Former Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ) officially opened his campaign for the presidency on September 8. The banner on the podium did not read the usual “Bradley for President.” Rather, it identified the campaign web site: www.billbradley.com, thus providing millions of Internet users with an invitation to visit. The response was so great as to require shutting it down the next day. Welcome to the digital age.
Bill Bradley and other candidates enter this political era in the wake of a performance by a natural campaigner, Bill Clinton. Communication and information technology would have advanced dramatically during the 1990s whoever was in the Oval Office. As it happened, however, an instinctive campaigner, Bill Clinton, promoted a more public style of governing, a development referred to by some as “permanent campaigning.” It was one of the more serendipitous joinings of a person with innovation and change.
Three observations are relevant for thinking ahead to the next presidency. First, comparisons will inevitably be made between the new president in 2001 and his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Second, and relatedly, power holders in Washington make adaptations to a sitting president that then challenge the successor, who will have his own style. Third, Y2K problems aside, the remarkable advances in information technology are unlikely to be rolled back. They will push on and proliferate.
The questions to be considered are these. How will these realities shape the presidential transition during 2000—2001? How should the president-elect prepare for governing in 2001? Should these developments in constant campaigning be welcomed or resisted?
The 2000 Campaign
Permanent campaigns lack convenient starts and stops. Presidential candidates fit themselves into a continuous flow of public events. They compete with the incumbent president for media and voter attention. Thus, in their travels, presidential candidates are as likely to encounter Bill Clinton as their fellow aspirants. In the era of the permanent campaign, the “lame duck” flies. The sitting president is likely to be motivated by a perceived need to maintain high approval scores, a favorable judgment on legacy, and a wish to preserve continuity in the White House. Bill Clinton has even been moved to provide unsolicited campaign advice to his vice president.
Campaigning to win office will thus run parallel with, and intersect, campaigning to govern. The candidate for the president’s party will compete for time with the incumbent; the opposing party candidates may expect to encounter the parallel campaigns of the new candidate and the incumbent president. Parallel or intersecting campaigns by the incumbent (for governing) and his putative successor (for election) may usually be expected to provide an advantage to the out-party candidate, notably so if the incumbent president and his party’s candidate show signs of disharmony. The exception would be if extraordinarily good times encourage voters to support a third term for the incumbent by electing his successor, as some believe was the case in 1988 with George Bush succeeding Ronald Reagan. An activist campaigner-in-office like Bill Clinton, however, may well be more competitive with, than complementary to, his party’s candidate.
The campaigning-to-govern style also features continuous efforts to certify the agenda. Whereas past presidents might have accepted a lesser role in agenda setting as their term expired, as Eisenhower did in 1959—60 or Reagan did in 1987—88, the permanent campaigner is unlikely to forgo this initiative. Election campaigns typically serve as issue searches, with candidates taking inventory throughout as a means both to challenge their opponents and to form the policy basis of governing. The era of the permanent campaign will find the incumbent president actively involved in publicizing issues in potential rivalry to those proposed by the candidates. He may, in fact, set the terms of candidate debates in his State of the Union address.
Candidates may also be pressed to take stands on the activist agenda of the permanently campaigning president. Stealth candidacies will be difficult to conduct. With the president actively building support, candidates from both parties will be canvassed for their positions. This effect, too, is one of degree. Candidates have always been asked about their reactions to contemporary events. When the sitting president is such a commanding public presence, however, candidates may find themselves more reactive than proactive in regard to issues.
One possible consequence of constant campaigning may be a celebrity effect. Presidents are, by definition, celebrities. That status is, however, typically associated with their constitutional or institutional position. In Clinton’s case, which one might hope is unique, multiple scandals and a devotion to campaigning fabricated a notoriety of a different sort—one based more on personal than public or institutional qualities. Thus, as with celebrities from the entertainment industry, Clinton generated a kind of popularity or notoriety that is not prestige. And, in fact, innumerable polls show the low regard respondents have for the president’s personal qualities.
Whereas the Clinton experience with personal scandal is unlikely to be repeated any time soon, still the effect, especially in an era of the permanent campaign, may be detailed probing into the personal lives of candidates to an even greater extent than in the past, a development George W. Bush sought to challenge in regard to inquiries about cocaine use. A related effect could easily be the need for legal counsel in the campaign for purposes other than conformance to election and campaign finance laws.
Preparing for Governing
Because canceling the information revolution or altering Clinton’s style—or ignoring the effects of either—is unimaginable, the question becomes how candidates should prepare for effective campaign-mode governing.
Given that campaigning carries over into governing, readiness must begin as early as possible. If it is clear from the start that the campaign to win the presidency will influence the who, how, and what of governing, then it is crucial that the candidate manages a bi- or tri-focal approach, that is, looking beyond as an aid to deciding now. It has ever been true that campaigning has lessons for governing, for example, in terms of contacts with candidates for other offices, management of a large staff, testing relations with other power holders, articulation of an agenda, relationships with the press. Normally, however, experience in the national government is needed to recognize and absorb these lessons.
If, because of the permanent campaign, governing is conceptualized as seamless with campaigning, the candidate and his staff can adopt an attitude of governing while campaigning, directing thought and planning toward forming an administration. A candidate taking this perspective will have thought ahead to what he wants to accomplish. His entourage too must know and understand why he wants the job to such a degree that they can then act in his name. This process of goal-setting and identity should begin during the campaign. Those who will be appointed later should be given strong signals during the campaign that they will be involved in governing in some way.
