Perfecting the Permanent Campaign - More Than Any of His Predecessors, Clinton Taught Americans to See Political Leadership and Governing through the Lens of a Continual Public Courtship and Seduction

By Heclo, Hugh | The World and I, July 2001 | Go to article overview
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Perfecting the Permanent Campaign - More Than Any of His Predecessors, Clinton Taught Americans to See Political Leadership and Governing through the Lens of a Continual Public Courtship and Seduction


Heclo, Hugh, The World and I


No president can dramatically change something as vast and multicentered as the American political system. Every president, however, is in a key position to either add or subtract from the tendencies that are already under way. Clinton's presidency gave American politics a mighty shove deeper into the dark territory where governing dissolves into nonstop campaigning.

More than any of his predecessors, Clinton taught Americans to see political leadership and governing through the lens of his continual public courtship and seduction. This legacy matters, not least when we consider that for the 30 million adults who came of political age in the Clinton years, this is the only presidency and way of doing politics they have known.

Governing and campaigning are supposed to be related in a democracy; elected officials are expected to make good on their promises. Without good-faith promise making in campaigns and promise keeping in government, power is unaccountable, and representative democracy is eventually unsustainable. No serious political thinker has ever proposed that campaigning and governing should be the same thing, however. Although the two overlap, their respective functions and emphases are quite different.

The difference between governing and campaigning

The word govern is taken from the Latinized Greek word cubernare, meaning "to steer." Governing is about choosing, adapting, and sustaining courses of action for the long run. It involves arguing, deliberating, and compromising by and for people who are essentially on a journey in the same boat.

By contrast, campaign is from the French term campagne, meaning open countryside (identifying the presumed sites where armies took to the field for limited periods). It was first used to refer to a series of military operations; in its domesticated political guise, a campaign is a contest against adversaries to win short-term verdicts of public favor. It is shortsighted, warlike, and preoccupied with "closing the sale."

As political scientist Burdett Loomis has put it, "A campaign is nothing if not a series of seductions." Having watched self-seeking flatterers do their work, ancient Greek and Roman philosophers well understood the dangers of mindlessly confusing campaigning with governing. Down this road lies the democratic madness of governing people who believe that whatever pleases them is what is true.

Long before Bill Clinton appeared on the scene, American politics had been evolving a campaign style of governing. The "permanent campaign" is simply a shorthand term for a syndrome developing out of six interrelated features of twentieth-century public life.

These are: (1) invention and political application of scientific polling, (2) professionalization of public relations and political consulting, (3) decline of political parties and concomitant rise of mass media as agents for mobilizing opinion, (4) expansion of interest- group politics, (5) higher stakes in influencing the policies of a big, activist government, and (6) the consequent ever-growing need for political money.

The permanent campaign is the name for all these features collectively- -a nonstop process of seeking to manipulate public opinion to approve of the government. By the 1990s, these six interlocking features were becoming one "great chain of being" in American public affairs, a continuous loop of campaigning to govern and governing to campaign.

Harmonic convergence

With Clinton, the man and the times came together in a kind of harmonic convergence. For one thing, there were the lessons of his own political career. As the first president born after World War II, Clinton was a baby boomer who had never known politics that were not television-based and professionally stage-managed.

His inspiration came from political entrepreneurs, above all the Kennedys, who bypassed party organizations to make themselves electable.

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Perfecting the Permanent Campaign - More Than Any of His Predecessors, Clinton Taught Americans to See Political Leadership and Governing through the Lens of a Continual Public Courtship and Seduction
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