In November of 1992, I watched with glee as William Jefferson Clinton and the Democratic Party proved that they could mobilize the people of this country and win the highest office in the land. The spankings, thrashings and emasculations in the ‘80, ‘84 and ‘88 races were forgotten. The Democratic Party broke with tradition, turned away from the flaming liberal candidates of the past and put up a moderate instead, a Democrat America could stomach. Now, as we near the midway point of Clinton’s first term, the question is not whether the democrats can capture the White House but can they keep it. In other words, can they govern?
One of the most important elements for any effective governance is party unity. Historically, this has been a foreign concept for democrats since the days of LBJ when the first rule in Congress was always party first, self later. Since that time, however, republicans have completely outmatched democrats at staying together on important votes and placing party loyalty above personal needs. Republicans recognize that one of the best ways to thwart President Clinton’s program - aside from the ever popular filibuster - is to stay loyal to the party and vote together against White House initiatives. At the same time, the single strongest tool for democrats to ensure the President succeeds is for them to use their superior numbers in both houses, stay loyal and pass their legislation. This lesson has, however, eluded them.
Let’s check the record thus far: the budget package required the tie-breaking vote of Vice-President Gore; the president came just short of bribery to get House democrats to support NAFTA (both of these actions have had overwhelmingly positive results) and the Crime Bill would have been dead meat had not concessions been made to some important republicans. This should not happen! Do the math: majority in the House + majority in the Senate + democrat in the White House = Democratic program passage. It is that simple. You would think that finally capturing the White House would spur enough party support to do the job. But let’s be fair. It would be hard for anyone to support a health care package like the President’s (or rather the missus’) which basically attempted to reinvent health care with three quarts of ideology and half a jigger of reality. The idea of “reinvention” is being taken way too far in this administration. Far more could be done with a little fine tuning rather than trying to construct a whole new machine. The bottom line is that it is much easier for a party to be united against something than for something. Thus, it is even more important that the legislation the President sends to the Hill be something democrats would want to put their names behind.
What has also contributed to the fracturing support in Congress is the pathetic state of the White House. The “war room” whiz kids managed to insult so many senior members of Congress that many have been effectively banished from Congress/White House discussions. Information leaks and press blunders are so commonplace that the administration seems in a constant state of “spin” trying to cover its butt. Clinton himself maintains an open door policy that seems to allow even the White House janitorial staff access at a moment’s notice. It is no wonder Mack McLarty stepped down; he couldn’t control the flow of information which caused many of the leaks and press problems. Finally, so many advisors, communications directors and assorted “right-hand men” make their way in and out of the White House that it is impossible to tell who is in charge of keeping the President informed and prepared. All of this has seriously strained the relationship between the President and Congress, so much so that it is easier and easier for members to turn away from him on not only minor matters but the big votes as well. If the Clinton program were a car that ran on his political capital in Congress, the gas gauge would be dangerously close to E.
And so here we are, mid-term elections in less than six months and the democrats perilously close to losing a majority in the House. What was so difficult to do with a majority in both houses will be nearly impossible with a majority in only one. If the party is lucky, democrats will retain both majorities and get a second chance at passing some quality legislation. If that happens they would be wise not to ignore such a blessing and finally stand behind their President. However, Clinton must do his part as well and get his “house” in order. He and his party have two years to try to recover what is left of this presidency.
Greg Brown is a second year graduate student in the School of Public Affairs