INTERVIEW WITH NORM ORNSTEIN
RESIDENT SCHOLAR, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE

© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.


Clinton: Learning the Presidency and Relations with Congress

ORNSTEIN: There's a kind of natural hubris that develops and it was there beyond any question for Bill Clinton as it had been before for Jimmy Carter, for example. -- uh -- I saw this so clearly -- uh -- coming at the inaugural festivities. -- uh -- there was a great big gala the night before the inaugural for Bill Clinton at the Capital Center, big stadium. And as they started, they put up a little videotape the Clinton inaugural committee had -- uh -- compiled. Over several minutes, it showed all the visible Washington pundits, Fred Barnes and Bob Novak and John McLaughlin, and a bunch of others, at different times during the campaign cycle as they had said, "Clinton's dead. Clinton's dead and buried."

And in the background was Frank Sinatra singing "Who's Got the Last Laugh Now." And I thought, well, of course, they're right about people making glib predictions, but there's an attitude here that basically said, we won and whatever they tell us about how we can govern is wrong, we'll do it our way and we'll turn the world upside down and suspend the natural laws of checks and balances and governing in Washington. They obviously came in believing that they could do everything they said they'd been able to do and President Clinton came in believing he could dominate the American Congress the way he dominated the Arkansas legislature, a part-time body of 115 legislators where he never had to deal with more than 15 Republicans.

ORNSTEIN: In June of 1992 -- uh -- a month before Bill Clinton was going to be nominated at his convention, I did a two hour television show with him on ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA, with several other people, called "Breakfast with Bill," and I asked the question, tell us what you do in your first 100 days... And what Bill Clinton said at the time was my first 100 days are going to be a dramatic 100 days. I'm -- I'm going to make them like Franklin Roosevelt's and I'm going to implement this program, the written program that he'd had, what Bill Clinton said was I'm going to have a dramatic first 100 days and...it's a plague that Presidents who have not been immersed in this process have. It's a plague that candidates have because it's way too easy to over promise. But we saw it reflected in the reality, once he became President. There was not an understanding of how can actually control and dominate the agenda and move Congress. And he paid a heavy price for it.

HSMITH: Was Congress on Clinton's radar screen as he approached the White House?

ORNSTEIN: I don't think the Congress was on Clinton's radar screen at all. Now, he's a masterful political professional who had known a lot of members of Congress, who interacted easily with them. But he didn't think of them in terms of what Congress meant for his capacity to govern or what kind of obstacles were there. And it was partly because while he spent time with Congressional leaders, they were reassuring him, we've got the votes in the House and the Senate, you don't need to worry about the Republicans. We've been waiting for 12 years to have a Democratic President and I think he believed that he could come in and dominate and say here's what I want to do and they would say, thank God we have somebody who wants to do what we want to do. So, Bill Clinton comes into this situation, the first Democratic President in 12 years, but they've always been in the majority through the Republican Presidents, runs into a little bit of trouble and says, help me out here, we're in the same boat. And he found that their goals and objectives were simply not the same as his. They weren't so desperate to get elected to a majority that they would take risks for him. Quite the opposite. Their majority might depend on stepping away from him if he went to take risks. The political dynamics are different whenever you have a Congress that's elected separately from a President, but in particular when the mindset has changed and they don't see their electoral interests in common with those of the President. And he was heading for trouble as Jimmy Carter had had trouble -- uh -- many years earlier.

ORNSTEIN: Give the President credit. In the end when he needed votes on NAFTA, which was a very tough decision, he was able to make it a bipartisan one. On his budget he finally managed to pull out. It was humiliating. It was difficult -- by a one vote margin in each House. He got that final Democratic vote to actually win his victory. But on other occasions -- an embarrassing setback on the crime bill, for example. And what he had to give up to get his budget -- he couldn't get those votes. He had to backtrack on gays in the military. And, instead of having a public with a sense that these guys had their act together, he's in charge and they're going along with him. The public sense was of a group of people who couldn't shoot straight, who couldn't keep their act together. The bottom line legislative accomplishments of Bill Clinton and the 103rd Congress were pretty respectable in the end. They made significant numbers of things happen even if they weren't perfect in terms of the policies that most people wanted. But the public perception was they did nothing. It was of gridlock.

ORNSTEIN: Newt Gingrich is a remarkable figure and I think beyond any question is the most dynamic and most powerful speaker in terms of how he's exercised that power in 85 years. Not since Thomas Bracket Reed and Joe Cannon have we seen a Speaker come in and dominate his House the way that Newt Gingrich has dominated his house. Operating almost like a parliament, taking the speakership and turning it almost into a prime ministership through the early days, with the smallest majority a party's had in 40 years, building an incredible discipline within his own party in a highly partisan polarized House, to actually move it very quickly. The first 100 days of the 104th House were remarkable. The only analogy we have really is the -- uh -- Roosevelt House in 1933, And they believed that it was Newt Gingrich's vision that had gotten them into the majority. It was Newt going out and recruiting candidates, many of whom became a part of the 73 freshmen that were a full third of the Republican members that made this new majority. And through the contract with America, which probably didn't mean a whole lot in the election, became the essential focus for governing, the promise that they all collectively felt they had to keep or individually they would fail. We saw a device that brought the individual political imperatives and the collective together, so that they could actually believe that if they didn't all hang together, they would hang separately.

Presidency: Power and Myth

HSMITH: Did Clinton have an exaggerated notion of the power of the Presidency?

ORNSTEIN: Small state governors almost always have an exaggerated view of the power of the Presidency based on their own experience as governors.

HSMITH: Do you think the Presidency is a weaker institution than the politicians, the press and even the public think?

ORNSTEIN: We have a President who gets an enormous amount of television time, who is the chief of state -- uh -- the chief diplomat, as well as being the chief politician in the country. We tend to invest far more of a belief in what those Presidents can do than reality would suggest. I'm not so sure that Presidents today are actually in formal powers weaker than they've ever been, but it's harder to make things happen now. It's a much more decentralized process, there are many more actors with significance --

HSMITH: Is it harder because of independent financing, the press, PACs?

ORNSTEIN: Politics are so much more individualized. Every member of Congress is an individual power center. And that power doesn't come from a President or even from a political party. You reach your own campaign success without a party, you raise your own money. You come to Congress and you get a staff of 22 people, automatically, whatever you've done or whoever you are and those things aren't taken away -- uh -- if a President challenges you or a party threatens you.

Party Unity vs. Lone Rangers and Renegades

HSMITH: Party loyalty per se has got very limited pull?

ORNSTEIN: There is very little you can do with party loyalty per se and then particularly little you can do when you have Democrats having won their majorities without party being significant and...without Presidential support or opposition having any impact or meaning whatsoever. And, indeed, where underlying all of this is the sense on the part of many Democrats that when there's a Republican President they're the top guys on the block, they're the number one Democrats and they move down a notch when there's a Democratic President.

HSMITH: How important is the fact that Clinton had only won by 43 percent of the vote?

ORNSTEIN: ...If you come in without a landslide, you don't have that same sense of political momentum or the respect that you need among members of Congress at a great enough level for your political power that when you say do this, they're going to be willing to listen. You have to build it in other ways or you have to find another mechanism.

The New Republican Majority

ORNSTEIN: But the Republicans in the Senate did not have that same sense of common destiny. They'd been in the majority before, they didn't have any great impetus to move very quickly. They didn't feel the same revolutionary fervor. And while Speaker Gingrich started out with a remarkable and almost unprecedented success, the challenge to his leadership was going to come not in the first 100 days or even in the first 10 months. Gingrich ended up ironically with a problem, not too dissimilar from what Bill Clinton had had which is getting unruly people in a body other than his own to go along with his vision.

HSMITH: In recruiting the freshman class, did Gingrich create a Frankenstein?

ORNSTEIN: There is rich irony here in this entire process. If you look at the 73 members strong freshman class of Republicans in this Congress, they are Newt Gingrich progeny. He actively recruited many of them to run for office. He went out and got money for them for their campaigns where they were having trouble otherwise. He gave them their campaign themes, gave them little cassettes they put in their cars as they drove along telling them what to emphasize and what not -- what terms to use for hoe opposition, what terms to use to characterize themselves. Many of them owe their election and certainly their majority to Newt Gingrich, but they're all populists. None of them got elected by saying, I will march in lock step with the leader. They got elected by saying, I'm with the people and when the leaders are with the people, I'm with the leaders, but when the leaders go against the people, I'm with the people. Newt may be finding that your children, even though they may owe their very existence to you, don't necessarily do everything you say. And there is a followership problem that will come to the Speaker of the House. He didn't have it in his first 100 days, for the remainder of the Congress that will end up being a major headache for him.

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© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.