Vol. 18 No. 5 (May, 2008) pp.401-403
THE CONSTITUTION ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL: THE SURPRISING POLITICAL CAREER OF AMERICA’S FOUNDING DOCUMENT, by Andrew E. Busch. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. 331pp. Cloth. $75.00. ISBN: 9780742548480. Paper. $28.95. ISBN: 9780742559011.
Reviewed by Trevor Parry-Giles, Department of Communication, University of Maryland. E-mail: tpg [at] umd.edu.
Andrew Busch takes rhetoric seriously – so seriously, in fact, that he authors an entire book exploring how presidential campaigns rhetorically argue about, debate, discuss, and decide on weighty constitutional issues. As someone who studies political communication and as someone who believes that campaigns are fundamentally good and important events that tell us a great deal about our nation, our community, ourselves, I find much to commend in Busch’s examination of THE CONSTITUTION ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL. This is an important work that beckons further research beyond its descriptive parameters. Indeed, Busch’s implied call for more critical engagement is perhaps THE CONSTITUTION ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL’s greatest strength.
THE CONSTITUTION ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL is guided by four general propositions: 1) “All other things being equal, more constitutional rhetoric is better than less;” 2) “More open discussion of the Constitution is better than veiled or opaque discussion;” 3) “Constitutional rhetoric that is broader and more varied is better than constitutional rhetoric that is narrowly focused;” and 4) “It is better for campaigns and candidates to engage one another on constitutional issues than to talk past each other” (pp.8-9). One might quibble with some of these propositions, but they form a solid and reasonable basis for Busch’s ensuing discussion of a wide range of campaign discourse concerning constitutional issues.
So exhaustive is Busch’s analysis that he covers major campaign discourse from 1840 through 2006, examining party platforms and nomination acceptance letters and speeches from 1840 to 2006, television campaign advertising from 1952 to 2004, and presidential debates from 1960 to 2004. To extend the analysis, Busch also discusses the campaign communications from minor party and independent candidates receiving more the 5% of the national popular vote and the Inaugural Addresses and State of the Union speeches from 1841 to 2006. Put simply, that is a tremendous amount of discourse to analyze.
The result, of course, is an analysis that is largely driven by description and numbers. So, for instance, in the chapter on the Constitution in party platforms, Busch reveals that there has been an overall decline in the constitutional references per 1,000 words from 1840-2004 but that the number of constitutional “mentions” has increased in that time period, particularly in Republican Party platforms. Busch identifies the differing levels of explicit rhetoric versus implicit rhetoric in the [*402] discourses he discusses, and he meticulously offers a coding scheme that identifies the different types of constitutional argument present in the various texts. Further breakdowns of his data reveal that the differing categories of constitutional argument in party platforms (about rights, constitutional structure, and constitutional interpretation) have all increased in frequency since 1840, with rights rhetoric increasing at a faster rate in party platforms.
Busch offers this same level of detailed analysis in each chapter of THE CONSTITUTION ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL, and the reader learns much from his comprehensive rendition of this rhetoric. The overall lesson from Busch’s book is that constitutional rhetoric in campaign discourse has a complicated and varied history, dependent on the context of the campaign, the predilections of the candidates, the media of communication involved, and the salience of constitutional questions for the voters. Along with all of the painstakingly gathered content data, Busch also provides a narrativized rendition of the flow of campaign constitutional discourse across campaigns and his readings of the ebb and flow of such rhetoric is compelling, clear and honest. Bringing together his narratives with the data, Busch is able to tell a convincing story not only about presidential campaigning, but also about the nature of constitutional argument.
Another important lesson learned from THE CONSTITUTION ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL is the care and dedication required to perform and record the results of careful content analysis. What makes Busch’s analysis so convincing is its completeness. Modestly, Busch suggests that there are limitations to the thoroughness of his analysis – he does not discuss media coverage of constitutional campaign rhetoric, and he only focuses on national general election campaigns (p.10). While those might be limitations to some, I believe they instead offer clarity and focus to the analysis. That is, a switch to media coverage of these types of constitutional arguments, or a discussion of how such arguments are manifest in congressional or primary campaigns would have unnecessarily diverted Busch’s analysis away from the important discourse coming from presidential candidates in general election campaigns. And such a diversion would only have served the purpose of greater thoroughness – it is possible to speculate that discourse of mass media sources or in congressional campaigns might very well have mirrored the constitutional arguments discussed in the sources Busch does analyze, if only because of the inevitable trickle-down effect in political discourse.
Perhaps the most significant “limitation” of Busch’s THE CONSTITUTION ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL is his acknowledged reluctance to “offer a normative evaluation of the plausibility, morality, or constitutional correctness of the constitutional arguments offered by candidates and their campaigns” (p.11). That is the next step. Busch’s work is required reading for anyone seeking to engage in such a “normative evaluation” if only because it provides the clear framework, the precise discussion of the data, that could undergird such a study. A rhetorical critic, for instance, would use Busch’s work to springboard into a [*403] discussion of how presidential candidates articulate constitutional arguments effectively or ineffectively for audiences, how they use constitutional arguments to achieve electoral ascendancy, how such arguments function in the formation of issues of national identity, ideological certainty, and rhetorical efficacy. THE CONSTITUTION ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL would be crucial for the political philosopher who sought to explore the morality in the invocation of constitutional argument in an electoral context. The legal commentator would begin with Busch’s book, and examine how various campaign articulations about the constitution squared with precedent, were attempts to influence subsequent constitutional interpretation, or worked as ways of reshaping the constitutional document itself. Regardless of the orientation, or the discipline, the normative scholar seeking to understand the interface between the Constitution and electoral politics would do well to begin with Busch.
Even the most casual observer of Campaign 2008 would be forced to admit that constitutional argument, thus far at least, is not front and center for the candidates. Amidst the exhaustive discussions of mortgage crises, balanced budgets, the War in Iraq, and competing health care plans, there is infrequently only passing discussions of constitutional rights, the structure of our constitutional system, and/or the range and nature of constitutional interpretation. This general silence on constitutional questions would not surprise the reader of Andrew Busch’s THE CONSTITUTION ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL even as it might trouble us all. Surely, we should be discussing such questions, and surely the citizenry should demand that its presidential candidates confront these critical matters. If nothing else, Andrew Busch provides a fascinating tale of the vagaries of constitutional argument in a campaign context, and that tale comes none too soon.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Trevor Parry-Giles.