For all the misadventures of his first two years in office, President Clinton seems likely to gain renomination with less opposition than any Democratic chief executive since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Yet this news is not nearly as reassuring as it might seem for the President and his party. It is not widespread enthusiasm for his leadership that is inoculating Clinton against a serious challenge. Rather his immunity mainly reflects weaknesses in his party--the absence of the strong convictions, energy and nerve that have sparked insurgencies throughout the turbulent history of modern Democrats.
"There was a great defeat in November, and we still have not regrouped," said Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who is often mentioned as a 1996 challenger to Clinton. "I just don't have any interest" in seeking the nomination.
"There is not at present any ideological focus to the Democratic Party," said one disillusioned liberal activist who is a veteran of the 1968 rebellion against Lyndon B. Johnson and the 1980 insurgency against Jimmy Carter. "What would the rationale for a candidacy against Clinton be?" asked the activist, who is close enough to the White House that he requested anonymity. "Would you claim: 'I can reinvent government better?' "
At first glance, Clinton would seem to be an inevitable target for another of the impassioned challenges that have dogged his modern Democratic predecessors. After gaining office with only 43% of the vote, enduring repeated charges of impropriety and watching health care reform--the centerpiece of his domestic program--be torpedoed, the President had to take much of the blame for one of the worst electoral defeats in the history of his party.
And while Clinton's personal problems have simmered down for the time being, no fewer than four present or former members of his Cabinet have come under federal scrutiny as a result of various allegations of misconduct.
While recent surveys of Democratic voters show that Clinton's standing has improved since the November election, pollsters detect enough softness in his support to deem him vulnerable to a challenge.
Clinton received slightly less than 50% support in a recent Time magazine/CNN survey of Democratic voters who were asked their preference for the 1996 nomination. But Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press, pointed out that then-President George Bush, by contrast, received nearly 80% support from his party's voters in a 1992 matchup against commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who was already running hard in his challenge for the GOP nomination.
Kohut also cited a Times Mirror poll taken last month that showed Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas garnering the support of 88% of GOP voters while Clinton was backed by only 79% of Democrats.
"Rank-and-file Democrats are more restless about Clinton than candidates are willing to take him on," Kohut concluded.
Of course, much can change in the 17 months remaining before the roll is called at the Democratic convention in Chicago, particularly given the allegations concerning the Clinton family's real estate venture in the Ozarks before he entered the White House.
"No one knows what Whitewater will bring the day after tomorrow," said veteran Democratic strategist Ted Van Dyk, a longtime Clinton critic.
According to Press Secretary Mike McCurry, the White House is still operating on the assumption that Clinton will face a challenge--a prudent step given the party's turbulent history. Many Clinton advisers, for example, fear that the Rev. Jesse Jackson could run against Clinton--although more likely as a third-party candidate in the general election than as a Democrat in the primaries.
Still, McCurry sees little sign of a serious opposition candidacy developing now and points out: "The deeper you get into 1995, the less likely it is that anyone can mount a significant challenge. Where do you get the money?"
Besides money, other practical reasons exist to make potential challengers hesitate. Even a weakened President can be a formidable adversary, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) learned to his regret when Carter turned back Kennedy's bid to oust him in 1980. Moreover, any intraparty rival would be accused of fomenting disunity. "If by challenging Clinton someone merely succeeds in weakening him further, they would hurt the party's chances of regaining control of the House and Senate," contended Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
But such practical considerations have not prevented past insurgencies, which were sometimes inspired more by commitment to a cause than by hopes of actually gaining the nomination.
In addition to Kennedy's challenge of Carter, in 1948 President Harry S. Truman faced opposition from both the left and the Southern right. One side thought that he had done too little to advance New Deal policies; the other was angered by his support for civil rights.
In 1964, then-Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace ran against Johnson in protest against the President's civil rights policies in particular and the reach of federal power in general. The fiery Wallace garnered impressive vote totals in three Northern primaries and stirred up the "white backlash" that in one form or another has haunted the Democratic Party ever since.
Four years later, Eugene J. McCarthy, then an obscure Minnesota senator, challenged Johnson in order to protest the Vietnam War.
In the present ideological blur that cloaks the Democrats, however, no comparable issue offers itself as a rallying point for Clinton's critics.
