The Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey of 1,005 adults conducted June 23-26 finds that only 28% "think things are generally headed in the right direction" while 53% think they are headed in the wrong direction, and that 28% approve of the job Congress is doing and 64% disapprove. Yet when asked whom they would vote for in a hypothetical match-up between President Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, they respond 46% for Clinton, 43% for Dole, 7% not sure, 4% neither. My reading of these numbers tells me that if it were Dole vs. Clinton today, Dole would win with more than 60% of the vote, win every state, including Arkansas, and almost surely bring in a GOP House and Senate. This is because respondents to the poll who strongly prefer a GOP candidate other than Dole, for whatever reason, can really only show that by saying they'd vote for Clinton over Dole. If the vote were actually held today, and Dole were the official GOP nominee, respondents could not have anyone else in mind. The desire for a new national direction would be so strong that a Dole landslide would be inevitable. A number of other GOP prospects would also do well -- Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander. But on his current track, Dole would do best at cutting into the Reagan Democrats and the black-Hispanic vote while holding on to the GOP centrist establishment.
The clearest sign that President Clinton has lost the support of the Democratic centrist establishment is the body language of The New York Times, which in recent weeks and months has been gradually distancing itself from him and the enormous defeat it smells coming for the Democratic Party in the mid-term elections. The Times, which is the voice of the Democratic establishment, is preparing for a tectonic shift in the political landscape. The equivalent would be the 1964 debacle in the GOP, which forced the Republican Party to rethink its reason for existence, in a way that led to White House victories in five of the next seven elections -- but which denied the GOP control of Congress. The Times' editorials have been warning its Democratic constituency of the weakness of the Clinton presidency in domestic and foreign policy, as well as the perils facing it as a result of the Whitewater scandals. In the Times Magazine last Sunday, the cover story "Bill Clinton's Climb," by Michael Kelly, a Times reporter, for all practical purposes announced the Times' withdrawal of automatic support for Clinton's re-election:
Bill Clinton is the first President since Richard Nixon to be threatened with the awful intimacy of rejection not simply as a leader but as a person. As was also true with Nixon, this threat flows from a deep source, an abiding public doubt about the ethical content of the President's character. Such doubt is quite different from the criticisms of job performance that plague every President. It is an assessment of the man as a whole, of what is bred in the bone, one of those national gut decisions that happens in politics, something that solidifies after the accumulation of evidence passes some tipping point: Lincoln is honest, Carter is weak, Reagan is decent but doddering, Bush is a wimp. Only Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton have been tagged with nicknames that reflected a popular suspicion that the President of the United States could not be fully trusted: Tricky Dick and Slick Willie.
Some people always tell the truth. Others will always tell the truth when the truth serves their interests. Still others will avoid the truth when it cuts against their interests. At different stages in their life cycles, political parties for this reason lean toward or avoid the truth. At this stage, Bill Clinton may be exactly the right man for the Democratic Party, which looks sturdy enough on the surface, but which has rotted out inside after so many years of putting the state at the center of its philosophy. In another passage in the Times article, Kelly writes:
A line of consequence runs from The Draft to `I Didn't Inhale' to Whitewater to Hillary's Commodities to Dan Lasater to Lani Guinier to Somalia to Bosnia to Haiti: the episodes of rationalization and compromise from Clinton's Arkansas past are the progenitors of the indecision and betrayal that have done so much damage to the White House present. Bill Clinton is today, as he was 20 years ago, clearly concerned with doing the right thing, and his Presidency still holds some of the promise that stirred so many Americans to such hope in 1992. But there is a hollowness to the Clinton Presidency, a sense that it lacks a center because the man at its center lacks one of his own.
The President and his staff and the Democratic congressional leaders huddled around him are in a state of collapse that has much more to do with the hollowness at the center of the party than any of the President's own shortcomings. This is why they cannot understand why he is not getting credit for all the wonderful things he has done, why his approval rating continues to sink. His press conference last night was obviously constructed around the assumption that the American people are just not aware of what a good job he has done. It is no longer possible to explain to him that the American people want to go away from the responsible state that he and his party offer, toward individual responsibility. His public opinion pollster tells him morning, noon and night that the people want more help, more security, more intervention in their lives from the government.
What we most have to worry about in these last months before the mid-term elections is that the President and his team will move farther and farther away from the truth, as it serves their interests less and less. The people have to be fooled into realizing what a good President he is and what a good party he represents. The "crime bill," which was meant to show how tough they are, is being opposed by all Republicans for the simple reason that it is not a crime bill at all, but more spending pork wrapped around new layers of bureaucracy and social engineering. The health care strategy is so thoroughly and completely built on legislative duplicity that even the President last night had trouble keeping his lies straight. The Democratic congressional leaders can only hope to win in the end because so many of their members are quitting this year that they might vote for whatever comes out of the black box, knowing they won't be punished by their constituents. The cynicism is up front and palpable. It is now becoming conventional wisdom that an invasion of Haiti is being cooked up for October, with the wise guys around the White House remembering how well the Democrats did in the 1962 mid-term elections, when JFK rallied the country during the Cuban missile crisis. A new outflow of refugees is likely when an early-October deadline set by Aristide ends a 1980s agreement that permits the U.S. Coast Guard to return refugees to Haiti. A Haitian invasion would be so transparently political that the electorate would take both the House and Senate away from the Democrats. Almost every day, perhaps for this reason, The New York Times editorially warns against a Haitian invasion.
My instinct is telling me that none of this will happen. The problems of the hollow Clinton Presidency are now so transparent that enough people in Congress and in the administration itself will shrink from the duplicity required to get it done. Contrary to conventional wisdom at the White House, I think the Democrats would fare better in the mid-term elections if they went home today and did not come back in September.
It is Dole vs. Clinton today, in the political skirmishing that remains to this Democratic Congress. In 1996, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Dole were the GOP candidate, although he may have more trouble once it becomes clear that the Democrats will field a nominee who is not from Arkansas.