Losing to Win: The 1996 American Election Essay

The American political scene was never in such a state of high anxiety than at the current crossroad. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the precarious dollar, and host of other pressing concerns which have hugged the headlines in recent months have spawned political trends while at the same time bring to light recurring cycles in the division of power – of what Ceaser and Busch referred to as “split level realignment” in their influential book Losing to Win : The 1996 Elections and American Politics  published in 1997. The use of the term split level realignment became vogue in 1990s to describe a trend in which the executive branch is controlled by the Republicans and Congress remained in the hands of the Democrats or vise versa.

The authors brought the notion of the split-level realignment into a sort of a political construct of the two-party system which characterizes American democracy. In articulating the cycles and providing supporting documentation, the book becomes relevant which merited an in-depth reevaluation in the context of the current split-level realignment of a Republican president but with the Senate and the House controlled by the Democrats.

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The core logic of Losing to Win… revolved on the thesis that Americans have experimented with various combinations to arrange power in Washington, which is historically embedded in two major political blocks, the Democratic and Republican parties. The demarcation between these two parties according to Ceaser and Busch was succinctly captured by Byron Shafer with his description that the “Republicans, being the party of cultural traditionalism and foreign nationalism, controls the presidency. The Democrats, being the party of economic liberalism and service delivery, controls the House of Congress.[1]” The Republicans are considered conservative while the Democratic party as the bastion of liberalism.

The book outlines the political events which were markers of such a cycle. In 1988 for example, according to the authors, the US had a Republican President with the election into office of George Bush but the Democrats retained the majority in Congress. The cycle was apparently broken when in 1992 the Democrats established homogeneity under Bill Clinton’s presidency. But this was short-lived as shown in the 1994 mid-term election when the Republicans regained majority in the House[2].

Thus, the authors contended that the first term of Clinton was really two terms, one from 1992-94 under the Democratic homogeneity and the other from 1994-96 when the split-level realignment trend reasserted itself, this time with a Democratic President but a Republican Congress. The shifting of political fortunes possibly confirmed the attractiveness of a third party alternative as the power sharing possibilities became exhausted but without a corresponding satisfactory outcome, as the results of the electoral process at that time have shown. But the third party movement apparently fizzled out of the political horizon of promising trends as it never regained the vigor of the Perot attempt in 1992 to break the two-party monopoly[3].

The underlying reason for split-level realignment, which seemed to be a running theme in Losing to Win… is voter fatigue, as if the voters do not want power concentrated on either party. Perhaps the voters instinctively know that in a complex real world, balance of power through dialogue remains an acceptable alternative. There are distinguishing political and ideological lines between the two parties which enable voters to align themselves with either party position but these parties also share a long list of scandals and controversies which give an impression that at the bottom line the two parties are just two sides of the same coin.

According John Bibby, the 1990 and 2000 were periods when the two-party system was seriously challenged.  Perot got 19 percent of the popular votes in 1992 and this is a sort of phenomenal in the close politics of two-party system[4]. Bibby cited a survey by the Gallup Polls in which 67 percent of those surveyed favored a strong third party participation in national electoral exercises.  There were also fears that American elections are becoming personality centered rather than issue based due to the two-party system which had effectively narrowed the options to nominees of these two major parties.[5]

Losing to Win… evaluated the Clinton presidency and the authors zeroed in on the factors which made possible the historic re-election of a Democrat into the country’s highest seat of power. What the authors were essentially saying was that Clinton was president in times of “peace” and economic growth. The Cold War had ended and the USA emerged victorious in the Gulf Wars. Unemployment was down and the economy was on the rebound. It was this combination of factors which worked in favor of Clinton in 1996.  In the words of Caeser and Busch: “By March 1996 the Clinton administration had compiled a record of twelve consecutive quarters of slow but generally steady economic growth. Unemployment had come down considerably since 1992, inflation remained in check, and the bull market continued its run. By the time of the President’s 1996 State of the Union Address, Clinton could boast that the economy had produced in three years the eight million new jobs he had promised in four[6].”

The Republicans on the other hand appeared to be doomed, Caeser and Busch pointed out that although Dole had deftly navigated the Republican political waters easily winning the euphemistic invisible primary, or the “contest for popular support and money that precedes the actual selection of the delegates” Dole appeared old rather than wizened.[7] As Caeser and Busch metaphorically put it, “Clinton was in the 1990s driving over a bridge to the next century in an Acura Legend, while Bob Dole was driving a 1946 Packard to a Brooklyn Dodgers game.[8]” The period from mid-March 1996, when Bob Dole had the primary in the bag to September was labeled by the authors of Losing to Win.. as the “Interregnum” perhaps in an attempt for a roll of the tongue to “doom.”  Nor was media and television kind to Dole. In a period of relative peace and prosperity, a 73 year old warrior[9] appeared to be out of place in such a landscape.  In many sense, the 1996 elections was a battle of images which Clinton won.

