Clinton's Odyssey Toward Center May Offer Lesson for Republicans

For a party whose past two presidential nominees have averaged less than 40% of the vote, Republicans are feeling remarkably satisfied with themselves. At a recent conference in Michigan, GOP governors strutted as if Bob Dole, not President Clinton, had just won 379 electoral votes.

"President Clinton only won because he made people think he thought like a Republican," huffed Michigan Gov. John Engler. "Republican ideology won the election," insisted New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

It's not just the governors whistling past Dole's electoral graveyard. In a post-election retrospective in the conservative magazine National Review, a dozen writers heaped scorn on the abundant failings of Dole and his campaign. Not a single analyst allowed for the possibility that Clinton's second electoral college landslide signaled any larger problem for the GOP.

To the contrary, conservative columnist Michael Barone, citing continued Republican control of Congress and most governorships, portrayed the GOP as still ascendant. In his first review of the results, Steve Forbes--the once and probably future Republican presidential hopeful--found the same silver lining. "The 1996 elections were a . . . ratification of the idea that the new, conservative Republican Party is America's majority party," Forbes told a conservative group in late November.

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Up to a point, both of these arguments--that Clinton tilted right and that Republicans remain strong below the White House--are incontestable. But taken as far as Engler and Forbes stretch them, they amount to willful self-delusion--the same kind of destructive denial that derailed Democrats during the 1980s. "There is too much complacency," laments Republican strategist William Kristol, publisher of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, "and too little fresh thinking."

To say that Clinton won reelection only by sounding Republican is to read the evidence as selectively as the jury in O.J. Simpson's criminal trial. Since the GOP landslide in 1994, Clinton unquestionably has given ground to the demand for smaller government, particularly in putting forward his own balanced-budget plan, calling for tax cuts and signing the Republican welfare reform legislation.

But what Engler and like-minded Republicans conveniently ignore is that Clinton's reelection agenda was based equally on defending a continuing role for Washington--both in rejecting proposed GOP reductions and in carving out new affirmative uses of government. Clinton did not run to reverse the conservative drive to shrink the federal government; but he clearly promised to place a boundary on it.

Did Engler somehow miss the thousands of television commercials Clinton's campaign aired arguing that a Republican president, joined with a Republican Congress, would go too far in scaling back government? Or the president's persistent trumpeting of his decision to twice veto Republican budgets? Or for that matter, Clinton's promises to defend and expand the Family and Medical Leave Act, sustain the assault-weapons ban, regulate tobacco advertising, raise the minimum wage, guarantee 48-hour hospital stays for new mothers and widen the Brady Act?

This 1996 Clinton agenda may not add up to the Great Society--or even to Clinton's 1992 blueprint. It does reflect a rightward shift in the debate about government's place in society. But Clinton's vision is still a long way from the shrunken state that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) or Engler would design on a blank page.

Nor is the continued Republican success below the presidential level as powerful a measure of vitality as Forbes or Barone would suggest. During the 1970s and 1980s, Democrats made the same arguments to rationalize their own failures to win the White House. And during many of those years, Democrats held even more congressional seats and state legislative chambers than Republicans hold today.

But the presidential election is the pinnacle of American politics, the sole national referendum on the parties and the direction of the country. The White House is the indispensable lever for moving the country. A party that is repeatedly overwhelmed in the race for the presidency is in trouble, no matter its degree of success down the ballot. That was true of Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s; and it's equally true of Republicans today.

It took Democrats years of presidential drubbings to acknowledge that they were no longer the nation's majority party. But eventually, grudgingly, they did change.

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After Ronald Reagan's landslide in 1984, the Michigan Democratic Party hired a young Yale University political scientist named Stanley B. Greenberg to examine why so many white working-class voters outside Detroit were crossing over to vote Republican. Greenberg, who went on to become a leading Democratic strategist, produced a landmark report showing that many of these voters identified the Democrats with weakness, coddling of criminals and handouts to the undeserving. His findings were so incendiary that the Michigan Democrats initially suppressed them; but eventually Greenberg's work entered the party's bloodstream and contributed to the "New Democrat" agenda on issues like crime and welfare that helped Clinton topple George Bush in 1992.

