A periodic publication of observation, speculation, and commentary about state and federal political and election-year matters. Examines key issues, the political fortunes and campaigns of candidates, and anticipates how election outcomes will affect future state public policy.
Written by Craig Ruff, M.P.P., President and Senior Consultant for Public Policy.
The Advent of Campaign 1996
by Craig Ruff, President and Senior Consultant for Public Policy
Michigan and the nation go to the polls this year, and Public Sector Consultants again will periodically publish Election Watch, presenting analysis and commentary on the 1996 contests. As in the past, we will examine the key issues, discuss the political fortunes and campaigns of candidates, and anticipate how the election outcomes will affect public policy. This, the first in the 1996 Election Watch series, sets the stage.
At Stake in November
- The presidency of the United States
- All 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, including 16 from Michigan
- One-third (34) of the U.S. Senate seats, including that of Michigan’s Carl Levin
- All 110 seats in the Michigan House of Representatives (but none in the state Senate)
- Two seats each on the Michigan Supreme Court, State Board of Education, and governing bodies of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University
Key Campaign-Season Dates
Deadline for filing for legislative offices. We’ll discover how many “old-timers” in the state House of Representatives have decided to call it quits one election shy of when term limits would kick them out anyway, at the end of 1997. Also, we’ll find out whether there are any surprising entries or retirements in U.S. Senate and House contests. 4:00 P.M. is the magic hour.
Michigan’s primary. Voters pick Democrat and Republican candidates for federal and state legislative posts. As of today, two of the more interesting contests are
- the GOP contest for the privilege of challenging Carl Levin. Combatants are Ronna Romney, former GOP national committeewoman and narrow loser in the 1994 Republican U.S. Senate primary, and Jim Nicholson, a Detroit businessman, and
- the fate of Congresswoman Barbara-Rose Collins (D-Detroit), who is under siege for alleged misuse of campaign and House funds and also for mistreatment of her staff.
GOP National Convention, San Diego. I’m wondering on which day Pat Buchanan’s 2:45–2:55 A.M. speech will occur.
Democratic National Convention, Chicago. You may think it has just to do with the 1996 election, but it also has to do with the next one. Tea-leaf readers will be interested in who is chosen to nominate President Clinton and whether Vice President Gore tops his 1992 acceptance speech.
Republican State Convention, Lansing. The GOP will pick candidates for the state supreme court and the education boards. Republican incumbents include Supreme Court Chief Justice James H. Brickley, Wayne State Governor Vernice Davis Anthony, University of Michigan Regent Deane Baker, and State Board of Education members Ruth Braun and Marilyn Lundy.
Democratic State Convention, Detroit. The Democrats will assemble their slate. Their incumbents include Michigan State University Trustee Robert Weiss, Wayne State Governor Murray Jackson, and University of Michigan Regent Nellie Varner.
Election Day. Only about half of the registered voters will show up.
Pundit Summit III, co-sponsored by Public Sector Consultants, Inside Michigan Politics, and Public Affairs Associates. Several “Thursday morning quarterbacks” will pontificate about the election outcome. Book early (details to follow).
Craig Ruff has been with Public Sector Consultants since 1983. Prior to joining the firm, he was employed in state government, primarily as a special assistant to Gov. William G. Milliken and then chief of staff for Lt. Gov. James H. Brickley. He is a veteran of many local and state political campaigns and a keen observer of all aspects of the political process. He is a frequent writer and radio and television commentator on public policy and political matters. Mr. Ruff holds a B.A. in political science and M.P.P. in public policy, both from University of Michigan.
Setting the Stage: Federal Offices
by Craig Ruff, President and Senior Consultant for Public Policy
This Election Watch examines the races for jobs in Washington, D.C.
At this writing, President Clinton trumps Bob Dole in national opinion polls by about 20 percent. Toss in Ross Perot, creating an electoral menage a trois, and Dole still trails Clinton, by about the same margin. The following three schemes suggest how each could win in November.<
President Clinton wins 42 percent of the popular vote, Dole 39 percent, Perot 17 percent, and Ralph Nader 2 percent. Clinton triumphs because
- he gets credit for steady economic growth (Aren’t you better off than you were under Bush?),
- with Newt as Speaker of the House, only one voter in ten really wants a Republican in the White House (not even Newt does),
- given the choice between two pragmatic centrists, a few more voters choose the safe harbor of the incumbent over the less-certain leadership of the challenger,
- a domestic and/or foreign crisis rallies the nation behind the president, and
- Clinton confirms that he is the single most effective national campaigner in the nation’s history; Dole confirms that he is not.
Dole wins 42 percent of the popular vote, Clinton 39 percent, Perot 17 percent, and Nader 2 percent. Dole triumphs because
- consumer confidence in the economy diminishes,
- congressional Republicans acknowledge that they were just kidding with all this change rhetoric,
- all else (experience, knowledge, centrist philosophy) between Clinton and Dole being equal, the character gap looms large, and
- a domestic and/or foreign crisis calls into question the president’s compass, and
- Dole’s wooden campaign style is refreshingly unslick.
Perot Ties Things Up!
Perot walks away with 24 percent of the nation’s popular vote and the 43 electoral votes of Washington, Oregon, Maine, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, and Alaska; Clinton and Dole each garner 37 percent. The Texan triumphs as the spoiler because
- he has more money to spend than the others (they are limited to $70 million because they use public funding),
- he concentrates his $100 million in the right states,
- his people have some seasoning, and he knows who is an effective organizer in a state and who isn’t, and
- he learned a lot from 1992: Don’t drop out early, pick a credible running mate, and take at least a little political advice from folks who know.
Under this outcome, the election goes to the U.S. House of Representatives. The House delegation from each state caucuses and casts one vote for a presidential candidate, who needs 26 votes to be elected. If the scenario carries any possibility, we’ll continue this story in October—in time for Halloween.
Bob Dole wins. It’s a battle between Clinton and Not Clinton. The character thing emerges as the issue. Some softening of the economy shakes consumer confidence. Perot rallies disaffected and anxious blue collar workers and ends up hurting Clinton at least as much as Dole did.
Having given Dole the early nod, I must share this piece of trivia: Only one congressional leader—House Speaker James Knox Polk—has achieved the White House by popular vote. Only two others have gotten there by other means: Lyndon Baines Johnson (like Dole, a Senate majority leader) arrived there through succession, and Gerald Ford (House minority leader) made it via appointment and succession. The U.S. Congress is not the steppingstone it’s cracked up to be.
It seems implausible today that Clinton could lose. Indeed, the president is soaring. Staking out the virtual center of public opinion last fall, he terrorized both the public and congressional Republicans over GOP-inspired budget cuts. In a ritual of role reversal, Clinton, in his 1996 State of the Union speech, pounded a stake into the heart of the vampire of big government and laid claim to being leader of both the nation’s conservatives and liberals. Nevertheless, keep in mind that at this point in 1988, Dukakis led Bush by 17 percent, and at this stage of the 1992 contest, Clinton trailed both Bush and Perot.
