Return to index.

C.T. Hanson

Old Senators Do Not Die: They Just Get Re-Elected

Volume 3, 1990.


The 1988 U.S. Senate campaign in North Dakota provided an interesting race for those who have followed North Dakota politics through the years. The issue of the incumbent U.S. senator's age surfaced once again as a campaign issue. Eager politicians within Senator Burdick's own party raised the issue initially. The concern expressed by Democrats provided an obvious springboard for similar concern about Senator Burdick's age among Republicans. Consequently, it was a surprise to no politician that the Republican challenger would seek to make the Senator's age a salient issue among North Dakota voters.

In the process of analyzing the rhetoric of a political campaign, many approaches are available to the critic. In analyzing the rhetoric of the 1988 U.S. Senate campaign in North Dakota, this critic employs a synthesis of several analytical tools. Bitzer (1988) in "The Rhetorical Situation" provides a framework for looking at the total picture of a campaign. Bitzer suggests that when analyzing a communication campaign, the critic should take into account the notions of exigence, audience, and constraints. Exigences, according to Bitzer (p.6), is the item of concern which is responsible for calling forth the dialog--in this instance, the democratic process of deciding who should represent North Dakota in the U.S. Senate. Obviously, the immediate audience of the senate candidates would be regarded as the pool of people in North Dakota who collectively represent the decision-makers of the election. Bitzer, in explaining the concept of constraints, suggests that there are factors which enter into the picture and influence how a speaker will try to adapt his messages to the listeners as a way of maximizing the persuasive impact of those messages. Constraints are defined as: "...persons, events, objects, and relations.... Standard sources of constraint include beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, traditions, images, interests, motives, and the like...his discourse not only harnesses constraints given by the situation but provides additional...constraints...his personal character, his logical proofs, and his style" (Bitzer, p. 8). A major value of Bitzer's model for the critic is that of helping one establish an overall sense of the variables which are present and operating in a particular political campaign.

Another theoretical concept which a critic may employ when seeking to analyze the particular rhetorical choices made by a communicator is the notion of "strategy" as discussed by Ziegelmueller and Dause (1975). In delineating the argumentative use of the notion of a strategy, Ziegelmueller and Dause stated:

Communication strategies are broad plans which determine how an advocate will adapt the presentation of his analysis to the constraints and opportunities of a particular communication situation; their aim is to heighten the persuasive impact of the analysis through alterations in perception and/or emphasis. (p 184).

The notion of strategies, as characterized above, helps the critic explore some of the consequential reasons behind the various messages that may be shared with the voters.

One other theoretical notion that can be helpful to the critic of a political campaign is the idea of looking at the persuasive power of key words or phrases in a campaign. Richard Weaver (1953) discussed the concept of the rhetorical power of words and phrases. Weaver argued that each generation has certain words or phrases which seem to reflect value absolutes of the culture (p. 212). Additionally, Weaver noted:

It is best to begin boldly by asking ourselves, what is the "god term" of the present age? By "god term" we mean that expression about which all other expressions are ranked as subordinate and serving dominations and powers. Its force imparts to the others their lesser degree of force, and fixes the scale by which degrees of comparison are understood.... Yet if one has to select the one term which in our day carries the greatest blessing, and--to apply a useful test--whose antonym carries the greatest rebuke, one will not go far wrong in naming "progress." This seems to be the ultimate generator of force flowing down through many links of ancillary terms. If one can "make it stick," it will validate almost anything. It would be difficult to think of any type of person or of any institution which could not be recommended to the public through the enhancing power of this word. A politician is urged upon the voters as a "progressive leader....." There is not word whose power to move is more implicitly trusted than "progressive." (pp. 212-213).

 

The language used to characterize a politician or one's political opponent could have a compelling persuasive impact on the image projected to the electorate, according to Weaver's analysis.

Using a critical approach created by synthesizing theoretical notions from Bitzer, Ziegelmueller and Dause, and Weaver, it is hoped that a holistic picture of the rhetorical endeavors of the two major candidates in the 1988 U.S. Senate race in North Dakota can be presented.

