What Difference Does It Make?

What Difference Does It Make?

Nov. 30 2004 4:50 PM

What Difference Does It Make?

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Norman Ornstein
8:39 a.m.  Monday  10/28/96 

       That voters seem disinterested and apathetic in 1996 should come as no surprise. Every time we have an election where voters are generally satisfied and an incumbent is cruising to re-election, there are low levels of interest. Interest and excitement come when people are angry and dissatisfied, and when we are likely to see a change. A change in the White House, after all, means something new and different--and we never know what a new presidency will bring. A continuation of the status quo, however, even if it is widely desired, is just not exciting.
       Still, it is curious that the press, alerting voters, did not focus at all until the past week or so on the elections for Congress. Newt Gingrich and the extraordinary 104th Congress surely reminded us of the power of Congress to set an agenda and to shape public policy. The stark contrast between Bill Clinton's first two years, under a Democratic Congress, and second two, under the Republicans, only underscores the significance of control of the House and Senate. And since both houses are clearly up for grabs this year, there ought to have been more attention paid before now to that fact and its implications.
       Go beyond the contrast between the 103rd and the 104th Congress, and look at what we know about the 105th:

  • It is likely to have the smallest party majority in more than four decades, possibly in single digits in the House, and one or two seats in the Senate.
  • If Republicans hold the Senate, the new GOP members will be a very conservative class, creating the most conservative Senate in recent times, and perhaps even more conservative than the House.
  • The contrast between House Democratic leaders (party leaders like Dick Gephardt and David Bonior, committee leaders like John Conyers, Charles Rangel and David Obey) and Republican leaders (party leaders like Gingrich, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, committee leaders like Dan Burton, Bill Archer, and Bob Livingston) in ideology, style, and personality, has not been greater in our lifetimes.
  • Although neither the liberal Democrats nor the conservative Republicans have the votes to dictate policy outcomes, control of the majority is critical to setting a policy agenda and influencing its shape. And the agenda would be very different under a Democratic or Republican Congress.

       So voters ought to be paying attention to this election--it does make a difference in all of our lives.

Thomas Mann
8:44 a.m.  Monday  10/28/96 

       I believe too much has been made of the supposedly boring nature of the 1996 election campaign and the low level of public interest in this political season. Compared with 1992, this election does lack the drama of a horse race, the novelty of a wealthy, colorful independent candidate, and the angst generated by a stagnant economy. Any normal person's patience (much less interest) would be tested by a general election campaign that has been running nonstop--with little impact on the contest--since March, when Bob Dole effectively captured the Republican nomination. I don't recall quite the same hand wringing over an apathetic public and a meaningless election during the last two Republican presidential re-election landslides in 1972 and 1984. I suspect turnout this year will not be far off that of 1984. In any case, a three or five percentage-point decline would not spell the end of the American experiment. After all, we survived Harry Truman's come-from-behind victory in 1948 even though only 51 percent of the voting-age population showed up at the polls.
       While we so-called experts realize that the president has little effect on the economy and that the federal government has very modest responsibility for many of the central problems of our times, the evidence suggests the public continues to hold the president responsible for the state of the economy (a major reason that Bill Clinton has maintained a commanding lead throughout the year) and to look to Washington for help in improving the schools and reducing violent crime in their neighborhoods.
       I believe this is a fascinating and consequential election. We are being treated to the most competitive struggle for control of the Congress in over four decades. While the parties have converged on a number of questions of fiscal and social policy, many important differences remain. (To get a flavor, I suggest reading the platforms of the two national-party committees.) The outcomes of contests from the presidency to state legislatures across this country will affect the ongoing debate over the appropriate role of government and the level of government best suited to deal with various problems. The election results will also shape the struggle to determine which party will succeed in building the successor coalition to the New Deal majority that dominated our public life for decades. What more can an analyst want?

Alan Brinkley
9:12 a.m.  Monday  10/28/96 

       Herb Stein's provocative question seems to me to have two parts: first, does this year's election really mean anything; and second, does the federal government--and the national politics that shapes it--have very much relevance any longer in our lives?
       I think the answer to both questions is yes, but I concede as well that there are many factors working against that conclusion. As for this election, Clinton and Dole have positioned themselves so that they are separated by a hair's breadth on all but a few issues; and even the congressional races seem to have become, in most cases, a battle for the center. And as for the larger issue of what the government can do, the capacity of a president (and the federal government) to play a major role in American life has been severely constrained by a number of relatively recent changes--most importantly the fiscal crisis and the consensus that has gripped both major parties that balancing the budget in the short term must be the principal goal of public life. The Wall Street Journal ran a story this morning saying "Clinton Mandate Will Lack Cash," or words to that effect. So, of course, would a Dole mandate.
       Still, I do believe that the outcome of this election--presidential and congressional--will be important, more important perhaps than the outcome of the election four years ago. The differences between the two presidential candidates may be slight, but the differences between the two parties has in fact widened since 1992; a Republican victory would mean a very significant shift in priorities, values, and goals--a shift of greater dimensions, I suspect, than we saw after 1980. There are a number of critical choices that will need to be made in the next several years, including choices about the future of entitlement programs that threaten to grow beyond our capacities to support them. Making those choices will be a political process, and the nature of those choices will affect, perhaps profoundly, the lives of almost everyone. It does make a difference, I think, whether those choices are shaped by people committed to a free-market approach and who favor allowing the well-off to opt out of these programs (something Dole hinted at in the second debate, and that congressional Republicans have proposed quite explicitly), or whether the choices are shaped by people who believe that only universality can ensure their survival.
       Beyond that, there are many areas of life in which government can and does play a role, and in which it operates largely apart from fiscal realities. Many of them are areas where the differences between the candidates and the parties are now quite pronounced: abortion and family planning, immigration, affirmative action, environmental regulation, education (in which the federal role has expanded), and, of course, the composition of the Supreme Court. These issues have not played much of a role in the campaign, although Dole seems to be flailing at some of them in the final days. But they are issues of importance, and on which views are sharply divided.
       Finally, I would argue politics and government continue to matter because they should matter; because we need a healthy, active government whether we like it or not; and because however eviscerated politics is at the moment, there is always the possibility of a restoration of faith in the process.