More substantially according to the authors, the 1996 elections highlighted the significance of Congressional contests in national affairs. The congressional elections being the process of forming a national policy making body and an effective check on the presidency appeared to gain the attention of the public and became as important as that of the election of the President.  To capture Congress became a valuable prize. This was the reason behind why there was more excitement that time at the legislative electoral contest than during the selection for the presidency. According to Caeser and Busch, the end of the Cold War diminished the importance of the presidency and coupled with the Republican comeback in 1994 and the active role it played in Congress put to light the role of the legislative branch as “equal partner in national policy making.[10]” This underlined the importance of the campaign for congressional seats. Deputy campaign manager Ann Lewis stated that the 1996 Congressional election is like a parliamentary election in which the Congress was the center of the presidential campaign. A split-level re-alignment would be a very uncomfortable to the presidency of Clinton.[11]

The increasing importance of Congress in the public’s eye was due to the nature of the party organizations. Essentially, the Democratic and Republican parties are loosely confederated. Affiliation is not rigid in a sense of highly formal membership criteria and processes for membership. In terms of ideology and demographics, the literature on American parties has long noted the greater heterogeneity among Democrats than among Republicans[12]. The authors of Losing to Win… contend that increasingly, people judge the political parties according to performance as a whole delineating the differences between how the two parties approach and handle issues.[13]

The importance of Congressional Districts was stressed by Reichley, he pointed out that the common norm, the at-large system for choosing electors is biased towards nominees of the two major parties.  The major parties because of their organization plus the system of Electoral College make it improbable for minor parties to play any significant role in directing which way the balance of power would ultimately tilt[14].

Such concentration of power on two political parties could create some problems. One such concern which Losing to Win… tried to dissect is what the authors called the “new era of coalitional partnership.”  Coalition partnership is essentially a description of governance in the context of a split-level re-alignment. Caeser and Busch cited the Washington Post which reported that the Gingrich led Republican majority in the 1994 House would explore cooperative avenues with then Pres. Clinton. This led to some speculations that the 1994 House results was a call for centrism – a middle ground between the political agenda of two dominant parties in the USA.[15]

Such reconciliatory gesture in a post-election scenario is not a simple act of political sportsmanship. The observations outlined in Losing to Win… particularly the new era of coalitional partnership appeared to be operative as exemplified in 2000 when newly anointed Speaker Hastert remarked that solutions could be found if “we recognize that each member is equally important to our overall mission of improving the life of the American people[16].”  The House agenda presented by the Republicans in 2000 included lowering taxes, improving education, strengthening Social Security and Medicare, and bolstering national defense. There are partisan political agenda which each party cherished and in split-level re-alignment situation, coalition partnership appeared to be the solution to strike a consensus.

The electorate in 1996 reelected Bill Clinton but gave Congress to the Republicans which showed the shifting of roles between the two major parties.       The subsequent election into office of George Bush in 2000 was in some sense a completion of this major shifting when Republican homogeneity was established. This shift led to, carried by momentum to Bush’s re-election in what Time Magazine[17] called the wildest election in history – a bitterly contested election which almost plunge the US into a constitutional crisis. But nonetheless the two-party system may be, because of these controversies has time and again provided a way on how eventually the country would be steered politically, economically and in relation to the world. Major shifting in the division of power could happen which acts as a means to regain equilibrium in a very dynamic political world.

The split-level re-alignment which characterized the current dispensation when in 2006, the Democrats regained majority in both Houses may be a repetitive call on every elected official  that they must preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution not their parties. Democracy means being able to choose the best candidates available[18] but there are indicators as mentioned earlier that the existing system has evolved into a contest that do not encourage the best candidate to run in a public office.  In other words, the system does not allow them to win if they are not nominees from the two major parties.

Democracy is justice by giving each one according to each due.  The best candidates never get a chance to be heard because many local citizens believed that they could not get over their rivals. There are indications however showing that the parties could revitalize guided by its inner instincts. Sen. Obama rose to prominence on the agenda of change and freshness aside from his opposition to the unpopular war in Iraq with more than 100,000 troops deployed in that war-torn country. Sen. Clinton, is invoking essentially the same thing but is taking a more centrist line of change guided by experience.

The momentum for the coming 2008 elections appears to be with the Democratic Party because of their dominance in the 2006 mid-term elections but the attractiveness of the split-level re-alignment could provide a surprise for a Republican comeback.

If there is an insight we gain in reading Losing to Win… it is making the 1996 elections as frame of reference, a time when the country was in a state of relative peace – prior to 9/11 which radically altered the world stage into which the US continue to play a prominent role.  It may be proper to view foreign policy as a concern which was not really factored in Losing to Win…

Reichley developed a construct of two foreign policy lines, the altruistic on one hand and motivated by national interests on the other, of which there are two types. One type is interventionist and the other isolationist[19]. If Alan Greenspan’s claim that the Iraq war really all about oil as reported by the Times Online,[20] it clearly placed the Bush administration’s foreign policy as interventionist in the name of national interests.  A charge Pres. Bush denies with his pronouncements that he wanted to prevent the bloodbath that transpired when Americans left Vietnam in the mid-70s. The Democratic presidential hopefuls varied in position which could fit the mold of isolationist based on national interest or non-involvement to altruistic reasoning with dialogue and diplomacy as the primary means to achieve international cooperation but at the same time without compromising security.

