The Blog


11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By FRED BARNES
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Was President Clinton's defeat of Bob Dole inevitable? Absolutely. It's the one thing that at least some Dole aides and nearly everyone advising the president agreed on by the end of the presidential campaign. Indeed, both now figure a Clinton win had been inevitable for months. The president's men give Clinton a large chunk of the credit for this. He'd cleverly moved to the right, ambushed congressional Republicans in last winter's budget battle, embraced conservative social values, and emerged as a poised ceremonial leader in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. "That essentially did it for us," a Clinton adviser says. "Nothing much changed from early spring on." For most of the campaign, Dole aides thought a Clinton win was anything but inevitable. But some of them have come around. "The bottom line is, in retrospect, this was not a winnable race," John Buckley, communications director of the Dole campaign, told the Washington Post.

We all should have known this from the start. In a period of peace and prosperity -- such as now -- an incumbent president is all but certain to be reelected. It's that simple. The president doesn't have to have been responsible for creating either peace or prosperity. Those merely have to exist on his watch. Is this unfair? Not really. If voters ousted a president who was identified with good times and didn't seem bent on triggering bad times, that would hardly be a victory for stability or continuity. But the point is, the verdict of a majority of voters is based on what they've experienced. Something more than a scandal is required to trump their experience: No president in the 20th century failed to win reelection because of a scandal. So forget about Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, Indogate, etc.

On top of peace and prosperity, Clinton presided over a period when national optimism broke out. Conservatives were surprised by this -- I was -- because they aren't especially optimistic at the moment. Dole's answer was to declare himself the most optimistic man in America. No one believed him. After a dark period, real people became hopeful. For the first time in five years, more Americans felt the country was headed in the right direction than felt the opposite. A large number of Americans believed their personal financial situation had improved since 1992. In the network exit poll on Election Day, a majority said the national economy is in good shape. Business confidence is also up.

All this meant there was nothing Dole could do to win the election. The outcome was out of his hands. He was beyond the help of strategists and consultants. Fine-tuning his campaign wasn't enough. True, if an earth- shattering event, some calamity for America, had occurred, Clinton would have been vulnerable. But Dole couldn't produce anything like that. Or if the public had come to believe Clinton was way, way out of whack with them on matters of policy and ideology, Dole might have had a shot. Clinton made sure that wasn't possible by repositioning himself to the right. This is precisely what congressional Democrats failed to do in 1994, which explains why they lost the House and Senate despite peace and prosperity.

Clinton was lucky, for sure. He hit the economic cycle right, avoiding a recession in his first four years. Nothing was more important than this because nothing poisons an administration like a recession. Absent a recession, George Bush would have won reelection in 1992. Absent a recession and a national catastrophe (the Iran hostage crisis), Jimmy Carter would have triumphed over Ronald Reagan in 1980. Absent Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson wouldn't have dropped out in 1968. Absent the Korean War, Harry Truman probably would have run again in 1952.

The list of presidents who've won reelection without both peace and prosperity has no names on it. But look at the roster of those who ran for a second term when both prevailed. Reagan got 59 percent of the vote in 1984. Richard Nixon was reelected with 61 percent in 1972. After succeeding John Kennedy, Johnson got 61 percent in his bid for a full presidential term in 1964. Dwight Eisenhower won with 56 percent in 1956. Harry Truman won narrowly in 1948, proving that peace and prosperity matter more than personal popularity and charisma (Truman had neither) when an incumbent seeks reelection.