Why It’s Time to Dust Off John Mitchell’s Quote: “Watch What We Do, Not What We Say”

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tags: election 2016, Trump, John Mitchell

Aaron S. Brown is a doctoral candidate in U.S. diplomatic history at Ohio University.

John Mitchell

In 1969 Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell advised the press to “watch what we do, not what we say.” This statement should not be all that surprising to those who regularly observe American politics and do not expect full transparency from their leaders. I, for one, was not terribly concerned when Hillary Clinton’s email revealed that she had both “public” and “private” positions. After all, do we ever really know about all that goes on in the corridors of power in Washington? The answer is we do not, and we should expect that President-Elect Donald Trump will govern much differently than his campaign rhetoric has indicated. Trump is, in some ways, a unique specimen in American political life (the corporate real estate background, the lack of government experience, the hair). But if history is a guide, his coarse oratory and bombastic promises (building a wall on the southern border, renegotiating trade deals) will be confronted with the hard realities of the office faster than he can say “China!” Just ask any American president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. I will not provide a modern history survey here, but I will touch on three specific cases – the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

When Reagan was elected in 1980, he focused on one primary objective – cutting the size and scope of government. He was interested in fighting communism and terrorism as well, but his main grievance was that Democrats had pushed for federal regulations which stifled competition and prohibited sustained economic growth. He also blamed Republicans for capitulating to this “big government” ethos. During his campaign, Reagan was never very specific about how his administration planned to shrink government, but his rhetoric was powerful and persuasive enough to earn him a decisive victory over Jimmy Carter. While in office, however, Reagan never really made good on his lofty agenda. He wanted tax cuts, a significant reduction in most government expenditures, increases in defense spending, and a continuation of the existing welfare state (Medicare, veterans’ benefits, school lunch programs, etc.). Reagan’s budget director David Stockman, then a devout small government apostle, explained to the president that he could not have all of those things and expect the $500 million surplus he promised in 1981. Reagan, a child of the Great Depression and one-time New Deal Democrat, opted to go with the safety net and increased defense spending. A disgruntled David Stockman lamented the “triumph of politics” in a 1986 book of the same title, and the federal debt approached $2.6 trillion by 1988.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign was, in some ways, driven by the opposite philosophy that shaped Reagan’s. Clinton ran against a president, George H.W. Bush, who was facing criticism from Democrats who believed he was inattentive to the needs of struggling Americans and from members of his own party who disliked his reneging on a promise (another famous policy reversal) to not raise taxes. Ross Perot, a businessman and political outsider, mounted a surprisingly successful (not to mention prescient) third-party challenge on a platform of renegotiating foreign trade deals and rethinking American commitments abroad. Clinton advertised himself as the candidate who would make government work for ordinary working Americans. He came across as the compassionate one, famously assuring a young woman during a debate in Richmond, Virginia that he understood her concerns about the ongoing economic recession while a bored President Bush looked at his watch and stumbled through an answer that seemed condescending and dismissive. Clinton excoriated “trickle-down economics,” a policy associated with Reagan and Bush, and implied that his presidency would pose a direct challenge to the small government conservatism of the previous two administrations. But, after a couple of setbacks including a failed healthcare initiative led by first lady Hillary, Clinton changed his tune dramatically. The Republicans seized control of both the House and Senate in 1994, and the president was ready to be as good of a small government conservative as any GOP senator. He asserted in his January 1995 State of the Union address that “We must not ask government to do what we should do for ourselves.” Clinton would not give up entirely on certain environmental, educational, and healthcare programs cherished by his fellow Democrats, and an impasse with the Republicans over the 1996 budget led to a government shutdown. But the president ultimately concluded that reaching a balanced budget deal with his colleagues across the aisle would score him some big political points, and he worked with them to achieve that end while declaring that “the era of big government is over.”

In 2000, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush pointed out an aspect of Clinton’s foreign policy that he found unproductive – its focus on “nation building.” Bush argued in a debate with Democratic candidate and former Vice President Al Gore that the United States should not go into other countries and tell the people there how to govern themselves. It was part of what he viewed as a commitment to smaller government at home and abroad, and a more “compassionate” conservatism. Future national security adviser Condoleezza Rice echoed this sentiment shortly afterwards, saying that “We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten” in the Balkans and that the U.S. can no longer be “the world’s 911.” The irony of that last statement would be lost on no one when, a year later, al-Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon prompted the Bush administration to depose the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and later Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party in Iraq. The events of September 11, 2001, transformed Bush from a near-isolationist to an internationalist on par with the most eager of nation builders.

Trump may very well intend on following through with his plans to build a big wall on the border with Mexico. And he may truly believe that a trade war with China is in our nation’s best interest. He might even believe that the key to American victory in the fight against ISIS is a pact with Russian president Vladimir Putin. But the examples of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush prove that even if he wanted to accomplish all of those things, external circumstances and political calculations have a way of rerouting presidencies into uncharted territory. John Mitchell’s advice still rings true today.

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