Though he was not on the ballot in 1994, Clinton considered the off-year congressional elections a referendum on the first two years of his presidency. If so, it was a disaster, for he was soundly rejected, as was his party, which lost control of the House and Senate for the first time in forty years.
It was a transformational election that in its sweep took political experts by surprise and yet was a long time coming—the culmination of a slow decline by the Democrats that began when the issues of race and war started to tear apart the New Deal coalition. Clinton had for a long time been working to refashion the party in a more centrist and forward-looking mode to prevent the anticipated fall. But as it occurred on his watch, he was held to blame. Republicans had nationalized the congressional elections, running against Bill and Hillary Clinton as the symbols of big government, and offering their own "Contract with America" that promised tax cuts, welfare reform, a balanced budget, and laissez-faire deregulation of the business world and the environment.
As the 104th Congress that began in 1995 concentrated on the conservative agenda shaped by House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the tactical and intellectual general of the Republican revolution, there was a temptation to dismiss Clinton as inconsequential while media attention focused on Congress. A presidential news conference in April was deemed worthy of coverage by only one major television network, and Clinton was reduced to proclaiming in answer to a question: "The president is relevant here."
But he had already started to put together a comeback plan, reading books on presidential leadership, getting opinions from hundreds of people, and watching videotapes of popular predecessors, including Ronald Reagan, in top form, all to gauge where and how he had failed. Still, during that troublesome spring for Clinton, Speaker Gingrich and his self-styled revolutionary agenda of shrinking government remained at least temporarily preeminent. His every move was observed and analyzed by the press. On the constitutional see-saw of balanced powers, Congress was up and the president was down.
But within a year, the Republican revolution had dissipated. By the time Clinton rode by train from Washington to Chicago in August 1996 to accept his party's uncontested renomination, he seemed miraculously transformed and energized, busting with confidence and in full roar. He seemed, at last, to feel at home in the White House. He had practiced the salute of commander in chief to the point where he could snap it off briskly at any time, even when no military people were in sight.
During the final months of his 1996 reelection campaign against the Republican challenger, Bob Dole of Kansas, the former Senate majority leader, Clinton was confident of winning a second term and already pondering his place in history. He said in an interview that he had finally grown into the job and learned how to play the instruments of power: legislation, executive action, the bully pulpit. To succeed, he said, "a president has to use all those things... and know when it is appropriate to do which... that is a lesson I've learned from my defeats as well as from my successes here in the last four years."
But there were elements other than the education of William Jefferson Clinton to account for this extraordinary return from the political dead. The first was luck. Clinton always seemed to benefit immeasurably from the frailties of his enemies. When he was down, the people who put him there always seemed to sink quickly themselves. The man who defeated him in Arkansas in 1980, Frank White, had quickly fallen from political grace, reminders of which helped to snap Clinton out of his postelection depression.
Newt Gingrich came to serve the same purpose. His tenure as Speaker was marked by strategic blunders and verbal gaffes, and each misstep helped Clinton to recover standing. The Republican takeover of Congress, in fact, might have been a blessing in disguise for Clinton. It took him off center stage as the focus of all anger and disappointment and made Gingrich and his agenda the targets of discontent instead. It was a gift to Clinton, said Democratic senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, "and he took it and used it very well."
The second post-1994 change was the return of Richard Morris, the consultant who revived his career after the 1980 gubernatorial defeat. The call went out again to Morris, at first using a code name, in late-night telephone conversations, then more openly. Morris insinuated himself back to the center of Clinton's career and began reshaping his presidency.
The basic strategy that Clinton and Morris developed this time echoed their work in Arkansas: move to the ideological center and frustrate Clinton's conservative opposition by taking away traditional Republican issues. As part of this plan, Clinton restored his promise of a middle-class tax cut and began offering his own balanced budget proposals. Though some congressional Democrats lamented that Clinton's budget-balancing surrender would force unacceptably harsh cuts in programs, the political effectiveness of the move soon became evident. Thereafter, Clinton, seemingly immunized against such complaints, and could wage the debate not on whether to balance the budget but how to do it.
