POLITICS FROM THE BLEACHERS: The State of American Politics

Tuesday, December 15, 1998

Will the recent presidential crisis have a long-term impact on the nation and its government or just on the legacy of one man? Which party will emerge victorious in the elections of the year 2000? Richard Brody, Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, Stanford University, Morris Fiorina, Hoover Institution Senior Fellow, Professor, Department of Political Science, Stanford University, and Nelson Polsby, Director, Institute of Governmental Studies, and Heller Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley discuss American politics today.

Recorded on Tuesday, December 15, 1998

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, one of our two national obsessions- the game of, politics. Consider first our other national obsession, the game of baseball. Fans, really avid fans, steep themselves in the statistics (here's the baseball encyclopedia) and take a long view of the history of the game. Here's the historical baseball abstract, a dedicated fan will be able to tell you that the Boston Red Sox haven't won a World Series since they traded Babe Ruth away to the New York Yankees more than seven decades ago and discuss the pros and cons of the designated hitter rule, put in place some two decades ago. Now, as a dedicated fan is to the game of baseball, so a political scientist is to the game of politics. With us today, three guests, each a distinguished political scientist: Nelson Polsby of Berkeley , Morris Fiorina of the Hoover Institution, and Richard Brody of Stanford. They steep themselves in the statistics, they take a long view of the history of the game, and they not only read books about politics, they write them. Fiorina, Brody, Polsby. We'd thought we'd ask our three political scientists to step back from the field of day to day play in Washington to discuss the larger political game. Are president Clinton's troubles just that, his troubles, or will they have a lasting effect on the nation? What about the two leading teams- the Republicans and the Democrats? Is one or the other in a position to become dominant as we head into the next century? Today's show in other words, is the game of politics as seen from the bleachers.


Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan? said not long ago that the Lewinsky scandal is a crisis of the regime, not the country. Let me ask you, which is it? Is this a scandal with deep implications for the country itself or is it something that is simply occupying the attention of the political and media elite and has no wider repercussions. Regime or country, Nelson?

POLSBY Regime. Moynihan is right. Next time we elect a president that president will have all the powers of the office.

ROBINSON Dick? Regime or country?

BRODY Well, regime and a half. If careers are built in the media on the exposing of the personal foibles of politicians even more than they have in the last ten years. That's going to begin to change the regime and the country both, I mean...[ROBINSON Sets up a different set of incentives for young aspiring journalists] That's right, that's right and a different way for them to get noticed and get their kicks and so forth and so on...

ROBINSON Catch politicians with their trousers down.

BRODY Right or you know what's called "gotcha journalism" and it's hard to say, "Don't find out these facts." But it also... the more facts that come into play without really being relevant, the relevance of this to governing the United States stretches credulity so far. Nevertheless it's been occupying the newspapers long before the facts of the Monica Lewinsky affair came out so I think there's a change afoot and it's going to affect the country as well as the regime.

ROBINSON Regime? Regime and a half? Mo? `

FIORINA Regime. [ROBINSON Regime?] I think it covers it pretty well and I think it really points out the disconnect, the growing disconnect, between on the one hand Washington elites and opinion leaders in this country and the great mass of the American people. It's something that's been developing and I think this really...

ROBINSON You have now touched upon a theme that truly and deeply puzzles me. And I now want to probe your minds on this one. Here's a little excerpt from this week with Koki? and Sam the ABC Sunday morning show in January 1998, I quote "George Stefanapolous, is he telling the truth? (Talking about Clinton) Is he telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? If he is, he can survive. If he isn't, he can't". Sam Donaldson, I'm with Mr. Stefanapolous here. If he is not telling the truth, he's done. He wasn't telling the truth, he's not done. How come? Dick?

BRODY Because the public has demonstrated a capacity for compartmentalizing or differentiating their opinions of Clinton. I mean, they've absorbed this information and it's had a deep affect on their opinion of him as a person. He's no longer trustworthy, however he is someone who cares about people like them and they feel that he's doing a good job as president, that he's not been handicapped by the unfolding of things. This is a much more nuance sense than I think we would've given him credit for before.

ROBINSON The public is more sophisticated, more grown up than Sam Donaldson and George Stefanapolous...

BRODY Well, that's easy...

ROBINSON: So is the American public too mature to be influenced by media opinion or is this an exceptional case?


