Horse Race to History: The Contest for Congress is Defining the Issues of a New Era

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

November 3, 1996

It sounds like Armageddon out there on the final weekend of the 1996 campaign. But the righteous battle is not between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Voters all over the country are being told in television and radio advertisements that they have a huge moral choice to make Tuesday. It’s a contest between “Big Labor,” “Big Spenders” and “Liberal Special Interests” on the one side, and the “enemies” of schools and kids, the environment and our grandparents on the other. In short, the battle for control of the 105th Congress is ugly. But all those ads are right about one thing: The choice is important.

It’s apt that what suspense is left in this peculiar political year attaches largely to the question of who will wake up Wednesday morning with control of the House of Representatives and Senate. The “Republican Revolution” may have failed, but the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress in 1994 was nonetheless a momentous event. Sure, the Republicans overinterpreted it as a big ideological verdict—which it wasn’t. But it did signal the beginning of a very big argument which (with apologies to Bob Dole) is what the 1996 election is all “about.”

As soon as the returns were in two years ago, partisans began reaching for historical metaphors that would describe what would happen next. Republicans were fond of comparing 1994 to 1930, the Great Depression midterm election when popular fury led to a Democratic takeover of Congress. The realignment was then locked in when Franklin D. Roosevelt captured the White House by a landslide in 1932. The New Deal coalition was born, and it took Republicans decades to recover. Republicans saw 1994 as a similarly decisive blow at the Democratic Party and the beginning of what they hoped would be a long Republican era.

But unless the polls are wrong (or millions of voters change their minds this weekend), the 1930 analogy is not going to hold. It was flawed from the start because there was no great event akin to the Depression that explained the Republicans’ 1994 victory. Yes, voters were frustrated with Bill Clinton and the Democrats. But there weren’t millions of unemployed people on the streets; in Clinton’s case, a more widely shared prosperity really was just around the corner. Whatever happens in the congressional races this week, a Clinton victory would mean that the big Republican realignment will have to wait—if it’s to come at all.

The other popular metaphor for 1994 was 1946. This comparison was more appealing to Democrats. The Republicans won back Congress in 1946—for the first time since that fateful 1930 election—because the country was unhappy with Harry Truman’s presidency and simply wanted change. But the 1946 Republican Congress had nearly as many problems as the 1994 Congress. The Republicans then were emphatically not “revolutionaries.” They were criticized much more for blocking Truman’s program than anything they tried to do themselves. (The president did, however, criticize them for pushing a tax plan that favored the wealthy.) Truman, the original Comeback Kid, based his 1948 campaign on an attack on the “do-nothing Republican Congress.” The voters not only reelected him but swept the Democrats back into control of both houses.

Parts of the 1946-48 metaphor have been borne out. Clinton, like Truman before him, resurrected himself by running against Congress. Some of Clinton’s themes echo Truman, especially the need to protect past Democratic achievements (in Truman’s case it was the New Deal programs; in Clinton’s it is Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education and environmental protection).

But the 1948 analogy will not be complete unless the Democrats reclaim both houses of Congress, and only the most partisan Democrats would claim they are certain that will happen. Their lack of certainty reflects some fundamental changes in politics since Truman’s time.

Political scientists have spent more than 25 years debating whether American politics is in the midst of “realignment” (from the dominant New Deal Democratic coalition to a dominant Republican coalition), or “dealignment” (a general weakening of party ties all around). The “dealignment” argument has the upper hand, except in one important respect: The South has undergone a genuine realignment. In 1954, the states that had made up the Old Confederacy had sent 99 Democrats to the House and only 7 Republicans. In those same states 40 years later, Republicans won a 64-60 edge. (Note also the increase in the size of Southern representation, a result of the country’s population shift.) What kept Democrats in near permanent control of the House from 1930 to 1994 was their uncrackable base in the South. That’s gone. Not only is the South genuinely competitive, but many Southern House seats are now as firmly tied to the Republicans as they once were to the Democrats.

And that is why neither the 1930-32 nor the 1946-48 metaphors really explain 1996. We are, instead, seeing the beginning of a genuinely new political era. If the 1996 presidential campaign has seemed uninspiring, it nonetheless has heralded important changes in both the structure of American politics and in the issues that will be at the center of the next Congress’s business and of future campaigns.

The new era will be characterized, first, by genuinely competitive elections, nearly every time, for control of the House and Senate. If Democrats do win back both houses on Tuesday, there is a better than even chance that they’ll lose one or both of them again in 1998—partly because their margins will be small, partly because there’s usually a swing against the presidential party in midterm elections and partly because neither party has a “lock” on any region.

The second characteristic of this new era is reflected in the similarity of campaigns all across the country: Parties matter more than ever. The obscene spending required in competitive races puts a premium on how much money national parties can spend and direct to the important districts. The themes—on both sides—are remarkably similar, district-to-district. Even moderate-to-conservative Democrats love to bash Republicans on Medicare and education. Even moderate-to-liberal Republicans have had to answer for the Republican budgets of 1995, so tight was party discipline at the beginning of the last Congress.

