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Why Clinton Clings to Lead

No Democrat since FDR has won reelection to Oval Office

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 1996



CHICAGO

The Democratic convention opens in Chicago today with Bill Clinton in position to become the party's most electorally successful national politician since Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the days of the New Deal.

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Only a few years ago, Mr. Clinton was an obscure Southern governor best known for never-ending speeches. Today he's the first Democratic president in a generation to cruise toward renomination without a primary challenger from within his own party. If he wins a second term - as now seems possible, even likely - he'll have done something a Democrat (FDR) last accomplished in 1936.

President Clinton could falter in coming weeks, of course. Bob Dole is stumping with renewed vigor after the successful GOP convention in San Diego, and

Republicans hope that their tax-cut message, combined with voter doubts about Clinton's character, will help send the president down to defeat.

But Clinton advisers still consider the race theirs to lose. They'll use the pulpit of the convention, they say, to communicate a vision for a second Clinton term - and shape Americans' perceptions about past administration accomplishments.

"We've got a great story to tell," insists minority leader Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, ticking off a list of items that includes low unemployment, high numbers of new businesses, and cuts in the number of government employees.

It's safe to say that after Jimmy Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan 16 years ago only a minority of Democrats would have predicted that Clinton would ever emerge as their uncontested leader. Mario Cuomo, maybe. Sen. Ted Kennedy, possibly. But the Carter debacle seemed sure to block the progress of another Southerner with driving ambition and a thatch of silvery hair.

A remarkable rise

Clinton's rise is all the more remarkable when viewed against the weakness of the party at the presidential level. Since FDR only one Democratic presidential candidate - Lyndon Johnson - has won more than 51 percent of the vote. Indeed, since the end of the Civil War only three of the eight Democrats elected to the Oval Office have won a popular vote majority.

When considering the president's political progress "you have to set the stage with the general lack of support for Democratic candidates," says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M. "Clinton's broken through that by developing conservative credentials. He's been able to maintain at least the perception of being a moderate."

Clinton's moderate credentials may have been bolstered by a quality his supporters call "pragmatism" and his opponents call "two-facedness." Consider the example of middle-class tax cuts: He promised them in the '92 campaign, reversed course once in office, then decided after the GOP congressional victories of '94 that maybe they weren't such a bad idea after all.

Such flip-flopping was not unknown to the master of 20th-century Democratic politicians, FDR. Roosevelt was originally elected as a committed budget balancer, point out historians, though his legacy is that of the New Deal spender.

"Both Clinton and Roosevelt came into office during unsettled times - not that we're facing anything as serious as World War II today," says John Green, a University of Akron political scientist. "Roosevelt was able to position himself in the context of that flux and do well. Clinton's done the same thing."

Clinton has also been greatly helped by the weakness and missteps of his opponents. On the left, hard-core liberals have been split and relatively muted - though opposition to Clinton's signing of the welfare bill could change that.

Without a primary challenger from within his own party, Clinton could husband money and energy for the battle against the GOP. Perhaps more important, he didn't have to step out of his dignified Rose Garden presidential role and go out and grub for primary votes.

"Clinton has had less time when he has had to be a candidate," says Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "That has enabled him to utilize the prestige of his office. In fact, his campaign trips have been rather quiet."

And on the right, the greatest threat to Clinton's reelection - Republican revolutionaries in Congress - overreached and ended up aiding the President's cause, at least to this point.

Abandoned liberal agenda

After November 1994, Clinton looked to be a sure one-term chief executive. The GOP seemed to be the wave of the future. But Clinton abandoned the liberal agenda, symbolized by his health-care reform proposals, which had troubled many voters in his first term. Meanwhile, hubristic Republican lawmakers forced the government to shut down in their effort to enact a seven-year balanced- budget plan.

Clinton won back many voters by appearing to stand firm at the bridge against GOP assaults. Then he moved to the center and agreed with the Republican Congress on a number of high-profile legislative initiatives - welfare reform prominent among them.

The loss of Congress in '94 may thus turn out to be the twist of fortune that unexpectedly bolstered Clinton. It provides the president an institutional and political foil to position himself against.

"If Clinton were merely the incumbent running as an incumbent he'd be in trouble," says James Ceaser, a political scientist at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. "More than any race I can remember he's dependent on [running against] Republicans in Congress."