If the election occurred now, Clinton’s victory would resemble that of another centrist, Dwight Eisenhower, in 1956: a 58–42 percent popular vote margin and a decisive 457–74 electoral-college and slide.
Republicans hold a 53–47 majority. Eighteen of their 53 seats are up for election, compared to 15 of Democrats’ seats. History’s greatest emigration from the U.S. Senate is underway: Eight Democrats and five Republicans are voluntarily calling it quits, and they will be joined by one or more incumbents defeated for reelection.
Among open seats, Republicans have decent shots at winning Democratic seats in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Georgia. Democrats like their chances in Maine.
Among incumbents, Republicans that possibly could be beaten are North Carolina’s Helms, Oklahoma’s Inhofe, South Dakota’s Pressler, and South Carolina’s Thurmond. Democrats at some risk include Massachusetts’ Kerry, Michigan’s Levin, Minnesota’s Wellstone, and Montana’s Baucus.
Factoring everything in, look for the Republicans to gain a couple of seats.
Currently, the U.S. House of Representatives is composed of
- 236 Republicans,
- 195 Democrats,
- one Vermont Socialist, and
- 3 vacancies.
Forty-two members (28 Democrats, 14 Republicans) have announced their retirement. Of the Democrats, 16 come from districts that meander through the South; Texas alone has 7! Since open seats are easier to win than those with incumbents, the GOP stands to gain 10 seats or so.
On the other hand, lots of Republicans are in risky shape. More than 120 of them are relative newcomers, seeking only their second or third terms—the point at which representatives historically are most vulnerable. Moreover, the popularity of the GOP-led House is lurching toward single digits. Newt Gingrich is pinned with the extremist label, hurting him and his caucus. The national referendum that put the GOP into control in 1994 is not apt to repeat itself. This means that every Republican representative is back to all politics is local. It remains to be seen if enough of them understand that.
Some Democrats think that the pendulum will swing back—that the Republican’s seismic gains in 1994 logically will evaporate into big Democratic gains in 1996. The last time Republicans scooped up lots of seats (32 in the 1980 Reagan victory) they promptly gave 24 of them back to the Democrats, in 1982. But history’s lessons are inconsistent. Democrats gained 45 House seats in the Watergate year of 1974 and gained one more two years later. Republicans gained 47 seats in 1966 and added another five the next time around.
With 218 seats necessary to control of the U.S. House of Representatives, I look for the Democrats to nearly meet—or exceed—the 23-seat gain they need to dethrone Gingrich.
In national opinion polls, congressional Democrats currently enjoy a 5–7 percent lead; translated to votes, it means that if the election were held today, the Democrats would gain 40–60 seats.
U.S. Senator Carl Levin
Senator Levin is not invincible; either GOP contender (Ronna Romney or Jim Nicholson) could upend him this fall and join Republican Spencer Abraham in the most exclusive club in the nation. Not in 40+ years—since 1954—has Michigan had two Republican U.S. senators.
Levin’s longevity—18 years—is not the political advantage it once was. If the Perot vote is large, say 20 percent, it’s a good bet that a large number of Perotistas will vote against incumbents of all partisan stripes. Add them to the Dole Republican vote, and Levin could be unseated.
Levin’s advantage comes from his broadly acknowledged integrity and principles. Even his every man look—rumpled suits and contact lens–free face—is refreshingly honest. While upstaged in the past by former Sen. Don Riegle’s charismatic prowess as campaigner, there’s nothing lightweight about Levin’s track record: knocking off two-term Republican incumbent Bob Griffin in 1978, holding off a strong challenge from astronaut Jack Lousma in the Reagan landslide of 1984, and fending off then-congressman and current state senator Bill Schuette in 1990.
More than likely, the most interesting primary election result in Michigan will be the GOP senatorial contest. Romney certainly did not disgrace herself in her narrow loss to Abraham in 1994. Businessman Nicholson already is buying the advertising time he needs to catch up to Romney in name recognition. The winner will be battle-tested for the fall but drained of much of the funding needed to wage an all-out assault on Levin.
At this juncture, the safe bet is that Levin will win reelection.
Michiganians in Congress
Among the state’s members of the U.S. House of Representatives, only Barbara Rose-Collins (D-Detroit) faces a difficult primary, although Nick Smith (R-Addison) and perhaps others will receive some intra-party competition. Allegations of Rose-Collins’s ethical lapses, misuse of staff, and campaign finance irregularities entice upwardly mobile Democrats, and she will be fortunate to survive the August primary.
Currently representing Michigan in congress are seven Republicans and nine Democrats. Several of the Democrats are accustomed to strong Republican challenges, but since 1967 only three sitting Democrats have lost reelection bids (Albosta, VanderVeen, and Carr.) This year about five expect tough races and another, Bart Stupak, may yet draw a strong challenger. Following are the percentages of the vote received in 1994 by the Democrats who could be at risk:
- Dale Kildee, 51 percent (9th District: Flint, northern-Oakland and southern-Lapeer counties)
- David Bonior, 62 percent (10th District: St. Clair and Macomb counties)
- Sander Levin, 52 percent (12th District: Southfield area)
- Lynn Rivers, 52 percent (13th District: western-Wayne and eastern-Washtenaw counties)
- John Dingell, 59 percent (16th District: Monroe and eastern-Wayne counties and Dearborn, of course)
On the Republican side of the aisle, in November Rep. Dick Chrysler (R-Brighton) squares off against former state senator Debbie Stabenow. Other than a Republican seat in Nebraska, Chrysler is targeted by the Democrats like no one else in the nation. The other six Michigan GOP seats are safe. My feeling is that unless something stems the growing tide against House Republicans, we can look for Stabenow—who possesses astonishing campaign qualities and energy—to win and give Democrats a tenth congressional seat.
NEXT WEEK: How the races for offices in Lansing stack up.
Setting the Stage: State Offices
by Craig Ruff, President and Senior Consultant for Public Policy
This Election Watch gives an overview of the fall races in Michigan.
This is an “off” election year in Michigan; that is, the slate for state offices is somewhat shorter than in years divisible by four. This year we elect only members of the state House of Representatives and a portion of the seats on the supreme court and the education boards. The state Senate, governor, attorney general, and secretary of state are not up for election this year.
Michigan House of Representatives
It is impossible to predict which party will control the state House of Representatives in the 1997–98 session. In the current session, the Republicans hold a fragile 56–54 majority, and in the fall election, no fewer than 20 of the chamber’s 110 seats could change partisan hands. Because it is easier for a political party to pick up an open seat than one occupied by an incumbent, observers carefully watched the steady trickle of retirements.
Fourteen representatives—eight Republicans and six Democrats—are calling it quits. The Republicans all hail from dependably Republican districts, while two of the Democrats (Joe Porreca of Trenton and Tracey Yokich of St. Clair Shores) hold swing districts; the other four Democratic seats (Michael Bennane of Detroit, Maxine Berman of Southfield, Floyd Clack of Flint, and Carolyn Kilpatrick of Detroit) are considered safe.
