Politics & Policy

Riding High

Al Gore and Bill Clinton at the 1996 Democratic National Convention (Reuters photo: Win McNamee)
The final weeks of the campaign may seem dull, but keep an eye on the coalition Bill Clinton is busily forging.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared as the cover story of the November 11, 1996, issue of National Review magazine.

The year’s most wooed voter waited outside the Louisville Slugger Museum on a chilly Kentucky evening three weeks before the election. In front of this monument to baseball, she sported a blue sweatshirt that declared incongruously “Soccer Mom For Clinton.” Still, her patience and clothing investment paid off A delighted Bill Clinton greeted her with his biggest grin of the day as he worked the crowd following his speech.

Clinton supporters with that kind of dedication were thin on the ground. The President with a need to be loved was encountering crowds that mainly wanted to see a celebrity. On his 17–hour campaign trip to Tennessee, Ohio, and Kentucky — to woo, respectively, partisan Democrats, blue-collar workers, and moderate suburbanites (especially those elusive Soccer Moms) — most voters were friendly enough. But they had apparently turned out for the meetings without any particular enthusiasm for Mr. Clinton’s politics, or indeed any politics. How they went home is quite another matter — and an alarming one for the GOP.

The press was, well, too inert to really notice. On the media plane accompanying Air Force One, White House press secretary Mike McCurry cheerfully complained that he was unable “to raise a pulse” from the seventy or so regular passengers. “They just don’t think it’s a race,” he explained, checking to make sure my heart wasn’t pounding under the illusion that a real political fight might be under way. The seasoned Clinton-watchers balanced their checkbooks and talked baseball between stops.

Was there, indeed, a presidential race to be interested in? This campaign swing yielded little evidence of one. No local GOP forces bothered to show the flag — an onlooker at the Knoxville airport whose cap was emblazoned “Busch” came near to expressing the only Republican sentiment of the long day. And though Clinton-Gore lawn signs were scattered along the motorcade route, not a single bumper sticker was evident for either ticket. Spirited opposition erupted only once, when people lining the sidewalk in Dayton booed the buses marked “Media” — clearly a bipartisan sentiment.

Joe Lockhart, the campaign’s press secretary, explained to the few reporters willing to listen that the day’s trip was devoted to shoring up the President’s lead. And Clinton is clearly energized by the crowds he wades into — shaking hands, hugging the people closest to him. When it comes to speaking, he calibrates his message to his audience, barely glancing at notes during lengthy, detailed speeches. Judged technically, it is the performance of a professional politician at the top of his form. But does it “connect” with his audiences?

At the first stop, in Knoxville, a friendly audience of partisan Democrats waited more than two hours to hear Al Gore and Bill Clinton. The candidates were there ostensibly to announce an initiative to hook up ever) classroom in the country to the Internet (not to mention a $100-million subsidy to Silicon Valley) — what Lockhart calls the “wonk stuff.” A large banner on the stage proclaimed: “Building America’s Bridge to the Twenty-First Century.” Gore, oddly the more animated of the two, raised his arms and waved to the crowd in his awkward schoolboy way, while Clinton merely delivered a small, curt salute.

It was Gore’s job that day to slam the Luddites in the Republican Party (a bold tactic from a foe of the internal-combustion engine). He duly warned against a “digital divide” between the haves and the have-nots if every classroom in the country is not on the Internet. He prophesied that nearby Oak Ridge Laboratory would be closed by the Democrats’ congressional “opponents” who had attempted to cut the science and technology budget by a third. And he reminded the audience that he first started talking about the Information Superhighway twenty years ago. (It seems longer.) In those days he had “dreamed” of a girl in Carthage, Tennessee, who could plug into the Library of Congress from her home. (Poor Tipper — married to the only man for whom a girl is merely a peripheral to a computer.)