A brief characterization of some of the issues encompassing the 1988 U.S. Senate campaign in North Dakota was previously provided by this author in an article in the NDSTA's 1988 journal. Although written at a time which preceded the 1988 general election campaign, the author identified the issue of the incumbent senator's "age" as a key variable in the U.S. Senate race (p. 33). Further, this writer argued that if Senator Burdick could defuse the age issue in a way similar to what Senator Milton Young had done in 1974, the age issue would not cost him the election.

Senator Milton Young's approach to the 1974 U.S. Senate campaign provided the Burdick campaign with a model of several useful strategies. The strategies included:

...Senator Young took to the offense...strategies employed by Senator Young as a means of dealing with the age issue in the campaign included: using a karate demonstration to visualize his strength as a person; demonstrating his actual fitness by making extensive use of personal appearances and maintaining a vigorous schedule in the final month of the campaign; providing the voters with reassurance that he would resign if he became too ill to serve in the senate; redirecting the age issue to the issue of the strength he possessed because of his seniority in the senate; minimizing the impact of being in his 70s by calling attention to other famous and distinguished leaders who were older than he was when they served their nation; stressing the relativeness of the age issue between himself and Governor Guy by projecting how old Guy would be before he possessed the same amount of power in Washington; narrowing the age difference between Guy and himself by referring to the quantitative difference as one generation; and, finally, trying to redirect the voters' thinking by saying that the matter of age was counterbalanced by the fact that he was the only Republican senator from the Upper Midwest. From the nature of Senator Young's campaign, it appears that he felt it was necessary and important to deal with the issue of his age. (Hanson, 24-25).

 

It is probably safe to assume that the Burdick camp was well acquainted with the strategies employed by Senator Young because Burdick's campaign manager, David Strauss, had also served as Governor William Guy's campaign manager in the 1974 election. If one was to decide what was the most significant issue of the 1988 U.S. Senate campaign in North Dakota on the basis of column inches of newspaper coverage, a terse review of newspapers would clearly confirm that the age issue was the issue of interest. From the very day of Burdick's official endorsement by the Democratic Party, few people would argue that the Senator was not to address the age issue head-on, as Senator Milton Young had done. In a press kit released to reporters shortly before he was endorsed by his part, Burdick Included a leaflet entitled, "The Walking Workout--A Guide to Fitness Walking From Sen. Quentin Burdick" ("Burdick Is off and running," The Forum, April 17, 1988, p. A11). Maureen Reagan, speaking at the nominating convention of the North Dakota Republican Party, warned local Republicans that age should not be the issue to use against Senator Burdick:

But the 79-year-old Burdick isn't too old to seek reelection, the president's daughter said. "Nonsense. Age is something on a birth certificate. It doesn't have anything to do with the person. People should not be running because their Ideas are old, not because their bodies are old." ("Maureen Reagan calls book 'kiss and lie,'" The Forum, April 18, 1988, p. A6).

 

Regardless of Ms. Reagan's advice, the age issue was not something that challenger State Senator Earl Strinden was planning to ignore. In remarks following his defeat, Strinden still maintained that the age issue was an election-deciding issue in his campaign strategy:

Strinden said he believed there was one way for him to defeat Burdick--paint him as incompetent. "The one thing that was out there was a question of his physical condition and mental ability," the Republican said. When the senator was hospitalized for colon surgery in August, it actually helped Burdick's standing among North Dakota voters, said Strinden. If not for that, Strinden says he would have won. "It is not easy running against an 80-year-old. If you attack, you are looked on as cruel and mean.... North Dakota voters saw no reason to change players In Washington.... In 1988, there was a great feeling for security...." If he could run the race again, Strinden said he would stress his leadership abilities far more than he did. ("Strinden acknowledges his tough image cost him votes," The Forum, November 21, 1988, p. D40)

 

The competitive political character of Earl Strinden, as well as his savvy gained from years of combat In the state house, probably kept him from being willing to let the age issue become a back burner issue in his strategy to unseat Senator Burdick.

