Posted on July 20, 1992 in Washington Watch
Democrats are excited, Republicans are in disarray and Perot supporters are angry and confused.
It was—all in all—an extraordinary week for Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and a potentially troubling one for President Bush and the Republicans. Conventions are designed to give candidates and their political parties a boost in public opinion polls. That’s why so much effort goes into orchestrating them. This convention was also an expensive success. Originally, the Democrats budgeted about $24 million for the event—the final cost will be $38 million, prompting the joke “if you liked the Democrats’ convention, you’ll love a Democratic Administration—you’ll go to bed feeling great and you’ll wake up in the morning more in debt than ever.”
Regardless of the costs, this year’s Democratic convention was unusually successful. Thanks to Ross Perot’s sudden withdrawal as a candidate and his tacit approval of the “revitalized” Democratic Party, thanks to the Clinton campaign’s competent organizational abilities, and thanks to the willingness of the media to uncritically accept and repeat the Democrat’s message dispensed during the convention, Clinton has emerged from the 1992 gala with a redefined image.
Normally, a candidate can expect a 6% to 8% jump in the polls after a convention, but Clinton got a 10% boost, going from 45% to 56%. He now leads President Bush by 23% in two polls.
Democrats left the 1992 New York Convention more optimistic than they have been in years. In contrast with the past three conventions, the difference in mood is particularly noticeable.
In 1980, a wounded President Carter faced a stiff challenge from the Democratic Party’s “royal family” scion, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who went out of his way to disrupt the convention and embarrass Carter.
In 1984, a young and energetic Sen. Gary Hart and a challenging Jesse Jackson made life difficult for a weak candidate, Vice President Walter Mondale, who never had a chance against a popular Republican incumbent, Ronald Reagan.
And in 1988, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition overshadowed a competent but uninspiring Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who would eventually face George Bush, remade and inspired thanks to the speech-writing abilities of Peggy Noonan.
In each case, the Democratic Party left these conventions divided and confused about its message and its candidate.
Clinton’s has been a different story. First, he weathered a tough campaign in which his character and his “electibility” were constantly put to the test. He survived in part because he ran against a weak field, with former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts representing the conservative wing of the party and an erratic former California Gov. Jerry Brown seeking to represent the left wing. Neither one of them had the votes or the charisma to do Clinton any real harm at the convention. Both were allowed to address the convention, but they and their supporters were easily controlled by the Clinton campaign.
Clinton, whatever he lacks of Jackson’s charisma and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s eloquence, is reminiscent of the old-style machine politician who makes up in organizational abilities what he lacks in charisma or personal clout.
As a result, Clinton’s effective “image-makers” were able to use the event and staging to cast Clinton in a charismatic Kennedy mold. Kennedy family members were everywhere. And Clinton was deliberately cast as the true Kennedy heir—in his themes, his speech, and even his hand and facial gestures and speaking style.
Clinton also has been almost brilliant in his ability to appeal to and organize a wide array of constituencies and issues. At the convention, both openly and privately, Clinton appealed to traditional Democrats—gays, women, Jews, African Americans, and the poor—while focusing on themes often considered the domain of Republicans: defense, family, personal responsibility, God and the economy.
Not only Clinton’s speech, but the entire program of the convention served to weave together these liberal constituencies with conservative threads. For example, Jesse Jackson, who has great liberal support, was allowed to speak, but only during a time when most television networks were not covering the event. This was balanced by having other, more conservative, African Americans appear frequently during the prime time of the convention.
Six women Democrats running for the U.S. Senate appeared on the speaker’s podium no less than three times and the issue of abortion was everywhere present. But this too was balanced by continuously projecting more traditional women’s roles as mother and wife. The campaign went so far as to remake the image of Clinton’s normally outspoken and independent wife, Hilary, into someone more subdued, supportive and dutiful—the good wife and mother who even bakes cookies (her recipes and samples of her cookies were passed out to the delegates and the press!)
In his speech, Clinton referred movingly to the birth of his own child and explicitly stated that he was against abortion but was for a woman’s legal right to have one.
