Bill Clinton eyes re-election, thanks to peace, prosperity—and soccer moms
On a damp playing field beside the Ohio River, at the spot where it makes a long, lazy loop into Cincinnati, the Blue Magic and the Fairview Falcons are battling it out. Seven-year-old boys chase a soccer ball as their mothers and fathers huddle in down jackets on a bright but brisk Saturday morning. Debra Laber keeps a careful eye on her son, Samuel, as she weighs a question about the political choice she faces on Nov. 5. It is not, she acknowledges, a very appealing one. She does not admire President Bill Clinton, especially his reputed infidelities, and is wary of what she sees as his tendency to “get the government involved in everything.” She has always voted Republican in the past, yet she thinks that Bob Dole is, at 73, too old to be president. “I really have a problem voting for either person,” she says. “It’s going to be really tough.” Still, Laber concludes without enthusiasm, “I’ll probably be voting for Clinton.”
Laber, a 42-year-old working mother living in a suburb of a Midwestern city, fits the profile of what American political strategists have designated as the most sought-after voter of 1996. She is, quite literally, a soccer mom—a category that has gone from obscurity to overused catchphrase within mere weeks. Soccer, of course, has little to do with it: Laber and the other mothers pacing the sidelines of the Cincinnati playing field are crucial because they represent a pool of voters who are not firmly committed to either candidate. Just as important, their concerns seem to capture the mood of Americans as they prepare to vote in one of the most desultory and one-sided presidential elections in recent history.
Never mind that the outcome seems all but inevitable, given the double-digit lead Clinton has held over the hapless Dole since late August. Even aside from that, the issues that voters themselves
have identified are relatively modest, an inward-looking agenda that reflects concern over the effects on their families of such things as crime and declining education standards. There is no transcendent issue—and, by every available measure, less public interest than in any recent campaign. That should be no surprise: this is in many ways the most peaceful, least troubled time in America in three generations. Since the late 1920s, voters have faced an almost continual crisis with Depression, war, domestic upheaval and Cold War. Now, there is no such crisis for government to solve—and voters, quite sensibly, are paying less attention.
The backdrop to every campaign is the economy, and this year is no exception. Even many Republicans seem mesmerized by Clinton’s enviable political skills and his famed gift for communication. But all that might be irrelevant if the American economy were not humming along very nicely, delivering
low unemployment, low inflation and soaring stock markets to boost the retirement funds of the middle class. The grassroots fury over lost jobs and falling living standards that allowed Clinton to push George Bush out of the White House in 1992 has evaporated, giving way to the quiet anxieties of the soccer moms and dads. Americans, in sharp contrast with Canadians, seem hardly concerned with economic issues. A poll of 3,000 people in each country, conducted between Sept. 19 and Oct. 10 by Angus Reid Group, shows that while 46 per cent of Canadians talk about jobs when listing the most important questions facing their country, a scant nine per cent of Americans even mention the issue (page 36). The survey shows that Americans worry much more about education, crime, drugs and welfare reform than do Canadians—a reflection both of their own social problems and the fact that Canada’s economy lags behind.
The contentment of voters is, overwhelmingly, the biggest factor giving Clinton his more-than-comfortable lead—an astonishing 22 points in the Reid survey (54 per cent, compared with 32 per cent for Dole and 7 per cent for Ross Perot). ‘Timing is essential,” notes Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If you can co-ordinate the business cycle and the political cycle, you’re in good shape.” As a result, what suspense remains in the campaign is focused on another contest: the fight for control of Congress (page 34). Republicans are favored to keep their majority in the Senate, but voters could well give control of the House of Representatives back to the Democrats just two years after Republicans won a majority there and proclaimed a radical right-wing “revolution” under Speaker Newt Gingrich. And that, more than anything else, will determine what kind of president Clinton is during the second term that he now has within his grasp.
Ohio, home to Debra Laber and her fellow soccer moms, is one of the places that American politicians study most closely to divine the mysteries of that elusive creature: the typical voter. With 11-million people and 21 electoral votes (seventh-largest among all the states), it would be a rich prize in any case. But Ohio offers more: it has been an uncanny predictor of presidential races throughout the century. In 22 of the past 24 elections, it has gone with the winner. Something else weighs heavily on the minds of Dole’s strategists: no Republican has ever captured the White House without winning in Ohio.
