Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Friday Feature: President Clinton Not Riding a Tiger

Bill Clinton sits atop a white horse in a wide green field.

Clinton on horseback, near Billings, MT, 1996

Former President Bill Clinton made quite a showing this week at the DNC. Here's a shot from a rare quiet moment during his presidency.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.

Party Animals or the Top Eleven Things I Learned at the Democratic Convention

1. No one can out-perform Bill Clinton, not the NFL or even a sitting president with incomparable rhetorical skills. Clinton soaked up the spotlight and enjoyed every moment of it. His speech reminded me of the 2000 SNL skit in which Clinton, following a presidential debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, assures Americans he is doing everything he can to find a way to be president again. Obama's appearance on stage at the conclusion of Clinton’s speech was almost necessary to remind the public that he's the one running for president.

2. If your expectations for a speaker are high, you may be disappointed by actual performance. In the case of President Obama, for example, many expected to hear specifics about his second term policy agenda. Instead, we basically heard an amalgamation of speeches from the previous nights, featuring a laundry list of party positions and Democratic themes. As Larry Sabato aptly put it, it was nothing more than a glorified stump speech.

3. If your expectations for a speaker are low, you may be pleasantly surprised. John Kerry was on fire last night. I might have even paid to see his performance as a stand-up comedian, with his delivery of lines such as, “Ask Osama bin Laden if he’s better off now than he was four years ago.” Poking fun at Romney’s shifting positions on Iraq and Libya, Kerry said, “Talk about being for it before you were against it.”  Another highlight: “For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is what you call it when you trip all over yourself overseas. It wasn't a goodwill mission – it was a blooper reel.” He could have topped his speech off with a line like, “For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is visit to the ATM” or by asking “Will you elect a flip-flopper from Massachusetts?”

4. As a California delegate complained to me, the Convention was too focused on the president, his policy positions and policy accomplishments. Welcome to the presidency-centered programmatic party system that has been developing since FDR, with roots in TR’s presidency. As the California delegate pointed out though, Congressional races matter if the president wants to implement his second-term policy agenda.

5. For probably the first time in nearly half a century, the Democratic Party had an edge on national security and foreign affairs. And believe me, they milked it for all it was worth. However, it really was one important difference between the Republican and Democratic conventions. The Democrats emphasized Veterans and of course touted Bin Laden’s death, as well as action in Libya. Furthermore, the Democrats linked foreign policy with domestic policy, arguing that war and peace, and rich and poor, drive social issues domestically. Meanwhile, we barely heard any mention of foreign policy at the Republican convention, Condi Rice aside. Nor have the Republicans explained why they are calling for 100,000 new troops in their party platform or what they plan to do with them.

Convention Round-up Day Two

Rep. Ed Markey (Massachusetts)

Rep. Ed Markey (Massachusetts) delivers a keynote address during an event for convention delegates on the Obama administration’s national security policy sponsored by the Council for a Livable World. 9/5/2012. Photo by Carah Ong.

In this post, I offer some highlights from the second day of the convention floor. Stay tuned for a round-up of unconventional highlights.

Day two of the convention was filled with partisan appeals and once again focused on the policy accomplishments and positions of the Obama administration. The main thrust of the speeches was to convey the election as a choice over the future of the middle class, the American Dream and "shared opportunity, shared responsibility, all-in-it-together society." Sandra Fluke and Libby Bruce, among others, discussed what a Romney presidency would mean for women’s rights.  Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Maryland) drove home the differences in economic policies of the two presidential candidates, noting that the election is a choice that “will determine whether America is a place where people climb the ladder of opportunity and pull it up behind them or whether America is a place where people who reach the top help the next person up.” Rep. Nancy Pelosi (California) also called this election a choice not only of candidates, but also of issue positions:

Many names are on the ballot. So, too, is the character of our country…Medicare is on the ballot…Social Security is on the ballot…The hard-won rights of women are on the ballot…Our democracy is on the ballot. Democrats believe we must curb the influence of special interests on our political institutions…The American dream is on the ballot. Ladders of opportunity for our middle class are on the ballot.

Bill Clinton was by far the star of the evening, if not the convention thus far, engaging in partisan warfare. I predict that with his current favorability rating (coming in around 69%), Clinton’s attack dog performance will contribute to any convention bump President Obama receives.

