Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 5, 1996

The Race For The White House Is On

Steve Libowitz 
--with Ben Ginsberg

     To provide some perspective on the 1996 presidential
campaign, The Gazette has asked political science professor
Benjamin Ginsberg, who also directs the Washington Center for the
Study of American Government, to offer ongoing analyses of the
campaign. In the first Q&A with editor Steve Libowitz, which
precedes the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, Ginsberg
discusses what we might expect in the 1996 race and what each
party has to do to win the White House this year.

Gazette:  What's at stake in 1996?

Ginsberg: A great deal, more than in the recent past. Certainly
more than in the Reagan period. The Republicans are mounting a
challenge to New Deal liberalism and are prepared to dismantle
many of the institutions of [President Franklin Roosevelt's] New
Deal as well as of [President Lyndon Johnson's] Great Society. 

     They would like to return us to the era of Calvin Coolidge
and Herbert Hoover, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it
is a fundamental thing. Reaganism involved that rhetoric but once
in office, Reagan compromised with congressional Democrats,
fighting against spending on new social programs. But he did
spend on existing programs at more or less the same rate.

     The present-day Republicans are trying to undo that
compromise, balancing the budget by eliminating new programs and
cutting way back on existing programs. These guys are serious,
and the electorate is going to make a big decision. 

Gazette:  How far apart are the two parties?

Ginsberg: As far apart as at any time in recent history,
especially in Congress. The current Democratic delegation is
quite liberal, and the Republicans are very conservative. So
there is a lot of bitterness there. 

Gazette:  But Clinton's State of the Union address sounded
anything but bitter. It sounded as if he was agreeing with the
Republicans' agenda.

Ginsberg: Clinton is best at running for office. And with that
speech he was trying to position himself for the 1996 race
without much regard for what he said yesterday or what he might
say tomorrow. He says what his advisers and the polls say he
should say today. And they're telling him that he should position
himself between the House Democrats and Republicans. He's a
product of the television age, where what happens on a series one
week doesn't matter next week. 

     In 1992, he focused on the issues, but this year, the
Republicans own the issues, so Clinton's strategy is to eliminate
the issues and make the '96 race about personality, saying in
effect, "Who would you rather have as president, me or [Bob]

Gazette:  Isn't that a risky strategy considering the president's
character continues to be an issue? 

Ginsberg: It's extremely risky, but their calculation is that
people are tired of the scandal talk, and his enemies can't knock
him off. The Republicans are now very upset because they see
Clinton's strategy, and it's a pretty good strategy. And they're
not pleased with Dole. The Democrats aren't happy either because
Clinton [in the State of the Union address] moved so sharply to
the right. 

Gazette:  You don't consider his speech a genuine shift in ideas?

Ginsberg: Nothing Clinton does is genuine, which is one of his
big problems. It's one thing to be clever and tactical and adjust
your position to the necessities of political debate, but he is
too facile, and I think he's not credible. But [his political
strategists ] think in a short race he can get away with it if
Dole is the candidate and they can make it a personality contest.
Me-tooism is not a good longtime strategy, but it is to Clinton's
advantage in the short run. 

Gazette:  What can we expect from the '96 campaign?

Ginsberg: The one question that is being asked, and will be
answered early on, is whether Bob Dole is truly the front runner
or just a paper tiger. He has endorsements and money and the lead
in the polls, but he has yet to be tested in an actual race. I
think the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary will be extremely
important because there's a real question in my mind that Dole is
a viable candidate. The Republicans are having nightmares about
this. They see a weak president, a resurgence of their party and
a standard bearer that is going to be Bob Dole. And as we saw [in
his reply to the State of the Union] he just doesn't seem to have
the steam anymore. He looked older and more tired than he really
is, and we're just starting. 

Gazette:  Is there anyone else in the current field that could
take the nomination from Dole? 

Ginsberg: The rest of the field is very weak. Phil Gramm is a
stronger candidate than we northern intellectual snobs like to
think, but he's failed to catch on. Pat Buchanan has departed the
scene for all intents and purposes. Lamar Alexander is a very
capable individual but has not caught on.

Gazette:  Caught on in what respect? There hasn't even been one

Ginsberg: The first hurdle is being able to raise money. So far,
the only ones to raise money are Dole and Gramm. Steve Forbes has
caught on because he's using his own money. Gramm's standing in
the polls is relatively weak. But the first primary and caucus
can reverse everything if Dole flounders in either place. His
endorsers will desert him, and there will be a move to find
someone else.

Gazette:  What does 'flounder' mean in these two contests?

Ginsberg: He has to win handily. If anyone comes close to him
he's going to be in big trouble.

Gazette:  Who is likely to reap the benefits of an early Dole

Ginsberg: Forbes. That's why everyone is suddenly gunning for
him. By virtue of extremely heavy and extensive spending, he has
made himself a very serious contender. But you see the problem
with this primary process is that they start in these very tiny
arenas, and someone with a lot of money to spend can make a major
impression on the electorate in those states. 

     If Forbes is able to come close to Dole, then there will be
a scramble to find an alternative to Dole who may or may not be
Forbes.  Forbes is this year's Ross Perot, a businessman on
horseback who says he is above politics and interested only in
the bottom line. Some people like that, but I think it's more
likely he'll play a spoiler role.

Gazette:  If not Dole and Forbes is a spoiler and the rest of the
field is weak, who then will step up for the Republicans?

Ginsberg: I still do not rule out Colin Powell for either
president or vice president. He did not rule himself out last
fall when he announced he would not run. He's still there, and if
the Republicans have to come to him begging him to save his
country--which is the only condition he or any general since
Washington ever answers the call to politics--he may get into it.

Gazette:  So, what do the Republicans have to do to regain the
White House in 1996?

Ginsberg: They need to find a voice. They have a message but no
voice. They used to in Reagan who could present ideas in a way
that resonated with the people. For a while it looked like it
could be [Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich, but he's too
shrill. Dole is too tired. 

     It's interesting that we social scientists like to look at
politics as a set of impersonal forces that evolve over long
periods of time. But so often what happens is a function of
particular personalities who are on the scene at a given time.
Right now the Republicans have history on their side but not a
spokesperson, so it just may be that history passes them by in

Gazette:  What must Clinton do to stay in the White House?

Ginsberg: The Democrats are the reverse. They have a voice but
nothing to say. And it's more than Clinton, who is willing to say
anything. The party does not seem to stand for anything or
believe in anything. They have lost their way. They're in
terrible shape. And Clinton doesn't even care about the party,
which is why congressional Democrats have such disdain for him.
They know he could care less about what happens to them. He's
interested in the re-election of Bill Clinton, whatever that
means for other candidates or policy or whatever. So Clinton
needs to hope for Dole and then just make it a personality

Gazette:  What is your prediction for Iowa and New Hampshire?

Ginsberg: I predict that Dole will win but by a relatively small
margin, and then there'll be a scramble to see if another
candidate can be identified or if Dole can be strengthened. And
one way to do that is for him to take on a running mate who has
more energy and appeal. For example, a Dole-Powell ticket would
be a very powerful one.

     The Gazette plans to check in with Professor Ginsberg after
the New Hampshire primary, scheduled for Feb. 20.

     If you want to follow the 1996 presidential campaign on the
Internet, here are a few of the homepages that can keep you on


Countdown '96,

The 1996 Campaign,

Vote Smart,

Consumer's Guide to Presidential Candidates,

Welcome to the White House,


Politix Page,

Doonesbury's Electronic Town Hall,

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