For 87 representatives first elected in 1992 or earlier, this is the last time they are permitted to seek reelection. Come 1998, our constitution’s six-year term limits on state representatives kick in. Some members want to see history through to the end (Once more, with feeling!). Others want to start other careers now, rather than exit with scores of other similarly qualified job seekers. As of now, the 1998 turnover will be 76 of 110 members. To forestall a critical vacuum of House experience and institutional knowledge 30 months from now, we need a combination of more retirements and some defeats in 1996.
Public Sector Consultants will be publishing a district-by-district analysis of candidates and their prospects.
Michigan Supreme Court
This fall Michigan voters likely will learn quite a bit more about the invisible branch of state government—the judiciary—and most notably, the state supreme court.
Terms expire this year for two of the court’s seven justices. The chief justice, James H. Brickley, will seek another term. His colleague, Charles Levin, is ineligible because he is over age 70.
Three of the justices (including Brickley) were nominated by Republican state conventions and three by Democratic state conventions. Levin, the seventh, chose to create his own political party and remain independent of the parties. If Brickley keeps his seat (his incumbency designation on the November ballot and name recognition should prevail), the winner of the other eight-year term decides the partisan balance of the court.
Health care and business interests are raising money furiously to support candidates likely to be defendant-friendly in negligence and medical- and product-liability cases. The so-called trial bar, representing plaintiff attorneys, customarily has out-financed business in supreme court races.
Michigan Supreme Court contests generally are reserved affairs. Judicial canons expressly prohibit candidates from discussing issues or matters that may come before them. Candidates, therefore, have little to talk about other than their personal qualifications, experience, temperament, and very general jurisprudential philosophy. (Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, why we bother with elections, as opposed to appointments, as the means of selecting justices?)
Look for a lot more advertising in 1996 but no more elucidation on issues. The campaign spending will draw attention to the high court, making it, its work, and its membership better known.
Eight education posts are on the statewide ballot: two seats each on the governing bodies of the big three state universities and the State Board of Education. Each board’s current partisan balance and its members whose terms expire, with their partisan affiliation, are listed below.
State Board of Education
- Six Republicans, two Democrats
- Ruth Braun (R); Marilyn Lundy (R)
Michigan State University
- Three Republicans, four Democrats, one Independent
- Russ Mawby (I); Robert Weiss (D)
University of Michigan
- Four Republicans, four Democrats
- Deane Baker (R); Nellie Varner (D)
Wayne State University
- Four Republicans, four Democrats
- Vernice Davis Anthony (R); Murray Jackson (D)
What’s at Stake
Control of the Michigan House of Representatives looms as the single most important state issue to be decided in November. Democrats badly want a foothold in state government policymaking; Republicans are accustomed to moving policies and budgets through a well-greased process and would find sharing power more than a little aggravating. It has been fifty years since a Republican governor enjoyed four consecutive years of a Republican-controlled legislature (Harry Kelly, 1943–46), and Governor Engler (or Binsfeld?) no doubt would like to see the new session start with that streak ended.
Also keep an eye on the supreme court contests—who receives the nominations and the level and tone of advertising. It isn’t going to be business as usual this year, and the outcome could affect the direction of negligence/liability in Michigan.
by Craig Ruff, President and Senior Consultant for Public Policy
This Election Watch includes commentary on key primary election results, the public mood, and party prospects.
Michigan’s primary voters filled out much of the November general election ballot. The state political party convention delegates will finish the job by nominating candidates for the state supreme court and education boards.
Far and away, the GOP senatorial primary between Ronna Romney and Jim Nicholson grabbed the most attention. Repulsive character assassinations dramatized the absence of issue differences, other than abortion. When a campaign’s focus turns to whether a person is (a) worthy of using a former spouse’s last name or (b) a scum feeder because a relative receives public assistance, you know that policy differences do not amount to a hill of beans.
Abortion—more particularly, Right to Life’s impressive organization—tipped the scales for Romney. In 1994 in Kent County, home to the most numerous, passionate Right to Lifers, Romney polled 35 percent of the vote against Spencer Abraham, who carried their endorsement. In 1996 Romney carried their endorsement and polled 59 percent against Nicholson. If you lived anywhere besides West Michigan, you may not have seen Romney’s abortion spots on TV. There, you could not have missed them.
Every neutral observer writes off Romney’s chances against Carl Levin. Looking at Levin’s advantages (incumbency, respect and integrity quotient, financial war chest, stature, party unity, and the current, strong Democratic winds in the air), it’s hard to see how Romney can compete.
Still, give Romney credit . . . and a chance. In two bitter statewide races, she endured some of the most personal, negative attacks seen in Michigan politics. Upended by them in 1994, she came out the good loser, ever the party loyalist, and absolutely determined to try again. Fending them off in 1996, she emerged spunky, spirited, and clearly thrilled to make the big leagues.
Since women emerged in the 1980s as credible, and not merely quirky, candidates for high profile electoral positions, Romney becomes the first in Michigan to make the November ballot for U.S. senator or governor. Colleen House Engler, Debbie Stabenow, Lana Pollack, and—two years ago—Romney came close but failed in their primaries.
Unsurprisingly, Romney needs to define the contest as voters’ choice between an Engler-Abraham conservative in the mainstream of taxpayers’ thought and an old-style liberal out of touch with the conservative times. Levin has seen the ploy before, deflected it, and ridden stature and integrity to reelection. This year Levin must have wondered whether stature alone could insulate him from the conservative tide: His vote for welfare reform effectively neutralizes that issue.
Romney is the underdog who needs money—big-time money—and fast. If she gets it and frames the campaign, she’s got a chance. Long odds, but not insurmountable.
Michigan House of Representatives
Three incumbents lost bids for renomination: Saginaw Republican Roland Jersevic, Macomb Democrat Lloyd (Pete) Weeks, and Detroit Democrat Nelson Saunders. Weeks’ and Saunders’ seats are dependably Democratic; the Jersevic seat could go either way and becomes perhaps the single most important factor in determining which party controls the state House of Representatives in 1997–98.
In the everyday lives of everyday Michiganians, partisan control of the state House of Representatives means more than any question—other than the presidency—on the November ballot. Public education, roads, public safety, economic development, public assistance, health care, environment, and recreation and culture directly affect the quality of our lives. It is the governor, senate majority leader, and Speaker of the House—Republicans all—who negotiate and set these policies.
Shell-shocked Michigan Democrats need to win a seat at the policymaking table of state government, if for no other reason than to stem the GOP tide. Since 1988 Republicans have gained two state senate seats, ten state house seats, the governorship, secretary of state, and a U.S. Senate seat. It’s been ten years since the Democrats celebrated a net election gain in state House of Representatives’ seats. Republicans suffered a similar ever-descending draught between 1967 and 1980. After awhile, political action committees, lobbyists, the media, and legislative caucuses treat a downward-sliding party as irrelevant and hopelessly mired in minority status. As a self-fulfilling prophesy, campaign monies, party loyalty, and voter passion dry up, digging deeper the hole.
Everyone is free to guess which party will win control come November; it’s a democratic freedom. But you certainly cannot predict it with certainty.
