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The dreary presidential campaign of 1996 and Clinton's disillusioning presidency matched the convulsive pattern of events which yanked the nation in every direction except forward throughout the final decades of the twentieth century. The swings of the previous decade with the Republican ascension in Congress and the Democratic presence in the White House, were less an aberration than a continuation of the disruptions that haunted the post-depression American political system.The Fate of the Union: America's Rocky Road to Political Stalemate illustrates how the circumstances of each quadrennial American presidential contest have piled on the next, melding into the past and suggesting the future. The book explores the Clinton presidency as a continuum: first, placing it in the context of recent predecessors-from Truman to Bush-and then relating to the events that lead to his election in 1992, shaped his inaugural term, and enabled him to win four more years in the White House.Author Robert Shogan's timely examination shows that short of a thorough changing of the Constitution, the best prevention for an ever-worsening political system is to guard against self-delusion.
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About the Author
For more than 30 years and over the course of seven presidencies, Robert Shogan covered the political scene from Washington as national political correspondent for Newsweek and the The Los Angeles Times. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Government at the Center for Study of American Government of Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
Born to Fail
On his 1948 whistle-stop tour, Harry Truman, the icon of political underdogs, recalled an epitaph from a Tombstone, Arizona, cemetery and made it his battle cry: "He done his damnedest." Hopelessly behind in the closing days of his 1996 challenge to Bill Clinton, underdog Bob Dole made certain that no one would say anything less of him. The Republican nominee campaigned late into the night, forgoing food and sleep, and literally talked himself hoarse. "I trust the people," he rasped in West Covina, California, nearing the end of his self-imposed ordeal. "Look at my record," Dole demanded. "I look for your active help for the next forty-eight hours. Thank you very much and God bless America."
It was not much of a message. But even when his voice was hale and hearty, Bob Dole had little of consequence to say to the voters. Ambitious and forceful, a masterful legislator, and a shrewd judge of other politicians, he had miscalculated his own ability to adjust to the bizarre process of running for president. He had waged a brain-dead campaign.
Amidst the dying embers of his candidacy, Republican Dole often talked admiringly of Democrat Truman and his improbable 1948 victory over Thomas E. Dewey. That campaign had become part of the folklore of American politics. Never mind that the science of polling today has advanced far beyond its stage in 1948, when pollsters quit taking surveys weeks before the election. The photo of the victorious Truman holding aloft the Chicago Tribune with its monumentally inaccurate banner headline had been stamped in the minds of front-runners and long shots alike.
"Here's a man," Dole said of Truman, as his campaign raced on toward his own rendezvous with defeat, "who's a plainspoken man, and he never gave up. He was way behind in the polls. The Chicago Tribune said 'Dewey Wins.' The truth of the matter is that Truman won. And won by just hanging on his message. Defying the odds. Hanging in there."
Like Truman, though, Dole usually avoided fooling himself. He knew he was no Truman, and 1996 was not 1948. Indeed, many believed that this competition between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton had been over before it officially started after the August conventions. Certainly, since the second debate between the two candidates, when Dole finally launched his long-awaited and much heralded assault on Clinton's character--and far from damaging Clinton, only hurt himself--even Dole's strongest supporters found it difficult to maintain any hope for his chances. It was not some misguided faith in victory that drove Dole on in the campaign's dying hours; rather, it was pride.
Having played out his underdog role with dignity, Dole now had to consider his place in history. Losing was bad, no matter what, but how bad was a matter of degree. Dole knew what a landslide loss could mean to him and to his party. He was just coming of age in 1936 when that year's Republican candidate, Alf Landon, from Dole's own state of Kansas, had been overwhelmed by Franklin Roosevelt, carrying only the two tiny New England states of Maine and Vermont. Before that election, Maine's proud citizens had fancied their state to be a sort of bellwether, a notion embodied in the saying "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." After the 1936 election, wags put a different twist on the old adage: "As Maine goes, so goes Vermont." And Landon, who had been one of the most respected leaders in either party, became a laughingstock. If Dole could avoid that fate by talking through the night, he would never stop talking until every vote had been cast.
In contrast to his challenger, the incumbent president had started off the race with every advantage and had made the most of them all. Yet he, too, battled on until the final moments before the balloting. As with Dole, pride also drove Clinton. He had entered office in 1992 as a minority president, winning the popular vote by only a plurality, and that arithmetic had added to the obstacles that soured his first two years in the White House. Winning a majority of the popular vote, along with a hefty total of the electoral vote, would bring him a measure of vindication.
