In 1988 a Republican won the presidency for the fifth time in the last six tries, and for the seventh time in the last ten. In the past six presidential elections-over a quarter-century-Democrats have averaged approximately 43 percent of the national popular presidential vote. Over the past forty years Democrats have managed to exceed 50.1 percent of the popular vote only once, in 1964, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination.

The American public is sending a message with its voting behavior. Is it a profound message about what Americans want in their government at home and how they want America represented and projected abroad? Or are they separate messages for individual elections, unique reactions to specific circumstances that happen to mesh into a pattern of Republican hegemony? The answer is not at all clear, but which answer is correct matters less than which answer prevails in the interpretation of the 1988 vote.

The approach that each political party takes toward governing during the new administration comes down to whether the 1988 election is viewed as a seminal event involving a significant choice between two well-matched opponents, or a predictable and narrow victory for continuity over change. The more significance each party assigns to the outcome of the election, the more aggressive that party will be in the branch of government it controls.

Even before the results were in, the media seemed to decide the election was not important: "issueless," "personal," "trivial," "negative" were the usual expressions of disgust. There was a good deal of overstatement here, and it will take some time before we can fully understand the significance of 1988. In this essay we will try to put the election into context, examining the issues discussed and ignored, using the election to frame an analysis of the policy battles, options and outcomes ahead.


The analysis of American elections has become a cottage industry. Politicians, psephologists, pundits and press vie with one another first to predict election results and then to interpret them. One large school of analysis, bolstered by sophisticated mathematical models, believes that two simple factors can predict election outcomes: the state of the economy (measured by changes in real income levels) and presidential popularity. This school believed months before the campaign began-and without regard to what might happen through the fall-that George Bush would win by a very comfortable margin because of the economy and Ronald Reagan's public standing.

Another school of analysis believes that Democrats are losing presidential elections not because the results are predetermined by circumstances, but because the party is losing the battle of messages; the Democratic nominating process pulls candidates too far left of center, and they end up outside the acceptable range for a majority of voters. This school would accept George Bush's characterization of the campaign as a battle of values, which he won because of voter skepticism about the role of the government, fear of crime, belief in a strong defense and the need to project a strong American role in the world.

Yet a third school believes that Democrats lose presidential elections because they nominate amateurish candidates who run inept campaigns. For them, the ultimate irony in 1988 came when Michael Dukakis proclaimed the election to be not about ideology but about competence-and then ran an incompetent campaign. To these analysts, the Democratic Party has lost control of its nominating process and has appeared unable to get its act together-from Chicago in 1968, right up to Dukakis and his struggle with Jesse Jackson in 1988. They argue that the Democratic message would work, in other words, if the party could nominate somebody who could run an effective campaign and articulate that message.

There is truth in each explanation. Every American election is to some degree a referendum on current conditions. The innate American desire for change conflicts with the cautious yearning for continuity; the current status of peace and/or prosperity usually tips the balance one way or the other. With the economy recovering and the world at peace, voters in 1984 clearly preferred continuity, giving challenger Walter Mondale no realistic hope of unseating Ronald Reagan.

In 1980, by contrast, the deteriorating U.S. economy and concern over the hostages in Iran combined to provide a strong desire for change; as soon as Reagan, as Republican challenger, showed the American public that he was above the threshold of acceptability to be president, his victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter was assured.

This analytical model obviously holds better when an incumbent president is running for reelection, and the referendum on performance in office is clear-cut. When no incumbent is running, as in 1960 and 1968, simple indicators of economic performance and presidential approval do not work as directly, and the results are not so predictable. Eisenhower's popularity did not extend to Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey was not buoyed by the healthy economy in 1968. Still, almost inevitably, the candidate of the incumbent party runs as a candidate of continuity. Vice President Bush was more successful than most of his predecessors in linking his fortunes to the outgoing president's popularity and to the strength of the economy.

In July 1988, when Michael Dukakis enjoyed a double-digit lead over George Bush, nearly three-fifths of Americans polled expressed the belief that America was heading in "the wrong direction." By September of 1988, when only 45 percent of Americans held that view, it was Bush who held a double-digit lead. (Over the same period, incidentally, Ronald Reagan's approval gained ten percentage points.) As one journalist noted, "the amount of peace and prosperity was the same in July as in October," but in fact public confidence in the prospects for continued peace and prosperity had dramatically improved, making the task of the candidate of change, Governor Dukakis, ever more daunting.

