President Clinton will emerge from his present difficulties with Whitewater and other issues to make another political comeback, and he will face GOP nominee Dan Quayle in 1996, speakers predicted at "An Open Forum on the Clinton Presidency."
The January 17 IAP session included discussion of Clinton's performance thus far, reflections about his past in Arkansas and speculations about his political future. Speakers from the Department of Political Science were Assistant Professor Daniel Kryder and Visiting Scholar Timothy Groseclose.
Despite the president's recent lack of popularity, Clinton, dubbed "The Comeback Kid" during the 1992 campaign, may once again live up to his nickname, said Dr. Groseclose, an Arkansas native. Some believe he is politically dead, "but I don't think that's true. I've seen him come back from far worse things than these mid-term troubles."
Clinton will have his work cut out for him in the next two years in enacting his legislative agenda, Dr. Groseclose observed. Although all but one president between 1968 and 1992 was Republican, the bills that succeeded in winning Congressional approval and a presidential signature mostly favored the Democrats who controlled the legislative branch until this year. "I actually think that Congress has a lot more bargaining power than the president," he said. "If I'm right, the Republicans are going to be much better off these next two years than they were for the first two years of Reagan's presidency."
Although possibly lengthy hearings on the Whitewater affair may very well take place, "I have a feeling Clinton will not himself get in trouble. If anyone will, it might be Hillary," Dr. Groseclose said. "The word is that Clinton just has no ambition for money at all-it's all politics."
At the root of Clinton's problems, Dr. Kryder said, are two mistakes he made early in his term: tackling the controversial issue of gays in the military, and assigning Hillary Clinton and Ira Magaziner to produce what was eventually viewed as a massive, "big government" health care reform package that ultimately failed. These issues contributed to the public view of Clinton as being akin to a running back that "fakes right and runs left," Dr. Kryder said.
At this point in his first term, President Harry Truman was also faced with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress and little public support. "The similarities to Truman are really very striking," Dr. Kryder said. "Truman had run out of prestige and leadership probably more thoroughly than any other president since Andrew Johnson, and Clinton seems to be in a comparable position here." Clinton himself realizes this and is already planning a re-election campaign modeled on Truman's, he added. "[He was] an incumbent president running as a challenger, an underdog, and I think this is the setting Clinton faces as well."
There are areas in which the two presidents are dissimilar, and these may prove Clinton's undoing, Dr. Kryder said. Truman was "unassailable" in foreign affairs; he led a victorious country united against the new Soviet threat, and his secretary of state was George C. Marshall, the much-respected general of the army in World War II and crafter of the Marshall Plan. Also, "the problem for Clinton is that people liked Truman," he said. He was perceived as personally honest and trustworthy, whereas Clinton has been characterized as a waffler and a womanizer.
Former vice president Dan Quayle will emerge as his party's presidential nominee in 1996 because he is "an extremely aggressive and confident campaigner," said Dr. Kryder, adding that every vice president in the last 40 years (except for Spiro Agnew and Nelson Rockefeller) has been nominated by his party or has actually become president. What Clinton needs to do, he said, is emphasize his own accomplishments such as deficit reduction, push his Middle Class Bill of Rights as an alternative to the GOP's Contract with America, and imitate Truman by vigorously challenging Congress and getting out the vote, he added.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 25, 1995.