What Difference Does It Make?

Nov. 30 2004 4:56 PM

What Difference Does It Make?

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Alan Brinkley
8:46 a.m.  Friday  11/01/96 

       The tactical pressures of the campaign have made Dole and Clinton seem much more alike than in fact they are. I do believe that Clinton is a genuine centrist Democrat, less likely than any previous recent Democratic president to tack to the left, even in the midst of a crisis. His much-vaunted and derided "liberalism" during his first two years didn't look much like liberalism to me--although it did have the qualities of bold ambition that we tend to associate with liberals. Clinton is probably more likely to be an activist in the next four years than is Dole, but his activism--both because of fiscal realities and his own instincts--will probably not take the form of programs that resemble traditional liberal initiatives. Dole, I suspect, would be much more like Bush than Clinton, although more invested in the legislative process (the process more than the results) than Bush was. For better or worse, he is, I believe, much more likely than Clinton to remain relatively passive if there is a serious economic problem.
       Clinton's reach for a place in history is going to be a stretch. He might make a big play for entitlement reform (and he should), but my guess is that his principal effort will be to continue compiling small policy victories in the family-leave vein that, taken together, he will hope will make the case for him with historians. My own feeling is that historians are likely to remember him more for the way he has reoriented the Democratic party than for his policy achievements--but the next four years could, of course, change everything.

Thomas Mann
9:03 a.m.  Friday  11/01/96 

       Many pundits have bemoaned the unsatisfactory choices available to Americans in this presidential election. I take exception to that complaint. I believe that both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are imminently qualified for the presidency and that our republic would survive nicely the election of either man. Clinton appears to have more raw talent--native intelligence, a capacity to absorb and synthesize vast bodies of information, empathy, optimism, and hardiness--while Dole's comparative advantages seem to lie in the realm of personal courage, decency, loyalty, and patience. Clinton has much more promise as an inspirational leader and architect of a new political coalition, while Dole seems a safer choice in the face of domestic and international setbacks, especially for those who put a premium on "first do no harm." I am not persuaded by the arguments or evidence that Clinton suffers from fatal character flaws that make him unsuitable for the office.
       Clinton's ambitions for his place in history are constrained by the absence of a national crisis (at least for now), fiscal constraints, and policy inheritances. I suspect he will work toward restoring public confidence in the capacity of government to play a constructive though limited role in our lives, which requires that he lead (not pass) an effort to shore up our social insurance programs. He will also strive to stitch together a new Democratic coalition that he can pass off to Al Gore at the dawn of the 21st century.

Nelson W. Polsby
11:19 a.m.  Friday  11/01/96 

       This year's election doesn't look like a turning point to me. I could change my mind if the Republicans did extremely well, in which case the turning point was 1994 and then 1996 becomes the consolidation--like 1894-1896. But the cards don't seem to be falling that way. Dole is absorbing more blame than he deserves. We all know he is not at his best as a stump speaker, but the news media are wrong to harp on the idea that if he only did something different, he could produce a different outcome. The factors against him are: (1) GOP unpopularity because Newt Gingrich is seen to have closed the government down. (2) Clinton's effectiveness at that point and thereafter in making a sale to the American voter that he is protecting them against health, education, and environment attacks by the Republican Congress. (3) The inherent difficulty in scaring people about the character and trustworthiness of an incumbent whose character has had four years to do its worst. (4) Voter optimism about the economy. (5) No serious, visible security threats to U.S. interests anywhere in the world.
       I agree with Herb that Clinton has made foolish mistakes, but the worst of them (Here's my pick: (1) refusing to include experienced Democrats in the initial staffing of the White House, (2) pursuing comprehensiveness in health policy, (3) mismanaging the asset of Mrs. Clinton, so that it is currently a public liability) are mostly concentrated in the early months of his presidency. He has also done some sensible things: two good Supreme Court appointments, and going for deficit reduction early, for two instances. I don't think Clinton can be counted on, as Herb speculates, to act foolishly in reaction to a strong new stimulus, and therefore I don't contemplate his re-election with trepidation.
       As we have all said, for this election Congress is the real battleground, and I expect Congress to continue to be the main determinant of presidential leeway in the four years ahead.

Morton Kondracke
1:26 p.m.  Friday  11/01/96 

       It's long been my theory that the Republican Party selects its presidential candidates by the rule of primogeniture--the next oldest male in line gets to be king--while the Democrats are capable of jumping the line. So, in 1976, the GOP gave the nod to Gerald Ford, who lost, over Ronald Reagan. Then came Reagan over Bush (a good choice), but then Bush over Dole and Kemp (not so good) and, finally, Dole over this year's field. Democrats challenge their front-runners ruthlessly, even when they end up picking them (e.g., Hart vs. Mondale in '84), and often go to people who have never run for president before, e.g., Carter, Dukakis, Clinton. The import of this in 1996 is that Dole, the primogeniture choice, wasn't up to the task he faced. A superb senator, he lacked the strategic and rhetorical skills necessary for the presidential contest. It would have been tough for Bill Bennett or Dick Cheney or Colin Powell to beat Clinton, given a decent economy and peace in the world, but surely one of them could have framed Republican principles in a more compelling way. Still, the public has been given a real choice: broad tax cuts, deregulation, school choice, tort reform, government devolution, an end to affirmative action, tighter controls on illegal immigration, and less domestic spending vs. continuation of the status quo on race and reform, marginally more federal activity in education and the environment. My guess is that the public will pick its president from column A and a Congress from column B, in hopes that they will check and balance each other. It's not exactly what the framers intended--Antonin Scalia probably would declare parties unconstitutional because they are not mentioned in the Document--but it's close.

Herb Stein
2:49 p.m.  Friday  11/01/96 

       One thing stands out from our panelists' discussion. It is so unlike the campaign oratory we've been hearing, or the presidential debates. Tax cuts and trust were hardly mentioned. Little was said about Medicare-Medicaid-education-environment. No one described this election as one of the crossroads of American history--a choice between freedom and community.
       A reader could get the impression that the election doesn't make much difference. But that raises the question, how much difference in an election matters? How much difference did it make whether the Yankees or the Braves won the World Series? A lot of people thought that was worth a lot of attention. How much difference does it make what brand of antacid one uses? A lot of money is spent trying to persuade us to use one rather than the other. Does the difference the election makes merit the attention the American public gives to it? In my opinion, yes, and probably more. The attention people give to this election is not an investment in this election only. It is part of a learning process that will pay off during many elections still to come. Does the difference the election makes merit the amount of money spent on the campaign? That is a harder question. But we could almost certainly spend it better. We would do better to have a discussion among our panelists on all networks, instead of some of the campaigning that does appear.
       I want to thank the panelists for their thoughtful, informed, and objective comments. I hope that we can assemble again sometime to discuss what difference the election did make--but it may take a long time to find out.
       The Committee of Correspondence will be off next week. It will resume on Nov. 11 with a discussion of "Women in America."

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