Daunting, but not impossible. Americans, after all, were divided right down the middle about the prospects for the country's future, and similarly split over the leadership qualities of Vice President Bush. Yet many voters who harbored misgivings about Bush ended up voting for him. Why? Values did make a difference. When Dukakis held the lead, Bush was notably lacking support among groups generically referred to as "Reagan Democrats" and "Reagan Independents." In a major post-election Gallup poll for Times Mirror, these groups-notably, "New Dealers" (older and more anticommunist and socially conservative Democrats) and "Disaffecteds" (middle-aged, unhappy and cynical independents)-had moved perceptibly to Bush, and in numbers nearly comparable to their support for Reagan. These voters were brought into the Republican presidential fold for the third consecutive time by perceptions that Dukakis would be weak on defense and crime and would be on the wrong side of social issues such as capital punishment, prayer in the schools and abortion.

On such values as anticommunism, religion and American exceptionalism, the Democratic Party at the national level may well be out of phase with mainstream America. But on other values-e.g., social justice, tolerance toward the life styles of others and its approach to business-the Republican Party is just as likely to be out of step with the majority of voters. It was the hallmark of a competent Republican campaign that the values and issues that dominated in the fall were the ones where Democrats were vulnerable. The relentlessly negative and personal nature of the Bush campaign spotlighted the less popular values attributed to the Democrats and thereby kept the Democrats on the defensive, unable to shift the focus to Bush and the Republicans or exploit the G.O.P.'s vulnerabilities.

What was true of values was also true of certain issues. Consider defense. When asked which party can best maintain a strong defense, or deal with the Soviet Union, voters by a healthy margin picked the Republican Party. When asked which party can best keep the defense budget under control, voters by an equally wide margin chose the Democrats. When tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union are high, issues of strength tend to predominate and thereby provide an advantage to the G.O.P. But in 1988 Bush was faced with the ironic likelihood of being the victim of Reagan's success; Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty made the issue of a strong defense less salient and the bloated defense budget more so.

But with clever commercials and tough campaigning, Bush managed to shift the debate back to strength versus weakness, defining the issue much as it had been defined by Reagan in 1980. Bush managed to make Dukakis' perceived weakness on defense a major campaign issue, costing Dukakis votes and putting him on the defensive, forcing him to insist he was not weak on defense.

Dukakis' notorious ride in a tank was a direct response; it was so contrived that the film footage was used by the Bush campaign in one of its most pointed commercials. Moreover, while trying to prove his military toughness, Dukakis was unable to exploit the public's unease about defense procurement scandals or defense waste to drive votes from the Republican column into his own.

Since the 1950s polls have shown that the Republicans have an advantage on the question of which party is better able to maintain a strong defense; the Democrats have prevailed on the issue of which party would keep the nation out of war. During the Reagan years, the G.O.P. maintained its advantage on the first question and reversed the public view of the parties on the second, leaving the Democrats behind in public opinion in both traditional dimensions of foreign policy. But, as we have noted, neither of these issues was quite as salient in 1988 as in the past. Nontraditional dimensions of foreign policy began to emerge, dimensions in which the Democrats hold a solid advantage in public opinion. Defense waste, though a narrow issue, is one; economic nationalism, a much more far-reaching dimension, is another.

The early success of Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt in the Democratic primaries was not simply a reflection of narrow protectionism among a small sliver of activist voters. Gephardt tapped into a considerable and deep unease among Americans about foreign competition-both the sense that we no longer control our own economic destiny, and the belief that we are being damaged by countries taking advantage of our commitment to free trade, playing by a different set of economic rules. In June 1988 an "Americans Talk Security" poll asked voters whether they considered "military rivals such as the Soviet Union or economic rivals such as Japan" to be greater threats to American security. Fifty-nine percent said the economic rivals posed the greater threat.