Morton Kondracke
11:04 a.m.   Monday  10/28/96 

       I think that the news media have cheated the country out of an exciting election by focusing primarily on a (so far) boring presidential race and neglecting the differences it might make for the country if Bill Clinton were re-elected with a Democratic Congress, or a Republican one. Or, more improbably, if Dole were elected with a Republican Congress, or a Democratic one. On the least-addressed major issue of the election year--the 20-year stagnation of the average wage of the average American worker--Dole and his fellow Republicans have a completely different approach from that of Clinton and the Democrats. The GOP wants to cut taxes, deregulate commerce, disestablish government, and devolve power. The Democrats want to expand education and training opportunities, and place mandates on corporations to do what government can no longer afford to. If Clinton is elected with a Democratic Congress, these ideas will predominate. The larger the Democratic margin, the more programs and mandates. There will also be less inclination (or none) to pursue the Clinton scandal track. If Clinton is elected with a Republican Congress, one possibility is for creative compromise on wage stagnation, the budget, crime, education, and entitlements. But another is for an ethics inquisition and gridlock. If Dole gets elected with a Republican Congress, the Gingrich revolution would resume. With a Democratic Congress, probably there would be gridlock. Who controls Congress is a very close question, dependent on the outcome of 60-odd races around the country that the media could have tracked intensively for months, attracting viewers and voters in the process. Instead, alas, the media has focused almost entirely on the presidential horse race alone. The public isn't aware how potentially important this election is.

Nelson W. Polsby
11:23 a.m.  Monday  10/28/96 

       Two preliminary points:
       1) There isn't much evidence that turning out to vote is intimately linked with feelings about what difference the outcome will make.
       2) A political system in which one electoral outcome promises to make a very great difference is quite likely an unstable political system, and nothing to be lusted after.
       These are good examples of ways in which the concerns of political scientists diverge from more well-known constructions of the political world. And there is plenty more to be said about them if you want the conversation to flow that way. But I am assuming you don't want much discussion of either of these points, since they might crowd out what I take to be the actual topic, namely what differences we might expect from different outcomes this time.
       A lot depends on the composition of the next Congress. If, as I guess most people who are following the numbers are saying, Congress will be closely divided, the course of public policy will reflect this, and very few bold new initiatives requiring legislation will get anywhere, regardless of campaign promises or presidential intentions.
       In foreign affairs, an arena traditionally open to less Congressional constraint on the presidency, candidates Clinton and Dole sound rather similar to me, and both call upon advisers in this area who seem, from this distance, to be fundamentally interchangeable. I would welcome some fine-tuning on this perspective from my colleagues who sit closer to the action.
       There is always the matter of Supreme Court appointments. Clinton's two appointments so far seem to me different from those likely to have been made by Dole, but I don't know a whole lot about Dole's views, if any, on jurisprudence. Some Clinton appointments to high public office have struck me as near-irresponsible in their neglect of the criterion of capacity to do a good job, but that doesn't apply at all to his Supreme Court appointments.
       There are plenty of other domains where the presidential candidates are advertising differences, but mostly they would require Congressional assent, and, in the case of the constitutional amendments Senator Dole is advocating, supermajorities that don't seem to me to be in the cards.

Herb Stein
2:21 p.m.  Monday  10/28/96 

       I should have made clear in my opening statement that the question, "What Difference Does It [the election] Make?" has two parts. First, what difference does it make for government policy, and second, what difference would that make for life in the real world? Although the first question logically comes first, probably both are involved in what I and others have described as the current state of apathy.
       Kondracke's comment illustrates the point. He says that there would be a big difference between Republican and Democratic approaches to the problem of wage stagnation. Perhaps so. But that still leaves the question of whether the differences between their policies would affect the rate of wage increase in, say, the next decade.
       The panel discussion tends to emphasize the importance of the congressional elections. Perhaps that is because there is an inclination to regard the outcome of the presidential election as already determined, and thus not very interesting. Maybe we are being too hasty about dismissing the presidential election. The rhetorical difference between the candidates seems small. There are, however, people who say that the moderate positions of the candidates are binding until Nov. 5 only. They say that, if re-elected, Clinton would revert to his true "red" spots under the spell of Hillary. And others say that if Dole were elected, he would become a vintage Gingrich. Is there anything to that? Does experience show that candidates, once elected, become less or more moderate than they had seemed in the campaign?
       One might think that the outcome of the presidential election would make a significant difference for at least two issues. If, against all odds, Dole should win, wouldn't that be a demonstration that tax reduction is an irresistible proposal, and have everyone of both parties jumping on that bandwagon? And wouldn't a Dole victory mean that the public really cares a lot about unethical campaign practices, and make some action on that front imperative?
       I am surprised at Polsby's saying that the foreign policy advisers of the two parties are "fundamentally interchangeable." I believe my colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Richard Perle, would take great offense at that thought--which doesn't mean that it is incorrect.