Yet as Clinton well knew, the significance of such achievements tended to be limited and short-lived. Two Republican presidents--Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984--had won huge victories, each capturing substantial popular-vote majorities and carrying forty-nine states. They subsequently learned that their landslides offered no protection against the scandals that rocked their second terms--Nixon's tenure foreshortened by Watergate; Reagan's reputation indelibly stained by Iran-Contra.
The dismal endings to those two presidencies confronted Clinton with a more pertinent question than the size of his own victory margin. This had to do with the battle between the two parties for control of Congress, the only issue of consequence that remained to be settled in the campaign. Yet in this competition, even the president could not be sure which outcome would best serve his own interests. Nominally, of course, he wanted the Democrats to recapture both the House and Senate. Still, he could not forget that the seizure of Capitol Hill by the Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections had worked to his political advantage.
"The best thing that happened to us is that we lost the Congress," Harold Ickes, one of Clinton's senior political advisers, told me a year after the 1994 earthquake that had shaken the congressional Democrats out of the power they had held for nearly half a century. "If we had won the Congress by a narrow majority, we would have had to struggle to get anything done. But when the Republicans took over, it became Bill Clinton against the Radical Republicans. They defined him better than he could have defined himself."
Then, chastened by their defeat in the great battle of the budget, the Republicans had become conciliatory. To help their own reelection chances, the GOP majorities on Capitol Hill had agreed to a series of compromises with the Democrat in the White House, which produced achievements that aided both parties in the 1996 campaign.
Looking ahead to his expected second term, though, Clinton had to wonder whether he would still be able to afford the luxury of such a collaboration. His first term concluded in a wave of allegations of assorted misconduct, which had somehow been obscured by the election campaign but still revived memories of Watergate and Iran-Contra. In the postelection Congress, lame-duck Clinton could find himself in trouble. And the notion of Republicans in control on Capitol Hill, free to conduct wide-ranging inquiries into the charges against him, was enough to spoil the taste of success already on his lips on election eve.
In the face of these uncertainties, even as the long campaign ground to a conclusion, Clinton seemed unable to decide which party he wanted in command of Congress. Instead, on his last day of campaigning, he brooded aloud about the shortcomings of the political system. Just after midnight, Clinton recalled at a rally in Bangor that when he had come to Washington to begin his presidency, he had been painfully weary of partisanship and all "that name-calling, liberal this, conservative that, Democrat, Republican." This election, he declared, was "an election of enormous consequence with a very clear choice. It's more important than the people involved and far more important than the political parties involved."
Yet whatever the importance of the election was, neither Dole nor Clinton had been able to explain it to the voters, a reality reflected in the evidence of a hundred or more public opinion polls expressing the apathy of the electorate. The campaign had boiled down to a contest between a challenger who could not explain himself and an incumbent whose explanations never ceased. It was fitting that at the end, the former should be mainly concerned with shielding his ego, while the latter could not make up his mind about the most important choice left for the electorate.
As for the voters, they had long ago tuned out. A Pew Research Center poll in July showed that more than 70 percent rated the campaign as dull, and about that same percentage assumed that Clinton would win. Dole's efforts to justify his candidacy earned a grade of D+, but Clinton did only slightly better with a gentleman's C. The validity of these soundings was borne out by the depressed turnout on election day. It was the lowest in more than seventy years, since Calvin Coolidge was returned to the White House in 1924. This modern record nadir in turnout came at a record-high price. The two political parties, combined, contrived to raise and spend the greatest sum lavished on an American election in history--close to $1 billion, much of it collected in possible violation of the law.
This dreary campaign was tailored to the convulsive pattern of events that had yanked the nation in every direction--except forward--throughout the final decade of the twentieth century. This fretful period began with the Gulf War, a triumph of American arms--and nearly bloodless for the forces of the United States--that vaulted Commander in Chief George Bush to levels of approval previously unvisited by any of his predecessors. Despite the bankruptcy of his economic policies, Bush's popularity made his reelection in the forthcoming 1992 campaign seem all but certain. As a consequence, the most prominent leaders of the Democratic party, quailing before Bush's polls, gave up on their chances of winning the presidency in 1992.
But severe recession and Bush's inability to respond to it eroded the esteem he had gained from the war, whose outcome left the nation's fundamental problems at home and abroad unresolved. And Bush's betrayal of his ill-conceived campaign pledge not to levy new taxes further undermined his prospects.
