TOPICS > Politics

Election Perspectives

November 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: On this Veterans Day, the President once again pressed the case for taking action in Iraq. And as Congress returns for a lame-duck session this week, he plans to continue setting the agenda. What does history tell us about the President’s chance for success? For that, we turn to our “NewsHour” regulars: Presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Roger Wilkins, journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and Richard Norton Smith, director of the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas.

Richard, we heard the President today in his speech at Arlington National Cemetery make the link between patriotism and service, and the need to confront outlaw regimes wherever they may be. There’s a certain muscularity in his rhetoric and there has been a lot of that since last Tuesday. Do you hear any echoes in that?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, clearly this is a man who seems to be at the top of his form. But it’s interesting, once in a while even historians are stumped. If we look for parallels to the current situation, it’s very difficult to find any. Remember after the 2000 election we all got sick of hearing about Rutherford B. Hayes and John Quincy Adams, those members of the accidental Presidents club? Well, go back and look at how they did in their off-term elections, they were disasters; in fact, Republicans lost the Senate under Hayes. Adams did even worse. Moreover, for each man it was the only off term election that he had. That tells you something about the continuing consequences of a disputed election.

By contrast, this is a President, the first Republican President in history who has actually improved his party’s standing on Capitol hill in an off term election. This is the first President in history who has managed to recapture the Senate. So it’s not surprising that you’re hearing muscular language coming out of the White House.

GWEN IFILL: Roger, do you see any parallels at all?

ROGER WILKINS: Well, Richard is right, there’s nothing like this. But I felt a parallel. I was in the administration in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson, who was riding the emotion during early ’64 of the death of President Kennedy, and even though the Goldwater victory was lopsided, the arguments were very, very bitter. So when you win and you’d win big, it’s not just the White House that feels energized and righteous. It’s everybody in the administration because elections really do make you angry and they make you feel competitive. And when you win, you do feel virtuous and you do feel that you have a mandate to do virtually anything you want.

GWEN IFILL: Did that work for Lyndon Johnson?

ROGER WILKINS: No, because what happens is you’re tempted to fly too close to the Sun. With big victories usually follow, unless people are very wise, calamities.

GWEN IFILL: Okay, Haynes. Roger beat me to the punch in using the “m” word, mandate. Was there a mandate last Tuesday?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, of course. I mean, there was a mandate to the extent that the people wanted the Republican candidates across the board. They won, as Roger said. I think it’s a mistake, however, to take this and say this is a direction blank check from the American public to give to Mr., the new President and his new power, three-party power, here you’ve got the House, the Senate and the White House and all that – there is enormous power.

But I think it’s a great mistake to interpret this as being something historic ’64, President Johnson had won this great victory, two years later his mid term election was disastrous, four years later he was out. Richard Nixon wins the White House 49 out of 50 states, two years later he’s gone. Barry Goldwater lost and that set the stage for Mr. Goldwater – later on set the stage for Ronald Reagan. All these things take place in sort of a historical maximum which the public is looking at this. This is such a small election still. If they over interpret what happened, then I think they’ll be in trouble. Look at where we were just eight years ago.

Clinton had won the White House, the Democrats had all both parties, House and Congress, and within two years after that mid term election under Clinton they lost eight Senate seats, 55 House seats, they lost a governorship across the board, and it was set up, it was certain that Bill Clinton, the wisdom in Washington, he wouldn’t even run again for President. He won the presidency. So I think we gotta be careful not to over interpret. But there’s no question this was a huge victory for the President.

GWEN IFILL: Michael, let talk about that overreaching idea. Historically is there any precedent for that sort of thing actually happening? Or are Democrats hoping that there is overreaching going on?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I’m sure Democrats are hoping and perhaps they’re forgetting that this is a President who talked about modesty during the 2000 campaign. I think he’s not likely to overreach, I think he knows about these precedents, where, for instance, Lyndon Johnson in 1965 after a big landslide a lot of cushions in both Houses of Congress, decided to pursue the Vietnam War in a way that ultimately turned out to be a disaster.

But I think I disagree with Haynes, I think this really was historic, because take a look at what happened, you had a President elected about as narrowly as it gets in 2000, comes into office, he’s been more conservative than he probably led many of the people who voted for him in 2000 to believe, they might have thought he was going to be more moderate, and then against a back drop of all that, it puts his prestige on the line, campaigns for all these Republican candidates, all the seeds were there for him to be embarrassed in a very big way; had the election results been the opposite last week we would all be talking about the repudiation of George W. Bush. I think it’s the opposite.

One other point is this. We tend to think that it’s pretty often in recent history that a President has had both Houses of Congress, but it’s really not. Eisenhower did for two years, Clinton did for two years, Johnson did. And in other cases like Harry Truman and John Kennedy, they had certainly Democratic Houses of Congress, but those Democratic Houses had a lot of people who were a lot more conservative than they were block their program. Jimmy Carter had both Houses, but a lot of the Democrats were a lot more liberal than he was, blocked a lot of the things that he wanted to do. So this is a rather rare moment in time, this is the kind of moment that Presidents really get their big things through.

GWEN IFILL: Haynes, respond to the question.

HAYNES JOHNSON: I don’t disagree with anything Michael said. It is a potential historic movement if Mr. Bush can seize upon the moment, that’s all I’m trying to say. There’s no question that he won this election, he singly won the election, I was a reaffirmation of this President and the willingness to take risks, which he did. He put it all on the table and went across the board. So I think there’s a danger if they over interpret it, depends how they move.

