Bill Clinton’s eight-state bus tour these last few days has provided a kaleidoscope of heartland images: Steel mills and farms, churches and truck stops, flags flapping on freshly painted porches.
In large measure, it is with such quintessentially mid-American symbols that Clinton hopes to blunt accelerating Republican attacks on him as a liberal hiding behind a moderate’s rhetoric.
To a degree unusual for a Democratic presidential candidate, Clinton is seeking to define himself for voters not only through his policy agenda, but through his cultural experiences and preferences.
He began the process last week in his nomination speech, when he declared himself a “product of (the) middle class.” Since then, Clinton has tried in ways large and small to send signals of cultural compatibility to middle-class voters who have abandoned his party in droves in recent presidential elections.
Reinforcing His Image
On the bus trip, this effort has ranged from stopping for a well-photographed round of miniature golf and some touch football to discussing--in greater detail than ever before--his difficult upbringing and religious faith. Even the music at his rallies--a medley of baby-boomer rock and contemporary country and Western--seemed designed to reinforce Clinton’s image as an energetic young man still mindful of old values.
All of this followed his convention acceptance speech last Thursday in which Clinton twice quoted Scripture, talked about the death of his father just before he was born and said he had learned more “about equality in the eyes of the Lord” from his grade school-educated grandfather than all of his professors at Georgetown and Oxford universities and Yale Law School.
In contrast, neither of the past two Democratic nominees--Michael S. Dukakis or Walter F. Mondale--quoted the Bible or mentioned God in their acceptance speeches. Even Jimmy Carter--a “born-again” Christian--did not quote the Bible in his 1976 acceptance speech.
Driving Clinton’s cultural offensive is the belief among his key advisers that voters will reach their verdicts on the Arkansas governor--and assess his place on the ideological spectrum--as much from their sense of his values and roots as his policies. They believe that if they can ground Clinton in the cultural soil of mid-America, it will be that much more difficult for the Bush campaign to convince voters that he is too risky and too liberal to trust with power.
Establishing a cultural affinity with voters “is critical,” said David Wilhelm, Clinton’s campaign manager. “It’s hard to tag somebody as out of touch where there is a sense of shared values and common interests.”
With President Bush and his surrogates already trumpeting their support of “family values,” Clinton advisers say they are determined to avoid a repeat of 1988--when the GOP used a devastating array of cultural symbols and polarizing issues, from the flag to the death penalty, to portray Dukakis as an elitist who was contemptuous of mid-American values.
“The suggestion was there was a moral and cultural heartland of America from which Democrats were alienated,” says William A. Galston, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and an occasional Clinton adviser.
To combat that, Clinton “is saying in every way possible that he is part of that heartland--that’s what framed him, that’s what guides him,” Galston said.
That was the subtext of the bus trip itself, which wound through small towns and cheering crowds before concluding Wednesday in St. Louis. Although economic policy was front and center in Clinton’s stump speeches, his campaign sought to make a statement by choosing as its first post-convention foray an itinerary that took the nominee along so many back roads and highways.
“It’s kind of giving people a sense that we share their values, know where they live . . . and have empathy for what they are going through,” Wilhelm said, promising more bus trips.
The bid to portray Clinton as a resolutely ordinary guy who happens to have his own motorcade sometimes runs into the more complex reality of his life as a powerful man who has long mingled with other powerful people--and whose wife has achieved considerable financial success as a corporate lawyer. On Monday, he waded into a crowd in Kentucky while wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the logo of a private golf club.
And at about every stop, anti-abortion protesters were on hand to remind Clinton that for many conservative voters, traditional cultural values do not include his liberal position on abortion rights.
“He’s trying to make the Democratic Party out to be family-oriented using the Bible,” said David Enix, a schoolteacher who drove 40 minutes to carry an anti-abortion sign at a Clinton rally in Ohio. “He uses the Bible and the blood of innocent babies to try to win the election. He’s a hypocrite.”
But Clinton’s newly personal approach seems to have allowed him to reach other voters more intimately than earlier this year, when he would stop quoting his policy papers only long enough to defend his character from allegations of adultery and draft-dodging.
“He seems like real people to me; someone I’d like to have as a neighbor,” said Nelson Adams of Wheeling, W.Va., after watching Clinton speak at a church there last Sunday.
Throughout his campaign, Clinton has tried to reclaim for the Democrats basic American mores that Republicans have long appropriated--such as rewarding the work ethic and demanding personal responsibility. But beginning with his acceptance speech, he has started to portray his own life story as the triumph of those values.
He has argued, for instance, that his commitment to an activist government is grounded in his climb from modest roots.
Even more striking has been the intensified use of religious references. A Southern Baptist and a regular churchgoer, Clinton has always been comfortable quoting the Bible while campaigning in black churches. But since the convention, his religious imagery has now moved much closer to center stage.
In his acceptance speech, in addition to the two references to Scripture and his mention of “the Lord,” he also used the word “God” five times--once to emphatically quote the Pledge of Allegiance and declare the United States, “One nation, under God.”
Last Sunday, Clinton spent an hour in a Wheeling Presbyterian church offering more details about his religious beliefs on a nationwide television program called “Sunday Go To Meeting.”
Answering questions from denominations around the country--including Jewish and Roman Catholic congregations--Clinton strongly endorsed separation of church and state and defended the ban on school prayer. But he questioned the recent Supreme Court decision preventing prayers even at special events, such as graduations. And he presented his religious faith as a central pillar of his life.
“If I weren’t in my view a Christian, if I didn’t believe ultimately in the perfection of life after death, then my life would have been much more difficult,” he said.
Republicans Take Aim
Republican strategists and conservative activists hope to undercut Clinton’s drive for the cultural center by highlighting his support for abortion rights, gay rights and the distribution of condoms in schools--and perhaps by recirculating the questions about his personal behavior that appear to have receded.
Religious figures associated with the GOP also are opening fire. Earlier this week, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson said Clinton’s description of his program as a “New Covenant” between citizens and government “borders on . . . blasphemous” because it was a term used by Jesus in the Last Supper.
But Clinton shows no signs of being dissuaded by such attacks--or a fear of unsettling liberal voters who favor a strictly secular approach to politics. In typical fashion, he is trying to build his own distinctive bridge over the nation’s cultural fissures: a blend of cosmopolitan baby-boomer tolerance on some lifestyle issues combined with heartland respect for such traditional values as individual responsibility and religious faith.
On these questions, as on so many others, Clinton’s deepest faith may be in his own ability to reconcile the seemingly incompatible.