With the way back to the White House now opened to them, Democratic leaders deemed Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas the most presentable of the slim field of candidates who had sought the nomination in the face of Bush's apparent invincibility. Once in power, though, Clinton stumbled repeatedly over obstacles created by the schizoid campaign he had conducted, in which he had cast himself simultaneously as the champion of a more conservative Democratic credo and as a paladin of the party's traditional activism. The public's thunderously voiced disillusionment in the 1994 election overturned entrenched Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, placing the Republicans in full charge of Capitol Hill for the first time since Ike's landslide victory in 1957.
Just as Clinton was widely faulted for possessing no firm convictions at all, the Republicans made themselves victims of their own convictions, by presuming these sentiments were shared by the electorate. Under the leadership of their new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, the Republicans immediately set about promulgating a counterrevolution aimed at undoing as many as they could of the changes that Democrats had made in the federal government and American society over the previous sixty years.
By the time the Republican revolution was little more than a year old, it had collapsed in humiliating defeat, having inflicted immeasurable damage on the cause of conservatism and the Republican party, and having done for Bill Clinton, as Harold Ickes tacitly acknowledged, what he could never have done for himself--making his reelection all but inevitable.
Harnessed to the Republican majorities on Capitol Hill in an uneasy alliance, Clinton began his second term with no clear objective except to get through it. And even that minimalist goal was called into question when his scandal-ridden presidency was rocked by its worst scandal yet, stemming from charges that Clinton had obstructed justice in order to cover up a sexual dalliance with a White House intern. The results of subsequent opinion polls indicated that even though most Americans disbelieved Clinton's denial of the allegations, a majority were satisfied for him to continue in the White House, which suggested the extent to which this president had lowered the standards for the office he held.
As drastic as the shifts and swings of the past decade were, they represented not an aberration but rather a culmination of distortions and disruptions that haunted the American political system, particularly the presidency, in the last half of the twentieth century. All this was not the result of happenstance. At the root of the problem, as this book will show, is a political and governing system that was designed not to work.
The presidential election in which Clinton competed against Dole was the fifty-second in the history of the United States. The first was held in 1789 on the first Wednesday in February, when the presidential electors met, each in their own states, and cast their ballots. Although the outcome seemed certain, the votes were not counted until the new Congress assembled a quorum and convened in New York, nearly two months later. And it was not until April 14 that the secretary of Congress called upon George Washington to inform him that he had been elected the first president of the United States of America without a single opposing vote, adding the wishes of the Senate president pro tem that "so auspicious a mark of public confidence will meet your approbation."
With this simple ceremony, the American way of politics and governing formally began. More than two centuries later, near the close of another millennium, on November 5, 1996, what was remarkable and often forgotten was how little the fundamental system of governance under which Washington was chosen had changed. The overriding reality of the 1996 election campaign was that whoever emerged as the winner would have to contend against most of the same eighteenth-century restraints that had been imposed on the Father of His Country.
In many ways this suited Americans fine, because they had always feared and resented the idea of a government strong and efficient enough to intervene in their lives. But in modern times, as society became more complex and government expanded to meet its challenges, Americans had also learned to value the benefits that government brought to them. The tension between these two widely held attitudes--aversion to government and dependence on it--created the turmoil we are living through.
As Americans struggle to adjust to this dichotomy, they have to contend with one group of people that insists nothing is really wrong with the system and another that claims to have a simple cure for what is wrong, which they label a reform. But earlier, such panaceas have been tried and found wanting because they did not alter the fundamental governmental structure established by the framers of the Constitution. Indeed, these schemes often make matters worse by creating unforeseen new distortions in the political system and by raising false expectations.
Of the ten presidents who followed Franklin Roosevelt, the founder of the modern presidency, five have been Democrats and five Republicans. Three, including Clinton, had been governors, six had served in the Congress, and one had been a general. They came to the Oval Office from almost every section of the country--the West Coast, the Southwest, the Deep South, the Midwest, and New England--and have differed markedly in temperament and philosophy. Each initially had his own approach to meeting the responsibilities of the presidency. Yet ultimately, all of them created many of the same problems for themselves and their fellow citizens. Their combined experience makes plain that the chronic weaknesses of the presidency and of the political system overshadow differences in the characteristics of our presidents.
Bearing out this diagnosis is a series of other signs of ill health in the political system that have coincided with the troubles of the presidency. Voter turnout in congressional as well as presidential elections has dipped with almost every election, as has popular trust in political institutions and confidence in their ability to deal with national problems. Allegiance to political parties has fallen so steeply that the two-party system is in danger of disintegrating into a "no-party system." Instead of the long-sought partisan realignment that would establish a new majority coalition as a successor to the New Deal alliance forged by Franklin Roosevelt, the spasms of the political system have produced a permanent floating dealignment in which citizens, shifting their loyalties from time to time from one minority cohort to another, are doomed to stalemate, isolation, and frustration.
