Bill Clinton in Arkansas: Generational Politics, the Technology of Political Communication and the Permanent Campaign

By Marcus, Alan | The Historian, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

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. …

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