One ideologically motivated candidacy that Clinton might face would be centered on opposition to abortion. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, an ardent abortion foe, said Friday that he is forming an exploratory committee that will allow him to raise money while he decides whether to run--a decision he intends to make later this spring. If he does run, Casey said in an interview, he will offer "a comprehensive message that addresses the problems confronting the country." But he added that his stand against what he calls Clinton's "radical pro-abortion policies" will be an important part of his campaign.
Given the widespread support for abortion rights among Democratic primary voters and Casey's low name recognition outside his own state, most analysts say they doubt that he could have much impact on the campaign.
While the reluctance of more prominent Democrats to enter the fray is often attributed to what Van Dyk referred to as a "post-November hangover," the roots of the current Democratic lassitude extend beyond the crushing results of the midterm elections to the previous years of GOP domination of the White House.
It was during this long stretch in the political wilderness that Democrats seemed to have lost their confidence and their sense of purpose, a condition epitomized by the party's 1988 standard-bearer, Michael S. Dukakis, when he declared in his convention acceptance speech that "this campaign is not about ideology; it's about competence."
Now, when Democrats do disagree with the President, they tend to minimize their ideological differences rather than use them as the springboard for a candidacy. For example, House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri opposed the Clinton-backed North American Free Trade Agreement. But even though Gephardt has made trade a central issue in his career, he said recently that his disagreements with the President have not been "on the fundamental issues that the party represents." Clinton has "earned reelection," he said.
On the party's other flank, former Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma bitterly described Clinton after the November election as an "old Democrat" and told a reporter that some of his supporters were urging him to consider a challenge to the President.
But McCurdy is now saying that he has no thought of undertaking any such rebellion. "The party is in transition, but the President is in the best position to define what the party is," McCurdy said.
Some Democratic leaders see their own difficulties as part of a broader debilitation of American politics and society. "The parties generally have gone the way of other institutions," said Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), another potential Clinton rival who has said that he does not intend to run. "We have to stop thinking that the only focus of power and leadership in our society comes from elected political leaders and particularly from the President."
In the midst of all this flux and ferment, Clinton has made it harder for would-be challengers to build a base of support by demonstrating what his admirers call flexibility and what his detractors brand as opportunism.
"He seems to be all over the place in a sort of protean way," said University of Texas political scientist Walter Dean Burnham, referring to the Greek god Proteus, who was said to have the capacity to readily assume different shapes. "That makes it hard for an opposition coalition to gel against him."
Burnham cited Clinton's recent executive order prohibiting government contracts with firms that hire permanent strike replacements--an act that pleased organized labor. The order was issued at the same time Clinton was stressing efforts to cut federal spending and streamline the bureaucracy, which pleased conservatives.
Clinton knows how to use diplomacy to his political advantage too. His hosting of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams at a St. Patrick's Day reception at the White House is bound to help among Irish American voters in such Democratic strongholds as New York and Massachusetts.
Over the years, nominating challenges have been more common in the Democratic Party than in the GOP because the Democrats have been more heterogeneous and less cohesive than the Republicans.
"I don't belong to any organized political party; I'm a Democrat," Will Rogers once remarked.
Today, however, the party may simply not have enough energy to mount an internal struggle. Indeed, some of the party's more energetic figures from the past are talking about moving outside its ranks altogether.
Jackson, for example, sought the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988. And while Clinton's campaign advisers do worry about a challenge from the civil rights leader, their main concern is not a fight within the party but the possibility that Jackson would run as an independent and drain away the African American support that Clinton would need to win the general election.
While Jackson publicly maintains the option of making a third run at the nomination, one longtime associate, Howard University political scientist Ron Walters, said he thinks that Jackson "probably has had enough of running in primaries and losing."
Jackson himself has complained that Clinton is lagging on his campaign commitments to promote racial justice and economic growth, and he has referred scornfully to his own party as the "Demopublicans." He has often sounded as if he is leaning toward running as an independent, if he runs at all.
"We are finding it increasingly difficult to get people whose legitimate interests are not being addressed to register and vote for Demopublicans," he said in a recent interview.
Adding an edge to the implied threat of an independent candidacy is Jackson's claim to have a computer database of 500,000 supporters built up over the last decade. Moreover, his Rainbow Coalition could serve as the skeleton for a third-party organization.
Another erstwhile contender, former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., Clinton's toughest adversary in the contest for the 1992 nomination, has opted out of the 1996 race because he sees no way to overcome what he calls "the money domination" of politics.
"The Democratic Party is moribund," said Brown, who now hosts a radio talk show in Oakland and heads a nonpartisan group called We the People, which aims at achieving social and political reform. "There is no vitality anymore."