A "New Covenant" Kept: Core Values, Presidential Communications, and the Paradox of the Clinton Presidency
Durant, Robert F., Presidential Studies Quarterly
Commonplace among his supporters and many Americans is the idea that Ronald Reagan was an exemplar of philosophical consistency as president of the United States. Reagan, it is said, knew who he was, spoke and wrote consistently about his vision for America, and pursued a policy agenda informed by it. Reagan, others observe, was a "conviction politician" with a "sacramental vision" of America (Heclo 2003), a strategic thinker, a transformational leader (Burns 2003), and a rhetorical paragon who left policy and tactical calculations to others. As his noted biographer Lou Cannon (2003) suggests, however, this image is paradoxical: Reagan was the ultimate pragmatist and transactional leader in both Sacramento and Washington. Among other things, he enacted the largest tax increase in California history, signed an abortion rights bill for that state, and presided over a series of tax increases and burgeoning budget deficits in Washington (for other recent scholarly views, see Brownlee and Graham 2003).
In contrast, the conventional wisdom among most commentators, scholars, and large segments of the American public is that Bill Clinton exhibited little philosophical, rhetorical, or policy consistency as president. Indeed, one recurring theme of an early and influential scholarly appraisal of Clinton's performance marshaled compelling evidence that it was difficult to discern any coherent philosophy at all midway through his first term (Campbell and Rockman 1996). As one contributor wrote, the "debate over what kind of Democrat Clinton is tells the story," adding that "Clinton does not seem to know, and neither does anyone else" (Aberbach 1996). Added another scholar evaluating aspects of the administration's domestic policy, "The administration seemed unwilling to deal [i.e., bargain with Congress] yet unable to fight" (Wilson 1996). Argued others in the volume, "International actors may have already taken their measures of the differences between Bill Clinton's rhetoric and his commitment" (Berman and Goldman 1996).
Since then, powerful critiques of Clinton's presidency and personal character also have helped foster the image of a calculating rather than conviction-driven president (see, e.g., Reeves 1996; Burns and Sorenson 1999; Buchanan 2000; Gergen 2000; Johnson 2001; Maraniss 2001; Morris 2002). Playing into this image, among other things, are his "triangulation" strategy; his parsing of words during campaigns and personal scandals; claims that he either "played off his enemies rather than taking the lead himself" (Maraniss 2001) or discerned his middle-ground positions after listening to opposing viewpoints, believing that "on most questions there were all manner of ways to split the difference" (Harris 2005, 68); his desire to always keep options open, which translated into perceptions of uncertainty and vacillation; and his voracious appetite for polling data. However, they do not persuasively demonstrate that Clinton actually lacked a core set of beliefs that--amid the surface noise of tactical considerations, decision styles, and personal peccadilloes--informed his major initiatives. Indeed, one can accept these perceptions as in some sense accurate, but still hold that Clinton had a core philosophy.
This exploratory study assesses more systematically than has been the case to date the constancy of Clinton's legislative, administrative, and rhetorical record, sees how well linked Clinton's words and actions were, and discerns how well those words and deeds communicated an image of having core beliefs. Examined, first, is the extent to which Clinton's New Covenant philosophy of "opportunity, responsibility, community" informed his policy and rhetorical record throughout his political career. Analysis reveals that Clinton's policy initiatives and rhetorical legacy were informed by a discernible, sustained, and coherent philosophy regarding the proper relationship between citizens and the state, the essence of his New Covenant philosophy. Examined, next, is whether, how, and with what persistence Clinton's New Covenant philosophy was featured in presidential and White House communications during his two terms in office. Informing this analysis is a Java-programmed search by keyword of the first 17,389 spoken and written communications available electronically on the Clinton Presidential Library Web site. (1) Analysis reveals that (1) the terms and phrases associated with Clinton's New Covenant philosophy were used with persistence, coherence, and consistency throughout Clinton's years in office, but that (2) the patterns discerned are inconsistent with what rhetoricians, marketing executives, social scientists, and political operatives call "branding" a product, service, or candidate. The article concludes by weighing the contribution of this rhetorical paradox to the equally paradoxical image of Clinton as philosophically and programmatically rudderless.