Morris was a fractious presence in the White House at first, with many of the more progressive aides dismayed at the power of this Republican-leading Rasputin. But his stock rose as it became clear that his advice was helping Clinton regain his equilibrium. Morris's "triangulation" plan—whereby Clinton established himself as a moderate third point on the political triangle between liberal Democrats and revolutionary Republicans—paid off in a way that reconciled even some of those very Democrats.
The president also managed to define himself as a contrast to Congress. He would work with Gingrich and the Republicans, but within boundaries. He would seek compromises on welfare reform and budget cuts, moving rightward, but would use his veto power when the Republicans pushed too far in cutting funds for Medicare, Medicaid, education, and preserving the environment. After never using his veto power during his first two years in office, he suddenly discovered it. As budget-cutting appropriations measures reached his desk, he vetoed several of them until they were revised to his liking. He also vetoed the Republicans' omnibus reconciliation bill to balance the budget in seven years, arguing that it cut too much from federal programs protecting the poor and elderly while providing a tax cut to the wealthy.
The Republicans had been operating on the assumption that Clinton would inevitably relent to their conservative agenda. But they underestimated his political will and overestimated their own public appeal. Clinton's resistance to the harsher aspects of the Gingrich revolution steadily boosted his popularity, as Gingrich would learn when the crunch came at the end of 1995. On two separate occasions, first in November and again in December, House Republicans voted to shut down the federal government in an effort to force Clinton to accept their budget. They assumed that the antigovernment mood was so prevalent across the land that their tactic would be popular. It was instead disastrous. Reports of workers losing their jobs and popular national parks closing dominated the nightly news. Gingrich then partly self-destructed, most prominently by whining about alleged personal slights while attending the funeral of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and during the flights there and back. He admitted the role of personal pique in forcing the government shutdown. He became a target of ridicule and his best friends in the House, who once saw him as their irreplaceable leader, began hearing pleas from their constituents to temper their rhetoric and push the outspoken Speaker into the background.
It could be argued that by paralyzing the government the Republicans lost the 1996 presidential race then and there, a year before the election. Forced to back off, their miscalculation renewed Clinton's confidence and strengthened his relationship with congressional Democrats. It gave him flexibility to hold the ideological center ground, occasionally moving to the left without losing public support, or to the right without losing the progressive wing of his party. The loyalty of this faction was sorely tested late in 1996 when Clinton agreed to a Republican-crafted welfare reform proposal that effectively ended the federal guarantee of public assistance for millions of poor women and children. Two prominent members of Clinton's health and social services department resigned in protest, but even the most disappointed liberals preferred a conservative Clinton to the Republican alternative.
The 1996 campaign lacked real competition and luster. Bob Dole's single idea was a promise to cut taxes by 15 percent. The public was skeptical, particularly when Dole himself had built a solid reputation in the Senate as a moderate pragmatist who believed that cutting the deficit made more economic sense than cutting taxes. His election year "conversion" rang hollow; his low-key personality, so useful in engineering Senate cloakroom compromises, failed to capture the public imagination, and he was reduced, in growing frustration, to alternately denouncing Clinton as a liberal and then complaining that the president had co-opted the conservative agenda. Clinton's superior political and rhetorical skills overwhelmed him, and as always, a dull campaign served to the advantage of the incumbent.
On 5 November 1996, William Jefferson Clinton was reelected to a second term. His margin of victory was wider than it had been four years earlier. He captured 379 electoral votes and 49 percent of the popular vote to 41 percent for Dole (and 8 percent for Perot, who was regarded more as a fringe candidate in his second independent bid for the presidency).
No American politician in modern times had run so far so fast as Bill Clinton. It took him merely two decades to move from his first triumph to his last, from attorney general of a small southern state to the youngest Democrat ever reelected to a second term as president. But on election night, as he stood on the portico of the Old State House in Little Rock in the warm autumn darkness and delivered a long and emotional valedictory speech, the moment evoked not just the romance of a life's pursuit coming to an end, but the anxiety of an uncertain future.