In a country overwhelmingly averse to new taxes, Times Mirror found 71 percent of Americans favoring tax increases to protect American jobs from foreign competition. Senator Bentsen made foreign competition the centerpiece of his campaign for the vice presidency and the focal point of his successful TV debate with his opponent, Senator Quayle. But Governor Dukakis was unable or unwilling to focus on this issue until the final weeks of the campaign, and even then he did so ineptly (he launched an attack on foreign ownership of U.S. industries at an automotive plant that no one had told him was owned by Italians).

On these matters, as well as on the drug issue, which became linked to foreign policy and the campaign through Panamanian General Manuel Antonio Noriega, the Republican Party and Bush were vulnerable, but the Democrats never exploited these vulnerabilities. The election became a referendum on the failed policies of the governor of Massachusetts, especially in his first term more than a decade ago, rather than on the performance of the incumbent administration or the leadership or judgment of the G.O.P. nominee.

It thus becomes difficult to separate the Democrats' vulnerability on values and issues from the competence of their presidential campaign. There is little doubt, on balance, that the Republicans and their candidate maximized their advantages and seized the initiative in the campaign, and that the Democrats, while facing the difficult task of persuading a complacent and satisfied electorate to take a plunge for change, forfeited a real opportunity for victory.

There is enough uncertainty and disagreement about the cause of the election outcome, though, to dissuade either party from full-scale, aggressive assaults on the other; each will be off-balance and unsure enough about its standing with voters, given both the 1988 outcome and the prospects for 1990, to proceed with caution despite calls for combat from activists. But each party will also be eager to claim policy leadership in 1989, to demonstrate that its people and principles, and the branch of government that each party controls, are leading the way while the other side founders.

The campaign itself did not provide the cutting issues that would have defined the competition for control of the agenda in 1989. Instead, the issues that dominated the campaign will scarcely be visible in the policy arena; other issues, downplayed in the campaign or emerging since the election, will be much more significant in the year to come.


Whatever the causes of the election outcome, the hallmark of the presidential campaign was its intensely personal character. American voters expressed dismay at the harsh nature of the campaign; many saw it as the most negative in memory. The issues that dominated public attention were the Pledge of Allegiance and prison furloughs for violent criminals; while these themes did indeed tap into significant underlying values, they were not the issues that commentators would expect to be the centerpiece of a presidential campaign.

The 1988 American campaign stood in dramatic contrast to two other national election campaigns conducted at approximately the same time in other countries. In Israel an overriding question-participation in an international peace conference-divided the two main political parties and served as the campaign's centerpiece. In Canada the election turned on the free trade agreement with the United States; surrounded by intense debates about nationhood and national identity, the parties divided so starkly on the bilateral free trade agreement that the election was a clear referendum on this one point.

There was nothing even remotely comparable in the United States. No crucial issues cut along party lines. The starkest differences between Democrats and Republicans, Dukakis and Bush, were on two issues barely discussed, aid to the Nicaraguan contras and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). These were hardly at the level of a peace conference for Israelis, or a free trade pact for Canada, and they did not divide the parties nearly as sharply. Israel's Labor Party favored an international peace conference, while Likud was just as implacably opposed. In Canada the ruling Progressive Conservatives vigorously and totally defended the free trade agreement, while the Liberals and New Democrats completely opposed it. Compare those issues with aid to the contras: the Democrats opposed military aid but hedged their bets, supporting some humanitarian aid and the Arias peace plan; as for SDI, the Republican candidate hedged about rapid deployment and the Democrat criticized the concept, but supported continuing research.

The absence of deep partisan divisions on global controversies need not make for an "issueless" election, and a campaign that is not dominated by "big" issues can still shape the policy climate, decisions and outcomes for the next four years. Many of the real issues in the campaign were masked by the negative overtones and by the overall consensus on goals, if not means; indeed, in several respects, the 1988 election was not about what our government should do, but how it should do it. No candidate suggested ignoring the budget deficit, or resolving the deficit problem with a substantial increase in taxes. Both candidates pledged to extend government modestly to address the demand for health care, environmental protection, improved education, affordable housing and alleviating the drug problem. Neither candidate suggested abandoning the course of rapprochement with the Soviet Union; the question was how rapidly and extensively to proceed.