An Expanding Ex-Presidency

President Obama and former President Clinton on June 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama and former President Clinton on June 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

When Jimmy Carter delivered his video message to the Democratic National Convention yesterday, he did so as the second-longest serving ex-president of all time. By the end of this week, he will be the longest-serving, exceeding Herbert Hoover’s 31 years and 232 days out of office – and building a compelling record of humanitarian endeavor along the way.
But it is the former president appearing at the convention tonight – Bill Clinton – whose expanding ex-presidency threatens to steal the show. And not just from Carter, but from the incumbent president whose campaign he is aiming to bolster.

Convention Round-up Day One: Democrats Offer Their Vision for the American Dream

The first evening of the Democratic Convention was filled with speeches driving home the first term policy accomplishments of President Barack Obama and values that undergird those policies. We heard a lot about the differences between the candidates on range of policies including Medicare, foreign policy, immigration, and tax policy. Nearly all of the speakers drove home the importance of the President’s healthcare bill, but this was especially the case for a family whose daughter had a congenital heart condition and, thanks to Obamacare, would now receive the coverage they needed. The main theme running through the various speeches was the Democratic Party’s interpretation of the American Dream – which requires an active role for government, government investment and individual contributions to become a reality.

More than Pre-Packaged Speeches: The importance of outside events to modern conventions

Protest of undocumented immigrants outside of the convention hall in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Protest of undocumented immigrants outside of the convention hall in Charlotte, North Carolina. September 4, 2012. Photo by Carah Ong.

CHARLOTTE, NC. --- Those who claim that the party conventions have become nothing more than pre-packaged speeches are missing an entire element of what modern conventions are about. Inside the convention halls, yes the parties put forward a line-up of loyal speakers to promote their candidate, party and platform. But outside the convention halls, interest groups (as well as lobbyists and businesses) are engaging in a whole range of activities that aren’t necessarily observed by the mainstream media or by political scientists. Yet, these activities make an important contribution to the role of conventions in modern elections.

At least in Charlotte, it’s not solely about the formal speeches or promoting the Democratic Party. The convention is also an event around which individuals and interest groups have the opportunity to organize, strategize and express public opinion. Such activities outside the formal convention are just as important to observe and monitor because they raise issues that you may not hear about in the official party agenda and they provide an opportunity for all individuals, not just the party loyal, to engage in political expression.

Greatest Hits from Democratic Conventions Since the Progressive Era

FDR delivers his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

FDR delivers his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Public Domain.

This week, I’ll be blogging from Charlotte, North Carolina about the Democratic National Convention, as well as many of the side events and shadow conventions that receive less coverage from the mainstream media. Last week, Robert Saldin, who was blogging for RTT from Tampa, Florida for the Republican Convention, offered his top four Greatest Hits in the Modern History of Republican Conventions. In this post, I offer what I think are some of the Greatest Hits from Democratic Conventions since the Progressive Era. Be sure to stay tuned this week for my “Missives from a Shadow Delegate.”

  1. William Jennings Bryan captured the party’s nomination in 1896 with a speech in which he famously declared, "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!" In the “Cross of Gold” speech, Bryan argued that the Democratic Party’s focus on bi-metallism in its platform was justified because a gold standard alone could not solve the country’s problems at the time, including debt, small business failure, and monopolies. According to Bryan, if silver was restored, “all other necessary reforms will be possible.” He compared the situation to fights over the national bank, arguing: “What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand, as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of organized wealth.” In the speech, Bryan also connected the Democratic Party’s tradition since Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson against moneyed interests in favor of the little guy. Bryan favored a regulatory role for government in issuing money and called for banks to “go out of the governing business.”
  2. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first presidential candidate to deliver an acceptance speech at a party convention. When he learned he had secured the nomination, FDR flew from Albany to Chicago to deliver the speech at the convention. He said, "I know that this is breaking precedent to appear before you on this floor, but we're in a middle of a Great Depression, and I intend to break a lot of precedents this year and also as President." In his acceptance speech, FDR also told the delegates, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” The catch phrase became the basis for the sweeping political and economic changes FDR would enact as president. As I’ve noted previously on RTT, I also think FDR’s acceptance speech in 1936 was important for defining a new understanding of government.
  3. In 1976, Barbara Jordan became the first black and the first woman to deliver the Democratic Party’s keynote address. Instead of focusing on the nation’s problems, Jordan advocated coming together as a “national community.” “It's tough, difficult, not easy,” Jordan told the delegates, “But a spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers that we share a common destiny; if each of us remembers, when self-interest and bitterness seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny.” Jordan was also the first female black senator elected to the Texas State Senate and she served as a U.S. Congresswoman from 1973-1978. Read the Miller Center’s Oral History with Jordan here.
  4. Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address to the Democratic Convention in Boston made him a rising star in the party. In 2008, he became the first African American presidential candidate in the history of the two major political parties and accepted the nomination on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In the acceptance speech, Obama said both individual responsibility and mutual responsibility are “the essence of America’s promise,” and he called for a progressive agenda of change, while appealing to voters of all stripes.