Clinton wisely stuck to computer software, but he communicated real enthusiasm for the wonders of technology. “There is more computer power in a Ford Taurus you drive to the supermarket,” he declared, “than there was in Apollo 11 when Neil Armstrong took it all the way to the Moon.”

This was no innocent fascination with applied science — the President’s point was that government deserves the credit for such advances: “Of the 12 Americans who won the Nobel Prize last year, all 12 had received government support for their research,” he said. His enthusiasm for technological advance was really an optimistic vision of what the future holds as long as government leads the way. “I know that you all believe in this,” he told his Detnocratic listeners, advising them to fight the current antipathy to government by having at hand “three or four examples that people can identify with” of how their tax dollars are being profitably used.

He was talking to the right audience. A year ago, the party faithful in Knoxville had little to celebrate. Today they were excited by a rosy future — not that of technology but that of the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton. They could see public-sector jobs dancing before their eyes.

It was a different audience that afternoon in Dayton, an enthusiastic blue-collar crowd with young children in tow who gathered in a small square downtown not to cheer a candidate but to sec their President. When Air Force One touches down and the President’s twenty-car motorcade winds through the streets, a serious kind of carnival comes to town. Sharpshooters prowl the roofs, Secret Service agents in black jumpsuits flank the stage, and “Hail to the Chief” heralds the main attraction. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men provide an excitement missing from the politics of the race.

Before this bi-partisan audience, Clinton was restrained, self-consciously “presidential.” He joined the local politicians on stage with his small salute for the cheering crowd. But he seemed uncomfortable in the lead role. Does he sense that he lacks something, some mysterious presidential gene, some measure of dignity that the office demands? Bill Clinton provokes such questions at regular intervals. At one moment he is all smooth self-confidence; the next moment a nervous little boy peeps out, wondering if the imposture has been detected. This could just explain the gender gap: half the women’s vote has been seduced, the other half persuaded they are his mother.

That day’s only mention of foreign policy is also a local reference. Clinton thanked the audience for their role in the Dayton Accords. Special mention went to a woman whose restaurant fed the Bosnian negotiators.

Having solved the Bosnian question, the President ran through the litany of good news that doubles as his record. Over the past four years 10.5 million new jobs created . . . household income up $1,600 . . . the highest home-ownership rate in 15 years . . . 1.9 million fewer people on welfare . . . the biggest drop in child poverty in twenty years . . . the lowest poverty rate among seniors ever recorded . . . the minimum wage up . . . crime rates down. As he soared to a climax, the President became the very incarnation of Progress. “We have doubled life expectancy for people living with HIV . . . we have discovered two genes that cause breast cancer.” Really? Bill on his own? Or Bill, Al, and Hillary?

After this list of accomplishments, Clinton declared, “We are better off than we were four years ago, but we’ve got a long way to go to build that bridge to the twenty-first century.” The bridge metaphor is stolen from Bob Dole, and the agenda it represents stolen in part from Newt Gingrich. But these voters, applauding and impressed, have not been persuaded by Dole and Kemp that they could do better.

During a bus trip from the airport to a rally site, one reporter tells a colleague that he hadn’t been on a campaign trip in a while. “You’re not missing anything,” he is assured. “It’s still that f***ing bridge.” The reporters are merely irritated by the repetition; its significance is cither ignored or not grasped. This is a serious lapse — because if Clinton wins on November 5, the bridge will be transformed into a mandate for enlarging the scope of government.

Lockhart admits that the bridge metaphor suggested itself to Clinton after Dole’s San Diego speech. Symptomatic of his butterfly-minded campaign. Dole dropped his “bridge to the past,” and with it his defense of the virtuous communities of yesteryear, as soon as questions were raised about it. But he had inadvertently provided Clinton with an effective symbol for his second term. Audiences are drawn to the imagery of a bridge that leads to an exciting new century of untold wonders.

