1992, 1996, and the Birth of a New Era of Governance
In the presidential elections of 1980, 1984, and 1988, the three Democratic nominees won an average of about 10 percent of the Electoral College vote—a smaller share than any party in any three consecutive presidential elections in US history. In the next seven elections, Democrats won the popular vote in all but one (2004), a feat not achieved by a political party since the Democratic Party’s inception in the 1820s. What separated these record-setting runs was the election and presidency of Bill Clinton, whose pivotal role in ushering in a new era of American politics—for better and for worse—this book explores.
Perhaps because Clinton’s presidency was hobbled by six years of divided government, ended in a sex scandal and impeachment, and was sandwiched between Republican administrations, it is easy to forget that he revived a presidential party that had become nearly moribund. In Clinton’s Elections Michael Nelson describes how, by tacking relentlessly to the center, Clinton revived the Democrats’ presidential fortunes—but also, paradoxically, effectively erased the center, in the process introducing the new political reality of extreme partisan divisiveness and dysfunctional government. Tracing Clinton’s place in American politics from his emergence as a potential nominee in 1988 to his role in political campaigns right up to 2016, Nelson draws a deft portrait of a savvy politician operating in the midst of divided government and making strategic moves to consolidate power and secure future victories. With its absorbing narrative and incisive analysis, his book makes sense of a watershed in the modern American political landscape—and lays bare the roots of our current era of political dysfunction.
“The author of nearly two dozen books analyzing recent American political history, Michael Nelson of Rhodes College is one of the nation’s most distinguished American political scientists. His latest work, Clinton’s Elections: 1992, 1996, and the Birth of a New Era of Governance, will only add to this reputation. In a careful analysis of congressional and presidential elections going back to the election of 1968, Nelson argues that until 1992, Congress was partially or completely controlled by the Democrats while the Republicans mostly controlled the White House. This led to an increase in political partisanship. In 1992, Clinton was elected president, but in the 1994 midterm elections the Republicans took control of Congress for the first time since 1952 and held it throughout the remaining six years of his administration. Although Clinton was reelected in 1996, the result of divided government has been ‘de facto divided government’ and partisan polarization ever since. An absorbing and well-written analysis of a crucial development in American political history, this book should be of great significance to anyone interested in the modern age of US politics.’”
—Burton I. Kaufman, author of The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton
“Renowned presidency scholar and award-winning author Michael Nelson has penned a captivating analysis of Bill Clinton’s two presidential election victories, situating them in the arc from the turbulent 1960s to the divisive age of Trump. Nelson masterfully argues that Clinton’s centrism—the very core of his electoral successes—ironically resulted in the polarized extremism of twenty-first-century American politics.”
—Barbara A. Perry, author of Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier and The Michigan Affirmative Action Cases
“Michael Nelson brings his distinctive blend of narrative verve and political science acumen to the story of Bill Clinton’s two electoral victories. Just as in his prize-winning volume on the presidential election of 1968, Nelson’s tale of how the Clinton years ushered in our current era of divided government and bitter partisanship makes for a fascinating read.”
—Bruce Miroff, author of Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face
“The Democratic Party is divided; some believe the party can win only with a moderate presidential candidate who appeals to the interests of the middle class, and others argue that a full-throated tack to the left is needed to regain the White House. Moderately educated white voters move toward the Republicans. The parties are polarizing in Congress and in the country. Politics in 2020? No: this is Michael Nelson’s fascinating account of the Bill Clinton presidential terms of the 1990s. Nelson’s new book uncovers the roots of the current era, in which presidential elections are highly competitive but states are increasingly one-party, interparty hostility keeps growing, and the federal government seems unable to respond to a variety of new and age-old challenges.”
—Marjorie R. Hershey, author of Party Politics in America
“With a cast of political actors as fascinating and flawed as any since the 1850s and a backdrop of cultural warfare, Michael Nelson delivers an absorbing narrative with a timely theme: How divided governance hardened into dysfunctional governance. More than a decade of renewed Democratic presidential competitiveness, the 1990s marked the emergence of institutionalized partisan loathing and automatic, strident opposition by the minority party. Anyone who wants to know what happened to ‘the presidential honeymoon,’ ‘comity,’ and other bygone political courtesies will find the answers—and much more—in Clinton’s Elections.”
—David Courtwright, author of No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America
“While not bringing about a true realignment in American politics, the two presidential victories by Bill Clinton reshaped the politics of the nation in terms of its electoral balance of power, a new norm in the operation of the federal government, and how campaigns operated. As he has done in so many previous works, Michael Nelson tells the story of those campaigns and their ramifications in a clear manner, making the meaning of the Clinton era understandable for generations of students born after the 1990s.”
—Jay Barth, M. E. and Ima Graves Peace Distinguished Professor of Politics, emeritus, Hendrix College
“Clearly and cogently written, Clinton’s Elections by Michael Nelson is the definitive book about the electoral politics of the 1990s. Students, scholars, and political junkies will all profit from this outstanding read.”
—Marc Joseph Hetherington, Raymond Dawson Distinguished Bicentennial Professor of Political Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
“Michael Nelson offers a thought-provoking account of not just the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections but also the critical years that preceded and followed these consequential campaigns. He has written a fascinating book that effectively makes the case that these two elections marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. Nelson draws on his keen expertise of the American presidency not only to shed light on the politics of the late 1980s and 1990s but also to highlight important dynamics that characterize the current era of polarized politics. His compelling presentation of evidence and absorbing narrative make this book a valuable resource and a satisfying read for anyone seeking to understand modern American politics.”
—Brendan J. Doherty, professor of political science, US Naval AcademySee fewer reviews...