This condition is all the more disturbing because it followed a period of dramatic change aimed at making the system more open and equitable. The franchise was extended by constitutional amendment to eighteen-year-olds and by congressional action to black citizens in the South, who for a century had been denied free access to the polling booths. Supreme Court decisions brought an end to the grossest distortions of malapportionment and established the principle of one person, one vote as the rule of law. Regulation of campaign financing was greatly bolstered, establishing limits on spending and contributions, requiring broad public disclosure of both, and providing federal subsidies for presidential candidates. Agitation mainly within the Democratic party led to an overhaul of presidential-nomination procedures for both parties, spurring proliferation of direct primaries and a quantum increase in the number of voters directly participating in the selection of candidates for the White House. Yet these changes not only failed to overcome the problems of the political system but in some ways even aggravated them, adding to public disillusionment.
Underlying all this is the structure of the Constitution, which ensures what amounts to a gap between politics and government. The purpose of politics is to express the often conflicting concerns of the voters. The role of government is to resolve these concerns equitably. To put it in the simplest terms, politics defines what people want; government decides what they get. For democracy to work, government must respond to politics. This is where political parties come in. They are the best means available for connecting politics and government, by providing voters with meaningful choices between policies and candidates, and for holding government accountable to the electorate.
But under the Constitution, the parties were born to fail. The Founding Fathers were dead set against them. Hamilton warned that the spirit of "faction," a term then used interchangeably with party, "is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men." Jefferson declared: "If I could not go to heaven except with a party, I would not go at all." So much for heaven. Here on earth, the Constitution makes the task of parties next to impossible by ordaining a permanent antagonism between the executive and legislative branches that transcends party allegiance. By curbing the authority of parties in government, the Constitution undermines the influence of parties in politics and, in effect, institutionalizes the gap between politics and government.
The hamstringing of parties stems from the outlook of the framers of the Constitution, vexed by a series of dilemmas. Apprehensive of the power of government, they nevertheless felt they must bolster the tottering regime that had barely survived the struggle for independence. Committed by their rhetoric to the generous principle of popular sovereignty, they had learned by hard experience to mistrust human nature and doubt the wisdom of the masses. Fearful of monarchy and dictatorship, they also dreaded the tyranny of the majority. It was Madison, architect of the Constitution, who best defined the fundamental conundrum. "If men were angels, no government would be necessary," he wrote. "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." Since divine intervention could not be counted on, Madison crafted the system of checks and balances, which sought protection against the tyranny of either the president or the Congress by assuring that these two branches of government would almost always be at each other's throats. And for good measure, he created the judiciary as yet another counterweight to the other two branches. "The key to Madison's thinking," wrote James MacGregor Burns in his magisterial The Deadlock of Democracy, "is his central aim to stop people from turning easily to government for help."
The genius of Madison's scheme is that it relied for its effectiveness on the presumption of human frailty, which so dominated the thinking of the framers. Madison not only counted on the tendency of politicians to put their own self-interest above that of the larger good but did what he could to encourage that inclination. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," Madison wrote of the relationship between the Congress and the president. "The interest of the man must be connected with the Constitutional rights of the place." Madison transformed that vision of unending conflict into reality by giving the president and the Congress separate constituencies and separate terms of office, by granting the Congress the power to pass laws but establishing for the president the authority to veto them, and by enabling the chief executive to make appointments but reserving for the Senate the authority to reject them.
This combination of inherent restraints worked so well that it hamstrung Madison himself when he became president, moving him to complain to his colleague Thomas Jefferson that the rebellious Congress he faced had become "unhinged." It generated conflict and stalemate between the executive and the legislature not only when each was controlled by a different party but also when both were controlled by the same party.
"I've watched the Congress, man and boy for forty years," Lyndon B. Johnson recalled at the peak of his presidential powers. "And I've never yet seen a Congress that didn't ultimately take the measure of the president it was dealing with."
During the country's infancy and adolescence, with a frontier to conquer and exploit, the defects of the political system mattered little. But as the nation matured, its problems multiplied, forcing the weaknesses of the governing system to the fore. In the mid-nineteenth century, slavery provided the system with its most serious test and produced its first major failure.
By 1850, opposition to slavery, based not only on moral grounds but also on economic self-interest, was growing stronger and broader. This created the potential for an alliance of Northern businessmen and wage earners, Western farming interests, and small Southern freeholders committed to the prohibition of slavery in the new territories and its ultimate abolition in the South, a position that could have been moderated with proposals for economic compensation for slave owners and tariff concessions to the South. Such a coalition could have dominated national politics and presented the Southern plantation owners with an offer they could hardly afford to refuse.