Democrats like the winds blowing their way from a reinvigorated Bill Clinton and backlash against perceived GOP extremism in Washington, D.C. They are buoyed by hopes that a presidential-year turnout much higher than in 1990’s or 1994’s gubernatorial elections will bloat Democrats’ vote tallies. Only a couple of Democratic incumbents in marginal districts (Tracey Yokich in Macomb County and Joe Porreca in Wayne County) retired this year; typically, an open seat changes partisan hands more easily. Democratic leaders seem focused this year, targetting their money and organizational resources better than usual.
On the other hand, Republicans have money like never before. They have recruited a handful of very credible challengers to incumbent Democrats, like Karen Willard in Lapeer and St. Clair counties and Clark Harder in Shiawassee County. The GOP’s most hard-pressed incumbent, Jersevic, was retired in the primary, possibly improving chances that a Republican can hold the district. Republicans hope either that Dole wins or comes close, Perotistas vote Republican, or crotchety ticket-splitters pulling the lever for Clinton and Levin look for Republicans to support to ease their independent consciences.
Public Mood and Partisian Fortunes
American voters seem to be of a hundred minds. Some are ridden with anxiety, primarily about tomorrow’s economy; some are downright confident. Values-driven adults divide between feeling that the country has lost its moral compass and frightened about tolerance taking a back seat to righteous dogmatism.
On these things, most Americans agree: The era of big government is over, overall the nation is on the wrong track, and government and politics are less relevant than they were and less influential to their well-being than many other factors, including their family, workplace, religious faith, and community.
Largely bereft of crisis and passion, the centrist, temperate voters are in the driver’s seat. Some domestic or international crisis before November 5 could provoke a flight from moderation to the right or left, but with each passing day, that scenario’s prospects decline. Reading the mood well, both the Democrats and Republicans scramble madly to stake out the heart and center of American thought. The Clinton/Gore ticket’s themes are inextinguishable from Nixon/Ford’s; Dole/Kemp’s are fairly inextinguishable from Carter’s. It’s the 1970s all over again: A detente between the American political parties.
Despite a disastrous and moribund May, June, and July, Dole still can win, but he needs luck. Dole needs a prosecutor’s or investigative reporter’s help in cementing the character gap with Clinton. Interestingly, as Clinton morphs with Dole on issues, the character issue rises in prominence; if you cannot find a whole lot of difference on positions, personalities become the focus (as with the Romney-Nicholson contest).
Clinton’s huge leg up stems from the economy. Consumer confidence stays high. Inflationary pressures are in check. Economic growth is slow, but it surely beats decline. The federal deficit is down, way down, from early 1990 projections. Dole’s recent immersion in and conversion to tax cuts only underscore Clintonomics’ success.
Republican women summon little enthusiasm for Dole. They are more anxious than men about his age and the Right to Life tilt of the GOP; many are angry. Many like Clinton’s compassionate centrism. Dole needs to reclaim allegiance from the 20 to 30 percent of Republican women who have drifted away.
A couple of things to watch in coming weeks include the Perot entry and traditional liberals’ and Republicans’ respective enthusiasm.
Shorn of deep conflict, the looming presidential campaign gets interesting with the entry of Perot (or an outside chance of Lamm). The Reform Party’s pleas for sacrifice—for putting deficit reduction first and foremost—tend to complement Clinton’s themes and compete with Clinton/Gore for the deficit hawk vote. Perot gives people who generally oppose the President a convenient parking place other than Dole, thus cutting into Dole’s vote.
The Reform Party poses many questions: Will Perot’s emphasis on deficit reduction allow Dole/Kemp to emerge as the growth-and-opportunity optimists against the gloomy Guses, Bill and Ross? Will Perot hold on to the Republican sympathizers he carried in 1992 or will this year’s Perot voters be less wealthy and less Republican? Against whom (Clinton or Dole) will Perot aim his television buys? How much will Perot invest?
The other dynamic worth watching is the relative enthusiasm of partisans. There’s much about the Clinton approach in 1996 that resembles Blanchard’s campaigns for governor. You head for the center, disown traditional liberal positions, and appeal aggressively for the middle class. Twice it worked for Blanchard, but once, in 1990, it lulled the liberal, urban base of the Democratic Party into not voting. Wilderness liberals—academics, disadvantaged, racial minorities, city dwellers—may have no alternative on the ballot, save possibly the Green Party. But they do have the option of sitting out the election.
The Dole Tax Cuts: Good Politics or Good Economics?
by Robert J. Kleine, Vice President and Senior Economist
This Election Watch discusses the implications of Senator Bob Dole’s tax cut plan.
What is the best way to revive a moribund political campaign? Offer a tax cut, of course. It worked for John Engler and New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, and Bob Dole is hoping it will work for him.
The Dole tax cut plan will reduce federal income tax rates by 15 percent (5 percent in 1997, 10 percent in 1998, and 15 percent in 1999), provide a $500 per child tax credit, cut the capital gains tax rate from 28 percent to 14 percent, and repeal the 1993 tax increase on Social Security benefits. The plan is estimated to save taxpayers and cost the federal government $551 billion over six years. To pay for it, Dole contends that the tax cuts will generate enough economic growth to replace about 27 percent of the revenue; the remainder will come from unspecified cuts in programs other than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and defense, which—along with interest on the debt—account for about 73 percent of the federal budget.
Although Bob Dole has promised to balance the federal budget by 2002, how it can be done is not clear. The Congressional Budget Office currently is projecting a deficit of $285 billion in 2002, assuming discretionary spending increases at the rate of inflation (if discretionary spending is capped at the 1996 level, the deficit in 2002 is estimated at $178 billion). The Dole plan would add about $100 billion to the 2002 deficit, assuming a recapture of about 27 percent of the revenue loss. Balancing the budget would require cuts of $278–385 billion in 2002, or 51–71 percent of federal expenditures not excluded from cuts. Senator Dole has suggested that these numbers could be reduced by cutting corporate tax breaks and selling government assets. It is hard to imagine, however, that cuts of this magnitude would be politically acceptable. The deficit has been reduced from $290 billion in 1992 to an estimated $117 billion in the current year. One hopes that this hard-won progress will not be thrown away for the sake of election-year politics.
Republicans argue that the tax cut plan will stimulate faster economic growth, which they assert is too slow. The standard used by Republicans to judge acceptable economic growth is the period from 1982 to 1989 (after the Reagan tax cuts and before the Bush tax increases). During this period, real gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an annual rate of 3.9 percent (1982 was at the bottom of a recession and 1989 was at the top of a recovery). The only fair way to measure long-term economic growth is over the course of a business cycle. From 1979, the peak of the previous cycle, to 1989, the peak of the 1980’s recovery, the rate of GDP growth was 2.7 percent. This is comparable to the growth rate of 2.6 percent from 1990 to 1995 and 2.5 percent from 1973 (the year of the Arab oil embargo) to 1995.