But they also feel an undercurrent of foreboding, which Clinton encourages. He speaks with urgency about the need to be as prepared as he is for the new millennium. Listeners are meant to conclude that without Clinton to guide them, they might be left behind in this tired old century. Of course, if his audiences were to sit idly in lawn chairs along Knoxville’s Interstate 64, the new century would still come upon them. But the President inspires them to want to join him m preparing for the crossing.

And what they must do is help him expand the reach of government. Clinton punctuates each mention of a new federal initiative with his raised fist and the plea, “Will you help me build that bridge to the twenty-first century?” Audiences invariably applaud.

The agenda that would usher in the new millennium in a Clinton second term includes tax breaks for education, child care, home-owners hip, and health care; an expansion of the Family Leave Act; expansion of health insurance for the unemployed and “respite benefits” for families of Alzheimer’s patients; federal support for school remodeling; tax credits for college tuition; a corps of tutors to teach reading; a ban on certain bullets; more federal cops on the beat; and Internet access in every classroom.

All these programs are meant to appeal to the middle class, and each is modest in itself. The public refused to swallow a whole beaker of federalized health care, but recent audiences appear eager to take the small sips Clinton now offers from the federal trough.

As yet, Republicans have not found an effective response to these tactics. Apparently fearful of the post-partum fury of millions of soccer moms, they supported the mandate that insurance companies cover 48-hour hospital stays for mothers and babies after normal deliveries. (When this soccer mom’s fingers had to be pried off the bedpost for me to be sent home three days after the birth of my youngest son, it didn’t occur to me that my pique should be of concern to the Federal Government.)

A ragtime band played for the expectant suburban crowd that waited for the President in downtown Louisville, Mike McCurry explained that Clinton was hoping to help freshman Congressman Mike Ward, who is in a tough re-election fight. And the campaign provided him with a pleasant local backdrop for doing so. A 120-foot Louisville Slugger bat stood behind the President as he sat through the local politicians’ exploitation of all the obvious metaphors. “We have 26 ‘Clinton cops’ on our streets because the President went to bat for us,” declared Louisville’s mayor. The President was being invited to hit his message out of the ballpark.

But in front of the suburbanites he is coolly winning over, Clinton risked no partisan appeal. He implausibly noted the remarkable “influence” that Ward had wielded in his one term, but noticeably refrained from a pitch for a Democratic House. The Democratic challenger to Senator Mitch McConnell was praised as a “fine man,” but the balance of power in the Senate went unmentioned. It was above-the-battle, soothingly presidential, not about politics at all.

And Clinton didn’t make the typical liberal case for the welfare state, but rather explained how the Federal Government can step in to reduce the tensions and inconveniences of everyday middle-class life. This notion of a family-friendly Federal Government went down well with this audience. A relaxed Mike McCurry stood in the evening chill watching the cheering crowd. He expressed surprise that he had enjoyed such a quiet day just three weeks before the election. Bob Dole, campaigning with Colin Powell in Ohio, had simply not been heard from. “We had expected an attack on our foreign-policy record, or on ethics, something like ‘I’d have people of Colin Powell’s caliber in my Cabinet.’ But nothing,” he marveled.

The secret of this campaign is that under the guise of non-partisan presidential appearances, polities is going on. As he coasts to re-election. Bill Clinton is fashioning a new Democratic coalition. The partisan liberals who welcomed him to Knoxville are energized by the prospect of victory — while Dayton’s blue-collar voters and Louisville’s suburbanites are seduced into increasing their dependence on a government that responds to their “needs” one at a time.

The GOP comforts itself that over 60 per cent of the public believes “the Federal Government is too big and does too much.” But how much does that matter when the President is putting in 17-hour days to make that belief a pious irrelevancy — as irrelevant as his admission that “the era of Big Government is over’”?

Too many Republicans have convinced themselves that a Clinton victory will be merely an interregnum between idea-fuelled GOP victories in 1994 and 1998. But if Bill Clinton builds a new coalition that includes suburban voters, the GOP will discover that ideas are not everything. Coalitions too have consequences.

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