There were differences between the candidates, to be sure, on American-Soviet relationships-differences that were in fact debated in an enlightening fashion. Dukakis argued the view that changes in Soviet policy came about primarily because of the country's own economic problems; Bush contended that the Reagan Administration's arms buildup, and particularly the deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe, precipitated the most significant arms agreement in history. These differences reflected distinct policy choices; President Bush will be far more insistent than Dukakis would have been about continuing to fund nuclear weapons systems, and continuing to keep pressure on the Soviets by expanding American defenses, including SDI. But either candidate would have vigorously pursued further arms agreements with the Soviets, further cultural and economic ties, and an expanding dialogue and relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev.

The candidates also expressed very different approaches to the broader question of America's role in the world. By referring frequently to Grenada, Libya and the Persian Gulf, Bush suggested that his approach would resemble Reagan's-an assertive projection of America, the superpower, to protect its interests and the interests of the West wherever necessary, and sometimes by the use of force. By referring just as reflexively to the Contadora process, the Arias peace plan and the World Court, Dukakis expressed a preference for a muted American role, one predicated on prior agreement with our allies and partners in multilateral institutions and one governed by acute sensitivity to international law.

Sometimes the candidates did discuss these divergent approaches in their debates and speeches. But it would be a gross overstatement to suggest that the foreign policy differences between the candidates were a decisive aspect of the contest. George Bush's campaign managers fought vigorously to prevent one of the two debates from being completely dedicated to foreign issues, hoping to ensure that Michael Dukakis did not appear to be Bush's equal in command of international questions. For his part, Dukakis delivered very few speeches on foreign or national security policy, and he declined to offer a critique of American actions in Grenada, Libya and the Persian Gulf that might have shown how his foreign policy would differ from that of Reagan or Bush. Underlying this was Dukakis' apparent impatience with details in foreign policy; at a briefing on arms control, he reportedly insisted simply that we had too many nuclear weapons and showed little interest in the arcane specifics of how and where that number might safely be reduced.

Both candidates deliberately avoided underscoring their foreign policy differences in the general election campaign, while both had emphasized these topics far more in their campaigns for nomination. Why? One reason was the absence of international conflict or high tension. Under the circumstances, the foreign policy issues available for discussion were abstract and conditional-not subjects likely to grip swing voters in a ten-week general election period. For Bush, the broad theme of peace and prosperity, with an emphasis on prosperity, was more politically expedient than a detailed exposition of future strategic concerns.

During the party primaries, the tactics were different. Foreign policy issues helped Bush energize his party's conservative core, the leaders of which were mostly aligned with other candidates at the beginning. His strong support for SDI, including an openness to early deployment, and a skepticism that went well beyond Reagan's about swift movement of further arms control talks with Gorbachev, were intended to solidify his standing with these voters, who were not his natural base. If he had continued to stress these issues in the fall, Bush might have had to moderate his zeal about SDI or tone down his skepticism about Gorbachev, creating more potential problems with his party's core than gains among swing voters.

Dukakis similarly emphasized issues such as contra aid and South Africa in his campaign for the Democratic nomination, harshly and emotionally criticizing the Reagan Administration policies in order to generate activist support in Iowa and other early primary or caucus states. In the fall, though, Dukakis did not find these or other foreign policy issues to be particularly fruitful ground.

In the broadest sense, it was difficult for the candidate of change to argue for change when the public was satisfied with peace, the INF treaty and basic international stability. More specifically, most of the active opponents of contra aid were solidly in the Democratic corner; little new support could be mined by continuing to stress this issue. An emphasis on Gorbachev and arms control would have been more likely to underscore the achievements of the Reagan era than to help Dukakis make the case for change. Finally, a major focus on foreign policy would have called attention to Dukakis' lack of experience in that realm.

Dukakis had some success with voters where he tried to exploit foreign policy by focusing not on ideological or strategic differences but on specific instances of Reagan/Bush failures such as the Iran-contra scandal, Lebanon and Noriega. But his overall defensiveness in the campaign, forced on him by Bush's ability to dominate the agenda, made his jabs less potent and less salient to voters than they might have been if the campaign had been defined in different terms.