An interesting question for critics to ask is: Was Earl Strinden wrong in focusing on Senator Burdick's age as the critical variable in his campaign to unseat the Senator? Senator Burdick's age was certainly a constraint on the rhetoric of both senate candidates in 1989. Entangled In the age variable was the "god term" of the campaign, the notion of the competency of each of the individuals as North Dakota's next U.S. Senator. Earl Strinden sought to characterize competency using a referent of physical and mental prowess. Quentin Burdick sought to characterize competency using a referent of political clout for North Dakota In the nation's capital:

Reached at his Fargo home, Burdick responded angrily to Republican charges that he is unable both physically and mentally to serve another six-year term. Those charges are "complete hogwash," he said. "Did they present any proof of any kind, or just talk? I've accomplished more in the last two years on my committee than have been accomplished in many years before that ...." Burdick said the age issue, which until Friday night had not been raised directly, has now come up because poll results show him comfortably ahead of Republican challenger Earl Strinden. "They're desperate, this is what it is..... My polls are good and they're desperate. They're behind in the polls and they want to catch up....I'm in very good shape and they'll find out before the campaign's over.... It isn't a question of age, it's a question of condition." ("Gloves off in senate race," The Forum, October 22, 1989, pp. A1 and A8)

 

Burdick seemed extremely aggressive In his efforts to respond to the age issue and the inference that one's age and one's fitness to serve were directly related to each other. Burdick seemed to want the issue of fitness judged by his ability to use his clout.

Voters' perceptions of the age issue were also a constraint on the rhetoric of the senate campaign. Voters' perceptions seemed to characterize the age issue somewhat analogously to that of Earl Strinden. Senator Burdick shared a quasi-similar perception about the relationship between age and competency when he characterized the age issue as being a condition and not a number. The voters' concerns about the senator's age, however, seemed more moderate in nature:

...a third of North Dakotans concerned about the Democrat's mental and physical fitness.... Some 35 percent of those surveyed said they were either very concerned about the 80-year-old senator's fitness to serve another term.... Some 14 percent said they were very concerned, 21 percent said they were somewhat concerned, 21 percent said they were only a little concerned, and 41 percent said they were not at all concerned. The remaining 3 percent had no opinion.... Concern about Burdick's fitness varied with the political party affiliation stated by respondents. Among Democrats, 26 percent said they were very concerned or somewhat concerned about Burdick's health. Among Republicans, the figure was 46 percent; among Independents, 34 percent. ("Burdick maintains wide lead over Strinden," The Forum, October 1, 1988, p. 6)

 

Ironically, Earl Strinden's definition of the age issue was the perception shared by most voters. Nevertheless, the age issue did not appear to be a critical issue for the voters. The age issue seemed to be present in people's minds but it also exhibited variance in its potency among voters.

For Earl Strinden, the issue of Senator Burdick's age seemed to be a no-win issue. The issue had the potential of providing an election victory for the Strinden campaign, but the issue also exhibited all of the properties of a double-edged sword capable of providing a death blow. If Strinden made age a direct issue, it would appear as though he was attempting to bully a senior citizen. If Strinden failed to keep age as an election-year yardstick for measuring the perceived competency attached to each candidate, he would be giving up of his most compelling arguments in the campaign.

The Burdick campaign was not unaware of the tightrope that Earl Strinden would have to walk if he chose to make age a direct issue In the campaign. Using one of the most subtle strategies of the campaign, the Burdick camp turned the table on Strinden with respect to the age issue. The Burdick strategists, in a subtle attempt to capitalize on the abrasive edge which was sometimes associated with Earl Strinden's style of leadership, portrayed Strinden as being antagonistic toward the elderly:

Two weeks ago, Strinden aired seemingly innocuous ads stating his concern for the elderly and saying that he had worked in the state Legislature for programs to help older citizens. Burdick answered with ads claiming Strinden had proposed putting one-fourth of the state's nursing home residents out on the street. Strinden responded, claiming Burdick's ads were lies and distortions, and Implying that Burdick is not In control of his own campaign. Once again, Burdick has countered. The most recent Burdick attack attempts to make a case for the claim that Strinden "has time and time again voted In opposition to the interests of the state's elderly citizens." ("Senate race becomes slugfest," The Forum, September 18, 1988, p. A15)

 

For Earl Strinden, the age issue became a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't dilemma. To keep calling attention to stereotyped attributes associated with the elderly, like fuzzy thinking, not being in control on one's campaign, etc., only served to reinforce the notion that Strinden had a hostile attitude toward the elderly. One of Strinden's perceived attributes as a leader, his aggressive style, also loomed as one of his strongest negative attributes as a challenger to Burdick.

