Student Question

What was Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign strategy, and did he use dog whistle politics as President?

Expert Answers

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Haney Lopez writes that during Bill Clinton's 1992 election campaign, "Clinton did not depend on an economic message alone; rather, he decided to engage in his own racial pandering" (page 108). Clinton ran his 1992 campaign as a "New Democrat" who was tough on crime and anti-welfare. Clinton also tried to show, the author writes, that he "was not beholden to African American interests" (page 108). He tried to protect himself against charges that he was soft on African-American criminals. Clinton's strategies were in part a reaction to the tactics of George H.W. Bush, who had used the story of Willie Horton (an African-American furloughed prisoner) to tag Michael Dukakis, who was Governor of Massachusetts when Horton was released on furlough, as weak on crime during the 1988 Presidential campaign. To combat this idea, Clinton returned home to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign for the execution of a mentally impaired African-American man named Ricky Ray Rector. 

Once Clinton was elected, Haney Lopez says that Clinton made dog whistle politics part of his administration. For example, Clinton put $30 billion towards the "war on crime" started by Reagan and made a "three strikes" law that put many more people behind bars. He also re-engineered welfare to reduce the number of people receiving benefits. Clinton put African-Americans down in front of white audiences but not in extreme terms, and he tried to connect with African-Americans by appealing to them in ways that would "fly under most whites' radar" (112)--for example, playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show. The author writes that Clinton was not necessarily a racist but that Clinton had "a willingness to manipulate racial animus in the pursuit of power" (page 113).

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