This is an editorial commentary I prepared during the 1992 presidential election.
It was never published and is dated now, but I think it shows insight on the
American political process.
Running, Reigning, and Ruling: The Presidential Campaign
and Domestic Policy
Everyone knows the United States faces massive domestic problems in the coming years--finding a way to pull out of economic stagnation, reducing the budget deficit, restoring American business' international competitiveness, coping with changes in family structure, reforming its medical delivery system, reversing the rise in poverty, overcoming racial divisions--to name just a few. Yet few Americans think the current presidential campaign has done much to prepare the country for dealing with these problems. Americans have good reason to be skeptical of campaign promises. Although there are meaningful policy differences between the two parties, campaign rhetoric does more to obscure the nature of these differences than to offer voters genuine alternatives.
The fact is candidates who have presented serious choices, like Barry Goldwater or George McGovern, have tended to go down in flames. Historically there have been some exceptions to the triumph of empty campaign symbolism. Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964 ran campaigns that offered voters relatively clear statements of the direction they wanted to take the country. In part because these candidates ran ideologically consistent campaigns, they generated political mandates that allowed them to lead Congress to enact broad legislative packages that had significant impact on public policy.
While the current 12 year reign of Republicans in the White House began with a flourish of substantive policy initiatives, Republican presidents have long since abandoned any attempt to really rule the country. When Ronald Reagan came up against the economic reality that cutting poverty programs would not generate the funds to pay for huge tax cuts and a massive military build-up, he simply abandoned control of public policy to the Democratic Congress for the symbolism of waving flags and "morning in America."
Perhaps George Bush could be excused for the vacuity of his 1988 campaign because of the inherent difficulties of running for the top job while serving as a sitting vice president. But after serving for four years in the top job, Bush cannot point to one significant legislative initiative even of the magnitude of Carter's failed energy policy, much less any substantial achievements in domestic policy. Whenever confronted with a difficult issue of domestic policy--economic stagnation, business competitiveness, access to medical care, urban decay, or family leave--Bush simply chants the mechanical mantra of tax cuts as the magical solution to all ills.
Bush's campaign this year repeats the slash and burn tactics of 1988, focusing on distractions like Clinton's draft record or who loves families more. Rather than defend his own record Bush has chosen to blame Congress for the mess the country is in. Certainly Congress is as much to blame as the president. But just as certainly no president can lead the country out of the wilderness without moving Congress to act. Bush's constant trashing of Congress is yet another reflection of his total lack of interest in actually accomplishing anything in domestic policy.
If George Bush is a professional politician of consummate technique applied to no meaningful domestic policy ends, Ross Perot is a man with a plan but little or no chance of enacting it. Perot's deficit plan contains many of the elements that will be necessary if the country ever intends to face up to its fiscal crisis, and the Perot campaign deserves credit for keeping the major party candidates from avoiding this crucial issue entirely. But it did not take a billionaire's financial resources to pull together a team of specialists who could devise a workable deficit plan. Any mediocre policy analyst and even most of the Washington insiders know the fundamental elements of real deficit reduction.
The problem is not stating a plan. The problem is mobilizing the political leadership to get it enacted, and even more, having the guts to stand up to the political heat when the pain begins to be felt. Perot's lack of political experience is not in itself a disqualifying handicap. But despite his Texas braggadocio, Perot has never displayed the mental toughness, much less the skill in dealing with other power brokers, necessary to forge the political force that could actually pass a plan and keep it in effect long enough to actually reduce the deficit. From his withdraw from the board of General Motors because his reorganization plan drew opposition to his in again-out again presidential race, Perot has shown a kind of emotional instability and supersensitivity to criticism that is downright dangerous in a national leader.
The domestic policy implications of a Clinton presidency are harder to fathom. Clinton has raised some serious issues in his campaign, but he has generally been fuzzy on the specifics. It is hard to tell whether this blurring of the issues reflects a campaign strategy of appealing to a wide range of voters or whether it indicates fuzziness in Clinton's own thinking. Certainly it repeats a long tradition of Democratic presidential candidates, from Franklin Roosevelt through John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Michael Dukakis, of trying to be everything to everybody. The Democratic Party has become ever more like the Japanese LDP, a series of factions held together only by their desire to retain office. It is a party in name only, without any larger purpose.
Clinton at times has shown awareness of the depth of the country's ills and the magnitude of the effort that will be needed to alleviate them. His theme of generational change is vague, but it at least signifies some sense of historic break with the failed past. His promises of a legislative flurry in the "first hundred days" of his presidency not only invokes Franklin Roosevelt's decisive first moves, but demonstrates an awareness of the special opportunities a president has during the key "honeymoon" period following the election. Clinton at least recognizes new policies are necessary on crucial issues like the competitiveness of American business and conversion to an economy based on peace, not perpetual warfare.
Since they were both southern governors, Clinton has often been compared to the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, particularly by Republicans eager to saddle him with the policy failures of the Carter era. But Clinton's political skills and will to power make certain comparisons to Lyndon Johnson more apt. However Clinton has not really used the campaign to mobilize the country to support serious policy initiatives the way Johnson did in 1964.
Perhaps the best analogy is to John Kennedy. Like Kennedy, Clinton has run an ideologically vague campaign based on the theme of generational change. If he wins the election, Clinton's presidency may also resemble Kennedy's. He could prove to be articulate in stating high ideals and skillful in political tactics, but still end up paralyzed by the internal contradictions of the Democratic Party and the unwillingness of the political system to cope with the domestic crises that only become harder to solve as time passes.
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