Making Campaigns Count: Leadership and Coalition-Building in 1980

By Darrell M. West | Go to book overview

4
Campaign Rhetoric and the Political Agenda

Rhetoric has a bad name. According to Webster, rhetoric is the "insincere" use of language. William Safire, one of the more colorful observers of language, is no more kind; in his Political Dictionary, he defines the term as "high- flying oratory" (although it originally meant the "persuasive presentation of argument").1 Scholars also take offense at rhetoric, telling us not to take campaign promises seriously; instead we should "watch what they do, not what they say." As the old joke goes, when leaders proclaim the need for trust and understanding, voters should keep firm grips on their wallets and purses because the deft hand of the federal government will not be far behind.

Of course, this skepticism is partially justified. Everyone can cite examples of political leaders who changed their minds or broke campaign promises. In 1964, Johnson campaigned as the peace candidate, yet escalated the skirmish in Vietnam to a major war. Meanwhile, Carter's top advisor (Hamilton Jordan) predicted that voters would not find "a Cy Vance as Secretary of State and Zbigniew Brzezinski as head of National Security"; but these men were appointed anyway.2 And even though Reagan promised to select justices who were pro-family, for the first vacancy on the Supreme Court, he nominated Sandra Day O'Connor, who previously supported pro-choice positions on abortion.

But despite these policy reversals, it would be a mistake to ignore campaign rhetoric. Few choices are more fundamental for presidential candidates than rhetorical content (what they discuss) and style of communications (how they discuss it). By emphasizing some topics more than others, campaigners bring issues to the political forefront. For example, Reagan's entrepreneurial activities in 1980 on behalf of supply-side economics brought an idea to public attention that previously had not been at centerstage. Conversely, there were several important issues (such as disarmament, world poverty, and child care) that received little attention from the major candidates. Clearly, issues do not always arise full-blown on the political agenda; rather leaders play a crucial role in defining the terms of debate (especially during campaigns when they have the nation's attention).

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Making Campaigns Count: Leadership and Coalition-Building in 1980
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgments iv
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations ix
  • Preface xi
  • 1- Introduction 3
  • Notes 12
  • 2- The Changing Nature of Presidential Campaigns 15
  • Notes 34
  • 3- Candidates and Electoral Coalitions 39
  • Notes 62
  • 4campaign Rhetoric and the Political Agenda 69
  • Notes 92
  • 5- Constituencies and the Allocation Of Travel Time 97
  • Notes 114
  • 6- The Role of Political Symbolism 117
  • Notes 131
  • 7- Candidate Presentations and Audience Reactions 133
  • Notes 148
  • 8- Campaigns and Governance: Predicting Presidential Behavior 151
  • Notes 161
  • Appendixes 163
  • Notes 174
  • Bibliographical Essay 189
  • Index 193
  • About the Author 199
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