Presidents, Prime Ministers and Policy Rhetoric: The "Credibility Gaps" of Woodrow Wilson and Kevin Rudd in the League of Nations and Climate Change Debates

Political Studies

Author/s (editor/s):

Wesley Widmaier, Dennis Grube

Publication year:


Publication type:

Journal article

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Wesley Widmaier and Dennis Grube, ‘Presidents, Prime Ministers and Policy Rhetoric: The “Credibility Gaps” of Woodrow Wilson and Kevin Rudd in the League of Nations and Climate Change Debates’, Political Studies, 63(2) 2014: 336‒52.

US President Woodrow Wilson and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd were separated by institutional contexts, relative power positions and decades in time. However, each confronted a similar dilemma — of reconciling rhetorical idealism with policy practicalities. Building on insights from studies of the US rhetorical presidency, we offer a framework highlighting the tensions between ‘outside’ moral appeals which raise expectations and the ‘inside’ technocratic rhetoric of policy administration. We argue that norms encouraging moral appeals have come to transcend institutional differences between ‘presidential’ and ‘prime ministerial’ systems. Despite the different contexts of the Wilson-era League of Nations debate and the Rudd-era carbon tax-Kyoto controversies, we argue that pressures to ‘speak in two voices’ engendered credibility gaps that undermined each leader’s congressional and parliamentary support. In concluding, we suggest that this analysis supports a more nuanced appreciation of the rhetorical imperatives that can impede policy efficiency — and the need to limit tendencies to either populist or intellectual partisanship.

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