But the two major parties of the day, the Whigs and Democrats, temporized, both weakened by sectional conflicts and squabbles between their congressional leaders and their presidents. The Whigs ultimately collapsed and were supplanted by the Republican party in 1856. The Democrats, under the irresolute stewardship of Presidents Pierce and Buchanan, watched the country drift into the Civil War and then saw their presidential candidates repudiated for the next twenty years.
After the war, the swift growth of industry and the cities presented unprecedented opportunities for graft and corruption. The great tycoons of the Gilded Age, determined to promote their burgeoning enterprises, were eager to reward the bosses of either party, whichever happened to be in charge, for special favors. This practical bipartisanship was summed up by Jay Gould, who controlled, among other things, the Erie Railroad: "In a Republican district I was a Republican, in a Democratic district I was a Democrat," Gould recalled of his political dealings. "In a doubtful district I was doubtful, but I was always Erie."
At the national level, from the late nineteenth century through the opening decades of the twentieth, the Republican party identified with the interests of business and the policy of laissez faire. The Democrats, their Southern base sheltered by their support for white supremacy, claimed to speak for the less privileged and for activism in government. But for the most part, the parties displayed their differences more in the generalities of campaign rhetoric than in specific proposals that offered the electorate clear alternatives to deal with the nation's problems.
Clashes between presidents and the factions within their own parties and Congress often overshadowed conflicts between the parties. Despite brief flurries of reforming zeal, neither party, when it controlled the presidency, was able to muster consistent support for programs to deal with the inequities of industrialization and the power of the economic oligarchs.
The party leaders who dominated the presidential-nominating process preferred candidates who would not make trouble and whom they could control. To break their power, reformers promoted the idea of direct primaries, which in theory would allow voters themselves a greater say in the selection of their party's candidates. The idea found support around the country, and by 1916, twenty-six states had adopted one form of primary or another. But the number was misleading. While in some states voters could choose directly between presidential candidates or delegates pledged to them, in others the primaries were merely advisory. Most delegates to the nominating conventions remained under the thumb of a state and local party boss. Presidential candidates soon lost interest, and so did the voters. After the 1928 Republican presidential primary, a North Dakota study commission noted that none of the candidates on the ballot had substantial support and concluded that "the election was a farce which cost the taxpayers $133,635."
Actually, the primaries had been oversold at any price. Like most reforms, the primary was only a superficial remedy, which did not attempt to cure the basic defects in the relationship between politics and government.
A far greater force for political change than the primaries was the nation's fundamental economic problems, which produced the Great Depression and led to the aggrandizement of federal power under Franklin Roosevelt. In his twelve years in the White House, Roosevelt maximized the possibilities for presidential leadership under the pressure of twentieth-century crisis. But he also suffered under the obstacles imposed by eighteenth-century strictures. Indeed, Roosevelt's recognition of those restraints conditioned his initial approach to presidential politics.
Campaigning against Herbert Hoover in 1932, FDR gave no indication of the bold programs he would recommend, if, in fact, he had yet thought them through himself. Addressing a campaign rally in Pittsburgh, the Democratic standard-bearer pledged to slash government spending and balance the budget. Returning to that city in 1936, seeking reelection after four years of record government outlays, he asked his top speechwriter, Samuel Rosenman, what he should say about the promise he had made in 1932. "Deny you were ever in Pittsburgh," Rosenman suggested.
Even as he fashioned the dramatic innovations of the New Deal, Roosevelt relied more on instinct than ideology and behaved in the American political tradition, playing ideas and advisers against each other. The implausible coalition he forged of Southern whites, Northern blue-collar workers, blacks, and Jews carried him to an enormous victory in 1936. But the election's aftermath demonstrated the limited impact of presidential success on the will of Congress. The lawmakers rejected FDR's scheme to pack the Supreme Court in his favor, the first in a series of setbacks on Capitol Hill, where the Democratic leadership was dominated by conservative Southerners. In full retreat on the domestic front when the United States entered World War II, FDR promptly announced the replacement of "Dr. New Deal" with "Dr. Win the War," thus sparing himself further embarrassment.