The reason is the state’s complexity. It contains not only the old rust-belt cities like Cleveland and Akron that give it its unglamorous image, but also vast swathes of rich farmland, liberal college towns, booming suburbs around Columbus and Cincinnati, and even a patch of Appalachia in the southeast. Ohio has produced seven presidents (more than any state but Virginia), and for good reason. George Knepper, a historian at the University of Akron, wrote in a recent essay that “politically, those who understand Ohio understand America.” Its archetypal Middle America quality also attracts those who want to see if a new product will sell across the United States. “Whether people want to try out a new low-fat potato chip or a presidential candidate, they try it out in Ohio,” says Jay Byrne, a Democratic organizer in Columbus. He is not joking: in mid-October, Procter & Gamble chose Columbus for a massive test-marketing of its new Pringle chips with fat-free olestra oil.
That makes political strategists vitally interested in what sways Laber and women like her. As seven-yearold Samuel and his Blue Magic teammates scrambled their way to a 7-0 victory over the rival Falcons, she reflected on how the past four years have affected her family. She works as a graphic designer and lives with her husband, Christopher, a lawyer, in a comfortable suburb of Cincinnati called Hyde Park. Her family has benefited from the robust economy, so she sees no compelling reason to change course. “It’s the old ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ ” she says.
Cincinnati is the heart of the most conservative, most Republican corner of Ohio, and if Dole cannot win over upper-middle-class voters like Laber, he is in big trouble. Statewide polls bear that out: they give Clinton a lead of anywhere between eight and a dozen points in a state that traditionally is closely fought. His lead among women, the so-called gender gap, is much wider—up to 30 points nationwide. Ethel Galzerano, a “40ish” mother and committed Democrat who was cheering on her seven-year-old son Rick, attributed that in part to the President’s style. “What I hear women saying is that he does a much better job of accessing the feminine side of his personality,” she reflected. “A very conservative Republican friend told me she’s supporting Clinton just because he’s not a macho schmuck.” Dole’s attempts to attack the President over ethics backfired with her, said Galzerano: “It’s very off-putting. I think he’s succumbed to the dark side.”
For Joyce Wehner, the 41-year-old education director of a Cincinnati arts centre and mother of two young boys, “character”—code for Clinton’s reported philandering—is also important. “It bothers me,” she says. “But we’re fooling ourselves in this country if we think the majority of couples have been faithful to each other.” Dole, too, is not without fault on the domestic front, she notes; he walked out of his first marriage in 1972 when his daughter, Robin, was 18 years old. “Let’s weigh this out: Dole had a marriage and a child, and he ended it because he was more focused on his career. At least Clinton is still with Hillary and they’re raising their daughter together.” Wehner has voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past and leans towards Clinton this year, but her bottom line is not encouraging for the political professionals: “For me, this year it’s like listing the negatives. Whoever has the fewest negatives, I’ll go for.”
Of course, it is not just style that has Clinton so far ahead. After Gingrich’s Republicans took control of Congress, they swung so far to the right that the President was able to chart a course down the centre, where most Americans feel comfortable. He has made some traditional Republican issues—like tougher anticrime measures, welfare reform and higher standards in education—his own. As a so-called New Democrat, he has implicitly rejected much of his party’s New Deal-Great Society heritage. Dole’s attempts to stick him with the most unpopular epithet in U.S. politics—“liberal”—have not worked. That is no surprise: Clinton has cut the federal deficit and reduced Washington’s workforce more than any other modern president.
And during this campaign, he continued to stress a modest, centrist agenda with a clutch of narrowly focused promises that appeal particularly to women voters—for example, pledging to make sure that every woman has the right to spend at least two days in hospital after giving birth. The new buzzword for the Democrats’ approach is “double-E, double-M”: talking at every opportunity about education and the environment, and Medicare and Medicaid (the sickness plans for the elderly and the poor). Those are the issues that Clinton’s strategists believe give them an advantage with the crucial swing group of mainly female voters.