We too would like the economy to grow at a faster rate, but there are constraining factors. First, if the economy grows faster than capacity, the rate of inflation will increase. The growth in economic capacity is determined by the growth in the labor force and worker productivity. From 1973 to 1995 productivity increased at an annual rate of 1.25 percent and the labor force by 1.4 percent annually, indicating that economic capacity is increasing at an annual rate of 2.6–2.7 percent. Labor force growth has slowed, however, to an average of 1 percent in the past six years and, because of demographic trends, is likely to continue at this low rate for the foreseeable future. As a result, economic capacity is expected to increase about 2.2–2.3 percent unless worker productivity increases. Second, the Federal Reserve Board is committed to controlling inflation by limiting the growth in demand to the growth in economic capacity. If the economy grows at a rate of much more than 2.5 percent annually, the Fed will raise interest rates, which will slow the economy and offset the stimulative effects of a tax cut.
The key to success for any economic growth plan is raising worker productivity. From 1970 to 1978 productivity increased at an average annual rate of 2.4 percent. From 1982 to 1989, after the Reagan tax cuts, productivity increased at a rate of 1.6 percent. Since 1990, productivity has increased at an annual rate of 1.1 percent. Few economists believe that a tax cut can have much of a long-term effect on productivity. To the extent that people work harder because they can keep more of their paycheck, there could be some small gains. No one is certain, however, about how to substantially boost productivity. Clearly, a better-educated workforce and increased investment in new plants, equipment, and technology will help, but by how much is unclear.
If a tax cut increases the budget deficit and does not boost economic growth, what is its value? One can argue that taxes should be kept as low as possible, and if there is evidence that taxes are higher than they should be, a tax cut is justified. As Calvin Coolidge once said, “Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery.”
There are several criteria that can be used to determine the appropriate level of taxation. The first is whether revenues are sufficient to pay for the programs that the public demands, as determined by the political process. Under this criterion, one can argue that taxes are too low given that the federal budget deficit is over $100 billion and it is unlikely that budget cuts of this magnitude would be politically acceptable.
The second criterion measures federal receipts as a percentage of GDP compared with previous years. In 1995 federal receipts were 19.3 percent of GDP, which is up from a low of 18 percent in 1984 but only slightly above 1989, the peak year of the last recovery (and prior to the 1990 and 1993 tax increases), when receipts were 19.2 percent of GDP (see Exhibit 1). The increase since 1984 is mainly due to economic growth and increases in corporate income taxes and Social Security taxes. As a percentage of GDP, the personal income tax is down from 8.8 percent in 1987 and 8.6 percent in 1989 to 8.4 percent in 1995. These data indicate that the current level of taxation is not excessive, particularly the level of personal income taxes. As an aside, in 1981 federal receipts were 20.2 percent of GDP and the personal income tax was 9.6 percent of GDP, the highest levels since 1969 (after enactment of an income surtax to finance the Vietnam War) and not exceeded since World War II. This pro- vided justification for the 1983 Reagan tax cuts.
A third criterion is to compare U.S. taxes with taxes in other industrial nations, which is instructive but carries little political weight. In 1993 taxes at all levels of government—federal, state, and local—claimed nearly 30 percent of GDP. The average for the 24 nations composing the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was about 40 percent; only Japan, Australia and Turkey had lower taxes than the United States.
A question everyone asks is: What does the tax cut mean to me? Exhibit 2 presents estimates of the effect on Michigan taxpayers. These estimates do not include the reduction in taxes on Social Security benefits or businesses. Because there is little detail available on the Dole tax plan, these are rough approximations of the effects, but they should be reasonably accurate.
The total tax savings for Michigan are estimated at $5.1 billion (1994 dollars) or $1,205 per tax return. (Families with several children age 18 or under will receive larger savings.) The tax savings range from $227 per return for filers with incomes of $15,000 or less to $31,616 for filers with incomes of $200,000 or more. Clearly, the plan favors higher-income taxpayers because they pay higher taxes and capital gains are skewed more toward them. For example, 73.5 percent of all filers with incomes of $200,000 or more reported capital gains, while only 12.3 percent of taxpayers with incomes of $30,000 to $49,999 did so.
Another way to look at the effect of the tax cuts is as a share of adjusted gross income (AGI). For the lowest income category, the savings are calculated to be 3.6 percent of AGI. This may be overstated, however, as some families may not have a tax liability high enough to receive the full benefit of the $500 per-child credit. As noted above, the benefits are skewed toward high-income taxpayers, with the savings calculated at 2.5 percent of AGI for filers with income of $15,000 to $29,999 and 6.6 percent for filers with income of $200,000 or more. Although this does not meet an economist’s definition of fairness, most taxpayers probably will view most of the plan’s components favorably.
In the final analysis, judgement on the proposed Dole tax cuts comes down to two critical questions: (1) Are the tax cuts fair as judged by the American people—not by economists? (2) Are the expenditure cuts needed to balance the federal budget politically acceptable to the American people? (The answer to the latter question likely will not be known until after the election.) If these questions can be answered in the affirmative, the proposed tax cuts are responsible and, while there may not be much economic benefit, there also will be little harm to the economy. Most important, Dole’s plan sets up a clear debate between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton as to the level of services the American people are willing to pay for and the acceptable options for generating more economic growth.
October 18, 1996
It IS the Economy, Stupid!
by Robert J. Kleine, Senior Economist and Vice President
This Election Watch discusses the effect of the economy on the presidental race.
The key to success for the incumbent in almost every presidential election is the state of the economy, and it will be no different this year. One of the main reasons Senator Dole trails President Clinton in the polls is that the economy has been expanding for 68 months, the third longest expansion since World War II.
Bob Dole is downplaying the strength of the economy by making the case that the economy is growing too slowly and real incomes have been stagnant since 1973. The latter is true if you look only at household income, but it is not true of total income in Michigan. From 1973 to 1995, Michigan personal income (adjusted for inflation) increased at an annual rate of 1.7 percent (the U.S. increase was 2.1 percent), and if one goes back to 1967, the rate has been 2.5 percent (see exhibit). During that 28-year period there have been four recessions (officially, only two—in 1980 and 1982), with the most severe occurring from 1980 to 1982, when real personal income declined at an annual rate of 3.3 percent (real wages and salaries plummeted 6.2 percent). Despite the maturity of the current recovery, there are no signs of a recession on the horizon.
One need only look at recent income growth in Michigan to see why the president has a big lead in this state. From 1991 to 1995, real income increased at a robust annual rate of 4.3 percent, compared with only 2.4 percent nationally. This is well above the 2.8 percent rate of growth in Michigan from 1982 to 1989, touted by Republicans as the “Reagan recovery.”
One reason that Michigan is doing so much better now than in the 1980s is that the auto industry had fallen well behind foreign manufacturers and was restructuring in the mid- to late 1980s. Today, the fruits of that restructuring are obvious—U.S. automakers are in a strong competitive position, and Michigan has experienced the strongest income growth since the late 1960s and the lowest levels of unemployment (4.5 percent in August) in 30 years.
