Bill Clinton in Arkansas: Generational Politics, the Technology of Political Communication and the Permanent Campaign
Marcus, Alan, The Historian
IN 1978, 31-year-old William Jefferson Clinton was elected Arkansas governor. The bright and engaging, albeit hardly modest, former Rhodes Scholar claimed that his victory would herald "a new era of achievement and excellence" and that Arkansas would soon become "the envy of the nation." (1) A goodly share of Clinton's hubris came from his suggestion that Arkansas had been ruled by "waste, and lack of order and discipline ... in governmental operations" and that he could rationalize government through the use of social science and its insights. (2) Clinton believed that government could be configured to effectively resolve social problems. Rationalized processes, that is, applying social science and social-science insights as technology, could produce a government of maximized efficacy at minimum costs.
This set of assumptions marked Bill Clinton as naive rather than transcendent. He was hardly the first baby boomer to think that he could revolutionize governance. Clinton was to find success elusive. By late 1979, a great number of Arkansans complained that the young upstart had horribly mismanaged state government. Clinton dismissed this criticism, attributing it to popular ignorance about his achievements, and began a campaign to communicate his administration's virtues to the state citizenry. But this effort to communicate administration accomplishments, once more laced with social-science techniques, failed to sway the electorate. In what had essentially been a one-party state, a Republican political neophyte, Frank D. White, defeated Clinton in 1980 by a margin of 35,000 votes, far in excess of Ronald Reagan's victory total in the state for the presidential election; in his home state, Clinton proved less popular than the despised Jimmy Carter.
Clinton ran again for governor in 1982. In that election Clinton consciously substituted subtext for context. He would help redraw traditional politics. Clinton did not run on what he had accomplished during his first term or even what a new Clinton administration could achieve. His campaign was not about government per se. Its sole focus was electability. Clinton used focus groups and other polling methods to diagnose what had caused his defeat and to create a candidacy that could win the election. This essay intends to investigate why Bill Clinton embarked on this radically different (and ultimately victorious) strategy, which in many ways was to be the blueprint for his subsequent successful run for the White House.
Bill Clinton was of the generation that came of age in the late 1960s. Nurtured on Bob Dylan, critical of Vietnam and later Watergate, and uttering mantras such as "never trust anyone over 30," young Americans saw the political system as broken and argued that it was their generation's obligation to fix it. (3) This sort of hubris propelled some of these idealists into elective politics; from approximately 1975 onwards, several succeeded and took office. Among them were Paul Soglin in Madison, Wisconsin, and Dennis Kucinich in Cleveland, who worked their way through various political posts until they became the 'boy mayors' of their respective municipalities. (4) Clinton became the first boy governor, after running for Congress and serving as Arkansas Attorney General. By the time Clinton sought the governor's post in 1978, he had extensive connections to Arkansas politicos as well as those from out of state.
He had established these latter contacts through his internship in Arkansas Senator William Fulbright's DC office in the late 1960s and his overseeing of the McGovern campaign in Texas, to which he was dispatched by the Democratic National Committee in 1972. (5) Clinton came in close contact with other young, like-minded men during this time. Through Fulbright, Clinton befriended Rudy Moore, Jr. A Fayetteville lawyer, the young Moore was then serving in the Arkansas legislature. He would help Clinton's congressional right and chair his initial gubernatorial campaign. Jim McDougal headed Fulbright's office while Clinton served there. McDougal later accepted a post in the political-science department of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, AR. Located about an hour from Little Rock, this small, conservative college housed several prominent political scientists, including Bob Riley, who had served briefly as governor, Daniel R. Grant, author of a classic book on local government, and Jim Ranchino, proprietor of the prestigious Arkansas Poll. (6) Ranchino was a "campus radical," who frequently appeared as political and election analyst for Little Rock's largest television station. Each became a close Clinton associate.
