Bill Clinton and His Crisis of Governance

Article excerpt

The dramatic Republican congressional victory in the 1994 elections created a crisis of governing for Bill Clinton. His party was soundly defeated at the polls, and the Republicans obtained majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954. The election was a repudiation of his leadership. His program was dead; he would not be able to build coalitions and succeed in advocating new, controversial policies in the new political environment.

Yet, by freeing the president from the possibility, and thus the responsibility, for enacting policies, the election also provided the president a new opportunity to define his presidency and evaluate his strategic position. In this article, I explore how Clinton's approach to governing helped to precipitate the crisis in which he found himself, how he responded to that crisis in his political environment, and the consequences of his response for governing.

1993 to 1994

A critical aspect of presidential leadership is understanding the constraints and possibilities in the environment so as to exploit them most effectively. Once having evaluated the environment, effective presidents must fashion a strategy to work within them to accomplish their goals. In 1993-94, President Clinton accentuated a problem inherent in our separation of powers system by overreaching, overestimating the extent of change that a president elected in his political environment could make.(1) Any president elected with only 43 percent of the vote should not expect to pass far-reaching social legislation without involving the other party, especially when the public is dubious and well-organized interest groups are fervently opposed. So, a partisan, unitarian approach was unlikely to succeed; yet, this is exactly the strategy the president adopted. For example, the "us against them" approach to policy making encouraged the president to develop his health care plan in Democrats-only secrecy and pursue a left-in coalition-building strategy instead of a center-out one. Failure was inevitable.

Moreover, the greater the breadth and complexity of the policy change a president proposes, the more opposition it is likely to engender. In an era when a few opponents can effectively tie up bills, the odds are clearly against the White House. Yet, when it came to health care reform, the president proposed perhaps the most sweeping, complex prescriptions for controlling the conduct of state governments, employers, drug manufacturers, doctors, hospitals, and individuals in American history.

A third important element in President Clinton's political environment was the lack of resources for policy initiatives. When resources are scarce, those proposing expensive new programs have to regulate the private sector to get things done, which inevitably unleashes a backlash. So the costs of action are more expensive politically.

In health care, the complex and coercive mechanisms created to require employers to pay for health insurance and for controlling costs (managed competition) were designed to avoid government responsibility for paying--but it should have come as no surprise that those who bear greater costs, face higher risks, or have their discretion constrained are likely to oppose change.

The president's first major proposal was a fiscal stimulus bill. Clinton thought he would be able to arouse the country behind this traditional liberal policy. Few were persuaded, however, and the bill was filibustered by the Republicans in the Senate and died without a vote. Once again, the president misread the possibilities in his environment.

In the end, the president was not able to cut taxes for the middle class or substantially increase spending on education, job training, public works, and health care. Nor was he able to obtain welfare reform on his terms. He could not devise strategies for moving in the context in which he found himself, partly because he misread his political environment. …