|Clinton and Dole Debate||The Clinton- Gore Team|
1996: Little Ideas, Big Dividends
The 1996 run for re-election
completed the transitional phase that Bill
Clinton had been going through. He had drifted into rough political
waters in the initial years of his first term. The bold new ideas that he
had run on in the 1992 election were soundly rejected, and in the 1994
congressional races, the voters showed their displeasure. Republicans
solidified control of the House and Senate. From that moment forward,
Bill Clinton sought out the middle. Two years later, Clinton had won back
the public's trust. The economy was booming. Americans gave Clinton
much of the credit. The President's job approval rating was in as much of
a recovery as the job market. With much of the
nation satisfied with the economic prosperity, Bill Clinton was staying in the
middle. The election was his to lose.
The Republicans presented Bob Dole as their nominee. Dole was the Senate Majority Leader, and his candidacy seemed almost as if it was given to him out of gratitude for his years of faithful service to the party. His personality was the total opposite of Clinton's. He was old-fashioned, inarticulate, and pragmatic. One analyst observed that Dole was the "anti-Clinton." The contrast in personalities turned out to be the major theme of the campaign for the Republicans. They decided to replay the same election rhetoric that had failed to work for George Bush. Dole pointed to the numerous times that Bill Clinton had displayed questionable judgment in his private life. He asserted the administration had toed the line of corruption. Also, Dole turned to traditional Republican standbys in his attacks on Clinton. He stated that the President had "signed the largest tax increase in history." He railed against Clinton for weakening the military and ignoring the war against drugs. As the election went on, Bob Dole's message never really developed into a definite strategy. He merely through blind punches at the untouchable Clinton. The Republican nominee eventually conceded the lack of direction. Towards the end of the campaign, Dole admitted, "We've never had a strategy for winning this election."
The strategy for the President was obvious. He would run a campaign similar to Reagan's 1984 re-election bid. The idea was to defend the big lead by placing attention on the prosperity and to not make in any bold new policy statements. Aggressive advisor, James Carville's tactics from 1992 had been replaced with Dick Morris' "triangulation." The talk moved from a few big ideas to many small gimmicks. The Clinton team began using the media to get out the catchy phases that went with the gimmick. They also began an ad campaign that focused on the positive changes in the last couple of years. The goal was to accentuate the positive. The strategy worked as Clinton never made a misstep in preserving his sizable head start.
The media also helped the Clinton team in two other instances. First, the press was constantly repeating polling data that showed him in the lead. With good reason, Dole felt undermined by the constant mentioning of the gap. The persistent reminders eventually led to Dole's bid being decried as "struggling" and "frustrated." Second, popular culture had seemingly normalized Clinton's questionable behavior. Senator Dole's attacks on Clinton's character came off as prudish and square. Saturday Night Live was a primary example of this viewpoint. On the show, Bill Clinton was celebrated as the likable jokester that could talk his way out of any situation. Dole was simply portrayed as a grumpy old man.
The press did eventually come to the aid of Dole. In the final days before the election, allegations of illegal fundraising on behalf of the White House gave the voters a final reminder of the character issue. However, Dole did not have the luxury of time, and the late charge fell short. Clinton won the popular vote, 49.2% to Dole's 40.9%. However, in the electoral votes, Clinton triumphed over Dole, winning 379 of the electoral votes to Dole's 159.