Frame Game

Clinton Lays Down the Law 

In a time of peace and prosperity, voters will re-elect the party in power. That’s the first law of politics, as understood by politicians, strategists, and political scientists. According to that law—and the election-prediction models derived from it—Al Gore will thrash George W. Bush in November. Then why is Gore eating Bush’s dust? Why isn’t the law of politics working?

Maybe the polls will spontaneously come around. Or maybe the law is false. But there’s a third, more interesting possibility: The law of politics, like other scientific laws, works only under certain conditions—and human beings can influence those conditions. That’s the premise of Bill Clinton’s speech to the Democratic convention last night. He’s trying to restore the law. And the whole election turns on whether that mission succeeds.

The law’s basic formulation—”In a time of peace and prosperity, voters will re-elect the party in power”—assumes at least three conditions. First, voters must remember a time of war or economic difficulty. Otherwise, they won’t be able to identify, in relative terms, a time of peace and prosperity. Second, they must believe that politicians can significantly affect the likelihood of peace or prosperity. Otherwise, they won’t believe that either party is truly in power. Third, they must think in terms of party. Otherwise, when the incumbent party substitutes one nominee for another—even when the new candidate has been vice president under the old one—voters will see nothing to re-elect.

All three of these conditions have been dissolving. The Cold War ended a decade ago, there has been no significant American bloodshed in war in the past quarter-century, and as Clinton observed last night, “We’re in the midst of the longest economic expansion in history.” Peace and prosperity have blended into the background. Meanwhile, the steadiness of the Federal Reserve, the increasingly visible dependence of economic growth on technological advances, and the persistence of that growth through several elections have eroded the public’s confidence that politicians affect the economy. At the same time, the decentralization of campaign finance, the individualization of opinion formation, and television’s emphasis on personality have led voters to pay less attention to parties and more attention to the merits of each candidate. Clinton’s address is an attempt to puncture these trends and restore conditions under which the law of politics will resume operating in Gore’s favor. Here are his three messages:

1. Prosperity is fragile. Clinton’s opening statement goes straight to the point.

Our people face a fundamental choice: Are we going to keep this progress and prosperity going? We can’t take our future for granted. … So let’s just remember how we got here. Eight years ago … it was in a far different time for America. Our economy was in trouble, our society was divided, our political system was paralyzed. Ten million of our fellow citizens were out of work. Interest rates were high. The deficit was $290 billion and rising. After 12 years of Republican rule, the federal debt had quadrupled, imposing a crushing burden on our economy and on our children. Welfare rolls, crime, teen pregnancy, income inequality all had been skyrocketing.

Everything in this paragraph seems elementary, but Clinton understands that this is what needs to be said, precisely because it’s so elementary that everyone has stopped noticing it. He concentrates the viewer’s mind on the economy: We face a fundamental choice. He pulls this factor out of the background and places it theoretically in jeopardy: Are we going to keep it going? We can’t take it for granted. He makes the theoretical threat concrete by dragging the audience back through recent history: Remember how we got here. Then he covers the waterfront with every kind of statistic—jobs, deficits, teen pregnancy, crime—so that no matter what your ideology, the present seems clearly better than the past.

2. Elections matter. The next sentence out of Clinton’s mouth, after he finishes rattling off the grim statistics of 1992, is this: “And our government was part of the problem, not part of the solution.” Notice the negative formulation. Logically and temperamentally, it’s easier to believe that the government can screw up the economy than to believe that the government can fix it. If Clinton can’t sell you the hope that your vote might preserve prosperity, he’ll sell you the fear that your vote might kill it. But 1988, the most recent election in which voters picked a Republican president after a recovery and before a recession, doesn’t serve Clinton’s argument, because the recovery prior to that election happened under another Republican president. So Clinton turns the clock all the way back to 1968.

I want the young people especially to listen to this. … In 1964, when we were enjoying the longest economic expansion in history … we took it for granted. And then, before we knew it, there were riots in the streets. … And then we had an election in 1968 that took America on a far different and more divisive course. And you know, within months, after that election, the last longest economic expansion in history was itself history. … I have lived long enough to know that opportunities must be seized or they will be lost.

To translate this lesson into an imperative, Clinton hammers the word “choice” throughout the speech. “Our people face a fundamental choice,” he begins. “To those who say the progress of these last eight years was just some sort of accident, that we just kind of coasted along, let me be clear. America’s success was not a matter of chance. It was a matter of choice. And today America faces another choice. It’s every bit as momentous as the one we faced eight years ago. … This is a big election, with great consequences for every American.” He concludes, “The best is yet to come if we make the right choices in this election year. But the choices will make all the difference.” The voice in Clinton’s head is saying: I can’t believe these polls. Idiots! What are you thinking? Don’t screw it up. But through his smiling repetition of “choice,” he translates this dismay into an arresting and flattering message: Prosperity hangs on your vote.

3. Parties matter. Most people like Clinton’s policies, love the economic record of the last eight years, and dislike the Republican congressional leadership. But on a personal level, they prefer Bush to Gore. That’s why Clinton never alludes to Bush in the singular. He speaks only of Republicans and Democrats. While associating Gore with the Democratic Party and the recent economic record, Clinton submerges Bush’s identity in the congressional GOP, which he defines as the negation of that record. “We proposed a new economic strategy” in 1993, Clinton recalls. “Al Gore cast the tie-breaking vote. Now, not a single Republican supported it. Here’s what their leader said. Their leader said our plan would increase the deficit, kill jobs, and give us a one-way ticket to a recession. … Our Republican friends said then they would absolutely not be held responsible for our economic policies. I hope the American people take them at their word.”

Later, Clinton summons the partisan clarity of bygone days: “Harry Truman’s old saying has never been more true: If you want to live like a Republican, you better vote for the Democrats.” He sums up his pitch this way: “Let’s remember the standard our Republican friends used to have for whether a party should continue in office. My fellow Americans, are we better off today than we were eight years ago? You bet we are.” The pundits in the convention hall instantly flagged that question as the centerpiece of the speech. But they missed the important word: party. Ronald Reagan didn’t have to use that word in 1980, when he was running against bad times, or in 1984, when he was presiding over good times. Al Gore has neither of those advantages. Times are good, and he’s not the president. He only represents the president’s party. To win, he needs the question framed the way Clinton put it: “whether a party should continue in office.” It’s a testament to Clinton’s astuteness and skill that he planted the word there without anyone noticing.

Will Clinton and Gore succeed in restoring these three conditions and winning the election? I don’t know, and neither do you. That’s the point. There are no absolute laws in politics or any other social science. Laws operate only within certain parameters and under certain conditions. Those parameters and conditions, in turn, are subject to human intervention. In this case, the weak link in the law is perception. If I fail to see prosperity in its historical context, or to associate it with elections, or to think of Bush and Gore in terms of their parties, I won’t vote the way the theory predicts. Somebody has to step in and make me see things that way. That’s what Clinton is trying to do. Will it work? Not if Bush has anything to say about it.