ROBINSON When Bill Clinton gave his deposition and then that four and a half , four minute ten second speech to the nation within the following two weeks, there were over 200 newspaper editorials. Every major newspaper in the country condemned that man... and public opinion didn't budge. His approval rate staying in the high sixties and low seventies. Why can opinion leaders no longer lead opinion?

POLSBY Well that really was quite interesting. There have, in fact, been three times I can remember since I've been watching these things where Washington has gotten out of whack with public opinion. Normally public opinion is led of course and they do pay attention to what is given them. Alright the three times when Washington believed that Joe McCarthy was powerful in the country, and he wasn't. They believed that Ronald Reagan was a popular president during a period which is most of his two terms, when he wasn't particularly popular. And now, this. Evidently the Republican view is that in Washington, is if they can just demonstrate the charges, whatever you make of them, are true, then the American people will turn around and be on their side. I think what the American people have been saying along is, "We don't care whether they're true or not. In fact we think he probably did it! But who cares?"

ROBINSON The set of facts is clear the public and they're able to make up their minds. It doesn't matter what George Will says or George Stefanapolous

POLSBY People don't want to go there...

ROBINSON You buy that?

FIORINA Absolutely I think the one bright spot in this whole affair both as a political scientist and as an American citizen is that it really falsifies the image that is believed too much in this country that the electorate is infinitely malleable, that the spin meisters, the Dick Morrises, the Roger Ailes can just move the electorate whichever way they want to given enough money they can elect Pee Wee Herman more or less. Of course they have an invested interest in spreading this myth because they pay for the polls, they pay for the media buys... I mean there's too many people who have an invested interest in believing this. In fact what we have here is a case where opinion leaders and all these people took one side and the electorate just politely looked at the facts and went the other direction.

BRODY During the Watergate period the bottom fell out of Nixon's support. And the question is, "Was it Watergate or was it the economy?" It's a kind of double whammy.

ROBINSON Let me just sum up the conversation so far because I think we've made a finding. We've made a finding, three eminent political scientists agree, this scandal has demonstrated, even to the most bone headed journalist, by which I mean to indicate myself, that there is such a thing as the will of the American people. And in certain circumstances it makes itself relatively [POLSBY: No, no, no.] or am I being too grandiose? The Star Spangled Banner swells up in the background...

POLSBY It's not the way to talk about it. The balance of public opinion the vast bulk of public opinion is uninterested and annoyed. That's all.

ROBINSON Uninterested and annoyed. Are you proud of that as an American citizen?

FIORINA I don't know but I mean the point is what's your standard of expectations here?. And I think looked at, as I said this image that's been out there in the land, this electorate, it's basically a bunch of sheep, I think you get a very different image as a result of this scandal. Dick you reminded me of the old saying that presidents don't need good press they just need good news.

Well a healthy growing economy is good news under any circumstance. I can almost hear James Carvel now, "It's the economy stupid!"


ROBINSON All that the American public is responding to when they say don't bother us about whether he's got his trousers down or up, and this or that rumor in the White House... what we know is that the economy growing, I've got a job, my 401K is rising in the stock, and that's really what it comes down to. Right?

FIORINA No, no it's too simplistic. I mean I think that it's clear there's probably an interaction that if the economy were going bad, if there were problems overseas that is what hurt more. But I think there's clearly an independent affect as well. That basically people just didn't see this as a principle standard by which to judge the president.

POLSBY They may have a less partisan view of human frailty in general than has been manufactured in the House of Representatives.

ROBINSON Now see Nelson a moment ago you tell me the American people are uninterested and annoyed and yet you keep creeping back to this view that there's a certain nobility within the electorate.

POLSBY I didn't tell you what they were annoyed with did I? [ROBINSON Go ahead, what are they annoyed with?] They're annoyed with Republican insistence that the charges have much substance. It's pathetic. I'll put a little historical context. This is the last of a series of moves which are meant to wreck the institutions in Washington. The Newt got Jim right. Newt and his gang made the House banking scandal into a scandal out of whole cloth then they closed down the whole government and this is the last act. OK because right about the closing down of the government, public opinion turned on them. [ROBINSON OK...] And this is in my view continuity with that and it doesn't surprise me at all that the first real casualty of this thing was Newt.

ROBINSON Bill Clinton is the guy who lied to the American public for seven months about an affair and Newt Gingrich is the one who loses his job. On account of?