All is not well, however. A closer look at the data shows that a large share of the benefits of strong economic growth is concentrated at the high end of the income spectrum. In 1967, 70 percent of total personal income was in wages and salaries; 12.6 percent in dividends, interest, and rent; and 7.2 percent in transfer payments (Social Security, welfare, and unemployment benefits). In 1995 only 59.2 percent of income came from wages and salaries, while 16.5 percent came from dividends, interest, and rent and 16.2 percent from transfer payments. The large increase in dividends, interest, and rent largely has accrued to upper-income individuals, and the large increase in transfers mostly has gone to senior citizens in the form of Social Security benefits. Middle-income and low-income families receive almost all their income from wages and salaries, which increased at a real annual rate of only 1 percent in Michigan from 1973 to 1995.
The Republicans do have a good case in saying that the average family is not doing that well, but ironically, this is traditionally a Democratic issue and likely will not play well for the GOP. Despite the economic uncertainty that many families feel, it is likely to be overpowered by the overall strength of the economy, particularly in Michigan—a fact that gives President Clinton and the Democrats great comfort.
October 25, 1996
The Politics of Comfort
by Craig Ruff, President
Michigan is in a state of bliss. Its people are comfortable and optimistic. Its workers are bringing home good paychecks, and plenty of jobs are opening up daily. Come November, its voters are likely to shower people in political power with votes of confidence.
It has been a long time since life and politics seemed so easy here. We are accustomed to political cynicism, economic woes, vexing property taxes, high crime rates, and pundits’ pessimism. We have precious little experience in handling so much good news: low unemployment, economic confidence near all-time highs, big stock market gains, low inflation, declining crime rates, and improved student test scores. The economic problem facing some areas is labor shortages! Even the weather has been good.
Welcome to Prozac politics. Five years ago we wanted to strangle politicians. Now we want to cuddle them. Stars of August’s national political party conventions were people on the A-list of daytime talk show guests who spread “Queen for a Day” tributes to the magnanimity of America. Handlers for the presidential and vice presidential debates sedated contestants, who came across as sunshine boys: bosom buddies who had just won a $25 million Lotto and quibbled amiably about who bought the winning ticket.
Campaign issues are light as air. Like the feather in Forrest Gump, taxes, education, health care, poverty, and crime float above the campaign battlefields. None has connected with the voters on the ground. Complacent voters do not want to hear about problems—a far cry from bad times, when voters only want to hear about problems.
On the Good Ship Lollipop, the public passengers feel great. It doesn’t get any better than this, except maybe next year.
A comparable presidential election year was 1956, when voters reelected Republican Dwight Eisenhower in the middle of another period of economic expansion. In 1956, auto sales were skyrocketing. The nation was in a frenzy of building schools, homes, hospitals, TV sets, and manufacturing plants. Unemployment nationally was 4.1 percent (now 5.2 percent) and inflation was 1.5 percent (currently 3 percent). The stock market was up 13.3 percent (compared to about 15 percent so far this year). A notable contrast: The federal government racked up a surplus of $3.9 billion on a budget of $70 billion (it will only “lose” $115 billion this year).
In Michigan in 1956, unemployment was 6.9 percent (4.7 percent currently), but it was as low as 3 percent in 1955, probably the single best economic year in the state’s history. Our personal income had skyrocketed by 11 percent in 1955 and rose a respectable 4.1 percent in 1956.
The nation handed Eisenhower a victory over Democrat Adlai Stevenson by 58 percent to 42 percent (457 electoral college votes to 73). But Democrats—who narrowly controlled both houses of Congress, as the opposition GOP does today—gained two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and one seat in the U.S. Senate. Like Clinton, Eisenhower defied partisan labeling and clung close to the center of American ideology. Eisenhower was a Clinton Republican, Clinton an Eisenhower Democrat.
Eisenhower carried Michigan in 1956 with 56 percent of the vote. But Democratic Governor Soapy Williams won by 290,000 votes, his largest plurality in six gubernatorial elections. Despite Williams’ landslide, Republicans picked up two seats in the Michigan House of Representatives.
Almost everywhere you looked, incumbents won in 1956. The partisan spoils were shared by Republicans and Democrats because both parties shared credit for the bounty of the times. You can go much further wrong than predicting 1996 election results—from the White House to the statehouse—that mirror 1956 results.
Still, you can find pockets of sourpusses. Rock-ribbed conservatives detest Clinton personally and believe that socialist tendencies live in whatever vestige of a soul he possesses. Ardent liberals, who have been rebuilding now for forty years, bemoan Clinton’s success at any philosophical cost and dream of a Donna Shalala/Robert Reich ticket in 2000.
Economic growth putters along at 2.5 percent a year, lower than in most previous recoveries. More than 30 million Americans—one million in Michigan—do not have adequate health insurance. Each day, 135,000 children bring a gun to school, 1,106 teenagers have abortions, 1,512 teenagers drop out of school, 34,000 people lose jobs, and 3,000 couples divorce.
But enough bad news already. After all, life is a box of chocolates. Let’s hear it for the incumbents!
October 31, 1996
by Jack Bails, William R. Rustem, and Kelly R. Stewart
This Election Watch explains why voters should vote NO on Proposal D and YES on Proposal G.
Historically, Michigan voters have supported natural resource and environmental protection ballot proposals. On this year’s ballot, however, voters will be asked to choose between two natural resource management proposals that are diametrically opposed to each other. Both proposals relate to the management of game animals in Michigan.
Proposal D would ban the use of dogs and bait to hunt bears. It has failed to win the endorsement of any major conservation or environmental organization in the state and is vehemently opposed by the state’s largest conservation organization, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC).
On the other hand, Proposal G, which would return the authority to regulate the taking of game, including bear, to the Natural Resources Commission, is supported by MUCC and most other Michigan hunting and fishing groups. It is likely that both proposals will pass, and if that happens, the proposal with the highest vote total will become law.
Proposal D is a legislative initiative championed by Citizens United for Bears (CUB). CUB is an organization financially supported primarily by two individuals who for many years have objected strenuously to bear hunting with dogs because, as large land owners in northern Michigan, they claim to have suffered trespasses by inconsiderate bear hunters pursuing their dogs. CUB also is supported by numerous national anti-hunting organizations that relish the thought of an initial anti-hunting victory in Michigan, home to over a million licensed hunters.
Supporters of Proposal D claim that the ban will “. . . reduce the number of orphaned cubs,” a clear attempt to win sympathy from Michigan non-hunters who are not likely to know that in Michigan the shooting of a female bear with a cub is prohibited. In addition, CUB television ads encouraging a “yes” vote on the proposal depict a group of hunters with dogs pursuing and shooting a bear cub. Once shot from the tree, the cub is allowed to be mauled by the dog pack. The scenes, not photographed in Michigan, depict actions that are illegal in this state and are clearly intended to portray to the general public that using a dog to bear hunt is a brutal blood sport directed at defenseless cubs. While many television stations have stopped running the advertisement due to its misleading message, the only image of bear hunting the Michigan public has ever seen is the one shown in the ad.
Following are some facts about Michigan’s bear hunting policies. After considering them, we hope you will agree that a NO vote on Proposal D is in the best interest of all Michigan citizens and wildlife.
