Now The Hard Part

Faculty reflect on an unmemorable presidential campaign and mull Clinton's prospects for a second term

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

If nothing else, the campaign of 1996 will be remembered for the emergence of soccer moms and eye blink rates on the political landscape.

But while this year's campaign may have had few memorable moments, said several Boston College faculty last week, it will likely produce some far-reaching results that could make President Clinton's second term more difficult than his re-election effort.

If that re-election seems a foregone conclusion, they say, it is because skillful politics, a robust economy and, ironically, the Republican Party have combined to fuel the president's momentum.

Though he may not be totally responsible for a generally good economy, Clinton is reaping its political benefits, according to Assoc. Prof. John Tierney (Political Science). Clinton, of course, does not control the workings of the Republican Party, but there too he has been fortunate, Tierney said.

"Clinton has had a good foil," he explained. "He was able to demonize a zealous, over-reaching GOP majority, especially in light of the federal government shutdown. He also has as his opponent Bob Dole, who inspires little passion, even among some members of his own party."

But the faculty members add that Clinton has been effective in responding to setbacks from the 1994 congressional elections. His work on welfare reform and crime, for example, and his advocacy of V-chips and school uniforms enabled him to appropriate a significant part of the more conservative GOP agenda. This centrist positioning has helped Clinton appeal to suburban voters, who constitute a majority of the electorate, faculty say, and in particular suburban mothers - the so-called "soccer moms."
From left: Prof. Kay Schlozman (Political Science), Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science), Prof. Charles Derber (Sociology) and Assoc. Prof. Dale Herbeck (Communication). (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

As a result, the Clinton-Dole debates were "pretty vapid" and almost anti-climactic, said Assoc. Prof. Dale Herbeck (Communication), who served as a presidential debate analyst for the Boston Globe . "The only times when presidential debates matter, like in 1960, 1976 or 1980, are when there are large numbers of undecided voters," he said. "But with Clinton and Dole, many people already had a strong idea of where they stood. The conditions were just not ripe for this kind of communication to have an impact."

Indeed, faculty said, the debates seemed to draw more attention to the candidates' personalities and rapport with audience - and their eye-blink rates [see accompanying story].

Prof. Kay Schlozman (Political Science) feels the election, with its reliance on more expensive forms of campaigning, has done little to attract citizens to the political process. Schlozman, who studies public participation in politics, and her fellow researchers found that the wealthiest 9 percent of the public, in terms of family income, are responsible for 55 percent of the dollars given to political campaigns.

"The role of money has serious implications for politics, who becomes involved in politics and what kind of influence they may have," Schlozman said. "It indicates a shift from those Americans who give of their time to politics to those who give dollars. If you look at who is capable of making a sizable campaign donation, it is not only the poor but also the middle-class who are excluded from this kind of participation."

Some faculty also see the campaign underlining divisions between centrist "Clinton Democrats" and the party's traditional wing.

"Clinton may have redefined the Democratic Party, but it's not a stable equilibrium," said Prof. Charles Derber (Sociology). "There's too much economic and social distress among many in the middle class, and I think he'll be challenged by senior Democratic congressmen who do not agree with his Eisenhower Republican-style approach."

"The reports from the convention indicate there was some very palpable anger among the Democrats over things like welfare reform," Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science) said. "Those elements of the party, however, have largely decided to control their response until after the election."

Intra-party squabbling is just one reason Landy and other faculty predict that a second Clinton term would be a rocky one.

"Chances are, even if Democrats do recapture the congressional majority, it will be a small one - and Clinton did not do that well when they did have the majority," Landy said. "In the background, you still have the various scandals like Whitewater and the FBI file controversy, and these will continue to simmer and sap his strength."

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