A FINAL LOOK
NOVEMBER 5, 1996
Jim Lehrer engages historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, Micheal Beschloss, and journalists Bill Kristol, Mark Shields, Paul Gigot and David Gergen on the meaning of the election results.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
JIM LEHRER: Now some final thoughts about what has been wrought here tonight. Michael Beschloss.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: You're really seeing the culmination of one of the great political comebacks in American history. Bill Clinton two years ago was considered, rightfully so, politically dead. He is anything but tonight. I think one thing, Jim, we've got a little piece of evidence tonight, second-term Presidents, as we've discussed on this program, have a little bit of a problem of overreach. It happened with FDR, with Ronald Reagan, also Richard Nixon--Bill Clinton too, after winning the governorship in ‘79, after winning the presidency in 1992, went a little bit far, I think most people think, in ‘93 and ‘94 on the basis of a 42 percent mandate. One question I think we will have to watch for with Bill Clinton the next year or two is, is this someone who remains the disciplined politician of 1996, or is this someone who was so delighted to be re-elected that there is that kind of overreach that we've seen in history? I think the acceptance speech, frankly, tonight was not very auspicious in that regard. I think it was a little bit grandiose, a little bit self-congratulatory. I hope this is not the tone that we see maintained.
JIM LEHRER: Doris Kearns Goodwin.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I'm struck by the thought that between now and four years from now, Bill Clinton's place in history will be determined. There's such a mystery to that moment. Think about FDR when he was elected in ‘32. Could he ever have imagined that he would have four terms and eventually preside over the greatest war in human history? Could JFK have ever imagined when he was elected in 1960 that three years later he would be killed and that thirty-six years later he'd still be a mythological figure in our history? Could Reagan have imagined when he was elected after a hard-fought contest with Carter that he would be re-elected by an even greater majority and probably could have run for a third or fourth term? So it's so interesting to just contemplate where Clinton stands now, and that really his place in history all lays before him. It all depends on what he does in these months ahead.
JIM LEHRER: Bill Kristol.
WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: I guess I'm struck by the fact that historians like Doris and Michael, you know, tend to look for underlying forces, but, you know, people matter and leadership matters. Bill Clinton's comeback was, to say the least, not foreordained. It was an extraordinary political feat, and yet, you have this--and on the other hand, you have an era that's potentially clearly a Republican era. They're going to get at least half the votes--it looks like--in the congressional elections. They got--the last two Republican presidential candidates have gotten, what, 38 and 41 percent of the vote. I mean, it really matters who the--who emerges as the leader of the Republicans, who they nominate in the year 2,000, and it really matters what Bill Clinton does as President over the next two years. I don't think anything--nothing is foreordained.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes Johnson.
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: Paul Gigot said earlier we're not a revolutionary country, and that's certainly true, despite our historic antecedents, and we are back where we almost always are--in the middle. And it's quite mushy. The President has a brief but stunning opportunity to move to the center, to be bipartisan, to strike a new consort with the people. Whether he can do that or not I don't know. Whether the Republicans will allow it or not, they have both been chastened. If we think where they were two years ago and four years ago, this is a fascinating election. It sets the stage for in the next two years of enormous stakes still to come.
JIM LEHRER: David Gergen.
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Jim, each side has something to crow about tonight, and neither side has bragging rights. You know, usually when a President runs and wins re-election, he does it by a big margin. The last four men to win re-election in this country won by about an average of 59 percent. Bill Clinton tonight is hovering around 50 percent. Yes, he's got a comeback--yes, the first man since FDR on the Democratic side. Even so, at 50 percent, it's not this big send-off that he needed for his presidency. The Republicans can crow about keeping the House, keeping the Senate probably, uh, but even so, they don't have the big send-off they had two years ago. So I think tonight we're in a situation where nobody quite knows whether these folks can govern together. Tonight I think we heard or saw olive branches being passed back and forth between the two parties, but there are a lot of thorns on those olive branches. And so I think the real issue for Bill Clinton now--the next eleven weeks to me are more important than the past eleven weeks--whether he can manage this transition, put his team together, put his agenda together, and deal with these underlying questions of these scandals as Bob Woodward talked about tonight.
JIM LEHRER: Paul Gigot.
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: We seem to have an election where the voters have given both sides kind of cautious second chances. Bill Clinton has an electoral vote landslide but not a popular vote--overwhelming popular vote landslide, as David suggested. 50 percent in a good economy within these circumstances is not overwhelming. Um, he looks like he won't take a Democratic Congress with him. But on the other hand, the Republicans, I think, are going to be disappointed because they wanted to get some pick-ups in the South that they're not going to get in the Senate, and they were hoping at least to break even in the House, so they come out of it somewhat, uh, chastened. I think that you--you have a status quo election where both sides are going to have to feel each other out. And, and Bill Clinton has an enormous opportunity, just like he did in 1992, because he has been given that second chance. But one thing we know about Bill Clinton is he's often least disciplined when he is most riding high. And I think that speech tonight, which was over-long and somewhat undisciplined--showed that tendency.
JIM LEHRER: Mark.
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Jim, campaign consultants and managers will be studying the comeback of Bill Clinton well into the middle of the 20th--the 21st century. I mean, it was a remarkable--if anybody had sat here with a scintilla of candor two years ago tonight--
JIM LEHRER: I know for a fact that nobody did.
MR. SHIELDS: --and said, you know, and said this guy's going to come back and win 375 plus electoral votes, they would have said Menninger Clinic waiting room in the morning, get out of here. So that--in that sense--but I think the problem he has, Jim, and in spite of the victory--and it's a marvelous victory--is that there is still--as we sit here tonight--no agenda. There is no agenda for the second term. And, uh, second terms in American presidential politics are not good.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MR. SHIELDS: They haven't been good--they haven't been good for giants like Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan, uh, or Franklin Roosevelt, who lost 75 seats in the middle of his second term. So I just, uh--and Richard Nixon who never served his out--so I, I just--with a failure to lay out that agenda, I think David's right--he has 11 weeks. But I think he's blown the past 11 weeks by not laying out what he intended to do. I think the Republicans, you will see, are far less militant, far less self-assured, uh, and a far less dogmatic group than the group that came two years ago, in spite of the fact it's many of the same people.
JIM LEHRER: And we'll all find out whether or not--whether this all adds up to being good for the country or not.
MR. SHIELDS: I hope so.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Well, we'll all find out. Thank you, Mark, Paul, and David, and to everyone else who was involved in this enterprise tonight. For Elizabeth Farnsworth, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Margaret Warner, Kwame Holman, and our enter NewsHour team, we'll see you at our regular time tomorrow evening. I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.