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United States: Analysis--They Like Bill, But Don't Yet Know Him

  • Don Hill

Prague, 6 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The 1996 United States presidential election results came down to this: Americans preferred Bill Clinton's personality and the status quo.

The voters turned to a vigorous, smiling campaigner of troubled reputation, who assured them in a folksy Southern accent that their economy was strong and their future was bright. They looked away from a dour, grey-faced elder, with a near-pure reputation for decency, who raspingly reminded them of his World War II wounds.

The returned to an arrangement that divides influence between Republican legislators, who call mostly for diminishing the scope of government, and a Democratic administration that promises to save for them the important benefits of government.

But the electorate took neither course with enthusiasm. Five years after extravagantly congratulating themselves for what many of them considered a "victory for democracy over totalitarianism" in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe, only half of U.S. citizens eligible to vote bothered to do so.

And of those who did vote, most were doubters. More than half of those polled coming out of voting stations expressed anxiety about a Clinton second term. And half of those who voted for Clinton said they did so with reservations.

Divided Government

Unlike parliamentary governments, the United States government has long experience in operating with a legislature controlled by the opposition. In the darkest, unpopular days of his administration two years ago, Democrat Clinton watched both houses of Congress slip into the Republican camp. And yesterday, in his triumph, he watched the voters firmly keep them there.

It was a clear victory neither for the Democrats nor Republicans nor, for that matter, for the sputtering American third-party advocates. Ross Perot, the eccentric techno-millionaire who financed his own Reform Party, faded in importance. He garnered 8 percent of the tally and about half as many votes as he did four years ago. He promised bravely in a speech yesterday to keep an eye on the government's performance, but few gave his words any weight.

Americans traditionally look with greater approval on the president and legislators in place when the United States is at peace, its economy strong and its security relatively unthreatened. These conditions make it difficult for politicans on the outside to mount campaigns on variations of the "throw the rascals out" theme.

Bill Clinton grasped this status quo dividend for himself, but it evidently worked against any hope he may have had of overturning the Republican majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Oh Yes -- The Issues

During the campaign, European commentators -- and most in the United States -- focused on the personalities of the campaigners and the tactics of the campaign. They tended to give little attention to the significant policy differences between Clinton and his opponent Bob Dole.

The differences were there, however, and logic argues that they affected the outcome of the elections, at least to some degree. The voting public was enigmatic on how much. If it sided with Clinton on the issues, it hedged all bets by siding with his opposition in races for governors' and legislators' seats.

Both candidates favored a balanced budget, but Dole called for a constitutional amendment to require it. That's a position that leading U.S. economists recognize as fraught with uncertainties and the threat of unintended consequences.

Clinton reduced military spending, but not by much. Dole said it was too much.

Clinton said he would maintain but amend U.S. affirmative action programs to advance economic and educational opportunities for minority groups. Dole said he would end them. Clinton supports a federal law barring discrimination against lesbians and homosexuals. Dole denounces such discrimination but does not support a federal law to ban it.

Clinton favors limited gun control measures. Dole opposes them. Clinton speaks out for a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. Dole advocates a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortions except in special circumstances.

Foreign Policy

Both candidates called before the election for an activist foreign policy. Clinton said in his State of the Union address that the United States cannot be the world's "policeman" but should strive to be its "peacemaker."

Dole criticized Clinton as dangerously weak in dealing with Iraq, China and North Korea. Dole at first opposed and then approved Clinton's initiative in sending U.S. ground troops to Bosnia. And Clinton now faces criticsm if, as is likely, he must decide to keep troops in Bosnia past December's promised pullout date.

Republican legislators in both the House and Senate have led the way in drastic cuts in U.S. spending on foreign aid and foreign affairs. These cuts have resulted in embarassing U.S. defaults in payments owed to the United Nations and other international bodies. Analysts say the shortage of funds also unduly impedes U.S. diplomacy.

In his acceptance speech yesterday, Clinton devoted roughly 45 of 1,100 words to foreign policy. He said the United States is "the world's indispensable nation." He called for: "finishing the unfinished business of the Cold War, and meeting the new threats to our security through terrorism and the proliferation of dangerous weapons." He said he wanted to seize the opportunities to: "extend our values of peace and democracy and prosperity."

It is unclear, however, how hard a second-term President Clinton is willing to fight for resources for foreign affairs -- and foreign interventions -- in a budget-cutting climate and against the competition of domestic need.

There were reports from Washington yesterday that Secretary of State Warren Christopher will step down soon. One candidate for his successor would be Madeleine Albright, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. A Czech-born U.S. citizen, she is popular in Eastern and Central Europe. In contrast to Christopher, she is considered TV-wise, and articulate in extolling administration views.

In one way, the split between a Republican Senate and the Democratic White House could boost her chances. She is not particularly controversial, and her nomination would be less likely to embroil the Clinton Administration in a costly confirmation battle with the Senate than would nominations of such potential candidates as egocentric Bosnia peacemaker Richard Holbrooke or Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.

The Electoral System

Technically, President Clinton has not yet been elected. In the United States, voters choose their president through what is known as the "Electoral College." Each state chooses as many electors as it has members in the Senate (two from each state) and in the House (a number proportionate to the state's population). Subsequent to the election, these electors formally choose the president. Under the law, each elector is free to vote his or her preference, but by tradition each elector is bound to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in the elector's state.

In yesterday's election, Clinton won states controlling 379 electoral votes. Dole won states with 151. That's why many writers who hesitated to call Clinton's 50 percent popular vote a "landslide" called his victory an "electoral landslide."

In the House and Senate, under the U.S. federal system, Senate candidates must be citizens and residents of their respective states. Candidates for the House of Representatives must be residents of the Congressional districts they seek to represent. House and Senate candidates often identify themselves as Republicans, Democrats, or members of lesser parties, but they are elected individually by popular vote.

In yesterday's election, enough candidates identifying themselves as Republicans won seats in both Houses to assure that in the new Congress next January, they will select the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, and the chairmen and chairwomen of legislative committees.