WASHINGTON — If there's a central message to be found in the 1996 US elections, it may be this: Voters want the two big political parties that govern America to maintain a proper air of humility in their work.
That means no boastful proclaiming of mandates, no hubristic government shutdowns - perhaps no Washington use of the word "revolution" anymore. After all, when President Clinton overreached with his massive health care legislation early in his term, it led to election of a Republican Congress. Now Mr. Clinton's move toward the center, combined with voter reaction against the perceived excesses of GOP lawmakers, has enabled him to grasp the second term no Democrat has won since FDR.
Bob Dole's lurchingly uneven campaign didn't help. Evicting an incumbent president in good economic times would have been almost unprecedented. But overall, many experts say, the election was a referendum ratifying the moderation that a chastened Congress and president have pursued in recent months. It's a centrist trend that may be likely to continue.
"I think you're going to see less activism, more mutual exploration, and a kind of determining where there's going to be some cooperation," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.
Now Clinton's challenge is to shape his place in history. Pledging to build a bridge to the 21st century is one thing; earning a place in its political science textbooks is entirely another. It's unclear how the president will so distinguish himself, considering that the public seems in no mood for legislative grand gestures. Furthermore, the drip, drip of ethics investigations could greatly erode his scope for action.
That's one area where a Democratic Congress could have helped Clinton. With the majority of GOP still in charge of hearing microphones, Republicans will likely do their best to keep everything from the Democratic Party's fund-raising practices to Hillary Rodham Clinton's legal troubles in the public eye.
"The whole scandal thing is going to be a big part of the news for the next four years," says Mark Anthony, a conservative Republican author based in Orlando, Fla.
In the end, Clinton's victory was not quite the smashing rout that some polls had indicated it might be. He won 49 percent of the popular ballot, and carried 31 states and the District of Columbia, for a total of 379 electoral votes.
Bob Dole won about 41 percent of the vote, and carried 19 states. His electoral vote total of 159 was just shy of the 168 George Bush won in 1992.
"Given all of [Clinton's] advantages, this was not an enormous popular vote margin," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "If the election had been held a month ago he would have certainly been at around 53 percent."
Ross Perot, meanwhile, garnered about 8 percent of the popular vote. While far below the 20 percent he won in '92, Perot did well enough so that the Reform Party will qualify for federal funds the next time around. This virtually ensures that the Texan will remain a force in national politics for some time to come.
Women clearly played a major - if not decisive - role in the presidential vote outcome. It's true that the so-called gender gap has favored Democratic presidential candidates for many years. This time, however, female voters opted for the Democratic candidate in numbers that astounded many analysts.
According to exit polls conducted by Voter News Service, Clinton had a 17-point margin over Dole among women - 54 percent to 37 percent. The candidates ran evenly among men, with each receiving 44 percent of the male vote.
Throughout the campaign Clinton courted women assiduously. Many of the issues he addressed, such as education, or the amount of time insurance companies allow new mothers to spend in the hospital, were specifically addressed to female concerns.
Dole's emphasis on tax cuts as the cure for all family concerns seemed, in contrast, unsympathetic. "It was frequently said that George Bush reminded women of their first husband. I would say that Bob Dole reminded women of the man they never married at all," says Mr. Sabato.
Exit polls also showed that Clinton won a majority among all age groups. Dole had an edge among voters whose income is $75,000 or more, and he was the clear winner with voters who feel the state of the economy is poor.
With his reelection assured, Clinton now faces yet another fresh start. In a way, he will now be starting on a third term, not a second. He himself talks about his first four years in office as if they were composed of two distinct periods. The first half-term was marked by attempts at large legislation such as the failed health care bill; the second was characterized by a move to the center and attention to the "bully pulpit" rhetorical aspect of the presidency.
Clinton's first actions will likely involve that typical second-term activity, the shuffle of the Cabinet. Reports at presstime indicated that Secretary of State Warren Christopher has already informed the president that he intends to resign. Secretary of Defense William Perry has also indicated to friends that he is thinking of leaving, while it's no secret that many in the administration are leaning on Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary to hit the road. There's talk in Washington that Clinton would like to add a prominent Republican to his Cabinet - perhaps Colin Powell as secretary of State, or former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean in some domestic category.
But the idea that Clinton can co-opt the GOP and perhaps blunt ethics probes by giving a few Republicans nice jobs is "a bunch of hooey," says Professor Baker of Rutgers.
The first big issue that Clinton (and Congress) will face is likely to be Medicare. Look for a bipartisan commission on the issue to be named sometime in the next few months.
BEYOND that perhaps contentious topic, the coming months in Washington will probably be rather placid, say analysts. They expect the tone of the working relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill to be similar to the one that prevailed in the closing months of the last Congress: amity.
"The key words are 'small steps'," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna. "The Republicans won't get major conservative initiatives by Bill Clinton's veto pen, and Bill Clinton won't get major liberal initiatives by Congress."
With neither end of Pennsylvania Avenue able to strong-arm the other, second-tier issues may well dominate, according to Mr. Pitney. That means such things as targeted tax cuts, or opportunity scholarships.
Big government may be dead, as Clinton indicated in his State of the Union address this year. But that doesn't mean voters will go along with further big reductions in government's size, say many analysts.
Clinton officials have indicated that balancing the budget may be high on the second-term White House agenda. Health care may resurface - albeit in much less ambitious form.