Again, we see in the above, the sharp contrast in positioning on national issues between the two major parties. The electorate by choosing homogeneity or split-level re-alignment essentially directs the way to which the nation would be charted in the future. If they go Republican in 2008, this could mean that Americans support the assumption that presence in Iraq is strategically important to US political and economic security. A vote for the Democrats could mean a systematic pull out from that war-ravaged country. A split could mean, Americans would try to play centrist with open ended options on how to handle foreign policy.

We are living in a changing world with the threat of war, global warming a host of other pressing national and global concerns. The political dispensation and system of selecting the country’s leadership is as important as the personalities who will occupy key position in government. It may not be farfetched that the two-party system is yet to evolved into a more cogent system of representation more rational than political brinkmanship characteristic of split-level re-alignment adequately described by Caeser and Busch in Losing to Win…

There are many routes to political development but nevertheless the two-party system endured. May be it is because of inertia of historical movements, may be shared monopoly on political power, but nonetheless the two-party system have time and time again provided the balance and stability more so in the critical stages of leadership succession.  True that may be the two-party system has marginalized some sectors and narrowed down ideological base into two opposing views but then again, dialogues, forums and public debates are but some of the democratic tools which citizens could use to broaden their participation in the country’s political affairs.

The cycles or shifting of power between the major parties evaluated in Losing to Win… may change for the better, that is if citizens could play a more active and involved manner in the affairs of these political parties. If anything, the book provokes us to reflect not only on our political system but on our role as citizens and that we may gain valuable insights and distill lessons from the past to guide us as we the citizens chart the course of history through active and conscious participation in the country’s political institutions.
Bibliography:

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Bibby, J.F. In Defense of the Two-Party System in HERRSON P.S. and GREEN J.C., Multiparty Politics in America, Second Edition, Lanham, Mass., Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

Ceaser, J.W. and Busch, A.E. Losing to Win: The 1996 Elections and American Politics. Studies in American Political Institutions and Public Policy Series. Lanham, Mass.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

Macedo, S. et. al. Democracy at Risk: Renewing the Political Science of Citizenship. Chicago, Illinois: American Political Science Association, 2004. Accessed at http://www.princeton.edu/~apsaciv/apsaciv_final_review_pdf

Peterson, G.  Alan Greenspan Claims Iraq War Really for Oil. Times Online, 2007.

Reichley, J.A.  The Life of the Parties: A History of American Political Parties. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

Reichley, J.A.  The Future of the American Two-Party System in the Twenty-First Century, Paper prepared for presentation at Conference on The State of the Parties, Bliss Institute, Univerity of Akron, October 5 to 7, 2005 accessed at http://www.uakron.edu/bliss/docs/Reichley.pdf

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[1] J.W. Ceaser and A.E. Busch, Losing to Win: The 1996 Elections and American Politics, Studies in American Political Institutions and Public Policy Series. Lanham, Mass.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997, p. 1.
[2] J.W. Caeser, p. 145
[3] J. W. Caeser, p. 145
[4] J.F. Bibby, In Defense of the Two-Party System, in P.S. Herrson and J.C. Green, Multiparty Politics in America in Second Edition, Lanham, Mass., Rowman and Littlefield, 2002,  p. 45.
[5] J.F. Bibby, p. 45
[6] J.W. Caeser, p. 27
[7] J.W. Caeser, p. 57
[8] J.W. Caeser, p. 166, this is in reference to an account wherein Dole referred to a baseball team which had changed into another team several decades back.
[9] J.W. Caeser, p. 57, Caeser and Busch noted that Dole tried to sell himself as an elder statesman and “the last war hero on the political scene from a generation that knew something about honor and country.”
[10] J.W. Caeser, p. 119
[11] J.W. Ceaser, p. 119
[12] J.W. Caeser, p. 120
[13] J.W. Caeser, p. 119
[14] J.A.  Reichley, The Future of the American Two-Party System in the Twenty-First Century, Paper prepared for presentation at Conference on The State of the Parties, Bliss Institute, Univerity of Akron, October 5 to 7, 2005 accessed at http://www.uakron.edu/bliss/docs/Reichley.pdf, p.5.
[15] Caeser and Busch cited Edward Walsh’s article, Democrats Wonder Whether Sea Change Is Plea for Centrism, published by the Washington Post, November 10, 1994, p. 53.
[16] Accessed at http://www.house.gov/hastert/about.shtml
[17] Wildest Election in History, Time Magazine, November, 2000 Issue
[18] S. Macedo, et. al. Democracy at Risk: Renewing the Political Science of Citizenship, Chicago, Illinois: American Political Science Association, 2004. Accessed at http://www.princeton.edu/~apsaciv/apsaciv_final_review_pdf
[19] J.A. Reichley, p. 193
[20] G. Peterson, Alan Greenspan Claims Iraq War Really for Oil, Times Online, 2007

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