The Least Important Election of Our Lives

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As for the Democratic convention … Well, the highlight was the news out of Washington that Clinton adviser-Svengali Dick Morris had been caught out with a prostitute, whom he’d allowed to eavesdrop on his telephone calls with the president. (Morris ultimately resigned and went on to a lucrative career spreading rumors about Hillary Clinton’s various alleged felonies and searching for black helicopters). The other thrilling moment was at the end of one night’s proceedings, when a rostrum full of high-ranking women led the delegates in the “Macarena.”

And then came the debates.

I have watched every presidential and vice presidential debate since the very first JFK-Nixon encounter. Thanks to a memory that stores gigabytes of useless information, I can recall moments from just about all of them. But when it comes to 1996, if you put a gun to my head and demanded a recollection of any moment from any one of that campaign’s debates, you’d have a corpse on your hands. (During one debate, which I was covering from the balcony of the debate hall, I persuaded my camera operator to turn our monitor to a Yankees-Orioles playoff game.)

Those debates were a microcosm of the entire year. The polls simply never changed. Bill Schneider, CNN’s pollster, struggled to find anything to report about daily poll numbers that resembled the EEG line of a flatlined patient. One of Clinton’s key White House advisers told a group of journalists (off the record) that he was afflicted with a serious case of boredom—not the usual emotional state of a high-placed operative. On the GOP side, the grasping at straws was of Olympian reach. (I remember being in the “Nightline” green room when Gingrich predicted that Dole would win California on the strength of the backlash to affirmative action. Spoiler alert: Dole lost California by 1.3 million votes).

In fact, the election was a bit closer than the polls were predicting, the product of a late fall fundraising scandal that implied funds from foreign sources were flowing into the Clinton campaign. But it still ended with an easy 49-41 victory. (Reform Party candidate Ross Perot won 8.4 percent.) Clinton became the first two-term president since Woodrow Wilson to never win a majority of votes, but his 379 electoral votes were decisive, and more than any president since. The Congress was essentially unchanged, as befits a Seinfeld “about nothing” contest; Democrats picked up two seats in the House and lost two in the Senate.

If there was neither suspense nor drama, what about the consequences? Most Presidential elections, even the less compelling ones, matter if for no other reason than the Supreme Court. (The Dukakis-Bush race in 1988 was a “meh” election, but the presence of Clarence Thomas on the court has mattered a lot.) But as it happened, a Dole victory would have made no difference at all here, because there were no vacancies on the Supreme Court until 2005. Even a two-term Dole presidency would have had no impact on the court. As for lower courts, it was a very different time back then; there was no list from the Federalist Society giving a GOP president a roster of young, zealous conservatives out to undo the past several years of Court decisions. There was far more bipartisanship, and far more comity, in how judges were picked.

And when it comes to domestic policy, it’s arguable that a President Dole might even have had a rockier time with the GOP Congress than Clinton did. For one thing, Dole held Gingrich in “minimum high regard,” which is Washington’s way of saying he couldn’t stand his guts. When Gingrich ran for president in 2012, Dole said: “Gingrich had a new idea every minute and most of them were off the wall.” An effort by Gingrich to bring his “revolution” to fruition would have met with implacable opposition from a Dole White House.

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