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Some Facts and Fictions About Campaign '94

IN four days, voters will participate in another national election, our 104th. Both parties feel the vote is extra important - because the partisan balance of power is thought to be in play.

In the span from the late 1960s through the early Reagan years, the Republican party managed finally to shed its New Deal era minority status in presidential voting. But in Congress - the other half of national government - the GOP remained in second place. The party made gains, in its control of the Senate for six years, but stayed well back of the Democrats in House seats.

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Indeed, in the 62-year-span from 1932 to the present, the Republicans have won a House majority only twice - in 1946 and 1952. So far as I know, this degree of one-party (Democratic) dominance of a major national office has no equal in the entire experience of competitive democracies.

The possibility - still considered an outside one - that the GOP will win the House this year thus gets politicians' attention, especially since the campaign is being conducted against the backdrop of a booming economy. Majority parties don't usually slip badly when economic news is upbeat.

Whatever the actual outcome in House of Representatives and Senate and gubernatorial voting, Campaign '94 has already managed to confound expectations. At the outset, many analysts thought health care would be the decisive issue, and that it was likely to be a big plus for Democrats. Not so. Indeed, in an ironic twist, Harris Wofford, the Pennsylvania Democrat whose 1990 Senate victory was attributed primarily to his strong advocacy of a national health-care plan, now trails his Republican challenger, Rick Santorum.

It isn't that Americans feel different about health-care reform. It's that the question has shifted from ``Should something be done?'' to ``Do you want a government-centered national health-care program?'' To the first question the public says yes; to the latter it says no.

One of the most cherished of American political myths holds that presidents' standing with voters is hostage to the economy's performance. In fact, while it's obviously true that every president wants the economy to be strong ``on his watch,'' we have an abundance of evidence that economic performance is only one of many factors shaping voters' views of the chief executive.

In 1937, for example, during the second big dip of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed approval ratings over 60 percent - the envy of any president. In the late winter and early spring of 1991, as the US economy reached the bottom of its latest recession, George Bush recorded the highest approval ratings in the history of the presidency. Something did intervene - Bush's successful leadership in the Gulf war. But that's the point: Other things often intervene.

Now at the end of the '94 campaign, Americans are generally upbeat about their economy's performance - as they should be. But President Clinton's approval scores remain low. In another irony, Mr. Clinton gets better marks on foreign affairs than on the economy - though he came to office asserting that Americans wanted him to be a domestic, not a foreign-affairs, president.

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Democratic strategists now argue that the president's recent foreign-policy record in Haiti, Korea, Iraq, and the Middle East, has given him an important boost. In fact, not one independent national survey - as of this writing - has shown Clinton's approval proportion higher than 49 percent. His average gain (from his low ratings) is about four percentage points.

The big story isn't that Clinton's standing is higher - but that after a string of generally good news, it has gone up little. His gains are due largely to foreign-policy achievements.

Another campaign '94 truism that doesn't hold up has it that American voters are ``mad as hell,'' and thus inclined to punish incumbents. Actually, most incumbents are not in trouble. GOP incumbents are having a banner year so far. The latest polls show Republicans leading in every Senate seat held by the party that's up this year, and GOP gubernatorial incumbents are generally far ahead of their Democratic challengers.

For example, GOP governors Jim Edgar in Illinois, William Weld in Massachusetts, John Engler in Michigan, George Voinovich in Ohio, and Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin have huge leads in the polls. It's only Democratic incumbents - and not all of them - who are in trouble.

Nor is it in my view correct to call the electorate ``angry.'' Voters' judgments are lower key - though no less sturdy or consequential. They are saying that the growth of government needs to be prudently curbed - not meat axed - and that performance really can be improved.

The anger in the campaign comes largely from the nasty ``attack'' ads televised in all too many contests. Many are so scurrilous that the candidate paying for them puts his campaign's identity in almost impossible to read type, which is flashed for a split second at the end. We all should be angry at ads which cross the line from criticism to character assassination.

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