Which convention speech or speeches would you would to the list of “greatest hits”?

Friday Feature: Candidate Romney Not Riding a Tiger

Mitt and Ann Romney on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. July, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Is Romney ready for the tribulations of "riding the tiger" in the role of U.S. President? He seems to have a good grip on this wild ride.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history (or future!).

Shifting the Message or Shifting the Party?

Fmr.Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration in Prague (2011)

Fmr.Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration in Prague. July 1, 2011. Photo by David Sedlecký. CC-SA.

When it comes to messaging, this Republican National Convention has offered a jarring departure from the traditional GOP script.  Typically, Republicans in convention have played to the longstanding partisan advantage they’ve enjoyed with the public on foreign affairs.  But that theme has been virtually absent here in Tampa.  In fact, for at least some of us in the audience, one welcome feature of Condoleezza Rice’s widely heralded speech last night was its partial departure from what has become a rather repetitive message over the last two days.  The former Secretary of State not only captivated a restless and distracted crowd, but actually offered remarks on something other than the economy.  Yet as refreshing as it was to hear a new message emanating from the podium, it’s actually the party’s otherwise monotonous focus on the economy and the budget that tells us much more about Mitt Romney’s Republican Party and that signals a major shift in GOP messaging.

In the modern “infomercial” era of national conventions, the parties’ most important task is to explain to millions of television viewers why they should vote Democrat or Republican.  This objective produces what social scientists might call a “data rich” event in which dozens of party elites read carefully scripted messages to convey the party’s message to the public and—just as importantly—to educate the assembled delegates about what, exactly, that message is.

For scholars of parties and the party system, these messages are a potential treasure trove.  They’re easily accessible and comprise an unrivaled guide to the parties’ public philosophies.  Yet few scholars write about or pay much attention to—let alone show up at—party conventions.  University of Wisconsin political scientists Byron Shafer, who has been attending both major party conventions since 1980, is a notable exception.

Shafer’s work emphasizes:

“Every convention, no matter how well or badly managed, no matter how modestly or even thinly covered, does succeed in putting some messages—substantive arguments plus operational impressions—in front of a general public that, while viewership and ratings have declined, still registers in the multi-millions.” 

Democrats and Republicans have traditionally offered divergent messages during their respective conventions.  While Democrats have tended to focus on social welfare issues, Republicans have generally showcased foreign affairs. But—Rice aside—that’s not we’ve seen here in Tampa.  Foreign affairs haven’t just played second fiddle to domestic issues, they’ve been almost entirely missing from the Republican message.  An economically-oriented message would always be expected from budget hawks like Paul Ryan and Chris Christie.  But this year’s GOP message clearly goes deeper than that.  The Republicans gathered here in Tampa have chosen to ignore foreign affairs and have gone all-in on the economy and their “grown-up” approach to the budget.  The outcome of the election in November will likely tell us a lot about whether this year’s shift in GOP messaging represents an enduring change in the party’s presentation of itself to the American public or is merely a temporary diversion.

Barnburner or Instant Star?: Conversion Stories at Republican Conventions

Representative Artur Davis

Representative Artur Davis. June 1, 2009. Photo by the Artur Davis Campaign. CC-SA.

The old adage that “if you’re not a liberal when you’re 20, you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 40, you have no brain” is much more than a clever quip at Republican conventions.  The convert story has a long history at these GOP gatherings and has come to hold a semi-official place on the program.  Last night Artur Davis was the latest Democrat-turned-Republican to fill this slot.  And while the prime-time TV audience may have missed it, inside the hall, Davis and his conversion story was the sleeper hit of the night that captivated the GOP faithful.

Democratic conventions often have their own breakout performances, too.  In 2004, for instance, Barack Obama’s speech made him an instant star.  In 2008, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer offered up a classic red meat barnburner that upstaged the evening’s headliners.