Strong emphasis was placed on family and family values. In a masterful way, Clinton’s “message specialists” turned Clinton’s own troubled family background (alcoholic father, convicted cocaine-selling brother, independent wife and his own alleged extra-marital affairs) into what appeared by the end of the convention to be a model all American family.
This strategy of holding on to the left while reaching out to the center looks all the more sound when one considers the unexpected Perot departure. Perot’s supporters came mainly from the conservative middle. They wanted change in government, but also had a strong attachment to traditional American values. With Perot out, they are lost and angry and feeling quite betrayed.
Clinton clearly aimed at them when he spoke of change—not radical change in the traditionally liberal vein, but change aimed at a middle class that in recent years has felt abandoned by Democrats and Republicans alike.
His choice of Al Gore as a vice presidential candidate is being cast in the light of “generational change” and deepens Clinton’s appeal to the conservative voters in the south (not to mention environmentalists who have looked to Gore for leadership)—who must be won to the Democratic side if Clinton is to have any chance in November.
The themes of the convention also anticipated Republican negative attacks in a fall election. In his acceptance speech, Clinton spoke proudly of his achievements as Governor of Arkansas, but did not overplay that aspect of his candidacy. He acknowledged that lifting up one of the poorest states in the country had not been easy and that there had been failures. He told the political establishment in Washington (which he blamed for running up a huge deficit) to “come on down” if they want to look at his performance as governor. By giving the credit for the successes in Arkansas to the people who supported him, Clinton attempted to put Bush in the position of attacking the people of the state if he criticizes Clinton’s record.
The result of all of this has been that the Democrats are more optimistic than they have been in 12 years that they can win the Presidency.
President Bush now faces a difficult task. He has been bashed and criticized unmercifully for one year. By not aggressively responding, he has fallen victim to the Dukakis syndrome—he has allowed his opponent to set the terms of the debate and to define him as a failed, visionless, weak incumbent President. Recent polls show that voters, who once did not trust Democrats to run the country, are now more trusting of the Democrats than the Republicans.
Up until now the President has appeared stymied, unsure of how to effectively wage his campaign. Vice President Dan Quayle, for a while, was helpful but then stumbled and once more became the butt of jokes.
Even the Republican faithful are getting nervous waiting for the campaign to begin. They continue to remind themselves that Bush overcame a 17% Dukakis lead—but a 23% deficit for an incumbent President is shocking.
More recently, Republicans have been looking for a rescuer—someone like Secretary of State James Baker—to take over as campaign manager or as a new vice president. All of this points to how anxious Republicans are about the election.
What Bush must now do is:
1) focus on his strengths: a world leader, a much-trusted head of state. He might seek to discredit Clinton by asking Americans if they trust Bill Clinton to lead the United States in a changing world. Americans fear instability almost as much as they fear a continuation of the economic recession. Somehow, the Administration will have to portray Bush as a force of stability around the world and a vehicle of change at home.
2) develop a vision of an American future. He must find a convincing way to explain the failures of his first term (more than simply blaming a Democratic-led Congress) and show how he plans to succeed in his second term to end paralysis in government.
3) discredit Bill Clinton’s move to the center and recapture the Republican title as defenders of “traditional values.”
4) develop new themes and issues that define the Democrats and Bill Clinton negatively and put the Republican campaign on the offensive.
On the other hand, Clinton must stress his new themes, maintain unity in the Democratic ranks, especially focusing on the traditional Democratic groups that may feel disenfranchised after the convention (African Americans, labor, and liberals), and reassure voters about his “character.” He must stay on the offensive.
As we await the Republican convention and new life for the struggling Bush campaign, we can be sure that the only thing that is certain in this crazy election year is that the unexpected is to be expected. In this context especially, Bill Clinton’s progress so far must be seen as remarkable. He has weathered many storms and survived many battles.
He has emerged remade and reborn to face George Bush, who, in many ways is the prototype of the weather-beaten, battle-scarred, born-again political professional. The match-up will be fascinating and the fight will be intense.
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