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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 99-105

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The Legacy of Campaign 2000

Norman Ornstein

The 2000 U.S. elections had the broadest and highest stakes in modern times. For the first time in nearly five decades, every power center in Washington--the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives--was simultaneously up for grabs. The presidential contest was an open one, with no incumbent running, and from the start was both fluid and unpredictable. The Senate, with its five-seat Republican margin, had enough Republican seats genuinely contestable to leave its majority unsettled. The House of Representatives had the smallest partisan margin in 46 years, making a shift of a mere six or seven seats to the Democrats out of 435 enough to change the majority. At the same time, in the state legislatures, where post-election redistricting would take place and shape the House for the next decade, 22 chambers were close enough that a shift of five or fewer seats would change party control.

The stakes were thus remarkably high--and made higher because of the dynamics of the past decade. Bill Clinton's election in 1992 represented a break from 12 consecutive years of Republican control of the White House and from an era of Republican dominance spanning 20 of the previous 24 years. His reelection represented the first time a Democrat had been reelected to a second term since Franklin Roosevelt. At the same time, the Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 40 years in 1994. The results of the 1996 election marked the first time since 1928 that Republicans retained control in two consecutive terms, a streak that continued in the 1998 and 2000 elections. These twin breaches in long-time party dominance reenforced the determination of Republicans to win back the White House in 2000, and the Democrats to win back the Congress. Each [End Page 99] party looked to November 7 to create a new pattern of superiority, one it could parlay into a longer-term dominance well into the new century.

The dust has now settled from this high-stakes election, yet nothing has been resolved. Republicans did win the White House, but under extraordinary circumstances, after 36 days of tension and wrangling. Even then, after five of nine Supreme Court justices effectively declared George W. Bush the winner, he captured the barest majority of electoral votes with 271. The Republicans retained their majority in the House, but saw their margin shrink yet again, to five seats out of 435. The Senate ended in a tie for the second time in U.S. electoral history, the first since 1880.

The overall votes cast nationwide for the House of Representatives were close to dead even. Seventeen states ended up with Republican majorities in their state legislative chambers, 16 with Democratic majorities, with the rest split. In major surveys, public party identification showed a virtual dead heat between Republicans and Democrats. In the presidential popular vote, Democrat Al Gore edged out Bush by roughly one-half of one percent of the votes cast. By most standards, the nation is divided as evenly as possible in partisan political terms. Although Republicans for the first time since 1952 have control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the control of the Senate is nominal, and effective control of the House quite limited. In 2002, both houses of Congress will be up for grabs again, with Democrats eager to take back majorities, bullish on their chances, and looking for any political advantage or leverage.

In this political context, is there any mandate to govern? After a bitter election contest and an even more bitter post-election battle for the presidency, is there any real opportunity for bipartisan cooperation and action? Is the context, or the reality, different in any way for foreign policy?

Foreign to the Campaign

When asked in polls during the 2000 campaign, "What is the most important problem facing the country today?" only four percent of Americans chose international issues/foreign affairs, with an even less impressive...


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