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Candidate Bill Clinton's Lost Voice, or Whatever Happened to the Bully Pulpit?

August 07, 1994|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

WASHINGTON — It seems a dim memory now, but only 22 months ago, Bill Clinton's celebrated bus caravan drew thousands of Americans at each stop eager to hear his voice. Look back at videotape of those stops, and you realize these weren't phony events produced by veteran advance men but, rather, a genuine outpouring of mostly regular folks, many with their kids on their shoulders, who came to hear the voice of a new Democrat. Even his most ardent opponents had to concede that Clinton's voice touched a chord with voters.

Fast-forward to Clinton last Tuesday in a New Jersey park, with Manhattan's World Trade Center towers as a stunning backdrop. Here was the populist candidate who touched average Americans, now President, surrounded by the typical cast of characters a good advance team uses for "body fill" (read: create a crowd): local pols, union bosses, Democratic fund raisers.

Here was Clinton heeding the call for universal health-care coverage for all Americans, an overwhelmingly popular issue with voters, and yet he had to scream to be heard over demonstrators; he banged the podium so hard that the presidential seal fell off. The crowd reacted warmly, but only warmly. It was a good-sized crowd, but not great. It was manufactured, not spontaneous. What happened to Clinton's voice?

Washington pundits will tell you that Clinton lost his voice because he talks too much, or he takes on so many issues that his message is too fragmented, or the real Clinton is too liberal for the country, or he lost his voice for the middle class. There is some truth to all this. But the problem is deeper and more fundamental and may be as much about the modern presidency as it is about Clinton.

It is certainly true that Presidents are punished for a bad economy, but it also used to be true that Presidents are rewarded for a good economy. Not so Clinton. This may have something to do with the economy rebounding early in Clinton's term and, as a result, the public gave Clinton's economic program little credit for the recovery.

In Ronald Reagan's first term, the economy was miserable for the first two years. When it began to rebound, leading up to his landslide victory in '84, people gave Reagan credit for correcting a bad economy.

But it also is true that, increasingly, voters' attention spans are short. "What have you done for me lately?" is the voters' cry in modern-day America. When voters were hurting in 1992, they listened carefully to Clinton's voice assuring them of better times to come. Now that better times have come, they yell back at Clinton, "What now, big boy?"

Another reason Clinton lost his voice can be found in Bob Woodward's book, "Agenda." Candidate Clinton spoke eloquently about Washington being captive of not only special interests but Establishment interests, especially Wall Street. Yet, in a short time, Clinton has become entrapped by those very interests, including his holiness Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, lord protector of the bond markets.

In a few months, Clinton not only reversed himself on a middle-class tax cut, but set forth a budget clearly aimed at appeasing the markets. This may in the long run have been a right thing to do, but held against the towering rhetoric of his campaign for the "forgotten" middle class, it rang hollow. And after pushing himself as a "new" Democrat willing to take on the Democratic Party's special interests (remember Sister Souljah and Jesse Jackson?), President Clinton immediately introduced a stimulus package, its opponents charged, that reeked of payoffs to every Democratic special interest, from big-city mayors to labor unions. This, too, may have been unavoidable, but it gave the Republicans more ammunition earlier than they deserved.

The Clinton people are fond of laying their troubles on a negative media and, to some extent, this is true. I am not so sure, though, that it is all negative media but, rather, the amount of media bombarding the American public every day. Never in history have there been so many outlets, from standard nightly news to an overwhelming number of new talk-TV and talk-radio shows that have provided Clinton's enemies with continuous opportunities to pummel him.

There was a time when the bully pulpit of the presidency stood alone. It now must come face to face with several bully pulpits full of anti-Clinton thugs. This is not to exonerate the mainstream media, however. Pressure to sell papers and grab ratings have made critical and racy stories about the President's personal life far more important than they should be.

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