All that has left Republicans frustrated. Some organizers have already started criticizing Dole’s fitful campaign, while the suspicion has grown that the candidate has effectively given up on the presidency and is concentrating on helping Republicans keep control of the House and Senate. And only desperation could have been behind the Republican camp’s unsuccessful 1 lth-hour bid last week to persuade Ross Perot to drop out of the race and endorse Dole—a man he has hammered as the consummate Washington insider.
THE CLINTON JUGGERNAUT
American presidential elections are won state by state, because the candidate with the most votes in each state wins all its Electoral College delegates, who formally elect the president. According to last week’s polls, Clinton was leading in 31
states and the District of Columbia, which would give him 371 of the 538 electoral votes; only 270 are needed to win. Dole was leading in 15 states worth 122 electoral votes. Four states, with 45 votes, were judged too close to call.
Well before the vote, the Republican campaign had already taken on a snarly, sore-loser tone. Gingrich, for one, hissed that revelations about foreign contributions to the Democratic national committee “make Watergate look tiny.” Some right-wing Republicans have stopped even pretending that Dole can pull it out. The Weekly Standard, voice of conservative intellectuals who have long been critical of Dole, featured this fatalistic line on a recent cover: “Can we get this election over with already?” Inside, the editors wrote: “The sky is falling. . . .There’s a serious risk that the Dole-Kemp ticket will spin through its drain with sufficient deadly speed to suck the entire 1994 congressional revolution right down with it.”
Ohio has more than its share of generic cityscapes and megamails, the kind of places that are not so much Middle America as Anywhere, or Nowhere, U.S.A. But there are still places where it is possible at least to imagine that a simpler time, the kind of time that Bob Dole talks about with such feeling, is within reach. The town of Lebanon, just 40 minutes up Interstate 71 from Cincinnati, is one such place. Hollywood has used it to represent a typical Midwestern town: the movie Harper Valley PTA was filmed there in 1978, and Milk Money two years ago. Lebanon has a classic main street with fine old brick buildings, and Dole-Kemp signs sprout like so many fall mushrooms from the lawns of well-maintained houses with big old verandas and gingerbread trim.
Dole came to town during one of his half-dozen swings through Ohio for much the same reasons that the moviemakers did: it gave the Kansas Republican a backdrop to talk about traditional values and to tell voters that his campaign is “all about trust.” He visited the Village Ice Cream Parlor, ordered a chocolate milkshake and impressed the manager, 44-year-old Susie Alexander, whose family has run the old-time restaurant for 18 years. ‘This is a real Republican area,” she said. “There may be some Democrats around, but I guess they keep quiet.” For Alexander and many others in and around conservative, churchgoing Lebanon, it seems inconceivable that other Americans could overlook the scandals that have dogged Clinton’s presidency. “From all we hear, it’s hard to imagine that Clinton’s so far ahead,” she says. “Whitewater and all that character stuff—it bothers me more than anything. But you wonder; the Republicans knew the election was coming. Where were they in getting the right candidate?” Isn’t Dole the right candidate, she is asked. “That question’s certainly in the back of my mind.”
Lebanon’s mayor, 58-year-old Jackson Hedges, laments that the rules of American politics are such that a straightforward, decent man like Dole seems to have no chance. “Unfortunately it’s about good looks and glamor and articulation,” he says. “And if you’re going to make a decision on that basis, it’s clear Dole doesn’t match up to Clinton.” The President, he says with grudging admiration, “is a great politician. It’s hard not to like this guy. I just wish he was of better moral character.”
Try as he might, Dole has been unable to get what American analysts call “traction” on the issue of character and ethics. He shied away from personal attacks, but hammered Clinton over the Whitewater land scandal, confidential FBI files on Republicans that turned up in the White House, and—especially—the questionable contributions to the Democratic national committee from foreign sources. That money, particularly hundreds of thousands of dollars raised from Indonesian and other Asian sources by a DNC fund-raiser named John Huang, prompted serious questions about how foreign cash may be influencing the American political system. Dole’s attacks, though, were undercut by the fact that the Republicans, too, have accepted millions from foreign sources. In the end, says Mann of the Brookings Institution, the character issue does not resonate with most Americans. “Voters have made their peace with this President,” he says, “with all his strengths and all his warts.”
