Two wounded winners
Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on Nov. 7, 1996
Most elections confer power. This one divided it. None of the victors tried to claim a mandate -- and a good thing too. Despite Ross Perot's drawing only half the votes he siphoned off in 1992, President Clinton apparently fell short of his goal of being reelected by a majority. And Republicans, while still in control on Capitol Hill, have fewer seats in Congress than they held the past two years.
Even in a time of economic optimism, after four years of healthy growth, most voters were not willing to give either party or any leader in either of the elected branchesan unmistakable signal to take charge. You can call
it a cop-out, a sign that the dismayingly small portion of the population who went to the polls said, "It's too complicated for us. You politicians figure out what to do next." I prefer to think that a skeptical electorate simply wasn't convinced by anyone's performance or rhetoric that there are easy answers for the challenges of post-Cold War America.
The election leaves authority in Washington divided among four elected officials. The two who seem strongest may well be the shakiest, which makes the role of the other two even more fascinating.
Clinton, that consummate politician, has done what no Democrat since FDR has managed by winning consecutive presidential elections. He ran a superb campaign after engineering an even more remarkable recovery from his virtual repudiation in 1994.
But second terms historically have been less than productive, and Clinton faces several unusual handicaps. He is the first Democratic president ever to be elected with an opposition-controlled Congress -- a Congress that will hold him to his pledge to have a balanced budget within reach by the end of his term. So he will be operating with both fiscal and political constraints. He badly needs to restaff and rehabilitate the White House and Cabinet, suffering from exhaustion and, in too many cases, ethical taints. The process began yesterday. And he faces a sea of legal troubles, mainly from the soon-to-accelerate work of Whitewater special counsel Kenneth Starr, but also from the court case alleging sexual harassment and from the wave of investigations congressional Republicans promise to unleash.
If he chose to, Clinton could commiserate with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the second of the badly wounded winners in Tuesday's voting. Gingrich is in line to be the first Republican in almost seven decades to preside over successive Congresses. But his position is shakier than Clinton's. The exit polls showed that twice as many voters disapprove of
his performance as commend it. I think Gingrich is capable of refashioning his approach to his job, much as Clinton did with the presidency after the electoral disaster of 1994, and becoming a more effective, if less visible, leader of the House.
But it is not a safe bet that he will have the chance. The House ethics committee investigation of financial matters involved in the welter of supportive organizations Gingrich formed on his way to the top has taken a
very serious turn, from all I can learn, and the omens from Tuesday's election were not encouraging. House Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.), Gingrich's chief accuser, survived a purge attempt engineered by Gingrich's ally, Michigan Gov. John Engler (R), in large part by describing it as a Gingrich-inspired coup. And the chairman of the ethics panel, the estimable Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), had a very close call from a challenger who accused her of being too protective of Gingrich. Those signals have been seen by House members of both parties, and especially by Republicans, who must calculate how far they will go to save the speaker's hide.
That leaves two other power-sharers, whose influence almost certainly will grow over the next four years. One is Vice President Al Gore, the man-in-waiting for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. He will inevitably become the magnet for ambitious Democratic politicians, staff members and interest group leaders. His clout in the White House is already considerable. It can only increase with each passing day.
And the other, least known to the public, is Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, now out from under the shadow of Bob Dole and free to exercise his considerable skills both inside the Senate and on the television talk-show stage. Lott leads an enlarged Senate GOP majority -- one in which southerners and fellow conservatives will play an even bigger role. He is aiming for a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority in 1998, which would allow the GOP to press its own agenda in the final two years of Clinton's term. But in the meantime, he may well be the most cunning adversary the Democrats face.