Policy Initiatives, the New Covenant, and the Clinton Legacy
In his penetrating study of the evolution of the New Democrat movement, Kenneth Baer (2000) chronicles the meshing of Governor Bill Clinton's presidential ambitions, campaign needs, and policy interests in revamping the image of the Democratic party with the Democratic Leadership Council's (DLC) agenda. Like Clinton, the DLC was interested in creating the image of a more centrist, business-friendly, less counter-culturally caricatured, and more prodefense Democratic party in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both also sought to disabuse Americans of the perception that the Democratic party was captured by special interests associated with women, minority, and ethnic elements pushing a rights-based rather than a responsibility-based policy agenda (Galston 2004).
As early as 1986, Clinton (2004) writes that he had developed a set of "basic convictions about the nature of the modern world" (327), a public philosophy that paralleled the thinking of DLC leaders like Al From. (2) Clinton's convictions eventually would be refined and distilled into his New Covenant, and DLC, mantra of reciprocal obligation between citizens and their government: opportunity, responsibility, and community. Known in the marketing industry as branding (Holt 2004), this phrase was offered to connote a new image and philosophy for the Democratic party, one of a party focused on contemporary challenges and prepared to advance a progressive agenda no longer encumbered by rights politics (From 2004). As then-Governor Clinton told a newspaper convention in 1986, "The internationalization of American life ... [means that] ... [w]e have to share responsibilities and opportunities--we're going up or down together"; and a "strong America requires a resurgent sense of community, a strong sense of mutual obligations, and a conviction that we cannot pursue our individual interests independent of the needs of our fellow citizens" (Clinton 2004, 327).
The challenge was clear, argued Clinton, in language resonant with the DLC's emphasis on the implications of a postindustrial, information-based, professionalized, and increasingly global society: keeping the "American Dream alive and preserving the nation's role in the world" mean accepting and acting upon "the new rules of successful economic, political, and social life" (Clinton 2004, 327). Nor was this a one-off comment. As Smith (1996) points out in his review of Clinton's speeches between 1974 and 1992, a "consistency [exists] in the basic themes and policy positions--over time, in varied contexts, and to vastly diverse audiences" (xiv). As Waldman (2000) recalls Clinton remarking much later as he worked with the president on the 1998 State of the Union address, "FDR saved capitalism from itself. Our mission has been to save government from its own excesses [s]o that it can again be a progressive force" (271).
What is more, and as Table 1 summarizes, the prose, themes, and initiatives of the Clinton presidency in regard to his public philosophy are discernible in many of his prepresidential speeches. Regnant in Clinton's speeches and policy initiatives during those years, for example, was a frequent emphasis in stark, tough, and New Deal-linked terms on the opportunities given by government to Americans to help themselves, on the reciprocal responsibilities of recipients of government assistance to make the most of those opportunities, and on all citizens to see themselves as a community obliged to help members through tough times.
Clinton, like From and others at the DLC, also understood by the late 1980s that Ronald Reagan's public philosophy of a minimalist state was by then ascendant among political majorities in America. Moreover, it had peeled away from the traditional Democratic base socially conservative "Reagan Democrats." Consequently, Democrats needed to offer an alternative and compelling public philosophy to Reaganism, one that could be captured in a phrase readily recallable by citizens. The party had to do so not only to regain the White House but also to protect the progressive elements of the positive state philosophy that, before Reagan and since the New Deal, had animated political majorities of Americans.
The relationship of citizens to the state had been clear to proponents of the positive state philosophy: government was the ultimate promoter, provider, and guarantor of essential goods, services, and opportunities to U.S. citizens dealing with the downsides, challenges, and hardships of impersonal economic and social forces. Put most simply, government was the solution to market failures. In contrast, Reagan's minimalist state philosophy turned that public philosophy on its head in variations of a pithy and memorable phrase: markets are the solution to government failures. Moreover, citizens needed to look more to themselves and so-called intermediary institutions like churches, synagogues, mosques, extended families, and neighborhood groups for help, rather than to government. And whereas centralization of power in Washington, led by bureaucracies staffed by professionals wielding largely regulatory tools, informed the positive state philosophy, Reagan's minimalist state philosophy envisioned decentralization of authority to the states, debureaucratization, deregulation, and repoliticization of government agencies to make them more responsive.
Formally forging the symbiotic bonds between them, Clinton became chairman of the DLC in 1990 and used that position to burnish his national reputation by accepting the DLC's advice, networks, and resources during his 1992 presidential campaign. Perhaps the rhetorical high point of this symbiosis was his 1991 keynote address at the DLC's national meeting in Cleveland. Positioning himself as a serious presidential contender, Clinton summarized the New Democrat's alternative public philosophy of reciprocal obligation. "Our burden," said Clinton, "is to give the people a new choice rooted in old values. A new choice that is simple, that offers opportunity, demands responsibility, gives citizens more say, provides them responsive government, all because we recognize that we are a community" (Maraniss 1996, 459).
