c. 1996 Religion News Service
(Robert Schmuhl is chairman of the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and author of”Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Political Life in the Age of Personality”and”Demanding Democracy,”both published by the University of Notre Dame Press.)
(UNDATED) When Americans enter the voting booth, we carry our contradictions with us. We dislike government, but we expect it to provide what we need. We care about the value of a dollar, but we also care about values. We jealously guard the right to make our own moral decisions, yet personal moral dilemmas often unfold in the tumble and fray of our political system.
In this presidential election year, as in any other, the patterns of this paradox are all too apparent in the public mind.
In June, respondents to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll said they were more concerned about”moral problems”than”economic problems”(43 percent to 37 percent). Yet, just a month earlier, the same poll ranked jobs and the economy, education, the budget deficit, Medicare and taxes as the specific issues most important to voters in 1996.
It’s no surprise, then, that the presidential campaign increasingly involves questions of morality, values and character. Candidates routinely address subjects that once were the domain of intimate family discussions. Suddenly, stump speeches are sounding like sermons. And the potential for hypocrisy is high.
Why is this so? Partly because we are at a moment in history in which personal concerns have been elevated to the status of public issues. For better or worse, we now have access to information that previously didn’t circulate widely or at all.
Today, if someone is interested in, say, a president’s preference in underwear, the question is asked on national television. And the answer is considered news. If presidential boxers or briefs are not taboo, neither are questions about sexual orientation. Homosexual public officials run the risk of being”outed”if they don’t openly admit they’re gay, as recently occurred with Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Arizona).
This linking of the public and the private has broader political significance as well, notes E.J. Dionne, in his recent book about progressive politics,”They Only Look Dead”(Simon & Schuster).”It becomes harder and harder to draw lines between public and private when so much of the political debate is over the public meaning of private moral acts and the consequences of publicly proclaimed moral codes,”he writes.”If the personal is political, the political gets very personal.” Dionne has a point. The lines that separate a candidate’s public life from his or her personal behavior and the boundaries that keep private morality out of public policy tend to shift with alarming frequency.
With an anything-goes popular culture providing often-frightening examples of abnormality, it’s natural for politicians to offer moral judgments. These representations of the world are too much with us _ and them _ to avoid scrutiny and comment.
Besides, now that the Cold War is over, politicians need new targets. Summoning moral outrage against, for instance, violent crime or gory media renderings of violence doesn’t require heavy lifting. There are political benefits from being perceived as strongly opposed to such things.
Just as there is a political dimension to almost every issue, there is also a moral dimension. For both President Bill Clinton and Republican nominee-to-be Bob Dole, oratory offers the principal outlet for dealing with moral matters. Words become weapons in an ongoing battle over actions.
Clinton has discovered that Theodore Roosevelt was right about the power of the”bully pulpit”of the presidency to be an effective way to appear presidential and exercise leadership.
Delivering speeches against teen-age pregnancy, smoking and crime and in favor of school uniforms, curfews for young people and the V-chip to control children’s TV viewing, Clinton projects himself as concerned about America’s downward moral trajectory.
The president’s emphasis on oratory is shrewd. A gifted speaker who recognizes the significance of stagecraft to statecraft, Clinton can use moral rhetoric to overcome the limits the Republican-controlled Congress places on policy-making. Delivering carefully crafted addresses has become an alternate form of presidential command that comes with a guarantee of media attention.
But Clinton’s well-chosen words on moral issues are being reported alongside stories questioning his own moral conduct in private business matters and personal affairs.
The dangers of creating dissonance _ or, worse, being perceived as a hypocrite _ are genuine and bear watching as the Clinton campaign unfolds.
Clinton’s recent decision to sign a welfare bill that makes drastic cuts in aid to the poor makes his comforting rhetoric about our obligations to the young and vulnerable ring hollow. And given the seemingly endless stories of alleged wrongdoing in the Clinton camp, it’s possible that the public doesn’t know what to believe.
As presumptive standard bearer for the Republicans, former Senator Dole is in a position similar to the president’s. Although now without government office, Dole has to rely on the media megaphone available to presidential candidates to carry his message to potential voters.
But unlike the Reaganesque Clinton, Dole is a rhetoritician’s nightmare. Communicating in complete sentences and delivering coherent, focused remarks don’t come easily to Dole.
Dole’s plight is curious for someone who has served more than 35 years in Congress, where expertise in public speaking is an important skill. But his difficulties, both in terms of rhetorical style and political substance, stand out in high relief when you consider how he has dealt with such morally charged issues as abortion and popular culture.
These subjects continue to stimulate discussion and provoke controversy. But Dole often seems more of a political contortionist than a moral conscience addressing such topics.
A year ago, Dole went to Hollywood and scolded the film industry’s”nightmares of depravity”with nose-punching directness. The speech not only strengthened his standing among conservatives but he also received applause from the broader citizenry.
Recently, however, he has softened his rhetoric and focused on uplifting cinematic fare. Critics pointed out, with reason, that Dole’s retreat from the high ground was motivated more by worry over not being competitive in California rather than by sustained moral reasoning.
With a political career built on compromise, Dole believes any issue can be resolved by accommodating conflicting views. But moral concerns are different. They don’t lend themselves to the give-and-take bargaining that has been his forte for so long.
Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Dole’s failed attempt to include”tolerance language”in the Republican platform that would accommodate the views of supporters and foes of abortion rights. Though Dole’s efforts were are first favorably received, the defeat by abortion foes of his”declaration of tolerance”made him seem ineffectual.
As Dole and other political figures need to learn, ambiguity is the enemy of the 10-second soundbite and the 30-second paid political announcement. In today’s polarized, mediated politics, bold clarity is far more advantageous to candidates than nuanced subtlety could ever be.
And calls to follow what Abraham Lincoln described as”the better angels of our nature”will receive a hearing, prayerful or not, in a political and moral environment in desperate need of”better angels.” America in 1996 is such a place. When too little seems sacred and nothing taboo, a candidate willing to draw sharp, clear distinctions between what’s good and bad, right or wrong, can win support largely on the power of words instead of deeds or policy initiatives.
Green eyeshade speeches about economic affairs and numbers have their place in electioneering. But so, too, do talks about the moral issues that are black and white _ and frequently gray.
We avoid them at our peril.
MJP END SCHMUHL