3-way politics leaves U.S. electorate fractured

June 30, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Seven months after President Clinton won office with one of the smallest pluralities in this century, the American electorate remains extraordinarily fractured and fractious. The two party coalitions that monopolized politics for the last 60 years have unraveled, but no new majority has arisen to replace them.

Instead, American politics resembles a complex game of three-dimensional chess in which Democrats and Republicans compete not only with each other but with a new, militant center rallied by -- although not necessarily beholden to -- Texan Ross Perot.

According to a Los Angeles Times poll earlier this month, Mr. Clinton, the GOP and Mr. Perot fail to come close to attracting support from a majority of Americans.

"The 1992 election was a shattering election, but not necessarily a realigning one," says Stanley B. Greenberg, Mr. Clinton's pollster. "The public is extremely rootless now . . . I don't think we've seen a period like this."

This instability in public opinion is the foundation for much of the recent political turmoil in Congress. Without a public mandate, Mr. Clinton has found it virtually impossible to cement a stable majority on Capitol Hill, even though his own party controls both chambers. On many issues -- particularly taxes, spending and the role of government -- Mr. Clinton has been unable to strike a balance that satisfies hard-core Democratic partisans while still reaching out to moderates, both in the country and in Congress.

Throughout recent history, presidents have struggled with the opposition party for the loyalty of swing voters. But now both Mr. Clinton and the GOP face a new complication. With Mr. Perot providing a focus for millions of Americans who choose not to identify with either the Democrats or the Republicans, the nation may be in for an unusual period in which neither party can command majority support for its agenda.

"At this point," says Democratic strategist Tad Devine, "no one has a governing coalition."

One of Mr. Clinton's strongest arguments as a candidate was that his "third way" agenda would build a new majority of progressives in both parties. Instead, in office, a combination of his own mistakes, the relentless opposition of Mr. Perot and the GOP, and the inherent tensions of a three-way political struggle have produced an extraordinary degree of political polarization.

Mr. Clinton's public approval rating has dropped faster than any president's in modern times. In Congress, voting in the first few months of Mr. Clinton's administration has been substantially more polarized by party than at any time since 1946, says Congressional Quarterly.

Clinton aides, and some Republican strategists, believe the president may yet be able to forge a new majority if he can improve the economy and set a course that attracts greater support from moderate Republicans and conservative

Democrats. If he cannot construct such a majority, many analysts believe the trend toward three-way polarization will accelerate -- fundamentally undermining the two-party system.

In the competition to build a majority, the Democrats do hold a substantial head start. Mr. Clinton drew the largest response among those asked by the Los Angeles Times' poll to place themselves in a group of "people who basically support" the president or "supporters of the Republican Party" or those who "think that Ross Perot offers the best ideas" or none of the above.

In the poll, Mr. Clinton attracted 37 percent of those surveyed, the Republicans 19 percent, Mr. Perot 16 percent and unaffiliated 26 percent .

The poll, supervised by Los Angeles Times poll director John Brennan, was conducted June 12 through 14 and surveyed 1,474 adult Americans. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Of course, American government has always had to contend with shifting coalitions and comparatively weak parties. But for most of the years since the Great Depression, the battles over national policy have largely been fought within the framework of the two-party system.

Third-party movements, although they erupted periodically, rarely survived long enough to affect the balance. Mr. Perot's supporters are defying that pattern in part because Mr. Perot has the funds to keep himself so visible through television appearances. In addition, the fundamentally anti-establishment attitudes of his supporters make them difficult for either party to assimilate.

Mr. Perot also is riding a much larger wave of public discontent with Washington and the established parties that may not have crested. Increasingly, "people are refusing to identify with either party," says Republican pollster Bill McInturff.

While Democrats and Republicans group themselves at opposite ends of a single axis in defining these beliefs, the Perot group is defined by a completely different set of concerns.

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