It may be time for a similarly perceptive young Republican pollster to examine why so many voters, especially women, are deserting the GOP's presidential candidates in white-collar Northern suburbs like Oakland County outside Detroit or Bergen County in northern New Jersey or Montgomery County outside Philadelphia. In all of those places, Republicans averaged almost 60% of the vote in presidential elections from 1968 through 1988; this year, Clinton easily won them all.

As Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Millersville University in Pennsylvania notes, these voters remain comfortable voting Republican for Congress and state office. But many of them are now plainly uncomfortable with the national imagery surrounding the GOP--just as blue-collar workers who contentedly pulled the lever for congressional Democrats recoiled from the liberal imagery surrounding the national Democratic nominees in the 1980s.

The Republican problem in these suburban counties outside the South may be abortion; or guns; or education and the environment; or the perception that the party is too eager to reduce the social safety net; or the dominance of Southerners in the GOP's national leadership; or a cultural clash with religious conservatives; or an amorphous stamp of extremism--or some combination of all of these; or perhaps even an entirely different set of concerns. No one can say for sure. But pretending that there is no problem, as so many Republicans seem determined to do, is no way to find out.

In fact, Republican congressional leaders already appear to be acting on the conclusion that they misread these pivotal swing voters. Although the Republican caucuses in both chambers are actually more conservative this year, party leaders are nonetheless signaling moderation. Eliminating the Education Department, block-granting Medicaid, repealing the assault-weapons ban, imposing massive new constraints on federal regulations: All of these ideas appear destined for the ash heap of history. By the end of their conference last week, even some GOP governors--shaken by the release of a post-election party survey mapping Clinton's huge advantage with women--warned against overreaching in the drive to shrink Washington.

Much as Clinton blunted traditional Republican attacks by supporting the death penalty and work requirements for welfare recipients, these tactical adjustments will make it more difficult for Democrats to disparage congressional Republicans as zealots. But they leave unresolved the challenge of crafting a positive agenda that unites the GOP's core conservative constituents--the shock troops of the anti-government movement--with moderate swing voters who are skeptical of government yet unwilling to abandon its help.

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For four years, Clinton has faced the same problem in reverse. He has struggled to bridge the skepticism of those centrist voters with the demands for government services from core Democratic constituencies. More than once he's miscalculated, misstepped and been forced to shift his course. But when he hit the rocks in 1994, he did plot a new course, eventually striking a nuanced balance between left and right that attracted a winning electoral coalition. Much as many of them loathe Clinton, Republicans ignoring the holes in their hull could learn something from his own odyssey toward the center.

The Washington Outlook column appears here every other Monday.

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Shifting Landscape

Across the Northeast and Midwest, Republican presidential candidates have seen their strength erode in suburban counties they dominated in the six elections before Bill Clinton's victory in 1992. In all of these counties, Clinton increased his percentage of the vote from 1992 through 1996--often by as much as 10 percentage points. Here's a look at the GOP's fading fortunes in some bellweather suburban counties:

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Times carried by the GOP GOP's average 1992 1996 County 1968-88 vote, 1968-88 winner winner Bergen (N.J.) 6 58.8% Bush Clinton Middlesex (N.J.) 4 53.8 Clinton Clinton Oakland (Mich.) 6 58.4 Bush Clinton Macomb (Mich.) 5 53.8 Bush Clinton Franklin (Ohio) 6 58.2 Bush Clinton Montgomery (Ohio) 3 51.4 Clinton Clinton Bucks (Pa.) 6 56.7 Clinton Clinton Delaware (Pa.) 6 57.8 Clinton Clinton Montgomery (Pa.) 6 59.6 Clinton Clinton

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Source: America Votes

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