POLSBY On account of setting up a situation that he couldn't manage, namely acting aggressively to attack the institutions of government and encouraging people who were much less moderate than he was, and they turned on him. And he got caught between the red hots in Congress, his people and what I would call some reasonable construction of reality that you can sell to the American people.

ROBINSON Newt Gingrich is gone because he laid siege to the fundamental institutions of the Republic. And got punished.

FIORINA That's putting in terms a little broader than I ordinarily think. [ROBINSON Well, it's television.] He's gone because of the disappointing election results basically. I mean this has been a battle of frames all along. And originally this was not a Republican attempt to get Clinton, the media brought this out. And originally the frame was, "This is if not sexual harassment at least highly inappropriate workplace behavior." and we're operating on a frame that's become very widespread in education, in the media, in various professions. [ROBINSON Which is that bosses don't engage in any kind of conduct with subordinates, particularly when the bosses are male and subordinates are female...] Exactly, exactly. And in the military or in the universities or in the businesses, this would be subject to severe reprimand. Now that frame lost. I think we learned from that that the American population as a whole hasn't absorbed that set of norms as much as we thought they might have. Now you remember the Republicans stayed out of the practice originally [ROBINSON Are you saying that the American public doesn't mind a little sexual harassment in the workplace?] No they didn't define this harassment, They simply have a much broader definition of appropriate workplace behavior and we can get into that in a little while. But the Republicans stayed out of this, they said let the media take on Clinton. Let the media damage Clinton. It was only when that failed to happen that the Republicans then brought out another frame which is the frame of immoral behavior, the frame of perjury and lying, etc and they had trouble making that frame stick too.

ROBINSON You buy this argument? It's a question of how the activity, how the charges are framed.

BRODY Well framing is everything in public opinion. When you've got sex between consenting adults, many Americans, maybe most Americans are not going to connect that with sexual harassment. They just think there's a disconnect there. The other side is that there's no clear good guys and bad guys. I mean when you've got Linda Tripp and you've got Goldstein and you've got, even Ken Starr who has become a very unpopular figure in this situation. And he's , you know we've found out recently that he's been talking to Paula Jones's lawyers and so forth and so on. The American people's beginning to feel like they've got their hand into a mud pot. And they just can't...you know they want to wash their hands of this thing.

ROBINSON Disgusting, be done with it.

BRODY Yeah, get it over with it.

ROBINSON Well they don't have Newt Gingrich to kick around anymore. Why did Newt misread the public so badly?


ROBINSON Newt Gingrich thought that taking over the House in 1994 for the first time in forty years, he had a mandate to run the country from Congress. And Newt wasn't allowed. A George Will wrote columns about that time about the diminishing presidency and a reversion to the historical 19th century norm of congressional rather than presidential government. Push came to shove and the government shut down. Gingrich and the Republics were convinced public opinion would back them. They were the ones who had just swept into power after all, and it didn't happen. The country rallied to the president. And the funny thing it's a presidential system after all..

POLSBY That's incoherent [ROBINSON cohere it for me will you?] I will try. If what Newt thought he was doing was seizing control of the government he was doing it in a very odd way. Closing the government down isn't seizing control of the government, it's merely putting a obstacle in the path of normal activity. So the idea that he could express a mandate and show strength by closing the government down seemed to me be quite a self-destructive act as it turned out to be.

FIORINA I think the simpler view of this is that it was just another example of a congenital failing of politicians which is they interpret electoral victories, especially surprise electoral victories as mandates and they really think they have a lot more leeway to do what they did. Even Clinton in ‘92 thought he had a mandate to do various things and that wasn't much of an electoral victory. [ROBINSON Reform the health care system...] So it wasn't so much Congress/ Presidency it's just this general point.

BRODY The public has shown that its attitudes are multidimensional and partisonship tends to be unidimensional. And the Republicans, by and large, have stretched things out along the social dimension with abortion and school prayer and a whole set of issues that energize their activists at least in certain parts of the country. And a lot of Republicans have simply not bought into that...I mean and that was the basis... [ROBINSON A lot of ordinary, voting Republicans..] That's right and that was the basis of Clinton's second victory.

