What Difference Does It Make?

What Difference Does It Make?

Nov. 30 2004 4:51 PM

What Difference Does It Make?

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Norman Ornstein
8:27 a.m.  Tuesday  10/29/96 

       Let me address a couple of Herb Stein's comments. Can a president make a difference? Yes. Can a president make a big difference? Also, yes--but usually only after a sweeping election of change, bringing in a new president and a new Congress favorable to him (like 1980), and/or during a crisis, like a depression or war. Otherwise, there is little presidential power to do things unilaterally. 1996 is a basic, if tentative, affirmation of the status quo, not a call for sweeping change. We have no crisis current or looming. To be sure, we have candidates who have some significant differences in their worldviews. But neither is an ideologue, and both work pragmatically to find coalitions in the middle to accomplish smaller goals. Given the very narrow congressional majorities likely in the 105th Congress, any suggestion that Bill Clinton will be a George McGovern for the 21st century, or Bob Dole will be a trimmer but fiercer Newt Gingrich, is simply wrong--they couldn't if they wanted to, and neither wants to.
       As for foreign policy: Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are your basic, garden-variety internationalists--free traders who believe in an assertive role for America abroad, promoting its values and interests. There are differences between them, but of nuance and degree, not of fundamental worldview. The real foreign-policy gap in America these days is between the Clintons and Doles, on the one hand, and the Buchanans and Perots on the other--between Reagan-style internationalists and Father Coughlin-style protectionists and isolationists.

Thomas Mann
8:49 a.m.  Tuesday  10/29/96 

       I think our discussion would advance by setting aside the matter of voter interest in the campaign and likely turnout since, as Nelson suggests, there is little evidence that any decline in 1996 is a consequence of a dawning realization by the electorate that the election is of little consequence to their well-being. But it is well worth arguing over whether and to what extent elections matter in the policies adopted by governments, and in the conditions under which citizens live and work.
       I doubt that any of us would dispute that many forces exist in our system--the structure of our political institutions, a policy agenda constrained by fiscal pressure, and a set of public expectations about services and benefits to be rendered by government--to limit the extent of policy changes that can be adopted by any victorious presidential candidate or congressional party. It is also indisputably true that governments have a limited ability to steer broad economic and social forces; they are more often victims or beneficiaries of these forces than shapers of them.
       Nonetheless, electoral choices have consequences. A Dole victory, accompanied by enlarged Republican majorities in the Congress, would indeed legitimize a public philosophy and approach to governance--including broad tax cuts, deregulation, devolution, and privatization of social insurance--distinct from the approach we can expect in a second Clinton term. Such a victory would, however, say little about the market for campaign-finance reform, since both parties are up to their eyeballs in the smarmy business of shaking down wealthy individuals and companies for soft-money donations.
       The election will help determine what ideas have the most currency in our public life, and what new coalitions might emerge to structure our important policy debates in the years to come.

Alan Brinkley
9:11 a.m.  Tuesday  10/29/96 

       There seems to be a general unanimity among members of the committee that this election (and politics generally) does make a difference, but not often an enormous difference. This election is one of those that will make a relatively small difference, although--as I noted yesterday--not an insignificant one. For all the talk of the desire for "change" that dominated public discourse four years ago, the years since have demonstrated precisely the opposite. Clinton's first two years culminated in a massive repudiation of what the public came to believe was an excessive drive for liberal change. The last two years are culminating in a massive repudiation of what the public considers the 104th Congress's excessive drive for conservative change. For better or worse, the politics of the moment is determinedly centrist, and seems to punish those who stray too far away from the center in either direction. There is, of course, room for substantial differences within the center, especially on issues that affect relatively small numbers of people or sharply defined groups--welfare reform, affirmative action, abortion policies, gay rights, and others. For those who care about these issues, the otherwise relatively small differences between the presidential candidates will seem quite large.

Nelson W. Polsby
1:37 p.m.  Tuesday  10/29/96 

       I think there is some justification for Herb's comment--tracking a Dole campaign theme--that Bill Clinton campaigns to the middle but attempts to govern to the left of that. This was most visible in his first-term Cabinet appointments, and in his comprehensive approach to health care. I interpret his signing the welfare bill as campaigning, not governing.
       Regardless of what Clinton might like to do, he is constrained by Congress--and I suppose also by the bond market--and the net result is bound to be more predictable--and moderate--than he might like. The same constraints, roughly, would affect Dole if, improbably, he were to win. Dole, I think, is a true Oakeshottean Tory, and, in fact--his rather hasty and perfunctory tax cut proposal to the contrary notwithstanding--harbors no big plans to move the country anywhere in particular. I see him in this as totally dissimilar to Newt Gingrich, who craves movement, real or illusory, whatever.

Herb Stein
3:02 p.m.  Tuesday  10/29/96 

       Much of our discussion has focused on the significance of the congressional elections. One way in which people dramatize this significance is by calling attention to the difference in the people who would chair important committees under the Democrats as contrasted with the Republicans. Ornstein does that. For some, and Ornstein is not one of them, the symbol of this difference is that Charles Rangel would be chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Certainly the Ways and Means Committee is an important committee, but I think it is easy to exaggerate the difference the chairmanship makes. For 30 years we had two powerful, long-tenured chairmen of the Committee--Wilbur Mills and Dan Rostenkowski. But they were not the prime movers in any of the big pieces of tax legislation during that period, and only one big piece of entitlement legislation--the Social Security Act of 1972--was their product. Most of the action in their fields during this period originated with presidents, majority leaders, or other members. Ways and Means seems to be a conservative institution, in the sense of resisting change, because it has a great many members, deals with very technical subjects, and has a staff of lawyers and economists who know how unsettling any change can be. I say all this on the basis of memory of superficial observation, but I think it is pertinent to the question of the significance of change in the control of Congress.
       On the subject of entitlements, which several have mentioned, everyone knows that there have to be changes, and that they will not be popular. The main goal of each party seems to be to avoid exclusive responsibility for the painful solution, so the outcome has to be one that each party can accept if the other one will also accept it. Doesn't this mean that although entitlements fall within the purview of Ways and Means, the decisions will have to be made at a higher level?
       Changing the subject: Organized labor has apparently been much more active in this election than in a long time. If the Democrats win, and especially if they regain control of Congress, what will labor win, and what will it get?
       While everyone agrees that the budget situation will tightly limit big new spending programs, is it likely that a re-elected Clinton could introduce an era of cheap statism. He has given some sign of this during the campaign with his program-of-the-day. Instead of sloshing huge amounts of money around that would try to change the behavior of the society by mandates and by "targeted" expenditures or tax-incentives that got the maximum effect per dollar. This could be more interventionist than larger amounts of money spread around in a more neutral fashion.
       If Clinton is re-elected by a large margin, who will the Republican leadership be and what lessons will they draw? Will they conclude that Dole was too moderate? Will they conclude that tax-cuts are not the irresistible force? Where will they go?