HE’S STEALING MY ISSUES!
Rhetoric and the Dynamics of Issue
David B. Holian
This research draws from theories of issue ownership and ‘‘crafted talk’’ to propose a
way to systematically analyze how political elites use rhetoric to gain a strategic
advantage over their opponents. The example described is President Clinton’s suc-
cess in neutralizing the Republican advantage on issues related to crime ﬁghting.
This research provides descriptive evidence to support Clinton’s success in this en-
deavor. Moreover, using content analyses of elite attention to crime from 1981 to
2000, the analysis demonstrates that Clinton not only changed the dimension over
which the parties discussed crime, from a focus on punishment to one stressing
prevention, but also served as an agenda setter for media coverage of crime using
this new emphasis.
Key words: rhetoric; issue ownership; crime; content analysis; presidency.
On October 13, 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis
gave his now-infamous answer to former CNN news anchor Bernard Shaw’s
now-infamous question about the hypothetical rape and murder of the can-
didate’s wife. Dukakis’ sober, monotone answer to Shaw’s provocative, dis-
turbing question, not only served as the popularly accepted death knell for
Dukakis’ once-promising campaign, but also became the exemplar of the
Democratic party’s 20-year struggle to contest Republican dominance on the
By repeatedly emphasizing the get-tough-on-criminals
David B. Holian, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of North
Carolina at Greensboro, 237 Graham Building, Greensboro, North Carolina 27402 (336) 256–
Political Behavior, Vol. 26, No. 2, June 2004 (
0190-9320/04/0600-0095/0 Ó 2004 Plenum Publishing Corporation