ROBINSON Cast your mind back 35 years, a little bit more that 35 years, John Kennedy is in the White House- if the public knew what we now know about John Kennedy's sexual shenanigans, if the public knew that at the time, would it have given him the same pass that it is now giving Bill Clinton? Or would there have been an uproar..Mo you're shaking, you go ahead..

FIORINA I mean times have changed. A generation ago...[ROBINSON That's what I'm after..Have the morals of the country fundamentally changed?]

POLSBY It's unanswerable because the key fact is that they didn't find it out.

ROBINSON And that speaks to an entirely different set of presumptions among the media?


FIORINA But you can also analogize- for example Rockefeller was considered damaged goods because he had a divorce. They weren't sure he'd be able to really be a credible contender again.

ROBINSON Times have indeed changed. But are we currently in the midst of fundamental changes in our national politics or not?


ROBINSON Here's what you learn in Poli Sci 101. You learn that roughly from the Civil War to the Great Depression the Republicans, there were ups and down, but the Republican Party was the dominant party in this country- lasted decades. Then you learn that with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 a new coalition comes into being and for a number of decades long or at least until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 the Democratic Party is by and large the dominant party. And you learn that there are certain things called realignments in which a pattern which has held for decades suddenly begins to disintegrate and then a new pattern crystallizes and holds for decades more. The Republican party has been gaining strength at the state and local level for a couple of decades. Today 3/4 of the American people live in states with Republican governors. Is that a realignment?

BRODY It certainly moves in the direction of realignment, particularly in the South. And has been a substantial change in the party loyalties of the southerners. Party through migration, partly through conversion, and partly through generational replacement, and partly that's been muted because of the emergence of black Americans into the electorate since the Civil Rights Act of ‘65 and the Voting Rights Act.

ROBINSON The distinction is very clear- Black Americans just don't vote Republican except in tiny percentages...


FIORINA We had been in a realigning situation since the sixties. The old order broke down in the sixties but neither party has been capable of appealing to a majority of the American people.

ROBINSON So it's not this kind of gradual move to Republicans, it's a toss up!

FIORINA It's a toss up, exactly. The Democrats were behind the curve on the economic dimension. The country turned right , I think became more fiscally conservative and the Democrats couldn't pick it up. Republicans had been ahead of the curve in the morality dimension. They got too far ahead of the country on that dimension. And so the bulk of the population lies between the two parties on one dimension or another.

ROBINSON Why are the Republicans doing so well at the state level whereas at the national level they can't quite seem to clinch it.

FIORINA What you find as a matter of fact is a lot of people who are pragmatic, moderate, result-oriented and they're staying away from a lot of the divisive issues that are hurting Republicans at a national level.

ROBINSON The social stuff.


ROBINSON Is California realigning? Last election is a wash for Republicans and the country generally but a blow out in California. Republican senatorial candidate loses by ten points and Republican gubernatorial candidate loses by 22 points. A catastrophe in California.

POLSBY Well, lousy candidates. It could be...

BRODY The Republican party in California is going through what the Democratic party used to go through with Civil rights. It became an indigestible issue. For the Democrats nationally. In California, reproductive rights and things allied to it, abortion, school prayer, what have you.

ROBINSON The whole cluster of social issues as they're called

BRODY That's right. The Republican Party in California has a leadership and a intense followship that is very very conservative.

ROBINSON Eight years of Ronald Reagan as governor, eight years of George Deukmejian

BRODY? Both of whom were relatively speaking, pragmatic

ROBINSON Ronald Reagan and George Deukmejian.

BRODY Compared to Dan Lundgren.

ROBINSON OK. Lundgren was just too far to the right. There's not a trend here, there's a lousy candidate.

BRODY And not too far to the right, he certainly wasn't too far to the right on economic issues or on education. He was too far to the right on women's right to choose on trying to turn back the clock in California to the days before Reagan and Pete Wilson.

ROBINSON Let me ask you that- pro-life candidates just can't win in this state?

BRODY State-wide they have trouble.

ROBINSON OK 1994 the Republicans take the House by winning 54 new seats. Every one of those 54 new members of Congress, new Republican members of Congress, was pro-life. So if you're the Republican party what do you make of this issue? It kills you in California but it doesn't seem to hurt you, it seems in fact crucial in other places. Is this a fundamental divide for the Republican party?

POLSBY What's wrong with that?

ROBINSON You willing to live with all this..open endedness?

POLSBY The fact that it confuses you, keeps me in business...and I appreciate it.

