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Split Decision: Divided Government Reflects Nation’s Political Divide

November 9, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Oscar Arnold was up early on Election Day to vote for Bill Clinton for president and Republicans for Congress. ``I think we got more done this way,″ he said, and by embracing divided government he unwittingly delivers the verdict of his nation.

Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole spent months campaigning, and millions of dollars on television ads, as did candidates in the fiercely contested battles for House and Senate. But in the end the voters changed little: They sent Clinton back to four more years in the White House, narrowed the House’s Republican majority a bit and added a tad to the GOP’s Senate edge.

After the tumultuous 1992 and 1994 elections, the voters had no sweeping message to deliver this time. Not that there wasn’t a message in that.

``The economy is good, the stock market is good _ my business is great,″ said George Stephan, a 45-year-old New York independent who voted for Clinton even as he voiced some reservations about his ethical standards. ``But the good outweighs the bad.″

That is hardly a heartwarming embrace. Again, Stephan’s is the voice of an America conflicted about its leader and closely divided in its partisan affiliation.

``Clinton has good intentions,″ said Helen Kalinski, 75, of Baltimore. ``I just hope he follows through on them.″

More than half the Americans say Clinton is not honest; almost half voted for him Tuesday. Half wanted a Republican Congress if Clinton was re-elected; 45 percent favored a Democratic Congress.

``The parties are relatively evenly balanced in public support,″ said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. ``It is not a country that believes in revolution or radical change.″

Nearly half of Americans said they worried a Republican Congress would be too conservative; slightly more than half worried a Democratic Congress would be too liberal. Half said they were concerned or scared at the prospect of a second Clinton term; half were excited or optimistic.

``I would like to see a good moderate balance and both the Democrats and Republicans work together,″ said Hugh Smith of Raccoon Creek in Kentucky’s far eastern coal country. Common sense rules there, and Smith figured there was no need to deliver a blunt message this time.

He helped do that last time.

``Very frankly I think ’94 was good for the Democratic Party,″ he said of the midterm Republican rout. ``There are some people who just had to go.″

The winners always promise to get the message from the voters, even when it isn’t so dramatic. This time was no different.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Clinton a liar during the campaign _ and hadn’t spoken to House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt in a year. But the day after the election Gingrich, heeding the voters call, called both and pledged cooperation.

Clinton looked at the results and promised the same.

``This country was divided as to just exactly which way to tilt,″ Clinton said of the embrace of divided government. ``But they were collected around the idea that we needed to keep making progress, but do it by working together, from the center.″

There was no throw-the-bums out sentiment this time: Incumbent losses were rare, mostly in swing districts.

``The majority of people who voted thought the country was headed in the right direction,″ said Dole campaign pollster Tony Fabrizio. ``There was no reason to throw people out wholesale.″

In a campaign of few remarkable moments, there were two distinct turning points.

The first was in November 1995, when Gingrich decided to shut down the government in a balanced budget showdown with Clinton. The president benefited enormously, by casting the GOP as extreme and eager to cut Medicare and education. While Medicare got the headlines, education was the dominant issue as many suburban swing and independent voters made up their minds.

``I can’t support people who don’t support education,″ said Mindy LoCicero, a teacher in the wealthy New York village of Scarsdale.

The second turning point came in August, when congressional Republicans broke ranks with Dole and passed several popular pieces of legislation, allowing Clinton to share in the credit.

That period stuck in Arnold’s mind as the Georgia businessman mulled over how to vote and settled on the status quo.

``August was really good for the country but bad for us politically,″ said Mellman. ``At that point, the Republican Congress was seen as ineffective and threatening. Then they passed the minimum wage and health care reform and welfare reform and they were suddenly seen as a lot more effective and a lot less threatening.″

The August approach worked just fine for Sarah Borders, an Atlanta lawyer who enthusiastically voted for Democrat for president and Republican for Congress. For her, it was a simple choice: ``I want Bill Clinton in charge of our vision, but I want Guy Millner keeping our taxes down.″

Count her among the 52 percent of Americans who said in exit polls that government should do less. Forty one percent said more. It is another sign of America’s fragile but perhaps healthy political division, sure to be tested again when elections for Congress and governor head the ballots in 1998.

``I’m glad it’s over,″ Vaughn Gray of Wichita, Kan., said of this election season. ``I’m tired of listening to it.″

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