1996: The least important election of our lives

What was it about 1996? Start with the terrain. In 1996, America was a hotbed of … rest. The economy was in the best shape in decades: a jobless rate of just 5 percent, inflation under 3 percent, real growth at a more or less steady 2.5 percent and a budget that was approaching balanced—and on a clear path to future surpluses of several hundred billion dollars. A debate among economists was seriously focused on whether to eliminate the national debt entirely or keep it alive just for credit purposes. Abroad, Boris Yeltsin was winning reelection as president of Russia; Vladimir Putin was a relative unknown who had just moved to Moscow to assume the lofty position of deputy chief of the Presidential Property Management Department. Even terrorism wasn’t a front-burner issue: Al QaIda’s attempt to bring down the World Trade Center Towers with a truck bomb in 1993 had ended in failure, and Osama Bin Laden was a name known to a relative handful of government officials.

As for intense political combat? The government shutdown of 1995-96 had ended with the more militant Republicans in Congress conceding defeat; indeed, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the White House were in negotiations for a series of bipartisan efforts, starting with welfare reform. In his State of the Union address, which marked the unofficial kickoff of the political season, President Bill Clinton, still chastened by the 1994 midterms that had delivered both houses of Congress to the GOP, proclaimed: “the era of big government is over.” As fierce as Gingrich’s early fights had been, both parties had tacked to the center, and by modern standards it was the Era of Good Feelings in Washington.