Posted on August 14, 1995 in Washington Watch

In a two-week period in mid-July, President Clinton delivered three major policy addresses to the nation. The three shared central themes of a need for all Americans to seek common ground on the issues confronting the nation, and the need to be tolerant, civil and respectful of diversity in our political debates.

The first of the three addresses was, in fact, more of a conversation with the American people than a formal speech. Delivered at Georgetown University, the President’s alma mater, Clinton discussed virtually every major issue confronting America today. While clearly affirming his views and his principles, the President also included the views of his opponents on these issues. His goal was to find “common ground” that would be less partisan and less extreme – on which people could come together.

Decrying the divisive nature of contemporary political discourse in America, the President noted that,

“Politics has become more and more fractured…as we divide into more and more sharply defined and organized groups around more and more stratified issues, as we communicate more and more with people in extreme rhetoric….it is difficult to draw the conclusion that our political system is producing the sort of discussion that will give us the kind of results we need.”

The solution to this general situation, Clinton noted, is to debate but to do so within the realm of civility and mutual respect: “more conversation, less combat.”

The cures the President offered for the nation’s ills were neither those proposed by the conservatives who emphasize “personal responsibility” or the liberals who propose activist government remedies. The answer for Clinton was a new course that accepts the analysis of both sides. “The best example of all to me that our problems are both personal and cultural, and economic, political and social, is the whole condition of the middle class, economically.” The middle class has not seen, when adjusted for inflation, an increase in income in more than a generation.

Republicans, the President noted, propose the application of “family values” as the solution to the crisis of the middle class, but he noted that the middle class has and exhibits family values. But with “most families working harder and earning less, they have less time and less money t o spare for their children… and that’s not good for family values.” In this context, talking about family values by itself isn’t enough. The government must help by enacting economic and social policies that ease the middle class’ burdens and improve their lives so that those values can be practiced.

In his second major address in the series, the President applied his common ground theme to the issue of prayer in public schools – one issue threatening to divide the Congress and the public this legislative year. Affirming his belief that the Constitution allows students “broad freedom of religious expression” in public schools, the President sought a moderate response to two uncompromising extremes. While the Christian right wants to insist on prayer in the schools, extreme secularists oppose all religious expression in public places. Clinton’s response was to propose “voluntary prayer,” noting that the Constitution “does not convert our schools into religious-free zones.”

What was remarkable was that this suggestion was well-received by both extremes and, while it has not resolved all of the complex issues involved in the debate, the President firmly established himself in the middle of the two camps as a seeker of common ground.

The third speech in the series was the most difficult, in that it addressed one of the most divisive issues facing American voters this year – affirmative action. “Affirmative action” refers to certain federal programs that, in an effort to correct past instances of racial and other forms of discrimination, requires strong consideration of minorities for jobs, admission into schools and the like, in some cases even establishing guidelines for what portion of positions should be filled by minorities.

Ever since Republicans first attacked affirmative action programs earlier this year and the President announced his own Administration’s review of all such federal programs, the press and the public awaited the address in which Clinton would announce the findings of his review.

At one point, the issue was perceived as a no-win situation for Clinton. If he opted to reaffirm affirmative action, the conventional wisdom was that Clinton would lose white votes; while if he opted to stop such programs he would certainly lose substantial support from African American and women voters.

Some Democrats argued coldly(?) that African Americans would not leave their party, since they had nowhere else to turn. These Democrats therefore urged the President to end affirmative action to win back southern white male voters. The Reverend Jesse Jackson made it clear that if the President took that position, he would challenge him for the presidency as an independent in 1996. If that challenge were realized, it could drain enough African American votes from Clinton to ensure his defeat to whichever Republican runs next year.

In the weeks prior to this speech, the White House brought many of us into discussions and conference calls to get our views on how the issue should be addressed and what concerns the President should address.

The result was a remarkable and moving speech delivered at the National Archives (the building that houses the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution). The speech was personal for Clinton, as well as being political and even historic. It, like the others in this series, laid out for discussion divergent concerns and views, and them resolve them in a search for common ground.

In a personal reflection, the President noted how in his childhood in the South, the school and social life were completely segregated.

”...The black neighborhood across the street was the only one in town where the streets weren’t paved. ...As a child, I never went to a movie where I could sit next to a black American. ...there were still a few court houses in my state where the rest rooms were marked “white” and “colored.”

The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and affirmative action changed all of that. “Affirmative action has been good for America,” Clinton said. And, the President added, “the job of ending discrimination in this country is not over.” So while Clinton acknowledged that some reforms would be necessary to improve affirmative action, he stated that his goal was to “mend it, don’t end it.”

The response from the African American community and women was enthusiastic praise. From Republicans it was, in the words of one television commentator, “muted hostility.” That much was expected. But what is also clear is that the President has effectively ended the debate within his own party and laid down some new ground rules for how politically divisive and emotional public issues ought to be discussed.

By taking a new path toward civil discourse, the President is challenging his rivals to join him in a different form of discussion. It is his belief that the public is tired of angry rhetoric and has tuned out this type of political feuding.

As he noted in his Georgetown speech, “our citizens, even though their confidence in the future has been clouded, and their doubts about their leaders and their institutions are profound, want something better….”

This is Clinton at his best –the President who wants to debate, but in the end reconcile divergent points of view. It is reminiscent of a question he answered during the 1992 campaign. When asked what his greatest weakness was, then-candidate Clinton replied that it was his tendency, going back to his childhood years in his family, to be the peace-maker, to want first of all to have everyone get along. But like any successful person in public life, he has found a way to turn that weakness into a strength.

This is the President who was moved by the Oklahoma City bombing tragedy to speak with deep intensity about the “anger in America” that fed such violence. Pointing to radical right-wing talk show hosts who spread anger at the government and hatred for minority groups over the airwaves, the President called for an end to “reckless speech and behavior” that is “threatening the social peace” of America and “demoralizing people” everywhere.

Since the Oklahoma City bombing, the President has made a determined effort to end the escalating mean-spiritedness that has characterized the nation’s political debate. His July speeches were the high point of that effort.

The initial response of his opponents has not been promising – but his search for tolerance in the contest for public approval may yet move others to accept this new course.

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