While the overt thrust of the Bush campaign was his attack on Dukakis, the campaign's broader message was, "If you've liked the last eight years, you'll love the next four." This naturally meant stressing areas of policy success, not engaging debate on major continuing or festering problems. There was almost no debate on Nicaragua and aid to the contras-an area Bush directly acknowledged had resulted in failure-and no serious or detailed discussion of the "twin towers," the budget and trade deficits. Bush's deficit reduction plan, playing on his broader message, contained no warning of problems or pain ahead, but rather was a combination of his "flexible" budget freeze and the oft-repeated refrain, "Read my lips: no new taxes." That refrain worked. But it may make a post-election resolution of the deficit problem much more difficult.

Bush's campaign reinforced the underlying public desire for continuity and resulted in a vote for the status quo at all levels. Even as Bush won 40 of 50 states, 98.3 percent of incumbents running for reelection to the House of Representatives won, and voters slightly enlarged the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. As in 1984 any talk of a mandate by the newly elected president was diluted by his party's manifest lack of success in other contests.

Democrats, however, obtained scant comfort from their continuing success in American politics below the presidential level. Losing the top prize in American politics again, in an election that nearly all Democratic leaders believed they could have won-especially after Bush chose Senator Quayle as a running mate-left them bitter and disillusioned. Their frustrations were aimed first at their own candidate, but with Governor Dukakis back in Boston, Bush now faces their wrath. Democrats will have no interest in rescuing President Bush from his own campaign pledges, or in helping him out of politically embarrassing situations. With their control of Congress, Democrats have every incentive to advance their own agenda, and to turn Bush promises, e.g., to be "an environmentalist," to their own advantage.

Nor will the new president get much help from the Republicans in Congress. The countercyclical nature of American politics suggests that Republicans will lose congressional seats in 1990, the next mid-term election-a pattern that has held in every off-year contest (except 1934) since the Civil War. The initial euphoria of victory has already subsided for congressional Republicans; they are already looking to protect their flanks in two years. In the House of Representatives, the minority party is almost powerless, and 35 consecutive years of minority status has left the Republicans there deeply frustrated and increasingly bitter about their treatment at the hands of Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright and his colleagues. Every time President Bush works directly with the Democratic leadership in the House, Republicans will complain; but if he ignores that leadership and works instead with the Republicans, he will likely lose.

Faced with these constraints, Bush will have to adapt his presidency to fit the results and the conflicting messages of the campaign and election. In his first hundred days as president, he will need to do what he could not as a candidate-to establish not a mandate but something like an agenda, some objectives by which his administration can be evaluated and judged. Presidents who have defined their administrations by intense achievement in the first hundred days have generally stayed close to home; the New Deal, Great Society and Reagan Revolution all involved domestic enterprises. These presidents saved their international initiatives for subsequent years.

Bush will not have this luxury. A campaign predicated on preserving and extending current policies, combined with the relentless pressure of the budget deficit, eliminates any possibility of embarking on sweeping domestic initiatives. With the savings and loan catastrophe and the massive problems at nuclear weapons plants looming with hundred-billion-dollar price tags, any new domestic spending in a Bush Administration is likely to go toward cleaning up a mess, not promoting anything tangible or politically beneficial.

All presidents gravitate eventually to foreign policy, if only to escape the frustrations of continuing power struggles with Congress over domestic matters. But Bush, who would have little room to maneuver domestically even if Congress did not exist, will likely take an approach to the presidency that we have not seen in this century. If he is to put a strong mark on the presidency in his first year, he will have to do so in foreign policy.


President Bush is certainly better prepared than his recent predecessors to tackle foreign issues from his first days in office. He will be tempted, of course, to make his mark first in the American-Soviet arena, but he will also look for opportunities for action in Latin America and the Middle East. Still, it is difficult to see where or how he might turn to make a move as politically significant as Reagan's rapprochement with Gorbachev or Carter's Camp David accords.

Indeed, with most of the world's hot spots at least temporarily cooling down, the most promising area for the new president to launch some foreign policy initiatives might turn out to be in Washington itself. Conflicts between the executive and legislative branches over the conduct of foreign policy littered the Reagan years, and most of them remain unresolved. Part of the problem has been a continuing, festering lack of trust between the branches. The executive often ignored the legitimate prerogatives of Congress while challenging congressional power and purpose. For its part, Congress often went to undesirable extremes to impose its desires on the executive, distrusting his motives and capacity to carry out effective policy. If President Bush can clear up these problems early in his term, he will be able to act with more assurance later.

