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1996 In Review: Politics Was The Big Story In The U.S.

Washington, 30 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - William Jefferson Clinton joined a select group of American historical figures in 1996 when he was elected to a second term as president of the United States.

Only 14 men, Clinton included, have been elected to more than one four-year term since the first presidential ballot in 1789. And Clinton's election and the year-long campaign that preceded it were the lead stories in the United States this past year.

Clinton's election victory was decisive. He received almost 50 percent of the popular vote to just under 41 percent for his main challenger, Republican Party nominee and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole.

But even if the voters' endorsement of Clinton was overwhelming, the 1996 political campaign -- if press accounts are to be believed -- was not at all memorable. Commentators complained that the campaign was not generating the kind of excitement journalists have come to expect every four years, when the nation chooses a president.

This was in stark contrast to the presidential election of 1992, when even his leadership during the Persian Gulf War could not save President George Bush from the wrath of Republican Party members angry with him over his tax policies. A previously unknown millionaire from the state of Texas, Ross Perot, tapped into that anger and ran an independent presidential campaign that took votes away from the Republican president Bush and led to the election of Democratic Party candidate Bill Clinton.

The mood of the voters in 1996 was also vastly different from 1994, when voters in the 50 states repudiated the policies of Clinton's Democratic Party and gave Republicans the legislative majority in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate together for the first time in four decades.

In 1996, however, the nation appeared to have calmed down. The "Congressional Quarterly" magazine, one of the most respected political monitors in American journalism, summed up the reason's for Clinton's victory in one phrase: "most voters coolly and dispassionately chose to ratify the existing political order."

The existing political order includes the Congress, where the Republican majority in both chambers remained intact. It was reduced to 20 seats in the 435-member House, but increased by two seats, to 55-45, in the 100-member Senate.

The consensus of political experts in the United States is that Clinton won re-election and the Republicans kept control of the Congress because both moved to the political and ideological center. The President moved closer to a position of fiscal conservatism espoused by Republicans, and Republicans moved away from advocating drastic cuts in social welfare programs.

Not all Democrats were happy with Clinton's shift to what the President calls the "vital, dynamic center." Some of his fellow party members saw Clinton's adoption of policies to limit social welfare and medical benefits as a betrayal of the Democratic Party's view of itself as defender and protector of the less fortunate. Republicans, however, were even more upset. Many of them claimed that Clinton was shamelessly adopting Republican views just to win re-election.

Still, Clinton's re-nomination by his party was assured long before party delegates met to ratify their choice at the national nominating convention in August. Dole, however, had to wage a long struggle to secure the nomination from Republicans.

The nominating campaign began in February. Dole first had to overcome a challenge from Steve Forbes, a wealthy magazine publisher who proposed a radical reform of the nation's tax policies. The Republican Party is frequently described as the "party of wealth," and Forbes' plan to reduce the tax burden of Americans was instantly popular with many people. Beyond his tax-cutting ideas, however, Forbes had little to say about how he might govern the nation and his popularity faded quickly.

More troubling to Dole and the national Republican leadership was the candidacy of Patrick Buchanan. Buchanan had been a speech writer and media policy adviser for former Republican president Ronald Reagan. He was a fairly well-known newspaper and television commentator distinguished by a combative and outspoken style.

Buchanan upset party leaders in 1992 when he briefly ran against President Bush for the Republican nomination. He gained national attention that year when he made a speech to the national Republican convention in which he said the country was in the middle of a cultural war between traditional Americans and the forces of feminism, homosexuality and extreme liberalism. Buchanan's remarks embarrassed the party leadership, which feared that Buchanan's militancy would alienate the moderate majority of American voters.

Undeterred, Buchanan sounded the same notes when he sought the party nomination last winter. He charged that immigrants were taking jobs from citizens; he said foreign trade agreements were ruining the national economy; he said the nation's Christian moral fiber was threatened by a cultural elite, and he suggested that international organizations were undermining the country's sovereignty.

Despite winning pledges of support from a few party convention delegates, Buchanan's message was eventually soundly rejected by Republican voters. Yet, he refused to give up his campaign even after Dole's nomination was guaranteed.

These distractions hurt Dole's effort to build party unity for the presidential campaign. And during the campaign, Dole was never able to generate much enthusiasm among the voters. Clinton had the considerable advantage of campaigning from the White House, and the President enjoyed the political fruits of a healthy economy and the absence of any serious international crises. Dole could not create enough doubt in the minds of the voters.

Even the White House scandals that have beset Clinton since the early days of his first term were not enough to make the voters reject him. However, Clinton was embarrassed several times this past year by incidents involving White House employees and by the legal troubles of some of his former business and political associates in the state of Arkansas.

In the spring and summer, Congressional committees investigated allegations that White House employees violated government regulations by looking into the confidential personnel files of hundreds of former White House staff employed in Republican administrations. There were never any charges that Clinton did anything wrong, but the incident gave the impression that he either tolerated such abuses of power or did not know what was going on in his own administration.

Clinton also continued to be plagued by the memory of a failed real estate investment. Clinton had been the governor of the southern state of Arkansas in the 1980s. The president and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, invested in a real estate partnership to develop a resort in Arkansas called Whitewater. It eventually went bankrupt, and the Clintons' former partners have been in almost constant legal and financial trouble.

Again, no accusations were ever leveled at the president or Mrs. Clinton, but Congressional committees probed, inconclusively, to see whether Clinton, while a state governor, misused his state office to try and keep his associates out of trouble.

A separate investigation by a special federal government prosecutor last year led to the conviction on federal fraud charges of Clinton's former partners and the sitting governor of Arkansas, who was forced to step down.

Clinton's troubles with the Congress are not over, despite pledges of cooperation from the Republican leadership in the House and Senate.

Congressional committees are expected to hold hearings in the new year on the issue of financing campaigns for national political office. The spotlight was turned on the financing of Clinton's campaign in the days before the election when official records disclosed that the Democratic Party had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations of cash linked to some banks and companies in foreign countries.

Clinton is not accused of any wrongdoing in this case either, but the Congressional committees will want to know how much influence foreign concerns might have had on U.S. policies.

Since Clinton is limited by the Constitution to two four-year terms, political observers and the press have already begun the game of speculating who will succeed Clinton after the election in the year 2000. Vice president Al Gore is the early favorite for the Democratic Party nomination. No clear leader has emerged from the Republican Party yet, but former Congressman Jack Kemp, who ran as Dole's vice presidential nominee, is frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate.