Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Divided We Stand

Luis Lugo


November 11, 1996

The American people have spoken, and as they have done so often this century, they have opted for divided government. On the one hand, they have chosen to stick with Bill Clinton, making him the first Democrat to be elected to a second full-term since Franklin Roosevelt but also the first president since Woodrow Wilson to be elected twice without a majority. But while they were giving the nod to Clinton, voters--at least the 50% or so who bothered to turn out (lowest in a presidential election in over seventy years)—also decided to keep Republicans in control of the Congress, making them the first re-elected GOP majority in sixty-six years. Embarrassingly, the president couldn't even deliver for his party the open Senate seat in his home state of Arkansas.

What are we to conclude? Perhaps nothing more than that voters generally reward incumbents in times of peace and relative prosperity. Polls tell us that most people now believe the country is heading in the right direction and that the public is much less angry with government than they were back in 1994. Americans apparently have also decided that they like what they've seen in the last year or two—a Democratic president selectively adopting conservative policies even while moderating what many perceived to be Republican excesses following their takeover of Congress.

Ideologically speaking, this election confirms the country's rightward drift. It is interesting to note that while many Republicans ran against the liberalism of their opponents, Democrats did not run against the conservatism of theirs. They chose instead to hammer away at the Republicans' extremism in actions such as the shutting-down of government last winter. Evidently everyone has been reading the polls. These tell us that only about 15% of the voters consider themselves liberal, while a large majority identify themselves either as conservative (35%) or as moderate (45%). What these center-right voters seem to be saying is this: for-get the talk about revolution but move ahead with conservative goals in a more moderate and consensual fashion.

My guess is that we are likely to hear a lot of rhetoric these next few weeks about bipartisanship, common ground, and the vital center. This will likely mean greater attention to economic issues like balancing the budget and containing Medicare costs, where differences are more easily brokered, and less to contentious moral issues like abortion and gay rights that are both more divisive and less easily compromised. We may even see renewed interest in foreign policy, where presidents have always turned to ensure their place in the history books. This assumes, of course, that both parties can keep in check their internal divisions and that the president can dodge the legal bullets coming his way. Otherwise, we will be heading straight for gridlock.

This is all informed speculation, of course, since in spite of the record millions spent on the campaign, neither party laid out anything that remotely resembled a blueprint for governing. Congressional Republicans gave us nothing comparable to a Contract With America and President Clinton's promise to build a "bridge to the Twenty-First century" was, to speak charitably, long on symbolism and short on policy substance. So their task now is to work out their differences as best they can and stitch together some sort of workable compromise. Once again, though, we have endured an election that featured personalities rather than genuine policy debate. The key question for us citizens is whether we are willing to work between elections for real electoral reform, so that the next round of balloting will indeed include a meaningful discussion of the issues that truly matter for the future of this democracy.

—Luis E. Lugo, Associate Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”