Results of '94 elections already affect '96 picture


The new Congress begins work this week in a political world radically transformed by the 1994 elections.

The most obvious change is the Republican control of both the Senate and House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. But the change in President Clinton's position is equally significant.

Clinton was viewed before Nov. 8 as a president with serious political weaknesses to overcome. But that judgment was based almost entirely on the results of public opinion polls.

Now there is the hard reality of election returns that have been almost universally interpreted as a blunt repudiation of Clinton's performance in his first two years in office.

And, although politicians may be impressed by poll figures, they are much more impressed by the actual verdict of their constituents, particularly when it is so one-sided. Clinton is seen today as not just a president with a political problem, but as one whose future is hanging in the balance.

Indeed, the president's position is so precarious that the Democratic Party is shot through with speculation about who might challenge him for the nomination in 1996. In spite of his recent statement that he will seek re-election, if his fortunes sink further it's not inconceivable he might yet be willing to step aside for Vice President Al Gore.

Gore is the one major figure in the administration who has managed to skate through the first two years with his reputation intact and perhaps even enhanced.

Since the election, Clinton has been bombarded with advice on how to right himself. Leaders of the Democratic Leadership Council, the group of centrist-to-conservative Democrats Clinton once headed, has been blunt in criticizing him for failing to appeal to their view of the center of the political spectrum.

Meanwhile, the liberals have been conspicuously quiet in offering any defense of the president.

Clinton himself has seemed anxious to please the new angry majority that prevailed Nov. 8. Only days after the election, he suggested he might be willing to go along with conservatives with some form of a school prayer amendment, a notion that outraged liberals and from which Clinton quickly retreated.

Then late last month he joined the bidding war with the Republicans by proposing a tax cut for the middle class.

It is already clear, however, that it won't be that simple. The president may feel compelled to reach that swing constituency in the middle, but he must recognize that he cannot afford to alienate the liberals who are dominant blocs in both the House and Senate Democratic minorities.

He will need them to prevent any vetoes from being overridden.

But the Republicans, who also recognize that the 1996 presidential campaign is already under way, won't make it easy for him, despite all their post-election posturing about how they are willing to cooperate. Two issues will present direct tests for both the Republicans and Clinton.

The first is the middle-class tax cut. The prospect now is that the Republicans will pass a tax bill that will be directed at the middle class but also tilted toward the affluent.

The question will be whether Clinton will swallow it and, if he does, whether he can persuade liberals it is acceptable.

The second issue is welfare reform. Again, the Republican proposals seem far more harsh than the liberal Democrats -- and the Congressional Black Caucus in particular -- are likely to find palatable.

The Republicans have some problems of their own. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is not universally admired even within his own party and must demonstrate an ability to get along not just with his colleagues in the House but with the Republican old bulls of the Senate who may be less entranced by his aggressive style.

That relationship will be complicated, moreover, by the fact that both Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, the leader of the hard-liners in the Senate, already are testing their potential as presidential candidates.

By any measure, nonetheless, the president's situation is far more difficult. He was elected in 1992 by holding the Democratic Party's traditional constituencies while bringing back the so-called Reagan Democrats -- the same voters who deserted again Nov. 8. It won't be easy to pull that off again.

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