But for Republicans, it’s often the story of the disillusioned ex-Democrat that steals the show.  This time-honored role at GOP conventions has no corollary at the Democratic counterpart (though Charlie Christ will try his hand at it next week in Charlotte).

Part of the explanation for Republicans’ adoration for the convert may lie in the relative lack of youthful energy and idealism that often fuels Democratic conventions and electoral campaigns.  Lacking that rock star quality— which Davis summarized last night as “plywood Greek columns and artificial smoke…Hollywood stars and glamour,”—Republicans like to counter with, as Chris Christie put it during his show-closing Keynote Address, “tell[ing] us the hard truths we need to hear.”  Who better to hammer home this sober message for Republican true believers than a convert who used to revel in the Democrats’ decadent culture of Valhalla excess?

Enter RTT’s Convention Bump Contest

Since 1964, Gallup polling has shown that, on average, a presidential candidate will earn a five percentage point “bump” in polls following their party’s convention. Of course, bumps for individual candidates vary and the sustainability of a post-convention bump depends upon circumstances and events that follow (e.g. financial crisis, poor debate performance, ect.). Furthermore, a convention bump doesn’t necessarily mean election victory.

As anticipation builds (at least among the party loyal) for the the Republican and Democratic National Conventions this week and next, we’ve decided to once again indulge your political junkie pleasures with a Convention Bump contest. Here are the rules.

Enter the following information in the "Comments" to this post by 5 pm on Friday, August 31:

  1. Your prediction of how much of a bump Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will get following their party's respective conventions.
  2. Tell us how long the bump will last.
  3. You can, of course, predict no bump at all or a negative one (John Kerry, for example lost one percentage point following the Democratic convention in 2004).

Winner(s) will receive a coveted Miller Center T-shirt and be featured in a blog post with nominal title of RTT’s “Political Junkie of the Week.”

Greatest Hits in the Modern History of Republican Conventions

Ronald Reagan, “A Time for Choosing,” October 27, 1964

As the Republican Party convenes in Tampa (albeit a day late), it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on past gatherings.  Here are my nominations for greatest hits of GOP conventions in the modern era:

1. Barry Goldwater, acceptance of 1964 presidential nomination

A touchstone in the history of the Republican Party and the American conservative movement, the Arizona Senator’s unapologetic speech rallied the faithful and exacerbated the GOP’s internal ideological split.  It also diverged from the standard acceptance speech formula.  Goldwater’s address pulled no punches and was devoid of the customary vapid overtures to one’s political opponents.  Instead, “Mr. Conservative” reminded the country that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

2. Pat Buchanan, 1992 Keynote Address

In a now-infamous speech delivered after Buchanan’s failed attempt to wrest the GOP nomination from sitting President George H.W. Bush, the former Reagan staffer alleged a “culture war” was on.  The enemy was clear: “the malcontents” at the Democratic convention, “environmental extremists,” the media, “radical feminism,” and the Clinton agenda calling for “abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, [and] women in combat.”  Many Republicans argued that Buchanan should never have been given such a prominent speaking role and were convinced his nationally televised remarks cost the Bush-Quayle ticket independent votes in November.

3. Zell Miller, 2004 Keynote Address

The Georgia Senator filled the unofficial Disillusioned Democrat slot at the Republican Convention eight years ago.  With the Iraq War in full swing, Miller’s scathing address focused on foreign policy and his party’s alleged abandonment of national security and capitulation to terrorists:  “I can remember when Democrats believed it was the duty of America to fight for freedom over tyranny…Time after time in our history, in the face of great danger, Democrats and Republicans worked together to ensure that freedom would not falter.  But not today.  Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today’s Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator.  And nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators!”

4. Sarah Palin, acceptance of 2008 vice-presidential nomination

It’s easy to forget that there were several days when John McCain’s running mate selection appeared to be the stuff of political genius.  The high point for the Alaska Governor—and perhaps for the 2008 McCain campaign—was her riveting convention speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination.  Even those who didn’t like the message were impressed with the delivery, and the Obama-Biden campaign was reportedly concerned that they’d been outmaneuvered by her surprise addition to the GOP ticket.  Despite Code Pink protesters in the audience and a broken teleprompter, she didn’t miss a beat.  Of course, the wheels came off shortly after the Straight Talk Express pulled out of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Palin never fully recovered from her interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson and her discussion of newspapers with Katie Couric.  But for one night at least, Palin appeared to be just the game changer McCain was looking for.