To debate of not debate was also a major issue of the Burdick and Strinden campaign. Incumbent Quentin Burdick seemed to have little to gain by entering into debates with his challenger. Burdick's foot-dragging on the when and where of any debates with his challenger seemed to be typical behavior of an incumbent with strong voter support in the polls. For Strinden, however, the prospect of being in a one-on-one debating situation with Senator Burdick was perceived as a means to the end of showcasing "age" as a genuine variable for the electorate:

For his part, Strinden never misses an opportunity to challenge Burdick to a debate, indicating that he sees an opening there to exploit. Strinden has vowed not to make age an issue In the race against the 80-year-old Burdick, but he obviously believes that, with his nimble mind and superior extemporaneous speaking ability, he'd triumph in a head-to-head appearance. It's an indirect way to raise the age issue. (Senate race becomes slugfest, p. A1)

 

The obvious motivation for the repeated calls for debates with Senator Burdick by Strinden was not masked. Strinden was very convinced that the ticket to success In the election involved a clear victory in a debate with Burdick. Few political analysts, Including those employed by Senator Burdick, would have disagreed with Earl Strinden's assessment.

How to get the incumbent involved in a debate became a critical challenge for the Strinden campaign. Throughout the course of the campaign, Strinden and his supporters tried several avenues of getting the senator to agree to a debate. One strategy involved the process of public ridicule. Strinden offered that he would be willing to debate Burdick at least 18 times, and he hoped that the senator would not duck the challenge ("Strinden challenges Burdick to debates," The Forum, April 18, 1988, p. A 10). Throughout the campaign Strinden sought to publicly badger the senator into a debate. Another Strinden strategy was to agree to participate in forums where It was likely than an invitation would be extended to Senator Burdick:

Strinden went to the air with a commercial that implores Burdick to "come home" and lists a series of debates or forums at which the senator did not appear. Burdick's campaign shot back with a press release that lists what it says are 18 errors in the commercial. The statement disputes charges in Strinden's ad that Burdick canceled the debates. While that may be true, the senator has turned down numerous invitations for face-to-face meetings with Strinden, even when the Senate was out of session and Burdick was not required in Washington.... Strinden's attempt to raise a debate about the debates is part of a larger strategy to raise questions about the 80-year-old senator's mental and physical vigor.... In calling for the debates, Strinden hints that Burdick may not be up to the challenge, noting that Burdick seldom speaks at length or extemporaneously at public events. ("Burdick acting like and incumbent," The Forum, October 18, 1988, pp. A1 and A8)

 

The Strinden approach to the age issue encompassed several different avenues. Attempting to badger the senator into a debate represented one of the many approaches Strinden employed to get himself into a comparative setting with his opponent.

For a while, it appeared that Strinden's most persuasive argument on the age issue was going to be provided by the senator's own body. Midsteam in the campaign, Senator Burdick was hospitalized for precautionary surgery involving cancer of the colon. Strinden did not let the opportunity to underscore North Dakota's concern about the senator's health go unmentioned:

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Earl Strinden says Sen. Quentin Burdick's staff deliberately attempted to cover up the senator's colon operation last week.... Strinden said Burdick's staff "fully intended that this would all be taken care of without anyone knowing about it, which seemed to be quite unrealistic. It certainly was handled in an unusual way." ("Burdick staff denies covering up health," The Forum, August 31, 1988, p. C1)

 

Strinden was able to underscore a legitimate concern about the senator's health by pointing to an instance where it appeared that the real condition of the senator was being hidden from the public.

In addressing the matter of his physical condition, Senator Burdick took the route traveled by Senator Milton Young. Burdick returned to North Dakota and made a series of public appearances so that voters could view him first hand and judge his condition for themselves.

