Annapolis Institute Overview


New Majority Shows Its Might

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, November 12, 1996

The culture of Washington is dominated by questions of “who’s up, who’s down; who’s in, who’s out,” to which most normal Americans say, “Who cares?”

We saw it during the election: Media reports were dominated by misleading polls (what happened to Clinton’s 15-point margin?), mindless reports on misleading polls and vacuous assessments of the “who’s ahead, who’s behind” horse race. Now in the wake of the campaign, national media are focused almost exclusively on Clinton cabinet members going over the side — and who is coming on to replace them. It’s a big yawner to all but the most confirmed political junkie.

Even more astonishing, national commentators are now saying that last Tuesday’s election leaves us a government without a mandate to govern. That’s a convenient conclusion because it justifies spending more time on scandal and political gossip while dismissing the serious discussion of public policy substance and direction.

I have another view. Last Tuesday’s election provided a huge mandate for the Republican agenda. Reason: Bill Clinton won by putting a warm, fuzzy face on the Republican revolution as his campaign advanced Republican themes of smaller government, lower taxes, a balanced budget, stronger families and safer streets more effectively than Bob Dole. Result: Almost 90% of the people voted for the core of the Republican agenda, even though only 41% voted for the Republican candidate.

At the same time, the Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate from 52 seats to 55 and retained control of the House of Representatives. Result: The 105th Congress will be more conservative and more divided than the 104th. Reason: Real business is done in the party caucuses, and the Republican caucus in both houses is more conservative and the Democratic caucus in both houses is more liberal.

Even more telling, despite millions spent by organized labor and others to knock off the 74 Republican freshmen, only 13 were defeated. That means the conservative foot soldiers of the Republican revolution are back, with the entire House GOP leadership wiser and more sophisticated than they were two years ago when they made a lot of mistakes.

At the state level, the number of Republican governors jumped from 20 to 32 in 1994. After last Tuesday, Republicans still owned 32 governors’ mansions and 17 state legislatures — up from five in 1992 and down from the 19 won in the 1994 tsunami. Punchline: There is no evidence that the new American majority for a smaller, less intrusive and less costly government is turning back on the GOP. At the state legislative level, Republicans actually increased their numbers in the West and South — in fast-growing states that will pick up as many as 11 new congressional seats after the 2000 census.

So, if Bill Clinton wants to lead a second term with the Republican agenda he co-opted, beginning with his 1996 State of the Union pronouncement that “the era of big government is over,” then he will probably find a lot of cooperation on Capitol Hill. If he changes his tune, as he did following his 1992 election, then he will enter a legislative cul-de-sac.

A prevailing idea that Clinton will forge a new “centrist” alignment, even as the “center” itself shifts to the right, is close to silly. Clinton will either march with a right-of-center new American majority that is largely non-partisan and whose views are reflected by the majority party in Congress or he will mark time. As political scientists might say, Bill Clinton is a dependent variable in a political system that is, more than ever, dominated by what Woodrow Wilson called “congressional government.”

Get the Bonus Years column right to your inbox

We take your inbox seriously. No ads. No appeals. No spam. We provide — and seek from you — original and curated items that make life in the Bonus Years easier to understand and easier to navigate.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

Other posts from the Annapolis Institute:

More from Phil: