeps rolling for four more years without a recession.
LOSER: Jack Kemp. After starting the fall campaign as the early Republican presidential favorite for 2000, Dole's running mate faded from view. So have his prospects. He wasn't much of a factor in the final analysis and isn't getting credit for Dole's marginally better-than-expected showing in the popular vote (The Republican ticket actually ran worse in California, where Dole and Kemp spent the last two weeks, than it did in the nation as a whole.) With other Republicans already gearing up for the next nomination battle, Kemp faces a tough grind to make it to the top of the ticket. Friends doubt that he's got the stomach for it.
WINNER: Abortion doctors. Clinton's victory means that abortion will remain legal because he will get to fill any Supreme Court vacancies that occur in the next four years. That is especially important, abortion-rights advocates say, because abortion foes will enjoy majorities in both the House and Senate next year for the first time ever. As many as three justices could step down during Clinton's second term. If Dole had won, he might have added enough anti-abortion justices to the court to overturn the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
LOSER: Affirmative action. The latest trend out of California could be the move away from government use of race or gender preferences in hiring and higher education. Voters in the Golden State gave solid approval to an anti-affirmative action initiative that could become the model for similar efforts in other states or in Congress.
WINNER: Jefferson. In an election night speech, Gore added the full name of his boss, William Jefferson Clinton, to a list of six Democratic presidents who won second terms, starting with Thomas Jefferson and including James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and FDR. By accident, or perhaps by design, a two-term Democrat was omitted: Grover Cleveland.
LOSER: Truman. Dole was the latest presidential underdog to invoke the spirit of Give 'em Hell Harry, whose surprising come-from-behind victory over Thomas E. Dewey has never been equaled (and perhaps never will, given advances in modern public opinion polling). With the passing of Dole and the World War II generation from political power, and the rise of a new voting majority that never knew Truman, Harry may well have run his final race.
Pub Date: 11/07/96