NOVEMBER 5, 1996
Elizabeth Farnsworth and a panel of historians discuss the potential of a Clinton White House and a mixed Congress.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm joined by Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian; Michael Beschloss, presidential historian; author and journalist Haynes Johnson; and William Kristol, editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard. Haynes, what is at stake in this election? How important is it, in your view?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: Some elections like 1936 are graven in history. That was the one that ratified the New Deal, set the modern era of American governance, a liberal--1964 was the crest of the New Deal/big government era. And now in the last 32 years, it's been a Republican era. Five of the last seven elections up until 1992 were Republican presidents, the Democrats only won twice, didn't even get 50 percent of the votes. This election, after 1994, I will argue, was going to be the affirmation of a new Republican conservative era. In fact, it appears to be not the case. It appears as if America is going back where it was--in the middle. And it is not a rejection of government--big government maybe--but not of government--whether it's Medicare or entitlements or Social Security or the rest or minimum wage, it seems to me the country is saying we want to be back where we've always been, sort of in the mushy middle, but it is not the revolution. It is not Rogues Pierre and knitting needles in Washington.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bill Kristol, what do you think, is that the way you see it?
WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: We don't quite know what has happened today yet.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I know, I know.
BILL KRISTOL: But I would actually disagree in this sense. If Clinton is reelected with a minority of the vote, that is, with less than 50 percent of the vote, and if Republicans hold Congress, it'll be the first time in seventy years Republicans will have won Congress two elections in a row, it'll be the first time since before the New Deal. That will mean that despite everything--despite a strong Clinton, a strong economy, peace and prosperity, a weak presidential candidate, all the mistakes the Republican Congress made--if they can still hold Congress in 1996, I do think it means 1994 was a watershed election, and we are in an era of at least potential Republican majority status.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you do agree in that you think there's a lot at stake here?
BILL KRISTOL: There's a lot at stake in Congress, and there would have been a lot at stake at the presidential election, except it's unclear whether Clinton will win a big enough victory to really be able to say he's got any kind of mandate.
HAYNES JOHNSON: We don't disagree about that point--the importance of where we're coming in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, do you think it's a turning point of any kind?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I think in a certain sense it's a marriage between two different watersheds. I mean, when you look at 1932, 1936, it was the time for a generation that the country decided that when you had a government out there, it should protect people from the vagaries of the economy, and that lasted for a generation. Then you had a watershed in some ways in 1980, when Reagan came in, and his voice was successful in saying--giving skepticism to the role of government, especially big government, I think as you said. And I think what you're seeing now is this sort of a mixture of the two. In a certain sense the country is saying there are certain bedrock parts of the New Deal that we will not allow to be undone, which is Medicare and Social Security, and certain economic protections against the economy. But on the other hand, when Clinton says, as one of campaign themes, the era of big government is over, Reagan's voice is still there. So I think in a certain sense you've seen a combination of these two, and we're not quite sure where it's going to go from here, which will be stronger, but they're both out there for us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, if there were that kind of synthesis, it would be historic, wouldn't it, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I think it would, but you know, the other thing is that 1936 and 1964--some of these other early elections we've mentioned--those were two--those were years where you had not only an important set of issues but also two parties, two presidential candidates who had radically different views on these issues. The people went one way or another. The fascinating thing about 1996 is you don't have that. You have the Republicans certainly having a view that government should be very much limited, especially the congressional Republicans, but Bill Clinton having yanked his party at least for 1996 toward the center, assuming at least Republican coloring, so I think in a way what that suggests, that the Republicans really had won the battle because they succeeded in getting Bill Clinton to play on their territory as much as the Democrats did with Dwight Eisenhower on theirs in the 1950's, when he essentially said, we're going to preserve the New Deal.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And are you saying that because the battle is not between left and right, two people with two very different ideas, but rather between, as somebody actually said on the show today, between the 45-yard line--yard lines--that that makes--that there's less at stake because of that?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It's less of sort of a basic important life-changing election. But the thing that's fascinating is that on Bill Clinton's side he in order to storm-proof the Democrats to survive this year had to assume a very different coloring from most the Democrats the last 60 years--same thing in Congress--during the next couple of years I think we're going to see whether people actually believe that, or whether it's simply tactical.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think one of the important things that may have happened in this election, no matter how it comes out, is that some of the hatreds from the past elections seemed to have been spiked in this election. Affirmative action played a role, but nowhere near the passionate role people thought it would, which meant that race didn't play a negative role in the same way that it has in the past. Abortion was out there before the general election started, but it wasn't a major issue during the elections, and that means that if Clinton is to win, he has a foundation to move forward on without having to worry about some of these fiery issues that take up time and energy and don't allow you to move forward.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Stick around. We'll be back to you. Jim.