Thus, rife with its own biblical tones, the New Covenant of opportunity, responsibility, and community was conceptualized as a Third Way alternative to both traditional liberalism with its emphasis on government solutions and the rugged individualism of Reagan's minimalist state vision for the United States. As presidential candidate Clinton stated in his first New Covenant speech at Georgetown University in 1991, "We must go beyond the competing ideas of the old political establishment: beyond every man for himself on the one hand and the right to something for nothing on the other" (Smith 1996, 90). Envisioned, in the process, were important, complementary, and synergistic roles in building a results-based sense of common purpose for markets and mandates, for experts and laypersons, for bureaucrats and communities, and for tradition and innovation. Nor, Clintonites insisted, was this a "split-the-difference" approach to governance; the New Covenant was beyond, not between, the ideologies of the left and the right.
In two of his three New Covenant speeches at Georgetown, Clinton operationalized what those words might mean in terms of policy initiatives, and thus how they transcended the old orthodoxies of his party. (3) For example, in the domestic policy arena, Clinton spoke of a "pro-work, pro-family, and pro-values" agenda for an economy in transition. Thus, Clinton accepted the inevitability of globalization, a position that many in his party found anathema. To the contrary, they believed that globalization was a "choice" that advanced corporate interests, not an inevitability.
Borrowing from a communitarian theory that was controversial within his party, Clinton also emphasized such initiatives as (1) "community policing, drug treatment for those who need it, and boot camps for first-time offenders"; (2) "investing more money in emerging technologies to keep high-paying jobs here at home," while requesting corporate responsibility in return; (3) affording "standards and accountability ... in education"; (4) allowing young Americans to "borrow the money necessary for college ... and ask[ing] them to pay it back ... through national service"; (5) "insist[ing] that people move off welfare rolls and onto work rolls ... [by] giving people the skills they need to succeed [education, training, child care] ... [in return for] demanding that everybody who can work go to work"; (6) "insist[ing] on the toughest possible childsupport enforcement"; and (7) "reinvent[ing] government to make it more efficient and effective" by giving employees more flexibility in return for accountability for outcomes.
Yet as Baer (2000) also notes, by the time of the Republican rout of congressional Democrats in the 1994 midterm elections, the DLC was so disenchanted with the direction of Clinton's presidency that some even considered looking for a DLC-backed challenger to him in the 1996 Democratic primary. Driving their disenchantment was the perception of a leftward drift of the Clinton agenda to that point and, hence, an abandonment of the New Democrat agenda. In contrast, other more neutral observers saw him as insufficiently staking out and defending either new or old Democrat positions (Quirk and Hinchliffe 1996). (4)
Fueling these disparate perceptions were "sins" of both commission, like initiatives related to gays in the military and health care, and sins of omission, like putting middle-class tax cuts and welfare reform on the back burner. Thus, while perhaps tactically logical whenever he could not count on Republican votes for his legislative initiatives, Clinton's deference to traditional liberal Democrats in Congress during his first two years in office left DLC supporters feeling jilted. Nor did it help that these tactics made it easy for friends and foes alike to either perceive or recast even some of Clinton's early New Covenant-grounded initiatives as traditional liberal approaches. Debates surrounding his ultimately victorious 1993 budget bill, for example, were framed by Republicans as traditional Democratic tax-and-spend policies, because it incorporated a stimulus package of increased federal spending. This, at the same time that critics from the left (and within his administration) excoriated the deficit reduction focus of the bill as advancing Wall Street rather than "Main Street" interests.
Similarly pilloried by Republicans in 1993 was his otherwise New Democrat anticrime bill that expanded grounds for capital punishment and increased prison construction. This occurred after the Black and Hispanic Democratic caucuses said they could not support the bill unless inner-city funding for midnight basketball and swimming pools was added. In effect, whenever Republicans forced Clinton to rely exclusively on Democratic votes for victory, they forced him to accept amendments from those on his left, leaving him vulnerable to charges of abandoning the center. Meanwhile, "hybrid" bills like the 1994 crime bill combined with …
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Publication information: Article title: A "New Covenant" Kept: Core Values, Presidential Communications, and the Paradox of the Clinton Presidency. Contributors: Durant, Robert F. - Author. Journal title: Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume: 36. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 2006. Page number: 345+. © 1999 Center for the Study of the Presidency. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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