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.
Prof. Allan J. Lichtman of American University has developed a formula, based partly on peace and prosperity, for predicting whether an incumbent party wins reelection to the White House. He concluded a year ago that Clinton's reelection was inevitable and indeed wrote that in his book, The Keys to the White House. "This was an incumbent president seeking reelection with a united party at a time of prosperity at home when there was no calamity abroad comparable to the hostage crisis and when the nation was relatively tranquil at home," he says. "Incumbent presidents just don't lose historically under those conditions. No one ever has." Lichtman said his confidence was slightly shaken when the McDougals, Clinton's business associates, were convicted last summer. "It looked like something [more] might be coming out of the special prosecutor's office," he says. When nothing did, the inevitability of Clinton's reelection was restored.
The Lichtman formula is based on thirteen keys. When five or fewer are negative, the incumbent party wins. Clinton had exactly five negatives: His party, shellacked in 1994, lacked a mandate. There was serious third-party competition. Clinton had achieved no major policy changes. He'd managed no foreign-policy success. And he lacked national-hero status or towering charisma. So the eight positive keys controlled: Clinton faced no primary contest. He was the incumbent. The economy didn't fall into a recession during election year. Long-term economic growth was better than the average growth for the previous two presidential terms. There was no sustained social unrest. The administration was "untainted" by a "major" scandal. (Lichtman has critics on this one, but I agree that for whatever reasons the Clinton scandals didn't reach "major" proportions. Had White House aides or the Clintons been indicted, that would have been major.) He had no foreign-policy catastrophe. And his challenger was not charismatic or a national hero.
There's an argument that since Clinton got less than 50 percent of the vote, he was beatable. Not so. If Ross Perot hadn't run, Clinton undoubtedly would have topped 50 percent. In any case, the fact that he won despite flaws underscores the fact that peace and prosperity are controlling. Clinton didn't have much else. He's widely distrusted. His personal life is not admirable. His administration has been schizophrenic. And while the Clinton scandals were small, they were numerous. More often than not, Clinton doesn't appear presidential. Yet he won.
Would a better-run campaign than Dole's have had a chance? I don't think so. In truth, this was the best campaign Dole was capable of mustering. His debate performances, while hardly masterful, were far better than anything he'd done in the primaries. And if Dole couldn't beat Clinton, who could? Not Jack Kemp. We now know his weaknesses as a national candidate. Colin Powell? He'd have split the GOP and might have turned out to be poor campaigner. Richard Cheney? He's capable, but hardly the charismatic figure needed. Bill Bennett? Reluctant candidates never make good candidates. Lamar Alexander? Come on. Okay, Ronald Reagan might have beaten Clinton, but he wasn't available.
Nor was there an issue that might have catapulted Dole or another Republican challenger over Clinton. Dole could have done better in touting his tax cuts, but there's no history of proposed tax reductions transforming a race in time of prosperity. That happens in bad economic times. Had Dole pounded the issue of partial-birth abortion, that would have helped among Catholic voters, who rejected Dole massively. But neither it nor other social issues would have made up the 8-point deficit by which Dole lost. Earlier emphasis on character might also have been smart, but most people knew about Clinton already. They care about Clinton's character. They just care more about peace and prosperity.
By Fred Barnes