A deft maneuverer, Roosevelt was blessed with a buoyant temperament and a flair for theatrics. But his achievements could not be separated from the crises that shaped his presidency. Once the immediate threat to the nation's institutions subsided, business leaders and other conservative interests threw their weight against him. His supporters, who had helped him push through the landmark social and economic reforms of the New Deal, got bogged down in the institutional obstacle course created by the Constitution, particularly the bipartisan conservative opposition in Congress. The New Deal ran out of steam before it could get at the underlying causes of the depression. The outbreak of war mobilized support for the president personally, helping him gain unprecedented third and fourth terms. The wartime boom improved the lot of the voters who made up the New Deal coalition, but at the same time, it eased the pressures that had bound them together. Nothing in the system in which he had been reared inclined Roosevelt to provide his allies with a unifying, long-range agenda. More and more during his tenure, he relied on the symbolic force of his personality to hold his alliance together. No wonder, then, that after his death, that coalition began to crumble; and his successors have been struggling either to preserve it or to replace it ever since.
They failed because a combination of interlocking events and circumstances, in which nearly every factor seems to be both cause and consequence, widened the gap between politics and government. On one side of the gap, among the voters, sweeping social and economic changes eroded old political loyalties, producing what the sociologist Morris Janowitz has described as the "disarticulation" of our society. Meanwhile, on the other side of the gap, the government struggled against growing demands and rising expectations. And the parties, which ought to serve voters and their government, steadily lost authority and relevance.
For the past half century, Americans have been on the move in several directions at once--from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West, from the cities and rural areas to the burgeoning metropolitan suburbs, and from old-line manufacturing plants into high-tech and service industries. The influx of immigrants of all colors and creeds exacerbates ethnic and racial tensions. Mounting economic and social pressures threaten the stability of the nuclear family. Fewer voters think of themselves as belonging to one group--Catholics or union members or Southerners. Instead, they now place themselves in categories that are either too broad or too narrow to meld into the customary political coalitions--consumers or commuters, for example, or gun owners or condominium owners.
Take the case of Dave Brown. He is a hypothetical example, but his circumstances are real enough. Brown is a skilled auto worker who earns more than $40,000 a year. His union endorsed Clinton in the 1996 election, but Brown voted for Ross Perot--mostly to protest Clinton's trade policies. Brown's real wages have not increased in nearly ten years, and he puts part of the blame on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Clinton took pride in pushing through Congress.
Brown has other political conflicts over his job. On the one hand, he knows that the government pollution standards backed by Democrats, which the Republican Congress has been trying to cut back, add to his company's production costs and could take a bite out of his own paycheck. On the other hand, though, Brown likes to fish, and one weekend, he discovered that the lake he usually visits had been poisoned by chemical waste. All this leaves Brown uncertain where he stands on the environment.
Brown likes to hunt, too, and he belongs to a rifle club. Recently, he sent the club $10 to help lobby against gun control, which is more than he has ever contributed to a political party or candidate. All told, more than 20 million Americans like Brown belong to special-interest organizations, and an additional 20 million give money to such groups, far more than contribute to the two political parties. These citizens are walking multiple conflicts of self-interest, whose support the two major parties are having an increasingly hard time trying to gain.
Much has already been written about the Clinton presidency and about the nine post-FDR presidencies that have preceded his. But history is cumulative. The circumstances of each quadrennial have piled onto the next, melding the past into the present and outlining the shape of the future. This book explores the Clinton presidency as a continuum, first placing it in the context of his modern predecessors, then relating it to the events that led to his election and shaped his first term. Its aim is to illuminate the path down which our politics is headed.
The narrative that follows will show how social and economic change has transformed the anachronistic system bequeathed to us by the Founders into a political wasteland that is barren of ideas and remote from the concerns of the electorate, a breeding ground for cynicism and corruption.
In this misbegotten structure, innovations in technology and refinements in political techniques have undercut the traditional means of political influence. The preeminent technological force is, of course, television, which, with its capacity to reach mass audiences, has spurred competing media to expand their own reach and intensify their impact. The net result is media domination of political communication. "Men still talk to each other," the scholars Joseph Bensman and Bernard Rosenberg have pointed out in America as a Mass Society, "but what we say to each other is very often no more than an extension of facts and feelings relayed to us by the mass media."
The media have also enhanced the impact of polling, just as this branch of political science has come of age technologically. No pollster ever asked Dave Brown what he thinks about anything. But every week, Brown hears about some public opinion survey on television or in his newspaper, and what he hears shapes his views about politicians and issues.
Just as important, the polls influence the views of politicians about what the voters believe. The old-time politician, who took the pulse of his constituents by walking along Main Street, has been ousted by the scientific sample and its massive reinforcement by the press. While public pollsters like Gallup have increased their indirect influence on politics and government, private pollsters, armed with their computers, have been playing a greater direct role in shaping the strategies of the politicians whom they serve.
