He's No Jimmy Carter
Bill Clinton is a `delegate' president, whereas Jimmy Carter was a `trustee'
TWO recent cartoons go to the heart of the matter. In one, the husband is settled deep into his favorite chair watching President Clinton on television. His wife is holding the telephone receiver, saying: "It's Bill Clinton.... He wants to know how he's doing." In the other, it's the husband on the phone. His wife is looking out the window at an approaching Mr. Clinton. She says: "Never mind that call to the White House, dear - he's here."
One is reminded of the classic distinction in representation between the "delegate" who acts on the wishes of the constituency and the "trustee" who relies on independent judgment. Jimmy Carter viewed his presidency as a trusteeship from the people. In his mind, he had been entrusted to "do the right thing" - to eschew politics as usual. "Keeping Faith" is what he called his memoirs, and he was proud of having done so.
He abhorred the electoral connection that, in his way of thinking, dominated congressional decisionmaking. Indeed, he believed it was his responsibility to act as a counterweight to that tendency. It was not in the least surprising that he proposed a single six-year term by which the president is freed from the electoral connection.
Clinton has been, and will continue to be, compared with his Democratic predecessor. And there are some eerie similarities: too many priorities, a tendency toward hyperbole, crash programs for complicated issues, an anxiety to stimulate an economy already on the mend, symbolic cuts in staff. But there is one important difference. Though both conceive of themselves as "representatives" more than "executives," they draw from separate conceptions of the role of presidential power. Carter was the "trustee"; Clinton is the "delegate."
Here are some of the important differences:
Most important, the trustee draws a careful distinction between elections and policymaking. For the trustee, elections sanction decisionmaking, but the president's job is then to get it right, not look ahead to what might get him reelected. Virtue in this enterprise is its own reward.
The president as delegate, on the other hand, makes little or no distinction between the campaign and policymaking. There is no right policy - certainly none made in an insular manner, relying on independent judgment. There is only right process, one that is continuously interactive with the people. Virtue in this enterprise is in becoming as one with the people you are representing - a daunting and exhausting task for a president.
The president as trustee gets very serious about campaign promises. They can't be made frivolously since they exemplify the candidate's capacity for independent thinking. The trustee offers judgment and, if selected, may be expected to honor the commitments that served to illustrate his discernment.
For the president as delegate, the promise was then, the decision is now. The delegate offers attentiveness, a sensitivity to what a majority may want or need when informed about the issues. Conditions change - which is precisely why the delegate is devoted to the continuous campaign.
THERE are also differences in congressional relations. The president as trustee is encouraged to make Congress look bad so that he will look good. Members of Congress are mostly delegates and, as such, may be expected to be sensitive to reelection. "Right" choices are bound to cause problems for them, even as these choices permit the president to confirm his trusteeship. The more the members of Congress react in constituency terms, the more they confirm the president's belief that he had done the right t hing.
The president as delegate competes with members of Congress. Collectively they represent the nation by being attentive to the states and congressional districts. The president is unlikely to embarrass them, however, by questioning their style of decisionmaking. Rather, he will make a claim to represent the national interest over a medley of constituency interests. Bargaining is encouraged in this scenario - while for the trustee president, bargaining seems inherently awkward.
Clinton is the classic delegate president, seemingly by personal choice. It so happens, however, that the conditions of his election favor his devotion to that style. He received just 43 percent of the popular vote, far short of what is needed for reelection in a two-person race. He has little claim to coattails. Congressional Democrats had a net loss of seats in the House and just barely maintained their same margin in the Senate. Prospects are good for Republican gains in both houses in 1994.
Thus the president is well advised to look forward to what is necessary to build majority support. The obvious source of votes is within the 19 percent of voters who preferred Ross Perot. If Clinton can supplement his 1992 vote with half of the Perot supporters, he will win in 1996. The president has been courting this group since the election, and his delegate-style campaigning for policy was recommended by Mr. Perot (the electronic town meetings).
We may look forward to a fascinating four years. The new president and his partner by marriage plan to make the changes they say we want. Seemingly they will check with us frequently to see how they are doing, as well as to convince us that they are doing well. They have, however, asked for more than confirmation that they are representing us. They want us to pay more taxes, to "contribute" equitably to solving the problems caused by failed government programs we paid for in the past. A compliant public appears ready to pay the tribute called for.
The true test of Clinton's delegate style will come if our sacrifices turn out not to make a big difference after all. Congressional delegates run against government, even against their own institution, when things go wrong. There is just one president, however, and he will find it more difficult to run against himself and his party's Congress.