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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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A Follow-Up To Today's Column

In response to today's column, a few people have written to point out:

(a) Bill Clinton's job approval was somewhere between 55% and 60% at the end of his term.
(b) George W. Bush lost the popular vote.

Both of these are true. I was aware of both of them - but did not think that they offered fundamental challenges to my point that the public in 2000 was "tired of President Clinton['s mode of representation]."

I think the real issue is whether - when the law mandates that a new person take the office - the public would prefer somebody who acts differently. The fact that it approved of Clinton is not relevant. It is also not surprising, considering how he so consciously tacked to the median. You can enjoy your vacation, but still feel - when it comes to an end - that you are glad to go home. The fact that the public largely voted for his vice-president is not necessarily relevant, either. It might have been that the vice-president was conscious of the public's feelings about the Clinton Administration, and took steps to inoculate himself. Indeed, Gore did precisely that.

You see, the evidence that I had in mind was the actions of the political elites. George W. Bush made the argument that he did in his convention address only because he perceived that it would resonate with the public. Obviously, this perception was predicated upon knowledge that his campaign derived from polling and focus group testing. Meanwhile, Al Gore made essentially the same argument as Bush! Gore - like Bush - felt the need to argue that we need to do something socially positive with all of this prosperity. He chose to run a "populist" campaign rather than a "let's keep the good times a'rollin'" campaign. He could have said, "I'm Clinton minus the sexual indiscretions." But he chose not to.

A parallel I had in mind was the election of 1960. Kennedy did not win just because Nixon was a relatively poor candidate, though Nixon was. Kennedy won in part because he promised that we would do something. His "New Frontier" was a contrast to Eisenhower as much as it was a contrast to Nixon. Thus, even though people loved Ike - the election of 1960 should be viewed, at least in part, as a rejection of Eisenhower's way of governing (which was, in many respects, to do very little). The public embraced change that year, even though they loved and supported the outgoing President.

-Jay Cost