Leading Article: Win some, lose some ... that's the American way

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The Independent Online
Democrats and Republicans both looked fairly pleased with themselves as the results came in after Tuesday's US elections. For the Democrats, there was the satisfaction of seeing Bill Clinton becoming the first president of their party to win re-election since Franklin Roosevelt's fourth and final triumph in 1944. After the barren years of 1968-92, when the Democrats held the White House for just one of six presidential terms, Clinton has demonstrated that his party is back in business when it comes to winning the biggest prize of them all.

Yet the results are a success for the Republicans, too. They have slightly increased their majority in the Senate and, for the first time in 66 years, they have won a majority in the House of Representatives in two successive elections. To retain control of Congress was about the best the Republicans could hope for, having fielded their weakest candidate since Gerald Ford in 1976. It was, all the same, a significant achievement, ensuring that the Republicans will control all chairmanships of the congressional committees that prepare legislation. To Republican relief, at least Bob Dole's lacklustre performance did not cause the election of a Democratic-controlled Congress working in enthusiastic alliance with a Democratic president, free to pursue his liberal instincts. To have a president from one party and a legislature controlled by the other is nothing new in post-1945 US history. In some respects, such an arrangement encapsulates the essence of the constitution, with its famous emphasis on checks and balances and the division of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary. Certainly many Americans seem to prefer things this way, even if the specific qualities of candidates running for the presidency and in Senate and House races are probably more important than constitutional theory in causing most split-ticket voting.

How does that concern Mr Clinton's second term? There must inevitably be doubts over how effective a president he will be over the next four years when faced with hostile majorities in Congress. If history is any guide, these majorities may grow larger after the congressional mid-term elections of 1998. The Republicans will not only be able to block White House legislative initiatives but, in alliance with the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and a variety of interest groups, could inflict endless embarrassment on Mr Clinton by investigating his personal and political affairs. The already-impressive list of scandals or potential scandals includes the Whitewater property deal, the firing of the White House travel staff, the seizure of FBI files on Republican officials by White House political hitmen, and the issue of foreign contributions to the Democratic campaign.

Even if these difficulties fade away, Mr Clinton seems disinclined to pursue far-reaching domestic reform in his second term. His limited proposals include ensuring that more children can read and more students can go to college, lowering crime rates, tinkering with welfare reform and overhauling the system of financing political campaigns.

Some of these proposals will doubtless make it through into law, if only because the Republicans cannot afford to be seen as using their control of Congress in an entirely negative way.

Yet it appears all too likely that in 2000, after eight years of a Democrat presidency, the United States will not have introduced the thorough, progressive reforms to education, health care and the welfare system that are so clearly in the country's best interests. Instead, there will be modest initiatives in 1997 and 1998, and then two years of drift as Democrats and Republicans alike concentrate on the next presidential contest. That matters, because the present comfort that most Americans feel about their economy will not necessarily endure for long. Like Britain, America needs to sharpen the skills and aspirations of its less prosperous and well-educated people, in the interests of social cohesion as well as their continuing economic well-being.

It may prove easier for Mr Clinton to exercise strong leadership in foreign policy. He is committed to admitting several new democracies in central and eastern Europe into Nato in 1999, and he has grasped the importance of matching this with a close, institutionalised relationship with Russia. Having fought the last election campaign of his life, his hands should be freer to guide the Arab-Israeli peace process back on course.

Other issues could be trickier. The US demands reforms to the United Nations and the removal of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, but the Clinton administration seems no more inclined than its predecessors to solve the problem of unpaid US debts that have driven the UN close to bankruptcy. With a Republican Congress scarcely enamoured of the UN, it seems unlikely that Mr Clinton will risk much political capital on an issue that seems secondary to most Americans.

The biggest problem could be China. The Chinese government welcomed Mr Clinton's victory, but the reason given by one official - "Clinton is an opponent we know well" - hardly suggested that the relationship is warm. China sees itself as the coming superpower of the 21st century, and it will need firm and skilful leadership from Mr Clinton to prevent a dangerous atmosphere of confrontation arising between China's post-Deng Xiaoping leaders and the US and its East Asian allies.

If he can calm troubled international waters, and leave a reasonable legacy of domestic reform in the next two years, then Mr Clinton's second term should be judged a success. Americans have picked the right man for the White House; but the constraints they have imposed on him by voting for a Republican Congress will not make his tasks any easier.