Bill Clinton was the Governor of Arkansas, having served from in 1979-80. He lost his election in 1980 but tried for the governorship again and won. He overhauled the state's education system and served as chairman of the National Governors Association, and had been governor since January 1983 when he chose to run for the US Presidency, in 1992.
Clinton was a founding member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. For many voters, Clinton's centrism may have been unnoticed, but one thing that was noticed was his criticism in June (before the Democratic Party's convention) of Sister Souljah, a rap artist, age 28. Clinton's campaign strategists had been seeking to distance him from the less moderate Jesse Jackson and Clinton chided Jackson's Rainbow Coalition for giving Sister Souljah a platform. Sister Souljah retaliated. She called Clinton as a hypocritical draft-dodging, pot-smoking womanizer and said his remarks were "a poor excuse for an agenda-less candidate." How much all this damaged or helped Clinton is difficult to measure, but he went on to win the nomination.
And in November he won the presidency — but with only 43 percent of the popular vote. Billionaire third-party candidate Ross Perot had led in July according to various polls. Perot had talked about balancing the federal budget, fighting drugs, protectionism regarding foreign trade and demanded that our allies pay more for defense. He had been a sensation, with Cable News giving him a lot of exposure (perhaps not quite as much as they would Trump in 2016). But he had quit the race in July amid controversy and had returned in October with lower polling numbers, and he finished the race with only 30 percent of the popular vote and nothing from the electoral college.
Clinton's other adversary, the incumbent President George H W Bush (the Elder), won only 37 percent of the popular vote and less than half of Clinton's electoral college. Many Republicans still admired President Reagan. Bush didn't quite have Reagan's common man aura (Ann Richards of Texas having famously said back in 1988 that poor Bush had been "born with a silver spoon in his mouth".) Also, many remembered Bush associating Reagan with voodoo economics, and there was had been Bush's flip-flop following his comment "read my lips no new taxes.
Bush's running mate, his vice president, Dan Quayle, misspelled potato in front of school children, and this was widely ridiculed. Quayle's family values speech attacking television's fictional 40-something divorced news anchor Murphy Brown was very successful. But Bush finally played his veteran card and compared his military service to Clinton the anti-Vietnam War draft dodger. Also Bush reminded people that it was during his presidency when the Berlin Wall came down. And he reminded voters of his victory over the dictator Saddam Hussein in September 1991 a victory not yet understood as botched. With that victory, Bush's approval rating had been up around 89 percent with a 7 percent disapproval. But the economy had hurt the Bush campaign. There had been an eight-month recession to March 1991 and the recovery had been slow with unemployment rising through June 1992. Clinton had transformed the campaign from a referendum on his character to the Bush Presidency, and Clinton had benefitted from Bush's low approval ratings, in October down to 29 percent approval and 59 percent disapproval. As with President Truman, the public had been quick in casting blame.
In his inaugural address Clinton the gentleman "saluted" Bush "for his half-century of service to America." And he thanked "the millions of men and women whose steadfastness and sacrifice triumphed over depression, fascism, and communism." He put God on the side of the nation, and he established a slogan in the manner of Kennedy's "New Frontier," Johnson's "Great Society" and Carter's "undiminished, ever-expanding American Dream". Clinton spoke of an American renewal, of "new responsibilities in a world warmed by the sunshine of freedom. Clinton spoke of the US economy as still the world's strongest but as having been "weakened by business failures, stagnant wages, increasing inequality, and deep divisions among our own people."
Among Clinton's first moves was to issue an executive order undoing abortion restrictions put in place by the Reagan and Bush administrations. In a radio address on February 6 he spoke of raising the incomes of families and building "a high-growth, high-skilled, high-wage economy by investing in education, job training and the technologies of our people and their future." Regarding public health, he put the First Lady, Hillary, in charge of developing a healthcare plan. In his State of the Union address on February 17 he spoke also of reducing the Federal deficit (inherited from the Reagan and Bush administrations), and he described his plan for cuts in government waste.
The Democrats dominated the Senate 56 to 44, and they held the House of Representatives 258 to 176. But Clinton's budget bill made it into law in August by only a slim margin. Not one Republican voted for the bill and 41 Democrats voted against it. It passed with the help of the independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and by the tie-breaking vote by Vice President Gore.
In September, President Clinton delivered a health-care speech to Congress, saying:
Despite the dedication of literally millions of talented health care professionals, our health care is too uncertain and too expensive, too bureaucratic and too wasteful. It has too much fraud and too much greed... Over the last eight months, Hillary and those working with her have talked to literally thousands of Americans to understand the strengths and the frailties of this system of ours. They met with over 1,100 healthcare organizations. They talked with doctors and nurses, pharmacists and drug company representatives, hospital administrators, insurance company executives and small and large businesses. They spoke with self-employed people. They talked with people who had insurance and people who didn't. They talked with union members and older Americans and advocates for our children.
