Presidents who repeat get double trouble Second terms often prove rough

Clinton aides say he's ready

Campaign 1996

September 28, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In asking Americans to renew his contract for four more years, President Clinton is relying on a modified version of Ronald Reagan's highly successful 1984 "Morning again in America" re-election campaign.

But the morning-after often brings a hangover for re-elected presidents. While Clinton ticks off a wish list of priorities for a second term, from expanded family leave to making junior college available to every American, history teaches that the president and his team face serious pitfalls if they win big -- especially if they win big.

"In modern times, presidents just don't do that well in the second term," says Bruce Buchanan, a historian at the University of Texas.

Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment. Reagan's second term was mired in the Iran-contra scandal.

Presidential historians say there's nothing inevitable about troublesome second terms, and their causes are well-understood. They cite two principal reasons:

In running for re-election, incumbents tend to spend too much time appealing to voters with feel-good themes, such as Clinton's "Bridge to the 21st century," rather than with specifics. This may be good politics. But when the campaign is over, they discover they haven't laid the groundwork for what they wanted to achieve.

"Presidents really want to get every last vote they can, rather than use the campaign to explain what they want to do in a second term," says Martha J. Kumar, a Towson State professor. "If they explained what they were going to do, they'd alienate some voters.

"The problem is that with no articulated or publicly approved agenda for the second term, the White House can lose its direction. Not only do the voters not know what the president's priorities are; neither does his staff. An outstanding example was Reagan's second term."

Second, presidents re-elected by comfortable margins tend to become complacent. "There's a loss of energy on the part of presidents in a second term," Buchanan says.

Clinton's staff, which has borrowed from the Reagan 1984 campaign playbook, is also studying the lessons of the second Reagan term and says it will not repeat the mistake of failing to set an agenda.

Though "Building a bridge to the 21st century" has as little to do with the day-to-day task of governing during a second term as "Morning again in America" did, Clinton's aides insist that this president is going further.

"We do have specifics," says Donald Baer, the White House communications director. "And the president has spoken about them, from the State of the Union address this year onward. He's acted on them, and he's even written a new book about them."

"The Reagan approach was: 'It's morning again in America, and that's enough. I don't need to tell you what midday will be like,' " adds Dayton Duncan, a Democratic activist who worked for Walter F. Mondale in 1984. "Clinton is saying, 'I want to do this; I want to do that.' He is outlining a plan."

In his standard campaign speech, the president says his principal goal is to build on the record he has already compiled, one he asserts has reduced crime, strengthened education and created 10 million new jobs. His proposals for a second term include:

Enacting income-tax breaks, but only those that carefully target the working poor and lower middle class or that reduce the burden on families paying for higher education.

Spending more money to clean up toxic-waste dumps.

Mobilizing a national "army" of volunteers to increase the literacy third-graders.

Granting federal tax incentives to employers who hire people who are on welfare.

Applying the Brady law, which now restricts the ability of felons ,, and mental patients to buy handguns, to men who have battered their wives or children.

Amending a family-leave law to require employers to grant time off for parent-teacher meetings.

Some of those issues are modest. But they are consistent with a tighter budget and the president's acknowledgment that "the era of big government is over."

Nonetheless, the level of detail the president provides in his speeches tends to decline as the importance of the issue rises. On issues such as Social Security and Medicare, which face grave shortfalls in the future, he is vague.

Like others running for office this year, Clinton seldom mentions Social Security. And he alludes to Medicare only in the context of his efforts to "protect" it from Republicans.

White House aides say it's hard for the president to be more specific about some of these over-arching issues because no one knows if the Congress will remain controlled by Republicans or revert to the Democrats.

"Answer that question for us, and we can be a lot more specific," one aide said.

Most political observers expect that if one or more houses of Congress go Democratic, the margins will still be close, and it will be difficult for either side to pass its pet legislation.

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