It was boring, and now it's over.
The 1996 presidential election was boring because it was about so little: It would be won, we all knew, by a man wedded to a fix-it approach to governing–to the notion that for every problem, however minor or complex, a solution is only a bill away. That man would also be commander-in- chief, but would offer little advance clue as to what his commands would be. Neither Bill Clinton nor Bob Dole suggested a grand strategy; ad hoc intervention would remain the rule of post-Cold War foreign policy.
Welfare had been reformed and, despite the president's hints to the contrary, was unlikely to be revisited. Both candidates promised budget-cutting–but not too much, nothing "extreme." Medicare and Social Security were sacred to both the baby boomer president and the senior citizen former senator. The drug war would continue and probably be stepped up, along with efforts to control TV and the Internet (though Dole, to his credit, suggested he would rely more on suasion than regulation). Every new program would come wrapped in a rhetoric of children, families, and American "values." It was, once the ultra-short Republican primary season had concluded, a very dull contest, a clash of images and personalities but little else.
And, in the end, a well-tested rule of presidential politics was once again confirmed: Prosperity prevailed in America, and so did the political status quo. Having been taught for nearly a century that the president runs the economy, voters decided not to change CEOs. In state after state, Dole did well only among people who said they were worse off than four years ago.
Serious philosophical divisions mattered little. In exit polls, 52 percent of voters said the government should do less, while 42 percent wanted it to do more. A third of Clinton's final plurality came from the would-be government shrinkers. Like the South Carolinians who thought Strom Thurmond's age an impediment yet voted for him anyway, these voters theoretically should have been the challenger's, yet they stuck with the incumbent. (The proportions were even about the same.) The Republicans, meanwhile, held both houses of Congress, a powerful check against the reappearance of ClintonCare or the Gore-inspired BTU tax–and a guarantee of further investigations into the administration's legal and ethical lapses.
As soon as the election ended, the spin began. The Christian Coalition claimed its voters served as a loyal "firewall" to contain the Clinton victory. (Translation: Republicans can safely take them for granted.) The AFL-CIO declared the "resurgence" of organized labor. William Safire fantasized about a Clinton-led "vital center" turning libertarian to counteract the "vital right." Frank Luntz demanded more Republican zeal for micromanaging our social and economic lives: "From television V-chips to school uniforms, from ending 'drive-thru deliveries' in maternity wards to starting kids off healthy with federally administered vaccinations, Clinton emphasized issues clearly relevant to the ordinary lives of ordinary Americans." Leon Panetta declared that the voters had rejected personal attacks and wanted bipartisan government. (Then he quit.)
The most interesting spin came from Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour: "You see, Clinton campaigned as if he were a Republican; at times it sounded as if Ronald Reagan had taken over his body….In the United States and around the world, the battle of ideas is over. The 1996 campaign is living proof; the Left has thrown in the towel." (Emphasis added.)
Barbour's pronouncement is interesting not because it is surprising or original but because it is superficial. It sees no "battle of ideas" beyond a struggle over a few programs–a tax credit here, a drug crackdown there–and vague rhetoric about balancing the budget and shrinking the federal payroll. No philosophy, no world view, no real ideas. This is the Republicanism of Bob Dole and the 1996 campaign: a bunch of easily imitated slogans, behind which lies little more than a lust for office.
Bill Clinton is, his vice president reminded us, only the third Democratic president to be re- elected in this century, joining Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. He has no intention of overturning their legacy. He may lay off a few federal employees or tell OSHA inspectors to give businesses signs to post rather than immediately issue fines. But he is hardly likely to weaken the office of the president or limit the scope of federal power. He would never think to question the intrusion of federal regulation into virtually every aspect of American life. A president who wants to dictate every company's leave policy for employees' PTA meetings is not someone who believes "the era of big government is over." Clinton has not given up the technocratic legacy that treats every problem with a plan.
And it is that legacy–not Barbour's imagined "left"–that is at issue. The left has never been particularly strong in America. Our central government grew not out of the utopian visions of socialists but from the "pragmatic" promises of technocrats. "My orientation is as a problem solver," Clinton adviser Ira Magaziner told a reporter before he went off to cook up the administration's health care scheme. "I don't really think in philosophical terms so much as I do pragmatically."
For nearly a century, our politics has been based on technocratic assumptions and technocratic stories, stories that say laws are levers, easily pulled with easy-to-predict effects. It is hard to tell any other kind of story, terribly difficult to convey a different sort of vision with a political vocabulary established by and for technocrats. That is why both "conservatives" and "liberals," Republicans and Democrats, wind up promising long lists of gimmicks: V-chips and school uniforms, $500-per-child tax cuts and college-tuition tax credits, drug testing for drivers' licenses and an endless stream of problem-solving commissions.
Once the primaries were over, the closest Campaign '96 got to a conflict of visions were a few fleeting moments during the vice presidential debate. Al Gore–a technocrat par excellence, a man consumed with his own intelligence and foresight, willing to plan everything from the shape of cyberspace to the future of Planet Earth–squared off against an underrehearsed and woefully undisciplined Jack Kemp. But every now and then, Kemp got it. "You only get a tax cut in the Clinton administration if you do exactly what Al Gore and Bill Clinton want you to do. That's not America," he said at one point. He tried to draw the links between the freedom to act, achieve, create, and build and a government that plays the role of neutral referee. But more often than not, he babbled and digressed, too accustomed to speaking to friendly audiences able to fill in the blanks, too busy being nice to bother being clear.
"Language," writes Luntz, the Republican pollster, "may not matter to eggheads or ideologues, but it matters to the public. The Republican era cannot arrive until Republicans learn how to tell people who they really are, what they want to accomplish and where they intend to take the country. Until the Republican Party adopts the language of the people, it will capture neither the White House nor enough seats in Congress to make the changes Americans want–the changes America needs."
Luntz is right that language matters. He is wrong to think that "the people" have a ready- made shorthand available to anyone who wishes to articulate a new political vision. Articulation is, in fact, one of the most difficult things human beings do–which is why Luntz offers not new rhetoric but the old technocratic litany of problem and plan. He lamely suggests that Republicans imitate what Newsweek calls the Small Deal, Clinton's regulations governing quotidian matters. For those who share Barbour's view of left and right, of a battle of ideas handily won, that is a logical strategy: Democrats give up "the left," while Republicans abandon any pretense of limiting government. The nanny state is as "conservative" as it is "liberal." The Lethal Center rules (see "The Lethal Center," August/September 1995). All that matters is the brand name on the package.
The alternative, and a far greater challenge, is to articulate not just a program but a vision–to make tax cuts something grander than bribes and regulatory reform something more than special-interest pleading, to explain why a free and dynamic society is more likely to produce individual and national greatness than is a static, regulation-bound one. That's hard enough for "eggheads or ideologues," harder still for candidates speaking in sound bites. But if we ever find someone who can do it, politics will be interesting again–because it will matter.