President Clinton proposed an enforced mandate for employers to provide health insurance coverage to all of their employees. Opposition to the plan was heavy from conservatives, libertarians, and the health insurance industry. An effective television ad was produced, "Harry and Louise". The plan was described as overly bureaucratic and restrictive of patient choice.
In his State of the Union Message on in January, President Clinton threatened to veto any health legislation that did not guarantee insurance coverage for all Americans. The New York Times writes:
By then, health care reform had made its way from a vague buzzword on the campaign trail to a scholarly treatise to a sprawling piece of legislation scattered over five major Congressional committees. It was in those committees that the most byzantine stage of the healthcare struggle began, a stage that lasted until the Fourth of July weekend — long past all the self-imposed deadlines, long past the time when anyone expected a grand healthcare compromise to emerge. The struggle for universal coverage began to collapse in the committees. Again and again, members tried to reach consensus on how to cover everybody without antagonizing the small-business lobby. But they always ran up against the same problem: without an employer mandate or a broad-based tax increase, how could they pay for it? 'You Can't Go That Way'
A compromise Democratic bill would be declared dead by the Democratic Senate Majority Leader in September 1994. It was a defeat that weakened President Clinton and emboldened Republicans. They were on their way to a strategy called the "Contract with America," written by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, using in part text from former President Ronald Reagan's 1985 State of the Union Address and introduced on the capital steps a little more than a month before the Congressional elections.
Meanwhile, back in June 1993 President Clinton had nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be a justice on the Supreme Court, and she had been confirmed by the Senate in early august. And in August 1994 President Clinton's second nominee to the Supreme Court, Stephen Breyer, took his seat on the court.
And in November 1993, Congress got around to ratifying passing the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It had been negotiated in 1992 during the Bush administration and signed that year by Mexico and Canada. Labor unions saw it as a bad deal. (So too did Noam Chomsky). In the House of Representatives 132 Republicans and 102 Democrats voted in favor of it, a majority by 34. In the Senate 34 Republicans and 27 Democrats supported it. When signing the ratification, Clinton said: "NAFTA means jobs. American jobs, and good-paying American jobs."
President Clinton in September 1993 had an approval rating of 56 percent and disapproval at 34 percent. By mid-August 1994 his ratings were 39–53. But Clinton was a good speaker and an enthusiastic campaigner, and his numbers beyond the introduction of the Contract with America help up. After the election in early December they would be back up, to 42–50 (close to President Trump's numbers in early July 1918). Also the economy was doing well: GDP growth adjusted for inflation between April and December 1994 was 4.2 percent.
As the Congressional Elections neared President Clinton was described as having abandoned his New Democrat platform and a "tax and spend" liberal. And the Contract with America was a campaign document described as a "common-sense program" designed to earn the support of the broadest possible range of Americans. Britannica describes it as follows:
The "Contract with America" outlined legislation to be enacted by the House of Representatives within the first 100 days of the 104th Congress (1995–96). Among the proposals were tax cuts, a permanent line-item veto, measures to reduce crime and provide middle-class tax relief, and constitutional amendments requiring term limits and a balanced budget.
The Contract committed the Republicans to introduce legislation described as "Taking Back Our Streets," measures that were to expanding prison construction, increasing sentences, and reducing the possibility of appeal for death-sentence cases.
Republican candidates chose to rally behind the Contract rather than formulate their campaign independently. In an exit poll during the November elections, 38 percent identified themselves as "conservatives" compared with 30 percent in 1992. And according to a survey sponsored by the Christian Coalition, 33 percent of the 1994 voters were "religious conservatives," up from 24 percent in 1992 and 18 percent in 1988 (CQ Weekly Report).
The Republicans gained 8 seats in the Senate seat and 54 seats in the House, giving them control of both bodies. And they gained ten governorships. In addition, many state legislative chambers switched from Democratic to Republican control. In the Solid South the Republicans picked up 19 House seats, outnumbering the Democrats for the first time since Reconstruction.
One progressive piece of legislation in the form of a referendum passed in the 1994 election, by 51 percent: Oregon's "Death with Dignity Act" became law — to be challenged by the George W Bush administration but upheld in 2006 by the Supreme Court 2006.
The year 1994 ended with Congressman Gingrich (to be House Speaker in January) directing those who were to be new members of Congress to attend briefings at the conservative Heritage Foundation — briefings that since 1972 had been conducted by Harvard University's Institute of Politics. At the Heritage Foundation the new congressmen would listen to Heritage Foundation member Rush Limbaugh tell them what to expect.
CONTINUE READING: The Clinton Presidency from 1995 to 1996
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.