BRODY We're in the complexity business.

ROBINSON Our guests actually seem to enjoy the complexities of today's party politics. What do they see for the future?


ROBINSON January 2001, Everybody's gathered at the front of the Capitol to swear in a new president. House of Representatives- Republicans now have a 5 seat majority, today. January 2001- do they hold the majority?

BRODY Give me two scenarios- give me the macro economy roughly the level that it is now or still growing but growing more slowly than it is now.

ROBINSON OK. So the variable is the economy.

BRODY It's an important variable because that's going to determine how good the Democrats are going to look and so forth and so on. I would not be surprised if in 2000 the Democrats can reclaim the House.


FIORINA I think it's a toss up. I think if it looks like a Democratic candidate is a shoo in for the presidency it helps the Republicans chance to hold the house.

ROBINSON Oh you go for this divided government thesis?

FIORINA Absolutely.

ROBINSON Explain that for a moment.

FIORINA I think, as I said earlier I think that country is between the two parties. neither party has been able to come up with a majority appeal... and I think just as in the last election when Clinton looked like for sure he was going to get in at the end, Republicans began running ads, nine million dollars worth of ads in the last week saying vote for Republican Congress so that Clinton can be checked and balanced.

ROBINSON They hold the house?

POLSBY I was going to predict who the other man on the platform was going to be. William Renquist, who'll administer the oath...

ROBINSON I don't know, he's been having some back trouble lately....Let's start with the Senate. The Republicans hold the Senate- you can give us that, right?

POLSBY I have no basis for saying anything like that. Or it's opposite.

FIORINA The Democrats are....The Republicans are defending the majority of the Senate seats that are up. Virtually every state in the union is now competitive. It depends at the state level. [ROBINSON the Senate is a toss up] It depends who the candidates are. [ROBINSON The House is a toss up]

POLSBY Life is a toss up.

ROBINSON Yeah but this is actually not insignificant because there was an argument that there is this kind of rolling realignment that is taking place. The country is moving toward the Republicans and therefore there is a greater likelihood the Republicans will actually seize control in 2000 than not. You guys just don't buy it. It's all on a razor's edge.

POLSBY No and they ought to be less careless of public opinion in the mean time if they want to make a realignment.

FIORINA And you have glided over a part of the 19th century in talking about realignment. There's a part called the era of no decision going from about 1876-1892 in which there was no majority. In which no presidential candidate got as much as 51% of the popular vote. We had two presidents elected who came in second in the popular vote. Congress switched election after election. And I think the situation we're in now is very much like that. It's simply the election specific factors that determines who wins and who holds the institutions.

ROBINSON And you would expect that so we could be in some kind of long running new era of no decision.

FIORINA I think we've been it in awhile and the question comes will either party manage to come up with an appeal to capture a majority, an enduring majority of the American electorate.

POLSBY I would've said that the center of gravity is as Mo described but it can be interrupted by extremely foolish behavior on the part of one party or another.

ROBINSON The center of gravity is what it is but parties can lose it.[POLSBY That's right] So can they also win it? Is there such a thing as an especially wonderful candidate. Have you in your political life given your heart to any candidate? John Kennedy?

POLSBY Hubert Humphrey. Sure he was a great man.

ROBINSON Who would you give your heart to?

BRODY I professionally am capable of seeing the warts and all and making a decision on balance. And certainly Bill Clinton was that sort of candidate for me both in ‘92 and a little more enthusiasm...

POLSBY And that's what grown -ups do! and what we're hearing now is this sort of infantile approach ...

ROBINSON Infantile paralysis. What about you? Would you give your heart to anybody ever?

FIORINA Not heart. We look at politics the way baseball fans look at baseball. We admire people who can play the game. We criticize people who can't play. Now I think Ronald Reagan was a terrific intuitive politician. I think he really had a feel for where the center of gravity of the electorate was and he went that direction.

ROBINSON It's television. The show's over, play ball. Dick, Mo and Nelson, thank you very much.

A couple of our guests were willing to name players they liked. Nelson Polsby named Hubert Humphrey, Mo Fiorina named Ronald Reagan. But none of the three was willing to step up to the plate and make a prediction. My guest is they didn't want to say anything on camera that would come back and haunt them in the classroom. So as far as they're concerned the next big series, in the year 2000 is wide open. I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.

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