Honorable Mention: Ronald Reagan, “A Time for Choosing” aka “The Speech,” 1964

Technically, the most legendary Republican convention speech wasn’t a convention speech at all.  It’s a common misconception that this Reagan classic was delivered at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.  In fact, the Democrat-turned-Republican and future president actually gave his most famous address in a made-for-TV special in the campaign’s closing days.  And while “The Speech” may not have been enough to save Barry Goldwater from an historic landslide defeat at the hands of President Lyndon Johnson, it made Reagan a GOP star and became a manifesto for the conservative movement.

Will there be any additions to the list this week?  We’ll know soon enough.  The best bets: “Hurricane” Chris Christie’s Keynote Address tonight and Paul Ryan’s Vice Presidential acceptance speech tomorrow.

Do the Party Conventions Matter Anymore?

Mitt Romney & Paul Ryan at a Rally in Manassas, VA. August 12, 2012.

Mitt Romney & Paul Ryan at a Rally in Manassas, VA. August 12, 2012. Photo by Monkeyz_uncle. CC-SA.

This week Riding the Tiger will feature daily updates live from the Republican National Convention in Tampa, FL by Robert Saldin, Associate Professor of American Government and Politics at the University of Montana and a former Miller Center Fellow.

TAMPA, FL -- A hurricane has prompted the Republicans to cancel the opening night of their convention…again.  Four years ago, with Hurricane Gustav bearing down on the Gulf Coast, the GOP scrapped day one of their convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  Not that anyone seemed to notice.  Most first night speakers were simply reassigned to Tuesday.  And with the star power backloaded into the final two nights, it wasn’t clear that anything substantive was lost.  This time is different only in that the Republicans find themselves in the storm’s path.

But with tonight now an official a no-go, it’s hard to find anyone here in Tampa who is too upset by the cancellation, even—or, perhaps, especially—among the delegates.  After all, the restaurants and bars are still open, and the hundreds of parties throughout the bay area are proceeding as planned.  Many attendees are enjoying some time on the beach in between rain showers.  And the television networks had never been planning to show up for the opening night.  Of course, the mood could change considerably if evacuations are announced or additional nights of the convention are curtailed or cancelled.  But as of now, the assembled partisans continue their party, now unburdened by tonight’s session at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Which raises the question: What’s the point of these conventions in the 21st Century?  Decades ago, party conventions played a substantive role in the presidential selection process, but now they’re routinely derided as overly-scripted, phony, campaign commercials.

Friday Feature: Candidate Johnson Not Riding a Tiger

LBJ stands on top of an old car, making a speech to an attentive crowd.

Frank Muto / Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum

The details in this photo may be outdated but the setting is all too familiar in these days of non-stop presidential campaigning. Future Vice President (and future President) Lyndon B. Johnson is seen here campaigning atop a car in Pennsylvania, c. 1960.

The Kennedy/Johnson ticket would, of course, win the ticket in 1960. Johnson was VP for nearly three years until Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. In 1964, Johnson ran for re-election against GOP candidate Barry Goldwater. Goldwater's party was,

"… torn by the intense divisions between its old-guard, eastern, moderate base and the upstart, conservative insurgents from the South and West."

LBJ went on to win the election by the largest margin of popular votes in American history. Read more about the 1964 election from American President.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.

Scholarly Response: “Remember the 1990s? Partisan Rancor, Volatile Electorate, and Balanced Budgets”

On Sunday, August 19, the Miller Center partnered with ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on the third of six special episodes examining some of the key issues heading into the 2012 Election.  On Sunday, six distinguished panelists discussed and debated whether or not the U.S. is headed towards bankruptcy.  Today’s guest post is from political scientist and former Miller Center Fellow Jasmine Farrier offering her assessment of the arguments presented in the debate.

Let’s reconcile the harsh sound bite and glib wrap-up – both telling moments in the Miller Center panel this past Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week”.  First, Grover Norquist called President George H.W. Bush a liar for breaking the infamous 1988 “no new taxes” pledge in 1990.  Second, despite profound disagreements over entitlements, revenue, and discretionary appropriations, some of the other panelists concluded that somehow America will muddle through the current economic and political crises and stave off European-style bankruptcy. 

While this final sentiment may strike some as naïve in light of the deep partisan and policy divisions showcased on the program, Norquist’s barb inadvertently served as a reminder that it is OK to indulge in this bit of optimistic fantasy.