American pundits greeted both the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 and the Republican capture of Congress last November as seismic convulsions in us politics. Clinton was congratulated for reuniting those middle-income whites who had regularly defected to the Republicans in presidential elections since 1968 with the traditional Democratic voters among the poor, working women, blacks and unionized workers. Two years later Newt Gingrich, elected the first Republican Speaker of the House since 1955, portrayed himself as aiming to establish a permanent Republican majority of the centre-right dedicated to ending the welfare state. His Contract with America, largely ignored before the election as a piece of political theatre, was treated with extreme seriousness by a media looking for reasons to account for the Republican victory which had caught them largely by surprise.

There should have been little mystery in the Democratic defeat. Clinton had done little for the 43 per cent (compared to the 46 per cent who voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988) of the electorate who voted for him in 1992. He had promised health-care reform would be the priority for his administration. For a year in 1993–94 the White House focused on it to the exclusion of everything else. When it failed—brought down by Republican opposition, Democratic divisions and popular apathy—Clinton had nothing else to offer. The victories of his administration such as the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the Crime Bill in 1994 were more likely to alienate unionized workers and blacks than to win new votes. The economy grew but this did not impress middle-income Americans—earning $20,000 to $50,000 a year—whose standard of living has stagnated since 1973.

The penalty for these failures was always going to be high. Clinton and Gore made very specific promises about domestic reform in 1992 and these were echoed by successful Democratic candidates in the House and Senate. Newt Gingrich was praised for fighting the Congressional campaign last year on national issues. But local politics were already in the background in 1992. Outside the Mississippi Valley and mid-Atlantic states voters chose a straight Democratic or Republican ticket. When it became evident that the Democrats were not going to break the political stalemate in Washington they paid an immediate and predictable political price. Similarly in 1948 Harry Truman’s Democrats had promised labour-law reform, health reform and government aid for education. When they failed to deliver on any of them over the next four years they lost the White House and Congress.

Not all this was Clinton’s fault. The Democratic party was unable to deliver any serious measure of domestic reform because it did not have a controlling majority in Congress. Again and again Democrats from border states and the South defected, refusing to support health-care or labour-law reform. Clinton was held responsible for the failure because his party was in nominal control of both Houses of Congress. He was also vulnerable because he had oversold his 1992 election as a realignment in American politics when the truth was that he was extraordinarily lucky to win at all. Without the intervention of Saddam Hussein at the beginning of the campaign and Ross Perot at the end he might either never have run or lost the election. By invading Kuwait the Iraqi leader handed George Bush a victory which convinced other Democrats not to run for the presidency. Convinced that he could be swept back into office as the saviour of Kuwait the White House became overconfident. This opened it up to unexpected attack from the Texas populist billionaire Ross Perot which ensured that the campaign was about the economy and the stagnation in middle-class incomes. The most damaging attacks on Bush in the summer of 1992, from which he never really recovered, came not from Clinton but Perot whose rhetoric was adopted by the Democrats.

Clinton was a politician without a base. This was key to his politics and his personality. He did have a financial base among various interest groups and corporations around the country. Meeting their diverse needs once in office reinforced the impression that his administration had no coherent political strategy. Long active in Democratic politics he had done very little. Southern governors have had little power since Reconstruction when they were deliberately stripped of much of their ability to raise money, fill jobs or control legislation. Arkansas was a one-party state with the Democrats in control but it is a nostrum of American politics that ‘one party means no party’. The governor’s mansion looks like any large suburban home in Little Rock with some ungainly white columns tacked on the front. Clinton did little and probably there was little he could do. In one of the three presidential debates shown on television Ross Perot said experience gained as governor of Arkansas ‘did not signify’. Clinton interpreted this as mean-spirited Texan contempt for Arkansans but it was true that he came to office with little experience of running anything.

In the campaign this lack of track record gave him great tactical flexibility in cultivating different parts of the Democratic party. But once in the White House it made him vulnerable. He was an easy target for Republicans like Newt Gingrich whose career was based on publicizing Democratic scandals. The very fuzziness of his views—his willingness to tell people whatever he thought they want to hear—made it easy for Gingrich and far-right talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh to label him as a left-wing liberal. In late 1992 commentator Garry Wills wrote hopefully that opportunist Clinton might be but, such was the strength of clashing interests in the us that, from Jefferson to fdr, history showed that only an opportunist could get anything done. It was a dangerous argument. Clinton’s shiftiness was much more in the tradition of a Southern Democratic politician who espouses a vague populism while keeping in with the local corporations and tries to keep his black vote solid without offending white voters. In the campaign Bush had hammered away at Clinton’s twofacedness but, perhaps because of Bush’s own famous ambivalence on arms to Iran and Iraqgate, made little impact.

Clinton’s luck in 1992 had a further consequence. It made him and the people around him arrogant. They failed to see the weakness of their political position. From the moment Clinton was elected the Democrats lost every major election for Congressional and state office that took place. The White House was weakened by the end of the Cold War. George Bush had discovered that success abroad won no votes at home and might even be a liability as a sign of disdain for the problems of ordinary Americans. The institutions of the Cold War—the Pentagon and the intelligence services—saw no reason to curtail their budgets so there was no peace dividend. In the election Clinton and Gore could shift to the right and still keep the support of traditional Democrats who would do anything to get rid of the Republicans after twelve years, but this automatic loyalty ceased once Bush was defeated.