- In 1990 the MDNR and Michigan bear hunters cooperatively supported a statewide permit system for bear hunting. This system secured the future of the black bear in Michigan by limiting the number of bears to be harvested in each of the eight black bear management units. The number of permits issued is based on the number of bears in the area and the number that should be removed to protect both the bear population and humans. Hunting bear with the use of dogs and bait currently is permitted in Michigan because dense forests and swamps make tracking impractical. To ensure a healthy breeding population of black bear, Michigan prohibits the taking of females with cubs and cubs.
- With this system in place, Michigan’s black bear population is now estimated at 10,000. The population is reproductively successful, has low cub mortality, and is considered to be thriving in the lower and upper peninsulas. This has caused their range to expand yearly and led to an increased likelihood of bear/human confrontation. Black bears have been reported as far south as Grand Rapids. According to the MDNR, bear sightings have increased 500 percent since 1991.
- Bear populations must be kept in balance. Ninety-five percent of all bears are taken with the use of bait or dogs. Even still, only 27 percent of permitted hunters are successful. In Pennsylvania, where baiting and dogs are prohibited, the success rate drops to only 1 to 2 percent. If Michigan had a success rate of less than 2 percent, only 18 to 36 bears per season would be removed, unless the current quota on the number of bear hunters is removed. This would not provide adequate control of Michigan’s bear population. Without effective hunting methods, such as baiting and the use of dogs, wildlife managers lose the most practical tool in controlling bear populations, and many bears would have to be destroyed by the state as nuisance animals.
- Eliminating the use of dogs and bait in bear hunting is likely to increase the number of females and cubs that are taken. Baiting or the treeing of bears with dogs allows a hunter time to identify the size and age of a bear before making a kill, resulting in a higher harvest of males than females. In Pennsylvania, bears are often shot before their age can be identified; cubs make up 23 percent of the annual bear harvest in Pennsylvania.
Proposal D should be voted down because it has all the markings of a special interest proposal intended to restrict the legitimate activities of a select group of citizens without clear public benefit of any kind. It also could potentially generate long-term negative effects on an otherwise sustainable wildlife resource that is enjoyed and respected by a wide variety of Michigan citizens. The common interests of those opposed to hunting and those few individuals who believe that stopping bear hunting with dogs is just punishment for past trespasses have forged a powerful alliance. They already have influenced a significant number of non-hunters in Michigan with their message that bear hunting is bad and that using dogs and bait is the worst kind of hunting. If CUB is successful, expect more special interest referenda on the next statewide ballot.
Proposal G is a belated legislative response to Proposal D. It would reinstitute the power of the independent Natural Resources Commission to regulate the taking of game animals, including bear; this authority was transferred from the commission to the director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) just four years ago. The proposal would require the commission to employ “principles of sound scientific management” in making decisions regarding the taking of game and to minimize human/bear encounters.
Proposal G would bring back a management system for game animals that served Michigan citizens and its wildlife well for over 70 years prior to 1992, when an executive order of the governor gave exclusive authority to set game regulations to the director of the department. The proposal would require that public hearings be held before regulations are set.
Proposal G is good public policy and should have been the subject of its own ballot initiative even before the bear issue became a hot topic. Conservation organizations statewide banned together in the 1920s to support the creation of an independent commission to manage our state’s natural resources. For good reasons, they again support returning authority to the commission, where decisions will be made in an open public forum.
Our heritage of allowing diverse, sustainable use of our publicly owned natural resources is unique. Our ability to preserve large portions of land in public ownership, to allow hunting and fishing of publicly owned fish and wildlife, and to provide millions of hours of recreation to non-consumptive users of our wildlife resources is at risk. If we begin to selectively exclude various users based not on scientific information about what can be sustained but, rather, on the personal preferences of a few, we will erode the broad base of public support that has kept Michigan a national leader in natural resource protection and management. The ballot box is not the best place to manage wildlife. Let’s stick with a system that has served us well for over 70 years and produced sustainable populations of both game and nongame wildlife that are the envy of nearly every other state. If you agree,
Vote “NO” on PROPOSAL D & “YES” on PROPOSAL G.
November 8, 1996
Postscript to the 1996 Election
by Craig Ruff, President
This Election Watch looks at the national and Michigan political outcomes of the recent election.
The Big Mo—political parlance for Big Momentum—stood for Big Moderation this year. Just as Clinton’s Democratic Party got blistered in 1994 for liberal excess, Gingrich’s Republican Party got bruised in 1996 for conservative excess. Across the nation, this year’s voters saluted centrism.
Americans are in no mood for major change. When times are comfortable , voters cling to what they have, hewing to moderation and rewarding incumbents. Comfort breeds complacency, which prompted many to stay home and not vote at all. As a percentage of those who are eligible, fewer people cast ballots this year than in any presidential election since 1948.
Old enough to know better, Bob Dole thought that paying one’s dues through military service and decades of public service would translate into votes. He joins history’s ranks of presidential rejections and the overlooked who were dedicated, decent, and extraordinarily experienced statesmen—Walter Mondale, Gerald Ford, Robert Taft, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster come to mind.
One of Dole’s discarded strategists, Don Sipple, describes Dole’s perspective this way: “His clock stopped in the late 1950s or early 1960s. He is a man not of his time.” Voters eschew staleness. Just because minimalism is trendy in modern music and interior design doesn’t mean it works in politics. Bashing Dole’s campaign is painfully easy.
What started out as a stroke of boldness—Dole embracing a 15 percent tax cut—turned sour. Never did more than 40 percent of voters believe that the cut was possible to achieve. Moreover, Dole always has been a deficit hawk, so the plan seemed utterly inconsistent with his own record. As Kurt Vonnegut writes: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
William Jefferson Clinton won his second term. Clinton brilliantly staged a comeback from irrelevance in 1995, moving to the front rank of America’s best-ever political communicators.
Clinton is a charismatic listener. His empathy and concern for the everyday problems of everyday people are utterly captivating to about 50 percent of Americans. A mandate for empathy is a mandate for whatever you want the president to be.
As campaigner and policy leader, President Clinton won by biting off precisely what he can chew. He convinced comfortable voters that he is their bulwark against extremism. He is at his best when he marginalizes policy issues (e.g., focusing on parents having the right to take off a few hours from work to be at a child’s sickbed, instead of on the broader issue of child care, and on tax cuts for people selling their homes or having children in college, instead of on the boarder issue of tax reform.
In the first two years of the most incongruous presidential term in U.S. history, Clinton championed big issues. While successful in winning congressional action on family leave and the deficit-reduction tax package, he could sell neither national health care reform nor his 1993 economic stimulus package. Shell shocked by the 1994 Republican sweep, Clinton conceded policy leadership to the Congress. Luckily for him, the GOP did not play it safe. The president characterized the Republicans as engaging in right-wing extremism and then fended it off sufficiently well to win reelection. Like a conservative football coach, he played for the tie: A Democratic White House holding in check a Republican Congress.
