Tonight President Clinton becomes the first Democratic president since Harry Truman to deliver a State of the Union address to a Republican Congress.
All over Washington liberal pundits (who can’t believe that those barbarous Republicans have seized the citadels of the Democratic patrimony) are offering the president advice on what to say. Mrs. Clinton has insisted in interviews and, reportedly, in White House meetings that the administration’s problems are all a product of poor communications, not poor policy. In other words, everyone is looking to the White House speechwriters to pull the magic words out of their word processors and turn the country’s opinion of the president around.
I contributed to two of Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union addresses and wrote hundreds of his other speeches, including a number that were televised around the nation and world and that helped him deal with ticklish moments. I know something about Washington’s bedazzlement with magic words. I would like to offer some advice to the White House.
Stop worshipping the God of Spin. Many of the president’s problems today go back to an assumption within the Democratic Party, born on the morning following the election in 1984. In his farewell press conference Walter Mondale explained his loss in part by jiggling the microphones and saying that he never could get used to these things. For the next eight years it was an article of faith within the party that Democratic policies were popular, but Mr. Reagan and the Republicans knew how to communicate. (The current movie “Speechless” gives liberal Hollywood’s take on this view. The idealistic Democratic activist speechwriter is bested by the Republican sitcom-writer-turned-speechwriter until they fall in love and he starts helping her. In the end he becomes a Democrat and they campaign happily ever after.)
Michael Dukakis tried putting this theory into practice in the 1988 campaign. At the Democratic National Convention that year, his people bragged that their platform would be short and vague so that no one could call them “liberals.” But between being so up front about their intent to obfuscate, Mr. Dukakis’ extremely liberal record and Republican tauntings about a party that wouldn’t even whisper the “L-word,” Mr. Dukakis couldn’t carry it off.
Mr. Clinton tried again in 1992. In his Madison Square Garden acceptance speech and the campaign that followed, he spoke of an “entrepreneurial economy,” reducing the federal bureaucracy, supporting family and keeping a strong national defense. The policies behind the rhetoric were very different, but never mind. When he won, the Democrats thought they were vindicated. They had worshiped the God of Spin and He (or whatever) had blessed them.
The problem with this approach is that governing follows campaigning. Even before inauguration the contradiction of rhetoric and policy began tying the Clinton administration in knots. The first specific policy announcement after the election was Vice President Gore’s pledge that a controversial hazardous waste disposal facility in Ohio would not be permitted to open. Immediately the local community took up the president’s campaign cry of good jobs at good wages, business executives around the country began asking how a “new Democrat” could impose the arbitrary standards implicit in the announcement and the administration reversed course. Repeatedly in the years since, the president has found himself caught in the contradiction of talking right and running left. Repeatedly he has tried to finesse his policies or redefine his statements, in a word, waffled. And as one equivocation has followed another, the public has come to think of his words as irrelevant.
This will be among his central problems tonight. The president may be the modern political equivalent of the boy who cried “wolf”. The town’s people have stopped listening. How does he turn his administration around with a speech when every time he opens his mouth, the public thinks, “There you go again”?
Stop kidding yourselves about the 1992 elections. So the president and his people have worshiped the God of Spin for too long, but part of the reason is that they completely misread the 1992 elections. They think that they won in 1992, when the truth is that they were hardly even players. To see why this was so, compare the 1992 results with those of 1988. State by state (congressional district by congressional district and in some places precinct by precinct), the Bush vote in 1988 equals the Bush plus Perot vote in 1992. Mr. Clinton polls the same as Mr. Dukakis, usually minus a couple of percentage points.
By January 1992 George Bush’s policy reverses (initially on taxes, later on other domestic issues) had sent about a third of the Republican vote in search of a vehicle for protest. In the spring they found Pat Buchanan, in the fall Ross Perot.
Our last strong third-party presidential candidate was George Wallace in 1968. But Wallace voters were breaking off from the Democrats and moving right. All Nixon had to do was what conservative Republicans would do anyway and he got them. In contrast, Mr. Perot’s voters were breaking off from the Republicans and moving even farther right. They liked government even less than those who stuck with Mr. Bush. How does Mr. Clinton satisfy the liberals in his base and this vote at the same time?
The answer is that he doesn’t. If he moves right, he gets a challenge from his party’s base on the left and loses the next election. If he moves left, he loses any chance of winning anyone outside of his base and loses the next election. Jimmy Carter faced the same conundrum in the last two years of his presidency. Much of his famous indecision stemmed from not being able to resolve this political contradiction. So what should the president do tonight. A good start would be to remember just why it was that Ronald Reagan became known as the Great Communicator. Mr. Reagan never spoke unless he was ready to act.
If Mr. Clinton is to win public trust, he must start by adopting a simple rule: candor and resolve. He must be completely up front in style as well as substance about his policies. Two years ago he talked about loving entrepreneurs but turned around and proposed a health care tax that would have put hundreds of thousands of them out of business. He should stop trying these reverse field plays. If he intends to run left, he’d should talk left. And if he wants to run right, he’d better be prepared to stick to his guns, even if his party abandons him.
At the White House these days, they are said to be reading Truman biographies. Well, if I were in their shoes, maybe I, too, would be studying Come-From-Behind Harry. But the fact is that – with the contradictions between what their party and the country want – they should, perhaps, be reading about how Herbert Hoover handled his last two years, or even better, Grover Cleveland.
Cleveland was a conservative Democrat and a man of complete integrity. When his party moved away from him, he stuck by his principles, lost the nomination to the left-wing icon of his time, William Jennings Bryan, and retired as, arguably, one of our better presidents. Mr. Clinton may or may not be able to save his presidency. But perhaps the more important question for tonight is can he save his honor. Magic words won’t give the answer to that. Candor and commitment are his only routes out.