This corporate or holistic conceptualization of seeking and serving demands that the campaign technicians themselves have governing sensibilities. It has been conventional wisdom that campaign consultants and political pollsters should step aside once the campaign is over and the election won. “I think the damn pollsters should be put out to pasture,” is how one seasoned staff aide put it. Ready or not, however, the “damn pollsters” will play an active part in the new administration, as will the other political consultants. They are a vital part of the campaigning-as-governing style. Therefore the candidate is well advised to hire second-generation political consultants—those trained for and interested in campaigning for policy as well as for election.
Least clear, perhaps, is how candidates should prepare to govern with Congress. A campaigning-to-govern style is, by definition, competitive with the declared purposes of a representative legislature. A president commissioning and reading polls, promoting policies within congressional constituencies, communicating policy facts and figures into homes through the Internet, announcing positions on micro-issues, and dominating news coverage is one seeking to measure, anticipate, and influence public opinion so legislators doing their job will be persuaded, if not compelled, to agree. Members of Congress may well resent these efforts, which can therefore come to be counterproductive.
The frequency of split-party government complicates this endeavor. Presidential candidates cannot assume in advance that their party will be in majority control of Congress. Therefore, their preparations will often have to accommodate cross-partisan coalition building. Triangulation may have to be practiced in the campaign, with candidates poaching from the more centrist of the opposite party’s offerings. Bill Clinton was a prime poacher in 1996.
Evaluating the Perpetual Campaign
Has the campaigning style of governing enhanced the role and function of the presidency in the separated system? How is the Clinton experience to be evaluated? Is constant campaigning now an inevitability? If so, is that good or bad?
Answers to these questions are properly based on judgments about the institution of the presidency itself. My own perspective in The Presidency in a Separated System stressed separationism as suited to a constitutional order in which the presidency, Senate, and House of Representatives compete for shares of power.
Based on study of post—World War II presidents before Clinton, I proposed several lessons as markers for evaluating the campaigning style, markers that can serve to rate the performance of Bill Clinton’s presidency:
The test is whether perpetual campaigning enhances or impedes the president in absorbing and applying these guidelines. It is possible, for example, that the travel, speechmaking, polling, and advertising make the president a more perceptive representative in policy and lawmaking. What the president learns may then be applied to each of the directions cited above. Even so, the president must recognize that he is not a representative only. He listens but then is expected to decide. He observes but then is expected to lead. He appoints but then is expected to supervise. He sets priorities but then is expected to negotiate. The campaigning-to-govern style may aid the president in doing a part of the job without necessarily equipping him for the rest.
If the president misconceives campaigning as the job itself, if he misunderstands the place and function of continuous campaigning, the effects can be negative. In working outside the government, the president may fail to perform well inside the government. Accordingly, he may be misled about his strengths and weaknesses, that is, in knowing who he is in the government. While developing finely honed sensitivity to change outside, he may slight changes in Washington.
Potentially most serious is a possible preoccupation with approval ratings as automatically enhancing prestige. That absorption may actually reduce his standing inside, with the collateral effect of bad marks for professional reputation. Closely related is the danger of interpreting either the ratings or the public response in travel as confirming a mandate. Conceiving of job approval tests as a continuous series of election days may persuade the president and his team that they know what is right, yet that very concentration may prevent them from getting their way. Why? Because others, too, are legitimate participants (lesson 6) by reason of their continual testing of constituency attitudes. Time spent outside is time lost inside.
How did Clinton perform by these tests? We are unlikely to witness another pure case of the campaigner-as-president again. It is fair to say that Clinton did not learn the job well during his first two years in office. He knew his strengths and stressed those to the exclusion of bolstering his weaknesses. His lack of awareness of change in government was rooted in his unfamiliarity with Washington itself—most notably Capitol Hill. Over the course of his presidency, approval ratings became an obsession, particularly given the assaults on his character of a series of scandals. He fell victim to the mandate trap in his first term, largely because of high expectations associated with the return of one-party government. He would not have to cope with overblown anticipations for the rest of his term—the 1994 elections reshaped the politics of his presidency.
Assessing Clinton’s performance by the sixth marker—acknowledging the legitimacy of others—is complicated. His limited experience in Washington prevented a full understanding of the workings of Congress, notably the role of the minority party. Yet he was force-fed the lesson of congressional status following the 1994 election, and he applied it well in the 104th Congress. Bill Clinton learned to work with, even lead, a split-party government. In fact, his presidency from the final months of 1995 to the Monica Lewinsky scandal in January 1998 may come to be seen as the model for effective campaigning-style governing. The scandal interrupted this record. It is difficult, if not impossible, to acknowledge inter-branch legitimacy when impeachment and trial are under way.
No Turning Back
Is constant campaigning now inevitable? I believe that it is. However, future presidents and other public officials will vary in their skills as participants, as they do in regard to all political characteristics. Few will possess Bill Clinton’s talent and zeal for public contact. Many will surpass his organizational and management competence.
Is constant campaigning good or bad? My impression is that most analysts judge that it is bad. And this appraisal on their part is in a venerable tradition of criticism of politicians as crass seekers of reelection. Yet we often reserve our harshest censure for those we need the most—our elected officeholders. Good or bad should be related to effect as well as behavior. The test should be based on something other than an expression of personal bias regarding political form and style. How does a president campaign and with what effect? Is the campaign itself educational for him and others? Is it substantive in support of proposals or merely negative? Is campaigning purposeful for the presidency and governing or merely personal? These are a few of the questions to ask in fairly evaluating a development that is here to stay. The challenge is to ensure positive effects from a changing political environment.
Free speech shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but it has been drawn into the larger dynamics of polarization in this country.