Not understanding the public’s skepticism toward big promises and ambitious agendas, Dole lurched into a morass by pledging to cut federal income taxes by 15 percent. At no point did even half the voters find the proposal credible—let alone desirable.
Biographers will have a field day psychoanalyzing Clinton and the people who voted for him despite their doubts about his trustworthiness and character. As Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter can vouch, decency is not sufficient to win election.
I don’t know what Clinton wants his legacy to be. I see him as communicator more than governor. His decisions flow from his instinct about what the American people want rather than what he believes is right; I believe his leadership is enshrouded in “followership.” He strikes me as needing very much the public’s appreciation for him as healer. Like alternating popes, he is the good shepherd and not the principled philosopher.
History is not terribly charitable to consolidators, healers, and empathetic shepherds. The banners are awarded to fighters. But Clinton may believe that nothing is more important than restoring the “communitarian” spirit of America, to stymie the trends toward ethnic and religious tribalism, economic segregation, and atomized interests. From the lectern of the White House, Clinton ministers to the nation, assuaging fears, damning intolerance, and preaching social and individual responsibility. The pen of the president serves the pulpit; power flows not from his deeds but from his voice.
Individually, voters picked 472 members of Congress, 438 members of the House of Representatives and 34 U.S. Senators. Collectively, voters stamped approval on divided government by continuing to permit Republicans to run the legislative branch. The voters are comfortable, and they gave credit for that comfort to incumbent Republican members of Congress as willingly as they did to the sitting president.
From 1953 to 1993, Republicans held the White House for 28 years, but they dominated the U.S. Senate for just eight years and the U.S. House for only two. Today, roles are reversed: The Democrats enjoy the White House’s control of patronage and appointments, judicial nominations, the bully pulpit, foreign relations, and state dinner invitation lists. The Republicans enjoy the power to initiate public policy and craft the budget. Democrats set the tone of public discourse. Republicans control the public purse. I suspect this is precisely what the majority of Americans want.
Newt Gingrich may not be finished as a national political figure, but he no longer is a national leader. He is far too scarred by his demonization—too deeply etched in the public’s mind as an extremist and zealot and a nemesis of 1996 GOP candidates all the way down to the courthouse level. Incongruously, the Speaker could not have asked for an election outcome more favorable to his combativeness or national platform (try to picture Newt playing second fiddle to Bob Dole!). He was delivered the best result, but he cannot take advantage of it.
By painting Gingrich as a nightmarish fiend, the White House has ignited a take-no-prisoners war with House Republicans in three key areas: ethics investigations, campaign finance, and Medicare. It is folly to think that this Speaker, however weakened, will kiss and make up with this president. In the coming year we will hear an incessant drumbeat of congressional hearings into alleged Democratic Party and White House wrongdoing. You can write off bipartisan compromise on campaign financing; the GOP will write reform to its benefit and force presidential vetoes. And you can practically see the vengeful expectation on Newt’s face when he contemplates the president sending to Congress a Medicare-protection program of benefit cuts and premium increases.
The U.S. Senate will be considerably more conservative next term. Gone from the Republican caucus are nearly all its remaining moderate compromisers (Packwood, Hatfield, Cohen, Kassebaum, Pressler, and, of course, Dole). The majority leader, Trent Lott, presides over a Republican caucus now even more conservative than Gingrich’s. With GOP gains in the South and the retirement of older moderates, the center of the Senate has all but disappeared. This will make negotiating with the White House more difficult than before.
Worse yet, the 1998 Senate contests could give Republicans a filibuster-proof majority (60 seats) during Clinton’s last two years. In 1998, 18 Democratic and 16 Republican Senate seats will be at stake, and some of those Republican incumbents could be at risk: Coverdell (Georgia), Coats (Indiana), Bond (Missouri), D’Amato (New York), Faircloth (North Carolina), and Specter (Pennsylvania). But five Democrats will be aged 73 or older and perhaps looking to retire: Bumpers (Arkansas), Inouye (Hawaii), Ford (Kentucky), Glenn (Ohio), and Hollings (South Carolina). In addition, six other Democratic incumbents will find tough sledding: Boxer (California), Moseley-Braun (Illinois), Reid (Nevada), Wyden (Oregon), Murray (Washington), and Feingold (Wisconsin). Gaining five or more seats in 1998 is within reach for the GOP, which would put them at the 60 seats necessary to stop Democratic filibustering.
As long as we’re looking ahead to 1998, I will point out that Democrats face long odds in regaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives in that election. The party holding the White House historically suffers big losses in the midterm elections of the president’s second term: Reagan lost only 5 Republican House seats, but Nixon lost 48, Johnson 47, Eisenhower 48, Truman 28, and Franklin Roosevelt lost 80. The current economic expansion began in 1991, and it will be fully seven years into its cycle by the 1998 elections—the second longest ever in peacetime. Any economic slippage will take its toll on Democrats.
When the polls opened on November 5, the outcome of virtually every contest affecting the state—save the following five—was easy to predict:
- Would Congresswoman Lynn Rivers (D-Ann Arbor) stave off a stiff challenge?
- Would incumbent Congressman Dick Chrysler (R-Brighton) survive?
- Would the Republicans hang onto state House control, lose it, or deadlock with the Democrats?
- Presuming that incumbent Chief Justice James Brickley would win one state supreme court seat, who would win the other?
- Would state voters approve casino gambling in Detroit?
Rivers survived. Chrysler did not. The Democrats gained four seats and thereby regain control of the state House by a margin of 58 to 52. Marilyn Kelly, a Democratic nominee, will join Brickley on the Michigan Supreme Court. Casino gambling won the voters’ endorsement.
In headline-worthy contests, Michigan’s Democrats fared extraordinarily well. Clinton’s 14-point edge over Dole (his margin over Bush in 1992 was 8 points) sufficed to provide Democrats with a clean sweep of statewide education posts and the extra edge with which to topple Chrysler and three Republican state representatives. In the second slot on the ballot, U.S. Senator Carl Levin won by 18 percent, thinning the insulation for Republicans farther down the ballot.
The takeover of the Michigan House of Representatives dwarfs all other Democratic achievements. It gives the party a coveted seat at the state governing table and also a titular leader—a genuine spokesperson for the party—in Speaker-apparent Curtis Hertel.
Republicans are kicking themselves for letting House control slip away in 1996, when they ought to be kicking themselves for not taking better advantage of the Republican years in 1990, 1992, and 1994. As my colleague Jon Hansen points out, after three consecutive elections in which Republicans fared very well, the GOP should have opened a gap much wider than the 56–54 margin they held in the state House. Giving up four seats in a Democratic landslide is nothing to be ashamed of; gaining only seven (six of which were won in one election) over three favorable election cycles is.
The pendulum swings the Democrats’ way, and the Democratic Party takes advantage. In Curtis Hertel, the party finds a strong voice. The party holds ten of Michigan’s 16 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, is guaranteed a seat in the U.S. Senate through 2002, places four members on the seven-member state supreme court, and holds majorities on all three elected university governing boards.
Copyright © 1996