Sen. Quentin Burdick spent 1 1/2 hours campaigning Saturday at an Indian powwow in his first campaign foray since his colon surgery last month.... Burdick, who arrived at the powwow at 1 p.m., left shortly after 2:30 p.m. to travel to Fargo, where he planned to attend North Dakota State's football match-up with Northern Michigan on Saturday night. ("Burdick makes 1st campaign appearance since cancer surgery,'' The Forum, September 11, 1988, p. C3)

 

Burdick's public appearances helped discredit the notion that he was too old and frail to serve another term in the Senate. Burdick, however, appeared to be also saving his strength to end the campaign on a strong note. Indicative of Burdick's strategy of ending the campaign on a strong note was in part revealed by the tactic of remaining on the job in Washington while Congress was still in session, and the comments he made prior to returning to campaign in North Dakota In October:

Burdick says he will convince voters of his vigor when he gets back to North Dakota.... "They'll see me on TV, they'll see me In person.... They can see for themselves what shape I'm in," he said. ("Burdick says he's in such good shape he surprises himself," The Forum, October 8, 1988, p. A10)

 

True to his strategy, Senator Burdick did return to North Dakota In the last part of October to begin his vigorous campaign.

Burdick's schedule not only included a number of public appearances but also included time for two debates with his opponent. The senator portrayed a sense of excitement about his upcoming campaign activities:

Monday's the start of full-time campaigning and I'm looking forward to getting to every corner of the state.... With the Senate adjourning so late, my schedule has of necessity been uncertain. Now that I know the 100th Congress is wrapping up for the year, I can move to my favorite part of the campaign--traveling the state, talking with voters...." Burdick will debate his Republican opponent, Earl Strinden, for the first time Sunday....("Burdick to hit campaign trail," The Forum, October 22, 1988, p. A8)

 

The final two weeks of the campaign became the full amount of time that Senator Burdick had available to engage in public campaigning In North Dakota.

Much speculation surrounded the scheduled debates between the two candidates. The debates posed a win-lose possibility for both candidates. Earl Strinden had everything to gain and Senator Burdick seemed to have everything to lose with respect to a poor performance by Senator Burdick. As a constraint on the outcome of the debate was the pre-conditioning Earl Strinden had attempted to do with regard to Senator Burdick's physical and mental competency. Burdick's performance had to provide the evidence to discredit the notion that he was too old to handle another term in the Senate. The senator's performance in the debate also possessed the potential of discrediting all the talk about his unwillingness to engage in debates earlier in the campaign:

"It Is practically an accepted practice in politics for the incumbent not to run around looking for debates..." Governor Sinner said.... "The fact that he has agreed to two debates is really unusual. The late Sen. Milton Young steadfastly refused to debate his opponents and he made no exception in 1974 when he was challenged at age 77 by Democrat William Guy. "That's just a standard political strategy for the incumbent to give the challenger as little exposure as possible," Guy said Friday.... I want to put to rest the allegations that he is somehow not capable of debate," Sinner said at the UND forum. "When you see the debates you'll see that he is quite capable of holding his own." ("Burdick acting like an incumbent," The Forum, October 18, 1988, p. A8)

 

Burdick's Democratic colleagues seemed to help underscore the legitimacy underlying the senator's earlier avoidance of any debates with Earl Strinden. It is also quite possible that the voters understood and were accepting of the tradition of the incumbent's strategy of seeking to minimize the exposure of the challenger.

One of the ironies of the Strinden strategy to paint the senator as being too old and incompetent to hold his own in a debate with the challenger was the potential of lowering the voters' expectations of the senator's performance in the debates. In some respects, the expectations of Burdick's abilities which were communicated by the Strinden campaign were so low that all the senator needed to do to win was to show up and speak coherently. Senator Burdick did show up for the debate and according to his polls, did perform in an acceptable fashion:

U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick impressed nearly twice as many viewers of last Sunday's debate with challenger Earl Strinden than Strinden did, according to a poll conducted by the Burdick campaign. Thirty-seven percent of the 400 people questioned for the poll said they watched all or part of the debate.... Of those who watched, 31 percent said they were more impressed by Burdick than by Strinden.... Eighteen percent found Strinden to be more impressive.... This figures substantiate the Burdick campaign's claim that the veteran senator won the debate in the eyes of the voters.... The Republicans can take some credit for Burdick's perceived victory.... "They did a masterful job of lowering expectations about Burdick's performance in the debate," Strauss said. ("New Burdick poll shows he won Sunday's debate," The Forum, October 27, 1988, p. B1)

 

Burdick's ability to sustain a credible campaign performance in the closing weeks of the campaign not only attested to a brilliant campaign strategy but also lent some new meaning to the notion of "clout" that the senator claimed to possess all along. In the poll which followed the debate, the data showed that Burdick would have won the election had it been held the next day. The point spread on the poll following the debate (59-32) was virtually identical to the final outcome of the election ("N.D. official results released," The Forum, November 25, 1988, p. A 13).

