Presidential Campaigns and Congressional Agendas
"Most presidential campaign issues are already on the national lawmaking agenda," said Charles O. Jones, Hawkins Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, at a Congress Project Seminar on September 15, titled "Presidential Campaigns and Congressional Agendas: Linkage or Disconnect."
"The constitutional separation of powers fosters a linkage rather than disconnect because of reciprocal pressures and influences on the co-equal branches of government," Jones continued, "especially in mixed message elections in which there is divided party government as is now the case. Those who ignore this linkage risk irrelevancy or defeat."
Two former White House officials on the seminar panel offered their views on the extent of the linkage between campaign issues and congressional agendas. Gary J. Andres, who served as deputy assistant for legislative affairs under President George Bush, noted that the linkage can be taken too far by presidential candidates if they allow themselves to be "dragged into the minutiae of Congress" by their party's leaders in Congress. "The people are turned off and confused by the lawmaking process, so it doesn't help candidates for the presidency to be too closely identified with it."
Patrick J. Griffin, who served as director of legislative affairs for President Bill Clinton in 1994-1995 conceded that presidential candidates stress many of the same major issues being debated in Congress. However, both they and Members of Congress are careful not to link themselves too closely to each other lest they be hurt by the public's rejection of the other. The uneasy relationship between presidential campaigns and the ongoing business of governing "is more like a car crash than a choreographed dance," observed Griffin. Campaigning and governing have different ends. The former asks, "What do I need to do to win?" while the latter is concerned with working things out between the parties and finding closure.
Griffin noted that President Clinton's cooperation with congressional Republicans on legislation in 1996 helped him win re-election and the Republicans to retain control of the House, but undermined the Dole candidacy and the chances of Democrats in Congress to regain control. This resulted in a "post-election stress syndrome after the 1996 elections," and despite significant legislative accomplishments, both parties agreed they would never do that again.
Rounding out the panel, Newsday congressional correspondent Elaine Povich discussed some of the congressional races she has recently covered. "The campaigns affirm what Tip O'Neill always held, and that is that 'all politics are local.' Candidates will choose what issues of their presidential candidates they want to be linked to and which they don't, depending on where their constituencies are on those issues."
Povich also noted how the primary campaign of Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) had affected the subsequent campaigns of both parties' nominees. "Bush and Gore became overnight campaign reformers whereas they had not identified with the issue before." And there was some renewed interest and progress in Congress on the issue which had been dormant for some months, Povich observed, although the only accomplishment to date was to enact a small change in the tax code requiring the disclosure of contributors to certain political groups. "You'll see linkage when the issue is popular," concluded Povich.
The panelists agreed with Professor Jones's cautionary note about the dangers of over-interpreting an election victory as a mandate to do bigger things than the American public is ready to accept. He cited as examples the Clinton health care effort in 1994, and the Gingrich attempt to reduce the size of government in 1995. "People may want change, but they don't want revolution. President Clinton understood this and that is why 1996 was one of the most productive legislative sessions of the modern era."