AllPolitics - TIME This Week

By Popular Demand

By Roger Rosenblatt

(TIME, November 21) -- It was a strangely serene and businesslike display of exultation. Shortly after midnight in Little Rock, Arkansas, having achieved what seemed the inevitable, William Jefferson Clinton stood in the glow of his happy hometown crowd as only the seventh Democratic President to be elected to a second term, and began, "My fellow Americans, we have work to do, and that's what this election is all about." He must have used the word work two dozen times in his short speech, which concluded with, "Tomorrow we greet the dawn and begin our work anew"--as if six long months of a nation's listening to Bob Dole's gothic baritone and Clinton's pleading lilt had been a sideshow that ended in one brief act of citizenship. Now the President and the people could return to the course they had agreed upon. Is this what the election was all about?

If the election of 1996 had less whoop and holler than it might have, it was because the electorate had become like Sherlock Holmes' dog in the nighttime: the dog did not stir because it knew its master. Not that people didn't care about the election. They knew what was coming, because they had ordered it up themselves. They felt the country was doing O.K., and at the same time they understood that the government they were about to put in place was unlikely to have anything to do with their lives.

Of course, the candidates had been railing against Big Government all along, so they ought not to have been crestfallen when the electorate believed them. They who embodied Big Government had successfully argued themselves into a state of semi-irrelevance, with Clinton coming out on top because he already was on top, because his opponent's campaign was in a tizzy, but mainly because he had become that mold of moderation toward which the people had been edging for 25 years. "Tonight," he said in his victory speech, "we proclaim that the vital American center is alive and well."

The country did not get excited about the election because it recognized the philosophy that stood before it. The election that did not make a noise made a point.

Odd that the same electorate that had scorned George Bush four years ago for the lack of a vision thing did not seem to mind that the man they chose over him was organizing his office around staplers and postage stamps. But a lot had happened since 1992: the Republicans in Congress showed a nasty streak about Medicare and Medicaid that most people wanted no part of; Gingrich had ceased to be amusing as Newt the Menace, and was now seen as the Bad Seed; and the voters, who had not encountered a vision since Ronald Reagan, did not think one was necessary or desirable.

In a way, Clinton's focus on such small-change matters as school uniforms, curfews and V-chips was a tactic of genius. He could be appealing as the nation's ward healer, while lamenting the existence of deep, vast ills that no one believed a national leader could fix anyway. He carefully looked to determine which side his bread was buttered on, and saw that it was the crust.

So an election that seemed spiritless was in fact a demonstration of positive satisfaction in the achievement of a clear, if unimaginative, centrism that most people had wanted for quite a while: fewer guns, tougher laws, lower crime, higher culture (it was never just the economy, stupid), cleaner air, freer trade, better teaching, less deficit, less welfare and abortion rights unchanged.

Naturally, one also wanted an expression of concern about affirmative action, entitlements and foreign policy, but if the President wanted to express-and-dodge, that was all right too, since the people did not know what they felt about such things either.

All that is what was meant by the "vital American center." When it came down to it, people could settle specific issues or scores by addressing, for better or worse, local propositions, as they did in California. As for sending a message to Washington, Election Day was a bon voyage party without champagne: do everything you can about the poor, but don't give away the store. And have a nice day.

America has experienced such a consensus election at least once before; it is noted by historian Peter Wood of Duke University. In 1820 James Monroe beat John Quincy Adams so badly that Adams received but one electoral vote out of the 232 cast. Then, as now, voter turnout was low. Then, as now, the country was prosperous and at peace. The winner was an incumbent Southerner who represented the slightly more popular and liberal of the two parties, used his first term to defuse social and regional antagonisms and supported banks and business in a way that made it impossible for the conservative Federalists to rally opposition to his policies. Thus the first party system of Federalists like Jefferson and Hamilton had all but disintegrated, and a new one, slowly coming into being, would explode in the Age of Andrew Jackson in 1828.

That may be happening under our noses. A new party system may be awaiting the Age of Somebody a few years from now, someone who may be so appealingly revolutionary as to make this moment in retrospect seem blindingly quiescent.

For the present we are living in the Age of Popular Demand, because that--more than one man's malleability--is what has shaped national government. The country got the election it sought, befitting a people who are by conviction liberal, by impulse conservative. And it got the President it sought as well--a reflection of the attitudes of the majority and yet as removed from the people as they feel they are from him.

This is a curious time: the people had created the government in their image, which is the way it is supposed to work, and then they waved goodbye.

On the morning of Nov. 6, the newly elected President and Congress awoke and listened for the joyful noise of their country, which, resting its head on its paws, made not a sound.


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