The combined impact of the new technology and the social and economic ferment of the postwar era have produced a new breed of candidates for offices across the spectrum of the political ladder, from alderman to president. Once in power, these self-selected politicians keep their distance from the parties that in the past helped provide some measure of accountability. Nowhere is this trend more evident that at the White House, where it has led to the personalization of the presidency. Unable and unwilling to depend on their parties, presidents have increasingly charted their own courses, relied on their own instincts, and tried to fulfill their own ambitions, as they strive to cope with the mounting burdens on the federal government in general and on the White House in particular.
Despite Clinton's claim that the era of big government is over, the importance of Washington's role in our lives has been enhanced by the sobering onset of the era of limits on national wealth and power and the need to establish new priorities for the uses of federal power and resources. Fresh anxieties have emerged to destabilize the political environment, as natural riches long taken for granted dwindle and global competition intensifies. Americans accustomed to pushing ahead toward broader and brighter horizons now worry mostly about preserving what they already have.
All this makes the president's job harder than ever--without a corresponding increase in power. In dealing with the Congress, the president remains what he always has been, a more or less coequal adversary. This is a problem for the president, even when his own party controls the Congress. But, of course, the problem is much bigger when a majority of Congress belongs to the opposition party--the state of institutional belligerency that, during the past two decades, has become the norm. During the sixteen years encompassing the beginning of Ronald Reagan's presidency to the end of Bill Clinton's first term, one party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for only two years, the first two of Clinton's presidency.
Even when a majority of the Congress owes nominal allegiance to the same party as the president, the separate constituencies and divergent interests of the legislators make it difficult for the president to rely on them for support. "No member of that legislative majority has the constitutional duty, or the practical political need, to vote for each element of the president's program," Lloyd Cutler pointed out from bitter firsthand experience as President Carter's former counsel, when Congress as well as the White House was in Democratic hands. "Neither the president nor the leaders of the legislative majority have the means to punish him if he does not. In the famous phrase of Joe Jacobs, the fight manager, 'It's every man for theirself.'" And this anarchic condition has been aggravated over the years by the steady deterioration of parties and the rise of individual legislators who have learned to depend on their own resources and establish their own agendas.
Just as presidents have been victims of the changed political environment, they have also been guilty of widening the gap between politics and government. To gain support, they have made promises they could not keep and have lived to regret them, as Ronald Reagan did with his economic program, which pledged both tax cuts and a balanced budget. After persuading their party's legislators to face political risks, they have deserted them, as Clinton did when he abandoned the House Democrats during the budget battle. Impatient with their parties, they have ignored them, except as instruments to assure renomination, as Richard Nixon did in 1972. Stalemated at home, they have sought prestige by thrusting themselves into the drama of foreign affairs, as George Bush did in the Persian Gulf.
And by manipulating the power of the mass media, they have broadened the impact of the personalized presidency. Presidents have always enjoyed prestige, but in the past, they were regarded from a distance, as abstract representations of their office and their actions. The modern media, particularly television, have thrust them into our family rooms and inflated their personas out of all proportion. By transmitting their personalities into the gap that parties once were expected to fill, presidents have greatly enhanced their powers of persuasion; but by often focusing on superficialities and irrelevancies, they have clouded public debate.
In our celebrity-centered culture, the president has become the preeminent celebrity. Public fascination with his whims, moods, and incidental behavior, which the media stimulates and which the president exploits, fosters a pervasive mystique that further confuses values and judgments in an already distorted system. Thus it was that the public's attitude toward the office once cloaked with the dignity of General Washington reached a point, during the incumbency of Bill Clinton, where the chief executive would be questioned on national television about what kind of underwear he wore and, more remarkably, would answer the question without blinking an eye.
After he was wounded by a would-be assassin early in his presidency, Reagan's approval rating soared in the opinion polls, reflecting admiration for the good-humored grace with which he handled the ordeal. This was a natural reaction from a duly concerned and sympathetic public. But it was a measure of the potency of the personalized presidency that the positive public response spilled over into the totally unrelated debate over Reagan's economic policies, further hindering the efforts of the president's Democratic opponents to challenge his proposals.
Some might argue that Reagan was a special case because of his Hollywood-honed skills as a performer, but no one ever accused Gerald Ford of being charismatic. Yet during the first fourteen days of Ford's presidency, Barbara Tuchman noted that the New York Times ran his photo on its front page no fewer than twelve times. "Why?" Mrs. Tuchman asked. "We all know what he looks like. By packing our craving for father-worship into the same person who makes and executes policy--a system no other country uses--we have given too much greatness to the presidency."
