On the New Book Shelf - The Constitution on the Campaign Trail

By Eric Taylor When I get a moment one of my favorite things to do at the Reference Desk is to check out some of the new titles on the Law Library's New Book Shelf (just past the Circulation Desk on the 5th floor). It's always fun and informative to see what's new. In many ways, it's like having a snapshot of the entire library, everything arranged in call number order, and ready to review right next to some comfortable chairs. In the first of a regularly recurring column, I am going to review the following new title: Busch, Andrew. The Constitution on the Campaign Trail: the Surprising Political Career of America's Founding Document. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. 319 p. Call number: KF/4552/B87/2007 Of the many areas of law, I find constitutional law continually intriguing, especially as we are in the midst of a presidential campaign year that many would consider to be of great historical importance. A quick look at some of the chapter titles, "The Constitution in Party Platforms," "The Constitution in Candidate Messages," and "Constitutional Rhetoric and Governing," sparks my interest to investigate further. Busch proposes one way to evaluate the health and vibrancy of our Constitution from generation to generation is to "focus on the extent and character of constitutional rhetoric in American elections" (p.4) and how this affects their outcome, as well as, the subsequent conduct of candidates and political parties once in power. The theory is that "candidates who pay heed to constitutional concerns while campaigning may be more likely to pay them heed while governing" (p.6). And so, too, as it is with the voting public "by tracing the degree to which constitutional issues are visible in electoral campaigns, we can also roughly trace the degree to which Americans have already made a place for those issues on their political agenda" (p.7). The study goes on to examine the vigor of campaign conversation regarding the Constitution from 1840 through 2006 looking at a variety of political communications such as major-party platforms, nomination acceptance letters or speeches, and more recently major-party television advertising and presidential debates. To understand the effect of this conversation once candidates are in elected office, the author examines inaugural addresses and State of the Union messages to test whether the rhetoric used on the campaign trail follows through and affects the manner in which they govern. The modes of political communication mentioned above are then broken down into fifteen categories of constitutional rhetoric with the goal of measuring the "consistency" and "depth" to which constitutional issues come to the fore. Some of the categories used in this study include: 1) appointment and confirmation of constitutionally sensitive positions, 2) individual rights, 3) impeachment, 4) utilization of executive powers, and 5) contraction or expansion of judicial power. These five categories, in particular, seem to resonate with the current political landscape. Whether these basic constitutional issues or any others become more important or not in the current presidential election cycle is an open question. Busch's study suggests that much depends on the level and vibrancy of the constitutional conversation that we have as a body politic in the months and years ahead.

Submitted by Bonnie Shucha on March 11, 2008

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