Though the metaphors may differ, the same basic commonplace about the nature and quality of contemporary political communication in the United States dominates academic and public commentary. Intellectual leaders repeatedly tell Americans that political communication is baseless, is in crisis, and is lacking in substance. It is diseased, dirty, infected, flawed, poisoned, and/or hopelessly polluted by money and special interests. It appeals to the lowest common denominator, threatens America's standing in the world, and ignores the severity of the problems facing American society.
This cacophony of criticism and cynicism has persisted for much of the 1990s, perhaps in response to a series of events and occurrences over the last twenty years. Each new example, each new spectacle (e.g., Watergate, Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency, Iran/contra, the 1988 presidential election, Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill, Gennifer Flowers, the Clinton impeachment, George W. Bush and cocaine) evidences for the naysaying commentators the truly flawed nature of American political communication. Our nation is perpetually at risk, they maintain, and our democracy imperiled by the character of our political discourse.
We know these commentators because of the power of their criticism and the frequency of their appearance. Jamieson (1992) laments the "Svengalian power" of the mass media and concludes that "Campaign discourse is failing the body politic ... because it has conventionalized genres of candidate and press discourse that minimize argumentative engagement and ignore the responsibility that all parties should shoulder for the claims they make" (pp. 9, 11). Bennett (1996) warns us about "the governing crisis" where the "media spiral, the marketing syndrome, and the money chase in contemporary politics have undermined the connection between elections and government in the United States" (p. 10). We live in a cynical society, Goldfarb (1991) reveals, where "Leaders use rhetorics which neither they nor their constituents believe, but which both leaders and followers nonetheless use to justify their actions" (p. 1). Salvador (1998), reporting on the findings of the Eisenhower Leadership Group, fears that "democracy is at risk" because citizens are leaving the business of politics and governance to others (p. 3). Kamber (1997) believes that "American politics has been poisoned by harsh personal attacks" and that "democratic debate has been dragged down to the level of tabloid scandal" (p. xiii). And Hart (1994) suggests that our political culture needs a "New Puritanism" that resists television's tendency toward "emotional excess and servile distraction" and its capacity to "seduce America" (p. 163).
Our reading of contemporary political communication is somewhat different and significantly more hopeful. We suggest that American political communication is in many ways quite healthy and we assert that there is much to be optimistic about regarding the state of political communication in the United States. We base this conclusion on four distinctive characteristics of contemporary political discourse. First, American political discourse is often detailed and specific in its focus on policy. Second, this same discourse is generally successful at producing high quality leaders and leadership. Third, American political discourse is increasingly democratized via technology and media. Fourth, the success of political discourse in America has created a truly rhetorical politics to the benefit of the American community. In our discussion of each of these dimensions of American political discourse, we examine Bill Clinton as a contemporary example of the optimism about the contemporary political context, highlight ing his role in rhetoric's renaissance as a political force. Ultimately, in advancing this view of political discourse in the United States, we hope to offer an alternative direction for political communication research -- a direction that eschews cynicism for teleologically hopeful criticism, a direction that embraces progress instead of pessimism.
THE UBIQUITY OF POLICY IN POLITICAL COMMUNICATION
One of the most persistent complaints about political communication is that it either ignores or simplifies complex national policy issues (Zarefsky, 1992). This occurs, the critics say, because of television and its obsession with "strategy" rather than "substance," or because of a misplaced focus on character and personality or because attack politics simplify and distort policy argument and disagreement (Hart, 1994; Jamieson, 1992). The focus on strategy or character is additionally credited with spreading the cynicism about politics (Cappella & Jamieson, 1996). Whatever the reason, many commentators come to the regrettable conclusion that contemporary political communication is devoid of serious policy engagement.
These complaints ignore the practice of political campaigns and legislative debates as they occur in the United States. At the presidential level, campaigns for party nominations begin earlier and earlier every cycle, with candidates storming Iowa, New Hampshire, and the national airwaves months before any votes are cast or caucuses are held. And during their journeys, many contenders address complex and detailed policy questions. Indeed, because campaigns start so early, more speeches are given, and more advertising is produced, much of which concerns policy choices and decisions. Buchanan (1996) cites the results of a Center for Media and Public Affairs content analysis of the 1992 campaign. That study revealed that 72% of speeches, 84% of commercials, and 93% of book chapters presented by the presidential candidates in 1992 focused on substantive issues and concerns (p. 11).
One need only examine the 2000 presidential election campaign to discover the ubiquity of policy debate. On the Republican side, several of the candidates have discussed in detail their policy positions on such diverse matters as tax policy, educational vouchers, relations with China, Medicare and Social Security reform, and agricultural price restoration. For instance, Steve Forbes features detailed position papers and issue statements on his campaign website, including his plans for a flat tax, a personal retirement security system, medical savings accounts, and his "power to parents" plan (Forbes, 1999). Gary Bauer informs voters of his positions on abortion, the military, assisted suicide, property rights, and over fifteen other policy matters (Bauer, 1999). And John McCain tells voters about his views on thirteen different issues, ranging from small business policy to his proposals for campaign finance reform (McCain, 1999). These candidates are typical rather than unique; all of the major GOP candidate s host websites containing detailed policy positions and speech transcripts. Their policy positions, though, are not restricted to websites and e-mails. Policy discourse occupies a considerable portion of overall campaign discourse--from stump speeches to fund-raising mail to television advertising. Although policy-based political oratory may not generate extensive media coverage, the texts of such discourse are widely available in sources like Vital Speeches of the Day, mainstream journalistic coverage and/or newspaper summaries of candidate policy positions, and again via candidate webpages. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that voters actually acquire knowledge about policy and issue positions from media coverage (Weaver, 1996).
As for the Democrats, Vice President Al Gore's main focus has been the discussion of policy options and governance platforms, leading to the rather mundane but oft-repeated conclusion that he is boring and stiff. So, while Gore tries to recast his political identity and profile, his campaign website continues to highlight daily policy announcements. On October 12, 1999, for example, the website featured a speech by the Vice President on the need for improved health care for "working families." Included in …