There is also a genuine class war going on out there—on both sides. To rebut organized labor’s early attacks on targeted Republicans—not to mention additional spending against them by environmental groups—business has had to throw in even more money than usual. Overall, business groups have always managed to outspend labor by a big margin. But labor’s shrewd tactics have forced business to respond in new ways. This class war will not go away.

This campaign is also seeing a decisive change in the nature of the issues put to the electorate. Yes, there are old standbys. Medicare is to the 1996 Democrats as Social Security was to the 1982 Democrats. Republicans still run on promises to cut taxes.

But partly because of what the 1994-95 Republican Congress did, and partly because Democrats regrouped after 1994, old issues are being discussed in new ways and new concerns are working their way into the reliable campaign repertoire. Once upon a time, for example, “law and order” was a standard conservative and Republican theme. Republicans were usually rated better on crime than the Democrats. This year it’s different. In part, that’s because Democrats (with a few exceptions) have embraced the death penalty, robbing Republicans of a symbolically powerful issue. More importantly, Democrats, in their efforts to be more competitive, have redefined the issue. They have expanded the federal government’s financial role in helping communities fight crime—Clinton can’t give a speech without bragging about the “100,000 police” the federal government will eventually finance—and they have turned gun control from a losing issue into a winner in most districts. The Democrats finally figured out that the NRA would always make a big deal about gun restrictions for the minority of voters who oppose them passionately. Democrats have taken the issue to the majority in favor of the restrictions. Republicans can still make a good run on the crime issue, but not an unobstructed run.

The education issue has also gone national to an unprecedented degree. Every penny the Republicans cut from education spending (or, as the Republicans prefer to put it, from “the future growth in education spending”) is marked down, counted up and put in a television ad. In this election, education has been a Democratic issue, but don’t count the Republicans out for the long term. Starting next year, their job will be to find a way to change the subject from how much is spent to the question of what it is spent on. They will want to address the quality of schools and of teaching, and to push harder for more experiments, including private school vouchers. But Republicans will be required to accept that education is now a national issue, and that many Americans are not uncomfortable with at least some federal role. And both parties will continue to face uncomfortable questions about the disparity of resources between wealthy and poor school districts.

This election has seen the emergence of two new issues that will likely be on the table for many years and the reemergence of a very old one.

The first new issue is the reorganization of the work force to include the vast majority of women, including mothers. The country clearly wants a debate over how to balance work and child rearing. Clinton and the Democrats made great hay out their support of parental leave laws. Slowly, the Republicans came around to addressing the question by arguing that too many mothers were being “forced” to work because taxes are too high. As Dole said over and over, one member of the family works for the family, and the other works to pay taxes. This was not true, he said, in the 1950s.

The Republican line of argument here is flawed by the fact that, given the government’s responsibilities for a growing elderly population, it’s hard to see federal taxes ever again being as low as they were in the 1950s. But there is a good argument to be had over whether the tax laws as written are all that helpful in an economy dominated by two-earner couples—especially for two-earner families of modest means. Democrats, in the meantime, can be counted on to push for expanded parental leave (it’s already part of their agenda for the next Congress) and other measures to help working couples.

The other new issue from this campaign is the effect of a global and high-tech economy on living standards. It came up in many different ways in 1996. Pat Buchanan rallied his troops against the pernicious effects of “globalism.” You didn’t have to agree with Buchanan on anything to realize that his burst of success was a warning that many workers at the middle and bottom end of the economy are frustrated over the difficulties they’re having in keeping up. Steve Forbes and Bob Dole both talked about speeding up the growth rate. Clinton, drawing from the writings of Labor Secretary Robert Reich, spoke of the need to expand educational opportunities and job training to help people through the transition. It’s an issue that will be around for a long time.

And so will the long-standing issue of how we finance our campaigns. The system of campaign spending that was built after Watergate has collapsed. The rush of money into the system this year, whether from home-grown or foreign interests, has turned campaign reform into an issue with the kind of mass appeal that incumbents in Washington will have to respect, no matter how indebted they are to their donors. Even if it doesn’t want to, the next Congress will have to deal with the fallout from this year—and Republicans may finally want to do so, if only to bash Clinton.

Seen in this light, 1996 is by no means the meaningless election so many have described. That will be true even if the result Tuesday night is a status quo election—a Clinton victory accompanied by narrowed Republican majorities in both houses.

The electorate is both wary and radical. It is wary of plans that, fairly or not, appear to be grandiose (the Clinton health care plan, the Republican budget plan). It is sensitive to deficit reduction (which is why Dole’s tax cutting plan didn’t work as well for Republicans as similar proposals have in the past) but it isn’t interested in big cuts in basic government services. For both health care and deficit reduction, this will militate against grand cures, but not against step-by-step reforms.

The voters are radical in demanding that the standard laundry list of issues that have dominated campaigns since 1968 be changed. And in 1996, they have gotten their way. The list this year is different, and many of the old issues—from ’60s bashing and flag burning to tax cuts and racial polarization—didn’t work very well. That is no small achievement. It’s why the next Congress, whichever party is in control, will behave very differently from the last two. And it’s why historians will probably come to see 1996 as more important than we do this weekend as we pray for the thing to end.