A brief glance at the post-Roosevelt presidents shows that in trying to deal with the gap between politics and government, presidents have sometimes achieved short-term success and personal popularity, though usually at the long-run cost of increasing the burdens on themselves and their successors, not to mention their fellow citizens.
Sometimes outside factors have intervened. Thus, after winning his brilliant victory in the 1948 election, Harry Truman found himself stymied in his second term largely because of the outbreak of the Korean War, which drained resources from his domestic programs and ruined his popularity.
In other cases, presidents have made bad situations even worse. Dwight Eisenhower's muddled and passive response to the civil rights revolution, which erupted during his tenure, exacerbated the nation's already grave divisions over race.
Although his career was foreshortened, John F. Kennedy transformed the style of presidential politics in enduring ways. He irrevocably personalized presidential campaigning and the presidency itself, creating a mystique around himself while subordinating party and issues.
Trying to live up to the Kennedy legacy, and to his own grandiose pledge of a Great Society, Lyndon Johnson sought to create a consensus built around his own goals and ambitions, not a party coalition of groups committed to common interests. By sheer force of will, he tried to override disagreement and avoid debate on his policies. His prestige and his consensus became casualties of the war in Vietnam and the protest against it at home.
Richard Nixon gained the White House by catering to the resentments Johnson created and relied on this negativism to govern. But in trying to deal with his critics, Nixon abused his authority and destroyed his presidency.
Confronting a Congress made militant by the excesses of Nixon and Johnson, Gerald Ford sought to win support by distinguishing himself from Nixon. But he undercut his own efforts and added to general public cynicism by arbitrarily pardoning Nixon.
Running for the presidency in the wake of great public disillusionment with Nixon and Johnson, Jimmy Carter had early on stressed his faith in the American system of politics and government as one of the major themes of his campaign. Despite upheaval and scandal, Carter maintained that the system remained sound and vital. He made this point incessantly and so emphatically that he sometimes invited mockery, as he did one day late in his 1976 campaign against Gerald Ford, addressing a rally in Tampa. "Richard Nixon didn't hurt our system of government," I heard Carter tell that crowd, as he had told scores of other assemblages around the country. "Watergate didn't hurt our system of government," he said, and I noticed that some of his listeners looked puzzled and skeptical. "The CIA revelations didn't hurt our system of government," Carter continued with his customary litany.
At this point a young man standing near me lost patience. "It didn't help," he shouted. Those around him laughed, but Carter plunged ahead with his peroration. "Our system of government is still the basis that doesn't change, that gives us a way to correct our mistakes, to answer difficult questions, to bind ourselves together in a spirit of equity, and look at the future with confidence."
Carter had good reason to speak favorably of the system, for he had learned to use it to his advantage as a candidate. Moreover, the faith that he espoused in the system complemented his oft-repeated campaign promise to restore trust and efficiency to government through his own integrity and efficiency. Rather than attaching any fault to the system, he believed that the flaws of his predecessors were solely responsible for the failures of the presidency. But Carter underestimated the inherent difficulties of the political and governing system and overestimated his ability to overcome these obstacles. His adversary relationship with the Washington establishment, and with his own party, contributed to his inability to develop coherent policies.
Carter's failure elected Ronald Reagan. Reagan's effectiveness in promoting his personal popularity and the weakness of his opposition allowed him to make drastic changes in economic policy in his first months in the White House. But the hasty and haphazard machinations to which he resorted produced policies at war with each other, and the contradiction between his rosy promises and the gloomy economic realities soon became apparent.
Many gave Reagan credit for forcing an end to the Cold War. But whatever advantage Reagan gave his country in international affairs had to be balanced against the long-term economic problems he left behind, notably the federal budget deficit, which reached record highs in his administration. "For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheaval." These somber words are Ronald Reagan's, from his first inaugural address. Intended as a battle cry for the Reagan revolution, in light of the ensuing eight years they serve better as an epitaph for his own presidency, which would haunt his unfortunate successor, George Bush.
Table of Contents
|1 Born to Fail||1|
|2 The Coincumbents: The Price of Pragmatism||17|
|3 The Prince of Ambivalence||49|
|4 The Contender: Who Else Is There?||73|
|5 The Prophet: Back to the Future||99|
|6 The Unraveling||133|
|7 The Crybaby||165|
|8 The Lawmaker||197|
|9 The Pitchfork Rebellion||217|
|10 The Return of the Comeback Kid||239|
|11 Divided They Ran||265|
|12 The New Political Order||289|
|A Note on Sources||321|