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[IMAGE] Congress as the issue in the 1996 campaign
by Michael Hayes

The record of the Republican Congress will be a major issue in the 1996 campaign. It has already contributed a great deal to the resurgence in Bill Clinton's popularity, and it constitutes an albatross around the neck of Bob Dole, who has enough problems to overcome already.

To understand this, imagine the electorate arrayed along an ideological continuum from liberal to conservative. On most issues, the resulting distribution will take the form of a bell curve (a normal distribution), with voters clustered in the political center and progressively fewer votes to be found toward either ideological extreme. If voters cast their ballots for the party closest to their ideologies, vote-maximizing parties will find it rational to move to the political center. Any party that moves sharply to the left or right to appeal to ideologues within its ranks will forfeit the center (where most of the votes are) in its pursuit of a much smaller number of voters at one end of the distribution.

Previous presidential elections have confirmed this analysis. When the Republicans nominated the very conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964, Lyndon Johnson moved to the center and won a landslide victory. Similarly, when the Democrats nominated George McGovern in 1972, Richard Nixon moved to the center and won a landslide victory. More often, the parties' heads overrule their hearts and a choice between two centrists results; Nixon vs. Humphrey in 1968, Ford vs. Carter in 1976, and Bush vs. Dukakis in 1988 all provide examples here.

From this perspective, the Dole-Clinton contest would appear to be yet another match-up of moderates, offering voters little real choice on policy issues. What makes 1996 different is that the ideological position of the Republican party, as perceived by the public, was determined over the past year and a half by its congressional party -- in particular by Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans, whose attempt to enact the Contract for America dominated the agenda for much of the past year and a half.

In capitalizing on their surprising victory, the House Republicans went well beyond any mandate they might have had, mounting an assault on highly popular environmental laws, repealing legislation to put more police on the streets, and almost belligerently aligning themselves with the gun and tobacco lobbies. But their greatest mistake was proposing major savings in Medicare in an attempt to balance the budget within seven years while at the same time passing a middle class tax cut that was a non-negotiable element in the contract for many conservative constituencies.

Major cuts in Medicare were never part of any electoral mandate arising out of the 1994 campaign. This provided President Clinton -- at that point still unpopular, perceived as unprincipled, and groping for a strategy to deal with the Republican majorities in the House and Senate -- with the opportunity to appear decisive while defending a popular entitlement program. By shutting down the government in a vain attempt to force the president to yield on the issue, Republican congressional leaders succeeded in appearing both petulant and extremist at the same time.

The Republicans' sharp lurch to the right vacated the middle of the ideological distribution to the president. From that point on, President Clinton put down deep roots in the electoral center, declaring the era of big government over and embracing Bob Dole's policy positions almost as soon as they were announced. The most intractable problem facing Bob Dole in the long run will be doubts on the part of many voters as to whether they want a president who will sign bills sent to him by a Republican Congress. While Dole acted, as senate majority leader, to temper many elements of the contract, he cannot distance himself from the House Republicans without alienating an important part of this electoral coalition. He is stuck with their record.

This is not to say that the electorate is liberal; it is, after all, the same electorate that threw the Democrats out of power in 1994. The House Republicans' mistake, which may prove fatal to Bob Dole this year, was to misread the voters' rejection of one ideological extreme in 1994 as a mandate for the other extreme in 1995.

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