Clinton's Thin Win in '92 Won't Make or Break His Tenure

DURING the past year conservative commentators have rarely missed an opportunity to remind Americans that President Clinton was elected by only a plurality of voters, not by a majority.

Mr. Clinton's status as a ``minority president'' has made it easy for conservatives to challenge the legitimacy of his presidency. In a recent rebuke, nationally syndicated columnist Mona Charen reminded readers once again of Clinton's electoral vulnerability: ``Let us not forget that this president was elected with only 43 percent of the vote.'' How could Americans possibly forget? Conservatives won't let them. It's a rap they hope will stick with Clinton throughout his presidency.

It's funny that Ms. Charen's reminder could also be the first line in an essay commemorating the 25th anniversary of Richard Nixon's inauguration as president in 1969. Like Clinton, Mr. Nixon was a ``minority president,'' elected with only 43.4 percent of the popular vote.

Conservative pundits like Charen would like Americans to believe that Clinton's status as a ``minority president'' is somehow unique or at least extremely rare. Of course, it's neither. Many American presidents were elected with only a plurality of the vote and went on to govern effectively, in some cases with distinction. But conservative critics aren't interested in the historical record since it doesn't support their easy charge against Clinton. It's time to set the record straight.

The winners in 16 presidential elections since 1824 received only a plurality of the popular vote. Six of these elections took place in the 20th century. In addition to Clinton and Nixon, John Kennedy in 1960, Harry Truman in 1948, and Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916 received only a plurality of the popular vote. Not bad company at all for the current occupant of the White House.

Further, three United States presidents received an even lower percentage of the popular vote than Clinton. Wilson received 41.8 percent of the popular vote in 1912; Abraham Lincoln only 39.8 percent in 1860; and John Quincy Adams a mere 30.5 percent in 1824. Lincoln and Wilson are consistently ranked as among America's ten greatest presidents; again, not bad company for Clinton.

Conservatives also neglect to discuss the sheer number of votes cast for Clinton in 1992. Thanks to the highest voter turnout in more than 30 years, Clinton received more votes for president in 1992 than all presidents in US electoral history except Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984, and George Bush in 1988. Clinton outpolled every other American president including Nixon in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Mr. Reagan in 1980. To hear conservatives tell it, one would think Bill Clinton had one of the smallest bases of electoral support in American history, and that it casts a dark cloud over his ability to govern.

Underlying this put-down of Clinton is the assumption that presidential performance is positively related to a president's margin of electoral victory: The greater the voter support, the greater the probability of a successful presidency. Hence, it should be more difficult for a president to mobilize public opinion and gain congressional support absent an overwhelming electoral mandate.

But once again the historical record contradicts this assumption. Of the 11 presidential elections since 1952, six were won with more than 53 percent of the popular vote and five with 50.1 percent or less. If presidential performance is linked to voter support, presidents elected by a larger percentage of the electorate should be more successful on average in obtaining congressional support for their programs than presidents elected with a smaller percentage of the popular vote.

What does the record of presidential performance reveal? The average percentage of congressional support received by presidents during the term following their election is actually higher (78.9 percent) for presidents who came to office with smaller electoral mandates than it is for presidents who came to office with larger ones (64.1 percent). This finding doesn't prove presidents will be more successful in dealing with Congress if elected by a smaller percentage of the electorate. But it clearly invalidates the assumption that presidential success is determined by a president's electoral margin of victory.

How much support has Clinton received from Congress as a ``minority president''? Remember, since he only received 43 percent of the vote one shouldn't expect it to be high; but it is. Clinton achieved an 88.6 percent congressional-support score during his first year in office, second only to Dwight Eisenhower's 89.2 percent performance in 1953, the first year that Congressional Quarterly tabulated presidential-success ratings. Clinton's 1993 congressional-support score compares favorably to the first-year performance by Mr. Bush (62.6 percent), Mr. Carter (75.4 percent), and even Reagan (82.4 percent). Clinton's first-year performance with Congress is the fourth best recorded for any presidential year since 1953. Only Kennedy in 1963, Lyndon Johnson in 1965, and Eisenhower in 1953 did better moving Congress - neither what conservatives predicted, nor what they wished.

There are no doubt worthy and principled reasons for conservatives to oppose Clinton. However, it's deceptive to cast him as a less than fully legitimate president due to his electoral margin of victory. Moreover, it's inaccurate, based on the record of presidential performance, to expect a less effective presidency merely because ``this president was elected with only 43 percent of the vote.'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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