Dole's attempts to attack the President over ethics backfired
What matters is the economy. Lebanon may be a picture-postcard small town, but just five kilometres away, on the edge of Interstate 71, is the American headquarters of a Japanese company called Fujitec America Inc., which makes elevators and escalators. The futuristic building is one of a string of green site offices that spreads all the way from Cincinnati. Further north lies Dayton, which in its own way also demonstrates the strength of the region. No one would call it pretty, but Dayton is far from the economic disaster area it was a dozen years ago after big companies like National Cash Register cut back from 25,000 jobs to just 5,000 and many other firms went out of business. Now, the city has rebuilt; a dozen auto plants circle it, and the sprawling Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where the Bosnian peace accord was negotiated, employs thousands more. Unemployment in Montgomery County, which includes Dayton, is a scant 3.9 per cent, and many jobs go begging.
At the Waffle House in suburban Huber Heights, a bluecollar area that swung heavily behind Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, getting a conversation going on politics is not easy. The Sunday breakfast crowd is mulling over important things: the outcome of Ohio State’s battle with Purdue University the day before (they won, 42-14) and the Cincinnati Bengals’ encounter with the San Francisco 49ers later in the day (they would lose, 24-21). But Larry Wagner, a 54-year-old plumber, takes the time to make his point in a simple way: ‘What you need to know is that we’ve got all the work we can handle. I could be working today if I wanted. So why change?”
Tony Hall, the area’s Democratic congressman, is more eloquent—but his view is essentially the same. In some ways he is an unusual representative for a no-nonsense, blue-collar town: he is a born-again Christian who takes a special interest in world hunger and has fasted several times to dramatize the issue. But he makes sure he takes care of business back in Dayton, and is keenly aware that nothing is more important to his voters than jobs. “Things went down here, but we diversified and we bounced back,” he says. “Four years ago, everybody was scared. The economy wasn’t doing so well. That’s very different now; people feel much more secure, and the President will benefit from that.”
Local Republicans seem resigned to losing the county, which has long been a bellwether district in a bellwether state. David Landon, a personable 43-year-old lawyer who chairs Montgomery County’s GOP organization, is another Republican who seems awed by Clinton’s ability to duck every punch. “It is frustrating,” he says. “The rules don’t seem to apply to him. He can put his foot in it and come out smelling like a rose.” Dole, he says, is the better man, but he may be out of step with the times. “People see him as someone who represents a different generation, a time when your grandmother put a dollar a week in an envelope to buy something. Now, we just stick it on Visa.”
Clinton’s advantage is that he embodies the strengths and weaknesses of his generation, its conflicting impulses towards idealism and self-indulgence. In a new study of his first term entitled The President We Deserve, Martin Walker of The Guardian newspaper of London writes that Clinton’s own life typifies the changes in postwar America. The baby boomer who swung to the left when his generation rejected the Vietnam War moved back to the centre as the boomers assumed the responsibilities of adulthood. His small-town boyhood spoke to the widespread hunger for community, and his passion for education echoed Americans’ striving for attainment. He was idealistic in his youth, but he and Hillary tried to make serious money with their Whitewater venture just as boomers were becoming yuppies in the early ’80s. “Bill Clinton,” writes Walker, “was always to be found at that endlessly moving spot where the bulk of his generation wanted to be at a particular time.”
Now, barring a political upset that would make Truman’s victory over Dewey in 1948 look modest by comparison, Clinton is on the verge of winning a second term. That is a rare accomplishment: of the 41 previous presidents, only 14 won a second four years. Just 11 men completed a second term. The track record is not encouraging: from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, presidents have found their second terms to be more troubled and less successful than the first. Clinton’s accomplishments in office so far are relatively modest: his challenge will be to defy history and show that he can leave an enduring mark the second time around. □