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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Hillary Clinton is the True Anti-Bush

As I mentioned earlier in the week, my intention with these essays on the presidential candidates is not to handicap them per se. Quite frankly, I do not think that exercise is possible at the moment. Instead, what I would like to do is merely frame these candidates in illuminating ways.

I'll start with Hillary Clinton. The hypothesis I offer is the following. While all of the major candidates present themselves, one way or another, as alternatives to President Bush, Senator Clinton's campaign stands in the greatest contrast to the President.

Consider two items. The first is Senator Clinton's video that accompanies the announcement of her campaign song.

The second is two selections from George W. Bush's acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention.

Little more than a decade ago, the Cold War thawed, and with the leadership of Presidents Reagan and Bush, that wall came down.

But instead of seizing this moment, the Clinton-Gore administration has squandered it. We have seen a steady erosion of American power and an unsteady exercise of American influence. Our military is low on parts, pay and morale. If called on by the commander-in-chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report, "Not ready for duty, sir."

This administration had its moment, they had their chance, they have not led. We will.

[SNIP]

I believe great decisions are made with care, made with conviction, not made with polls.

I do not need to take your pulse before I know my own mind. I do not reinvent myself at every turn. I am not running in borrowed clothes.

When I act, you will know my reasons. And when I speak, you will know my heart.

On a methodological level, these two vignettes are very similar: both are excellent examples of political theater. In fact, you could probably call them textbook examples. The Clinton video is very funny. It plays off The Sopranos series finale in a clever way. It is also cute and disarming. It portrays the Clinton family in a sweet, amenable light: Bill wants onion rings, Hillary orders carrot sticks. The Bush vignette is equally effective (I could not find a video clip, so you'll have to trust your memories). It is a fairly harsh critique of the Clinton Administration that does not seem like bitter mud slinging. At the same time, it paints Bush as an alternative to the present administration - but one that recalls previous administrations that had since come to great esteem.

But - on a philosophical level - there are vast differences here. Obviously, the implied political ideologies are different, but that is not what I am on about. What I mean is that these vignettes demonstrate their actors' deeply divergent views on what constitutes the proper relationship between governors and the governed.

The Clinton vignette is understandable in this light if we recall its purpose: to introduce the results of an online poll to select Senator Clinton's campaign song. This is a very specific example of a general view that the Clintons - both of them - have about governing. They are of the people. They embody what has been called the delegate model of representation. They reflect the views, opinions, and preferences of the greater public. The Clintons seem always and everywhere ready to follow the articulated interests of the public at large. The campaign song is a trivial feature of the campaign, but it is still revealing. If you had to choose a song that you would hear at least once a day for the next 450 or so days of your life - would you place its selection up for a vote? The Clintons would. That says a lot.

Indeed, President Clinton's empathetic campaign of 1992 was largely predicated upon his connection to the people: he feels our pain. Senator Clinton does not cut as empathetic a figure as President Clinton - but there are other effective ways for her to convey that she, too, intends to be a delegate of the people. Her most effective is her "listening tours." This speaks to the same essential idea as President Clinton's empathy, and it plays to one of her natural strengths: she seems like she would be a fantastic listener.

George W. Bush would have none of this, of course. His convention speech was, in part, a critique of this method of representation. It leads, he argued, to small minded politics. The alternative he offered might be called a trustee model of representation. His argument in that excerpt is so close to Edmund Burke's that - were campaign speeches to include footnotes - the great philosopher would probably have been mentioned. On the subject of representation, Burke argued:

My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,--these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

Burke's clear-minded thinking surely makes this mode of representation seem superior, does it not? However, Burke could be countered with the equally sober writings of Madison in his musings on the House of Representatives. [I would quote him here, but my editors have placed strict limits on the number of times I can quote 18th century political philosophers in a given essay - and I have reached the maximum.] Simply stated: how is tyranny, or even just lousy governance, prevented when the trustee is not Edmund Burke, but Warren Harding? In many instances - the public's reason and judgment will be superior to the trustee's. That's when we'll long for the delegate view!

The point is that there is something to be said for and against the delegate model and the trustee model. The delegate model of representation can indeed be taken to the point at which - as Governor Bush said in 2000 - politics becomes small. But it can also be taken to the point at which - as President Bush's critics say today - government exists independent of the public's will, and against the rationality it often embodies. Taken to extremes, both the delegate model and the trustee model are problematic. In practice, I think it is preferable for leaders to represent a mixture of both. Madison, for his part, thought the government as a whole should embody both views - and that policy should be enacted only when practitioners of both views were in agreement. Otherwise, government becomes far too susceptible to small-minded politics on the one hand, or stubbornness on the other.

People on both the left and the right intuit that Bush and the Clintons do not represent such a mixture. President Bush overuses the trustee model, President and Senator Clinton overuse the delegate model.

This is why I think the left wing of the Democratic Party is now largely opposed to Senator Clinton. This is an important point. While our average gives Senator Clinton a 13.2% lead over her closest opponent nationwide, the fact remains that she loses to the collected opposition by almost the same amount, 13.9%. All of her opponents - Mr. Obama, Mr. Edwards, Mr. Gore - come across as principled in a way that she, as an ardent practitioner of the delegate model, does not. I think liberals are rightly worried that she will govern as her husband governed - with an ever-present mindfulness of the preference of the majority. I think that liberals - in a strange way - have come to agree with Governor Bush. The Clintons had an opportunity to lead, and they did not take it. Great opportunities were missed. Do they want to miss them again?

Of course, the opposite criticism can be leveled at President Bush. It is reasonable to expect the President at least occasionally to follow the public's lead. It is reasonable to expect him to recognize that there is often a wisdom expressed by the collectivity, and that wisdom should at least give one pause if one's own judgment digresses from it. The public today is so conscious of the problems of excessive reliance upon the trustee model that no Republican candidate offers anything approaching what Governor Bush offered in 2000. It is no coincidence that Senator Clinton kicked off her 2008 campaign with yet another listening tour. Her message was unequivocal: the vox populi and its wisdom has been ignored for too long, and it is time to pay attention to it.

I think that most would expect a mixture of the trustee and delegate views in their Chief Executive, just as Madison envisioned the government as a whole to operate. Bush and the Clintons, however, seem inclined to offer only one or the other. I think both have been able to "sell" their monotone views of governance by recourse to political brilliance. In fact, if we take away the political sheens that have been applied to those two vignettes, there are stark messages at the bottom of both of them. Senator Clinton does not even feel comfortable choosing her own song. President Bush is not just attacking President Clinton's shallowness for following the popular will, he is attacking the shallowness of the popular will itself. Neither of these impressions comes across obviously in either vignette because of the beautiful political productions that have been applied to the messages. But they are there.

All of this leads me to the following, final question regarding Hillary Clinton's candidacy. Bush and the Clintons stand at polar opposites in their views of the relationship between the governors and the governed. In 2000, the public was so tired of President Clinton and his view that it embraced Governor Bush. Is it now so tired of President Bush's view that it will embrace Senator Clinton, or will it remember how sick of it it was eight years ago, and select an alternative to these philosophies, one that advocates a more balanced mixture of the two?

-Jay Cost