A "New Covenant" Kept: Core Values, Presidential Communications, and the Paradox of the Clinton Presidency

By Durant, Robert F. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2006 | Go to article overview

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. …

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