The McGovern campaign introduced him to the pollster Pat Caddell. (7) Later known for his work with advertising executive Jerry Rafshoon on the campaign of Jimmy Carter, Caddell became friendly with Clinton during his failed 1974 run for Congress and designed a survey for him that year. Soon after the election, Caddell signed on with the National Committee for Effective Government, which backed primarily liberal candidates. In this capacity, Caddell polled for the 1976 Clinton attorney-general campaign. During the McGovern campaign, Clinton became acquainted with Steve Smith. A several term state representative, Smith first gained office as a twenty-year-old by running from his fraternity house. Smith was no dilettante, however. He proved easily the most liberal member of the the Arkansas house of representatives. Smith gravitated to Clinton during his congressional race and quickly became his chief advisor for agricultural policy. A devotee of economist E. E Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, which accentuated small, diverse, localized industries, businesses, and economies based upon "appropriate," not necessarily cutting-edge, technologies, Smith's agricultural policy advice figured prominently in candidate Clinton's campaign. (8) In this campaign, Clinton claimed that the federal "government has too often been made use of for private and selfish purposes." (9) He demanded that it "reverse these suicidal trends" of facilitating "large multinational corporate farms." (10) If it did not, "the small independent farmer will be forced from his land" and these parasites "will dominate Arkansas and the nation, manipulating the price of food much the same as the giant oil companies do the price of gasoline." (11) Clinton concluded by calling on US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz to "resign and return to the board of directors of Ralston-Purina." (12)
Clinton worked in the hiatus between his unsuccessful Congressional challenge and his attorney-general campaign as a law professor at University of Arkansas, a job Smith lobbied for him to receive. (13) Clinton not only taught at the campus in Fayetteville but he also travelled weekly to the state capital of Little Rock to offer a course titled "law and society." From that city Clinton launched his attorney-general campaign, a crusade that his political soulmate Smith managed. Running on a platform of "character, competence and concern," Clinton maintained that the attorney general's proper role was to be "guardian of our people's interests." (14) Four major planks covered the platform. The attorney general must ensure "fair utility rates, citizens' rights to consumer protection in small claims court, effective antitrust laws, and the right to privacy." (15) Once elected, Clinton appointed Smith chief of staff. The tandem focused on alternative energy to keep consumer rates down. Both men gravitated to the work of Amory Lovins, who called on government to "structure the energy environment" to prevent citizens from suffering under "some large, distant, perhaps unresponsive forces over which they have no control." (16) Underscoring the agricultural policy Clinton advocated two years earlier, Lovins argued for energy conservation and "soft energy technologies" (alternative energy sources), especially solar power, to keep consumer prices down, to allow small businesses to choose among energy providers and to free the nation from the multinational oil cartel. (17)
To one observer, this bunch of anti-establishment do-gooders seemed "almost like having a reunion of the peace corps." (18) By 1977, Clinton had decided to run for higher office, beginning by asking Ranchino to undertake a name recognition survey of likely gubernatorial candidates. (19) 57% recognized Clinton, while no conceivable opponent scored in double digits. Still, Clinton was concomitantly attracted to Arkansas's open US Senate seat, as were a number of other heavy hitters. As Clinton mulled over the matter of in which race to run, he was contacted by a former McGovernite, Dick Morris. A recent Columbia University graduate, Morris had a long history in liberal New York politics before he decided to branch out. In 1977, he compiled a list of sixty people across America who were likely to seek statewide or national office in 1978. He wrote each one of them announcing his availability for their campaigns. Morris's ambitious gambit was rare, for most political consultants at that time were more of the retiring kind, such as Caddell, Rafshoon, or Ranchino. (20) They held regular jobs as corporate pollsters, at advertising agencies or with colleges. Morris raised the stakes by working without a safety net. His future depended on only one thing, sufficient remuneration by a successful campaign.
Smith was intrigued by the brash Morris and Clinton became his first client outside New York. (21) Unlike many pollsters who merely determined where voters stood, Morris argued for using polls to determine what people really wanted. He adapted a technique used in the movie industry where focus groups responded to different endings. But instead of endings, Morris would write whole campaign narratives accentuating different facets of a politician's program. He did not argue to change the candidate's positions, just which ones to stress. Focus groups determined which "ending" they preferred. He further explained to Clinton that these narratives seemed to the public a window into the candidate's soul. A candidate who demanded quality nursing homes would be seen as compassionate. Support of public schools suggested a family orientation. While Clinton saw Morris's methods as "a tool he could use, a process that could reduce the mysterious ways of politics to scientific testing and evaluation," at that time he only used the pollster's services to see if he would be elected senator in the crowded race. (22) Morris wrote out the various campaigns, tested them on a series of focus groups, and concluded that despite what was commonly believed, Clinton could well win the US Senate seat. (23)
Despite Morris's counsel, Clinton chose the gubernatorial race, campaigning under the slogan, "the issue is excellence." (24) In one-party Arkansas, Clinton prepared to be governor as soon as he won the Democratic nomination in May. He challenged Smith and Moore to identify issues and plan budgets for the new administration. Taking unused campaign funds, Clinton also hired two Price Waterhouse financial management specialists. (25) This duo set about before the general election to create "teams that worked in various state agencies and the governor's office, studying the operation of state government and seeking methods to improve its management." (26) Assisted by Smith and Moore, these management experts utilized Clinton's attorney general's staff to draft legislation. They had more than 70 prime pieces of legislation ready to present the legislature prior to the inauguration. (27)
Smith and Moore were also charged to hire people to serve in the new administration. They dipped heavily into Clinton's attorney general's office and appointed virtually all the lawyers and many of the secretarial staff to posts in the new Clinton administration. (28) But Clinton, Smith, Moore, and the Price Waterhouse managers also looked outside Arkansas for talent, such as John David Danner, who came aboard almost immediately.
Clinton had known Danner since at least 1974. A recent Harvard graduate with a law degree and master's degrees in public health and in education, Danner made his living as a management analyst and consultant. (29) As an undergraduate, he had put together a market-research business with nearly 100 students as its part-time employees. Danner knew all the latest social-science-management theories and techniques. While his politics were similar to Smith and Clinton, Danner was more of a bureaucrat than a politician, who harbored a great zest to institute means to increase the efficacy of government to aid the social good. He closed his management-consulting firm when Clinton asked him to join the administration.
In Clinton's effort to make the state's administration more comprehensively scientific, his advisors undertook national searches and brought in administrators from across the country to head the departments of health, energy, human services, and education. Both in credentials and once in office, Barrett Toan proved representative. A graduate of the Wharton Business School, Toan was a financial-management specialist for Price Waterhouse who was loaned to the Clinton campaign. (30) As the new state commissioner of social …
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Publication information: Article title: Bill Clinton in Arkansas: Generational Politics, the Technology of Political Communication and the Permanent Campaign. Contributors: Marcus, Alan - Author. Journal title: The Historian. Volume: 72. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2010. Page number: 354+. © 2009 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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