One focal point of this mutual distrust was the applicability of the War Powers Act, which became an element of controversy over Lebanon, Grenada, Libya and the Persian Gulf, among other places. Congress and the White House often found themselves in pointless and enervating debates about who was obliged to invoke the War Powers Act and when, devoting too little time and attention to revising the measure to make it acceptable to both branches. A modest effort on that score was begun in 1988; a presidential move to expedite that process would be good politics and good policy.

The Iran-contra arms scandal raised another area of congressional-presidential tension. Congress viewed the administration's defiance of the Boland Amendments limiting aid to the contras as a scandalous and illegitimate use of covert action. The executive viewed congressional micromanaging and meddling in foreign affairs, and congressional leaks of sensitive covert programs, as eminent justification for extralegal actions. The Iran-contra hearings did not resolve the tensions over covert actions, executive notification of Congress or congressional oversight.

The 101st Congress will start with some suspicion of George Bush in this area, given his well-known attraction to covert action. An initiative on his part to come up with an accord between the branches-perhaps a firm pledge on swift notification, in return for a smaller joint staff for the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, modeled after the respected Joint Taxation Committee staff, to cut down on congressional leaks and overactivism in the intelligence area-would be a major advance in inter-branch relations.

A third positive step would be to improve the dialogue between the branches on foreign policy, leading to a dialogue before decisions, not after-the-fact notification. A commitment by President Bush to meet regularly with a small, representative group of congressional leaders for a discussion of foreign policy would be an attractive olive branch. While no panacea, it would have the additional potential of building bipartisan and bicameral consensus in many areas, regional and otherwise, of foreign policy.

The next four years provide a rare opportunity for consensus on domestic as well as foreign policy issues. Few Democrats support opening the floodgates on federal domestic spending; most Republicans support modest federal initiatives in education, health, transportation, environmental cleanup and other domestic needs. Few Republicans oppose further arms talks with the Soviets; most Democrats support the concept and letter of the INF treaty and its logical extension. Countries whose governments once provoked partisan strife in the United States, such as Argentina and the Philippines, have become models of American bipartisan cooperation; the same can be said of South Korea and Chile. Few basic ideological or partisan divisions exist in American politics about policies toward the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific Rim, most of the western hemisphere and Africa. Even in trade the differences are more in style than substance. When it comes to the federal deficit there is a broad agreement that it matters, and must be reduced; the disagreements, over perhaps $20 or $30 billion in taxes in a $4.5-trillion economy and a $1.2-trillion federal government, are trivial.

The potential, then, exists for bipartisan cooperation on domestic and foreign policy issues. But that potential could go unfulfilled. The areas of agreement may be masked by partisan bickering, or the few disagreements might be exaggerated to gain partisan advantage, ultimately resulting in policy failure or gridlock.

There are more players in the game of governing than President Bush and the Congress. The intelligence, savvy, experience and judgment of Bush's officers and advisers, and the party leaders in Congress, will make a difference. Each side has some Washington veterans who are most comfortable cooperating in a bipartisan environment: James Baker as secretary of state and Brent Scowcroft in his second stint as national security adviser play this role for Bush; the Senate party leaders, newcomer George Mitchell (D-Me.) and veteran Robert Dole (R-Kans.), play this role on the Hill. Other officials are more combative partisans: John Sununu as chief of staff in the White House, Jim Wright as Speaker of the House. The balance of power among the conciliators and the partisans is likely to play a decisive role in how we face the dilemmas of the coming years.

And of course, we must take into account the political environment. The 1988 election was the first in twenty years without an incumbent running for reelection. In 1992, we are likely to return to the norm: a basic referendum on the incumbent's performance in office. The political components of that contest will be set in 1990, with the mid-term elections already preoccupying minds on Capitol Hill. How skillfully our policy leaders operate within this political context will determine how successfully we deal with the policy challenges and opportunities ahead.

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  • Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-director of the Gallup/Times Mirror survey of the American electorate. Mark Schmitt is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.
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