Committee Of Correspondence

What Difference Does It Make?

Alan Brinkley
8:12 a.m.  Wednesday  10/30/96 

       Let me respond to the last of Herb Stein’s questions: How will the Republican leadership choose to interpret this election if, as expected, Clinton wins by a large margin? There are at least two explanations available to Republicans to explain this year’s defeat. One (the lesson the party’s right drew from 1960) is that the loss was a result of nominating a bland, establishment figure with no real commitment to the true conservative cause–Nixon in 1960, Dole in 1996. After 1960, that belief led to the concerted drive of the GOP right to nominate one of its own in 1964, with the results we know. Another lesson (the one the party’s moderates drew from the 1964 fiasco) is that the defeat was a result of moving too far to the right–with Goldwater in 1964, with the 104th Congress in 1995-’96. After 1964, that led to a reassertion of moderate control of the party, and to victory in 1968.
       My guess is that there will be a factional struggle within the party between groups devoted to both those interpretations; that neither group will prevail; and that the result–assuming the GOP still controls Congress–will be a rear-guard effort to discredit the opposition through continuing investigations, talk of impeachment, etc., hoping still, as they have hoped in vain throughout this election year, that “character” and “corruption” will do what issues could not. Norman Ornstein
8:28 a.m.  Wednesday  10/30/96 

       Alan Brinkley is right about the Republican leadership; the temptation will be to avoid internal strife over why Dole lost and to use investigation of scandal and corruption to turn the negative tables back onto Democrats and Clinton. House Republican leaders, including Gingrich, Armey, and DeLay, will be much less strong among their rank-and-file troops, making any party cohesion for policy initiatives difficult; cohesion against Democratic initiatives will be the easiest way out. Finding the bipartisan center will be very hard, and a real challenge to the leaders of both parties–and even more to Bill Clinton. Thus, the idea of action-forcing, extrainstitutional, decision-making structures like base-closing commissions will have even more allure than the campaign rhetoric suggests, and a Medicare commission, bypassing a Ways and Means leadership lacking the clout to forge a majority that Mills and Rosty had, will be at the top of the agenda. But it is much more likely to be formed, to have the kind of membership and leadership that can craft a workable and salable plan, and to succeed, if there is a narrow Republican majority in the House than if the Democrats prevail. If Democrats win the House, many, maybe most, GOPers will be bitter, believing that Democratic lies about Medicare caused their defeat. They will not be in any mood to rescue the Democrats by giving them a bipartisan out on Medicare, and can both block a commission and block any bipartisan plan from emerging from Ways and Means. Thomas Mann
9:01 a.m.  Wednesday  10/30/96 

       Herb Stein is right to question the immediate policy fallout from a change in party control of the Congress. Any major legislation dealing with social insurance or tax policy will perforce require substantial investment by the president and support on both sides of the aisle. Republicans learned during the 104th Congress just how self-destructive it is for one party to take it upon itself the task of restructuring our major entitlement programs. Nonetheless, the major party in Congress will have an advantage in framing the terms of debate. Is the objective to control entitlements, or save social insurance? Are we after self-sufficiency on pensions and health insurance for the elderly, or do we want to shore up universal social-insurance programs? Ultimately, high-level negotiations and various institutional mechanisms will be required to make a deal or series of deals, but the terms of the deal will be affected by who wins the election, for the presidency and Congress.
       I do expect, as Herb suggests, that a re-elected Clinton will pursue a “cheap statism.” He has made it perfectly clear during the course of the campaign that he would use targeted tax cuts, modest spending initiatives, and the regulatory power of government to achieve social objectives. A Democratic majority in Congress would help, but many of his proposals are popular among moderate Republicans (to say nothing of a majority of citizens). No one should vote for Clinton based on a belief that he is an economic libertarian.
       The Republican interpretation of the election will almost certainly focus on their mistake in taking on Medicare alone, in shutting down the government, and in overusing revolutionary rhetoric. The problem is that their House leadership team after Gingrich is much more unabashedly ideological, and the center of gravity among Senate Republicans is moving decidedly right. Morton Kondracke
1:10 p.m.  Wednesday  10/30/96 

       Two important things we’ve neglected to mention about the implications of this election (at least in the submissions I’ve seen in my pathetically technology-challenged efforts to take part in this forum) are the power to appoint Supreme Court justices and the power to make foreign policy. The next president is likely to have the opportunity to nominate two or three justices, decisively tilting the close balance on the court on such immense issues as racial preferences, abortion, right-to-die, civil liberties, and state authority. I’m amazed that neither Clinton nor Dole has made much of the issue. Dole has dropped his earlier attacks on “liberal” judges, and in any event never targeted justices on the high court. On foreign policy, the next president may face the most serious crises since the Cold War ended–a collapse of Mideast peace, chaos in Russia, multiple challenges from China, possible wars on the Korean peninsula and South Asia, the mix of Islamic fundamentalism and weapons of mass destruction, to name a few. Granted, the troubles are hypothetical, but they surely deserve to be posed to the candidates, at least so that the public understands the stakes in its decision. Herb Stein
2:31 p.m.  Wednesday  10/30/96 

       Brinkley reminds us of the alternation in the Republican leadership in the past. After the moderate (Nixon) failed in 1960, the party turned to the radical conservative (Goldwater) in 1964. After Goldwater failed in 1964, the party turned back to the moderate Nixon. And so on. What is peculiar this time is that we may have a failure of the moderate Republican in the presidential race and a failure of the radical conservatives in the congressional race. The Republican Congress, if there is one, can pass the next four years investigating scandals. But that will not be a basis for a presidential race in 2000, unless Hillary is the Democratic candidate. Perhaps a recession will give them something to talk about.
       This notion of the alternations raises another question that has puzzled me, and I put to our experts. There is a theory, which I associate with the name of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., that American politics goes in cycles of activism and passivity. One might have thought that after the Reagan-Bush era of passivity, the advent of Clinton began a new episode of activism. But the election of 1994 seemed to put an end to that. Were Clinton’s first two years a hiccup in a period of passivity? Were Gingrich’s two years a hiccup in a period of activism? Where do we stand in this cyclical story now? Or is there nothing in the theory anyway?
       Kondracke reminds us of the importance of the power to name justices of the Supreme Court, and I suppose that is important. But I think of what Judge Robert Bork is saying these days. As I understand him, he is saying that, with a few exceptions, Supreme Court justices follow the culture, so it doesn’t matter much who you name. As someone said long ago, “I don’t care who writes the Supreme Court decisions if I can write the nation’s songs.”
       Ornstein’s comments suggest, to me at least, that the best outcome if Clinton is re-elected would be that the Republicans should have narrow control of Congress. How does one vote for the Republicans to gain narrow control? Of course, that’s not a question for me because I vote in the District of Columbia, which has neither senator nor congressman.