By most accounts, the 1996 presidential election was a yawner. On this conventional view, President Clinton had the early edge because his opponent, the former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, was an uninspiring candidate. Dole's nomination, coming fast on the heels of several grave missteps by the rookie congressional Republican leadership, combined to give Clinton a substantial lead in the polls. Last, but not least, the 1992 mantra lived on--it was the economy stupid and its vigor buoyed an otherwise troubled president. In turn, given Clinton's lead, the news items that captured the most attention were such things as the premature resignation of Clinton consultant Dick Morris, who admitted to a long-term liaison with a Washington, D.C. prostitute; Bob Dole's surprise retirement from the Senate; and Dole's selection of erstwhile primary foe, Jack Kemp, as the vice-presidential running mate. Such news flashes were not the makings of a memorable campaign.
Au contraire. On closer examination, the oh so predictable presidential campaign of 1996 displayed many interesting and disturbing developments related to the notion of presidents as candidates. When presidents run for reelection, there is an undeniable impact on the institution of the presidency.(1) Incumbent presidents consistently exploit the office to their electoral advantage, and some even acknowledge the fact, such as George Bush in 1992 who announced, "I'll do what I have to do to get reelected."(2) And while President Clinton may not have verbalized such a commitment, the same mindset was evident. Indeed, this article's thesis is that a case study of the Clinton reelection campaign reveals new tactics and interesting features that, if adopted by future incumbents, portend a significant impact on the presidency and the party organization.
With an intense focus on securing his presidential lease for another four years, the Clinton reelection team sought to create the perfect reelection organization. Ironically, however, this quest for perfection had unintended consequences that President Clinton would certainly have sought to prevent given a second chance. In short, his zealous pursuit of reelection brought peril to his party and jeopardized his ability to govern during the second term. Oddly enough, the seemingly colorless presidential campaign had tremendous impact on the presidency and the party organization. To make this point, I offer an analysis of Clinton's reelection campaign by identifying the unique features of his quest for reelection, those elements that have emerged in prior presidential reelection campaigns, and, finally, an examination of a "perfect" campaign's fallout.
There is no question that the disastrous midterm election results thrust the Clinton reelection machine into high gear roughly twenty-four months before the election. Stunned by the enormity of the losses and eager to maintain his hold on the executive branch, President Clinton, his White House staff, and his political consultants focused on assembling the best possible reelection campaign operation. Following the Reagan model in 1984 (which Reagan advisor, Stuart Spencer, claims was an emulation of Truman in 1948), the Clinton team studied its strategy, tactics, and timing.(3) To this Reagan model, they added extraordinary fund-raising on an expedited schedule and leadership by a candidate immersed in election details and eager to campaign for reelection.
At the same time, the Clinton team sought to avoid the Bush pitfalls. Unlike the Bush reelection campaign, the Clinton team was noted for early planning; appointing a talented, experienced staff; and maintaining a relatively harmonious relationship between the Clinton-Gore campaign organization and the White House senior staff To some degree, the modus operandi of the Clinton reelection team had to have been "See George run. Do the opposite." But the strategy was not just an aversion of the Bush pitfalls. …