Several other issues were a part of the campaign, but the age issue and the implications of the senator's ability to serve another term were center-stage in the campaign. The Strinden camp's efforts to discredit the notion of the incumbent's "clout" by parading national Republican figures in front of the local media to offer testimonials to the voters regarding Burdick's lack of clout seemed to have been largely ignored by the voters. Similarly, voters seemed to have ignored an eleventh-hour attempt by abortion opponents to discredit the incumbent by threatening to sue his campaign. Finally, challenger Strinden was never really afforded a platform from which he could take issue with Burdick's ability to achieve things for North Dakota.

The 1988 U.S. Senate campaign apparently borrowed many pages from the 1974 U.S. Senate campaign in North Dakota. The strategic choices of the two incumbents' campaigns demonstrated many parallels, especially in the respective approaches to underscoring the significance of clout, and the strategy of seeking to minimize age as a campaign issue. Additionally, the voters' support of the two challengers in the '74 and '88 campaign underscored the importance of one's personality as a variable of a political campaign. Earl Strinden went into the campaign with a negative image to overcome. Strinden lost by nearly 28 percentage points. Challenger Bill Guy in 1974 brought a positive image into the campaign and lost the election by less than two hundred actual votes. The constraint of a negative image was never overcome by Earl Strinden. The strategic choice made by the Burdick campaign to protect the popularity of the senator, in a manner similar to the campaign of Senator Young, by minimizing the amount of comparative exposure they gave their opponent, was an effective strategy. Additionally, by strategizing an energetic finish to the campaign on the part of the senator, the Burdick camp postured themselves to zap the life out of the "age" issue. Finally, the struggle to demonstrate possession of the "god term" of competency was won by the incumbent, Senator Burdick. When looking to challenge incumbents In North Dakota, candidates might do well to examine the campaigns of years past.

 

References

Bitzer, L. F. (1968). Rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, pp. 1-14.

 

Bradbury, R. (1988, October 22). Glovers off in senate race. The Forum, pp. A1, A8.

 

Bradbury, R. (1988, September 18). Senate race becomes slugfest. The Forum, p. A15.

 

Brasher, P. (1988, October 18). Burdick acting like an incumbent. The Forum, pp. A1, A8.

 

Brasher, P. (1988, October 8). Burdick says he's in such good shape he surprises himself. The Forum, p. A10.

 

Burdick is off and running. (1988, April 17). The Forum, p. A11.

 

Burdick maintains wide lead over Strinden. (1988, October 1). The Forum, p. 6.

 

Burdick makes 1st campaign appearance since cancer surgery. (1988, September 1). The Forum, p C3.

 

Burdick to hit campaign trail. (1988, October 22). The Forum, p. A8.

 

Hanson, C. T. (1988) The senator's age: A recurring campaign issue. North Dakota Journal of Speech & Theatre, 1, 20-35.

 

Imrie, B. (1988, April 18). Maureen Reagan calls book "kiss and lie." The Forum, p. A6.

 

Meyer, J. (1988, October 27). New Burdick poll shows he won Sunday's debate. The Forum, p. B1.

 

N.D. Official election results released. (1989, November 25). The Forum, p. A13.

 

Springer, P., and Bradbury, R. (1988, August 31). Burdick staff denies covering up health. The Forum, p. C1.

 

Strinden acknowledges his tough image cost him votes. (1988, November 27). The Forum, p. D4.

 

 

Strinden challenges Burdick to debates. (1988, April 18). The Forum, p. A10.

 

Weaver, R. M. (1953). The ethics of rhetoric. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

 

Ziegelmueller, G. W., and Dause, C. A. (1975). Argumentation: Inquiry and advocacy. Engelwood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc.