Academic journal article Stanford Law & Policy Review

Play It Again, Hillary: A Dramaturgical Examination of a Repeat Health Care Plan Performance

Academic journal article Stanford Law & Policy Review

Play It Again, Hillary: A Dramaturgical Examination of a Repeat Health Care Plan Performance

Article excerpt

[T]he tone of the new [performance] ... is different from that of the first. It had to be, since we know what's coming. (1)

Over a decade ago, this journal published two of my attempts to explain Bill Clinton's presidency and, especially, the 1993 Health Care Reform Plan (Plan 1) (2) that both Bill and Hillary Clinton made a central tenet of Bill's first term in office. (3) In the first piece, using the dramaturgical metaphor that sociologist Erving Goffman first articulated in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (4) I argued that in order to maximize the effect of their public presentation of Plan 1, the Clintons sought to maintain a clear separation of their "behind the curtain" activities from those that took place "in front of the curtain." I concluded that the presentation and the Plan failed because the presentation's participants failed to maintain that separation: "Portions of the public audience simply rejected the Clintons' performance [when] they found it false, or at least dissonant with the performers' identities. For whatever reason, the Clintons have not been able to maintain the separation of character and performer that Ronald Reagan, for example, managed so effortlessly." (5)

Then, in the 1996 Presidential election, "Despite Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, Paula Jones and campaign-finance shenanigans with a shady cast large enough to populate a new Coppola epic, [Clinton] took the oath of office not in manacles but with an approval rating rivaling Ronald Reagan's." (6) In short, the "character issue," or what I, in Goffmanian fashion, termed "performer focus" (7) did not doom the campaign as I claim it doomed the presentation of Plan I three years earlier. Indeed, the conflation of performer and character appeared to have little impact on voting.

My second article was my attempt to reconcile the election result with my commentary about the presentation of Plan I. (8) The article compared particular elements of the presentations of Plan I and the campaign--their casts and scripts--and concluded that the performances themselves were not sufficiently different to explain the dissimilar results. The political contexts of the performances, however, were sufficiently different to produce different outcomes. Most notably, the Clintons presented Plan I during the rise of the Contract with America, Newt Gingrich's package of legislation designed to reduce drastically the role of government in America. (9) By contrast, the campaign took place after the spectacular failure of the Contract. Characters, performers, and performances associated with government became much more appealing after Congress and the public rejected the Contract's antigovernment thesis. (10)

I retained the Goffmanian dramaturgical metaphor, but attempted to fine tune it by drawing from the work of a drama writer of a very different stripe, film critic Pauline Kael. (11) Goffman did not consider the ramifications of the context of a performance. Kael, however, urged that we can only properly evaluate performances when we view them against a backdrop of the "implied system of values" supplied by the context. (12) I concluded my second article by urging that Goffman's metaphor illuminates political activity best when considered in its context. (13)

Well, to paraphrase a President who was able to stay in character regardless of context, "here we go again." (14) On September 17, 2007, now Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton unveiled a central plank in her campaign platform: The American Health Choices Plan (Plan It). (15) It's a sequel! (16) Or is it a remake? (17) Regardless of which it is, (18) Plan II represents a variation of the dramaturgical metaphor that Goffman did not contemplate: a revived script, performed in a new context, with the original leading actress but an otherwise all-new cast. But, this is well-trod territory for film critics, and, as "the most influential film critic of her time," Kael has led the way. …

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