GWEN IFILL: Richard, I’m curious, the President had more than one big victory last week. He also had a victory at the United Nations. Is there any precedent where Presidents have been able to take their domestic popularity, which the President was able to demonstrate last week, and make it bounce abroad?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It almost works the other way. It’s interesting if it wasn’t for historical parallels. Overreaching works both ways as well. Go back 40 years, both Andrew Sullivan and Michael Marone have written about John F. Kennedy, barely elected in 1960 who took a foreign policy triumph, the Cuban Missile Crisis, into the off term elections in 1962, picked up seats in the Senate, lost only a few seats in the House. And what happened, the Republicans, frustrated, angry, resentful, moved radically to the right. They went with their base, they went, it could be argued with their heart over their head. And the rule was Barry Goldwater’s nomination in 1964, before President Kennedy’s assassination he was well on his way toward winning a decisive — if not landslide victory — in 1964. So the Democrats also, I think, have to be weary of overreaching, overreacting to their own interpretation, and to their own base.

GWEN IFILL: Roger, it’s not only what the President does or how the President reacts, it is also how Congress reacts and whether the American people are going along with him in a big way for a narrow way. How do you see that?

ROGER WILKINS: Well, I agree with everyone that this was a major victory for the President, personal victory. But it was also a massive failure on the part of the Democrats in terms of being unable, either to project a coherent message, or to project a person to deliver that message. There was nothing compelling about what the Democrats did.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about that, because a lot of people made that point. But is there some thing they missed, something they should have read or seen that should show them the path to victory in this election?

ROGER WILKINS: I think probably the economy was a major issue — both the economy and the corporate scandals, and people shrinking pensions. If I’ve heard once, I’ve heard 50 times people talking about their hatred of opening up their quarterly statements telling them what their 401(k)s are saying. So I think there was a message to be delivered, but it wasn’t delivered. So the answer really depends on whether there is any significant opposition to the President, and right now it does not look like the Democrats are in any array — the only opposition that the President got so far has been from the Europeans on the foreign policy.

GWEN IFILL: Michael – you know — I’m sure there are observers around this table for a balance for power, a divided government, Democrats in one body, Republicans in the other. That is gone right out the window? Is that significant?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It has. Well, I think it’s one of the things they like. They also like to vote for people who share their ideas, and that’s what happened I think last Election Day. And the other thing is that I think there was an awful lot during this last fall of Democratic members of Congress and candidates who in private were saying gee, this Bush tax cut is awful, but I can’t say it in public or else I’ll get defeated, or I hate the idea of going to war in Iraq but if I say that in public, I’ll lose the election.

You know, Gwen, the voters get it. Sometimes when a candidate says one thing in private and says another thing in public, to some extent because of politically timid, voters turn against that, and sometimes even vote for someone who does not share their views, even if they simply think that the guy or the woman means it.

The other thing that occurred to me, we were talking about — is there a case of a President who turned his domestic popularity into a foreign policy excess. The huge example is Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the Soviets were saying this is this cowboy, he sort of sneaked in somehow, the Americans will never accept this big defense buildup, this effort to gin up the war against the Soviet Union. Then Reagan gets a landslide victory in 1984; just after that Mikhail Gorbachev comes in and essentially sues for peace, because the Soviets said Reagan with his aggressive approach to the Cold War, this is a guy who is popular; he’s going to be there for two terms, and perhaps his movement might be there longer; that really changed the world.

GWEN IFILL: And Ronald Reagan also seriously underestimated in the same way, Haynes, that George W. Bush has been?

HAYNES JOHNSON: A doddering old fool and couldn’t keep it together, asleep at the switch, all those things for Ronald Reagan, Bush couldn’t get his syntax right and he was sort of a cowboy himself. That was a misreading totally. This guy has shown himself to be very strong, very focused and the country responded to that at a time of crisis. But there this is one thing right now about this election, again I go back to, you cannot know, 24 hours is a lifetime in the life of a politician and a country. We don’t know where the economy is going to go, we don’t know how the war is going to come out. We don’t know what all of these things are going to be. And furthermore you can’t beat something with nothing, which is what the Democrats offered.

GWEN IFILL: Richard, you’re out there at the Dole Institute, now you have another Dole in the Senate so that gives you a little bit new life, I guess. What happens now with this lame duck session we see coming up? The President has outlined an ambitious agenda, is it possible for anything to get done in a lame duck session?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I suppose it is possible, but history would argue it is extremely unlikely, and you heard interim Senator Barkley’s declaration that he will remain an independent, makes it even more unlikely. One other thing, it’s a good thing for all of us that people read history, but as a rule they don’t vote for it. In fact Bob Dole’s big mistake in ’96 was allowing that election to become a generational referendum. Remember the bridge to the future? If you were a voter and you were just tuning into this year’s election, in the last couple of weeks, it looked as if the Republicans had crossed that bridge, and a lot of Democrats were coming back. I mean, it wasn’t just Frank Lautenberg; it wasn’t just Walter Mondale. In the last days of the campaign both Bill Clinton and Al Gore were in Florida, talking about 2000, and as a rule most elections are about the future, not the past.

GWEN IFILL: How can we all forget that bridge to the future. Richard, gentlemen, thank you very much.