THE CAMPAIGN OF 1996
Starting in 1995, after Clinton defeated the Republicans in the budget battles, he engineered one of the most impressive comebacks in presidential campaign history. Clinton moved decisively to emphasize his earlier commitments to reforms aimed at the middle class. To that end, Clinton brought Dick Morris back into his strategy team. As the President's old friend and political consultant who had helped engineer his gubernatorial comeback in 1982, Morris quickly identified the key issues where Clinton could preempt the Republicans: crime, welfare reform, the federal budget, and affirmative action. Morris came up with a strategy in which Clinton distanced himself not only from radical Republicans but also from the liberals in his own Democratic Party.
Clinton embraced much of what Morris recommended. Seeking the public endorsement of police associations, Clinton supported a crime bill, claiming it would put 100,000 new police officers on the streets; he also championed anti-assault weapons measures. In addition, the President promoted the goal of a two-year limit on how long a person could remain on welfare—a stance that angered many in his party. He also focused on tax policies which targeted the middle class while shifting the burden to the upper class.
Along with his shift in strategy away from health care to more acceptable middle-class goals, Clinton capitalized on various opportunities during 1995 to improve his public standing. He delivered a stirring eulogy for government workers who had died when home-grown terrorists destroyed a federal building in Oklahoma City. He sprang to the defense of religious congregations whose churches had been burned in what appeared to be racially motivated arson attacks. The President's much-criticized decision in August of 1995 to authorize air strikes against the Serbs in Bosnia had unexpectedly produced a cease-fire within a month, giving Clinton the image of competence in foreign affairs.
Meanwhile, the Republicans seemed to be dooming themselves. The public soured on the political zeal of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, especially evident in his complaint over seating arrangements on Air Force One en route with the President to the funeral of assassinated Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. Then, when the Senate investigation (headed by Senator Alphonse D'Amato of New York) into the economic activities of the Clintons in Arkansas yielded little tangible evidence linking them to any criminal activity, the whole Whitewater investigation looked more and more like a partisan gambit. (This investigation ran parallel to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's Whitewater probe.) Most importantly, the economy had rebounded in the previous five months, allowing Clinton to take credit for low interest rates, a low unemployment rate, and a dramatic decline in the federal budget deficit. Thus, for Clinton, the harmonious August 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago, in which he won renomination without any opposition, was a vindication of his first term and reflected his successful strategy of offering centrist issues to the public.
As the campaign unfolded, it looked as though Dole would go down to certain defeat. Clinton offered the public more of the same, including "McIssues" such as school uniforms and after-school programs for teenagers, none of which constituted major policy initiatives, but all of which preempted the Republican attempt to portray Democrats as dangerous radicals. Instead, Clinton became the candidate of "family values" and successfully won the suburban family vote, especially that of the "soccer Moms." The one negative for Clinton proved less than fatal. Press reports broke a story alleging improper contributions to the President's campaign war chest. The story embarrassed the Democratic campaign but failed to turn public support to Dole. The seventy-three-year-old senator from Kansas had announced his resignation from the Senate to focus on the campaign, and then he barnstormed the country nonstop to demonstrate his energy. While both tactics won him great respect, they did not change the outcome of the election.
The Democratic Clinton/Gore ticket won more than twice the number of electoral votes than the Republican Dole/Kemp ticket. Perot captured no electoral votes and garnered less than half of his 1992 popular vote. California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and the Republican strongholds of Florida and Arizona were among the thirty-three states Clinton won. The President failed, however, to win his desired mandate with a popular majority, and thus he remained a minority President. Still, the victory for the "Comeback Kid" was especially impressive in view of his predicted demise in 1994.
Although Clinton had won a personal victory, his party remained in deep difficulty. Republicans continued to control the House and Senate, proving that their congressional victory in 1994 had been no fluke. Moreover, Republicans maintained their recent gains in state legislative seats and in governorships, particularly in the South. In 1993, Clinton's first year in office, there had been 30 Democratic governors; that number fell to 17 entering 1997. Moreover, almost all the large states had Republican governors, and the Republicans had achieved parity in a long-time Democratic stronghold: state legislatures. The electorate was about evenly divided in party identification. In the South, a large majority of whites were now firmly aligned with the Republicans. During Clinton's two terms, the President failed to stem the slow but steady disintegration of the New Deal coalition toward a realignment favoring Republicans and independents.
Source: Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. “Bill Clinton: Campaigns and Elections.” Accessed May 24, 2016. http://millercenter.org/president/biography/clinton-campaigns-and-elections.
Anonymous. 1996. "Clinton & Gore Deserve Four More! Re-Elect Bill & Al in 1996." Campaign Button.
Anonymous. 1995. "Dole for President." Dole for President, Inc. Printed sign.
Anonymous. 1996. "Race Fans for Dole, Kemp, Jesse Helms US Senate, Richard Petty Secretary of State: Keep the FDA Out of Racing!" Campaign Button.