Vol. 50 Issue 10
An Overlooked Theory on Presidential Politics
By Rick Valelly
A LITTLE-DISCUSSED THEORY of the American presidency has had startling, if unnoticed,
success as a crystal ball. Stephen Skowronek, a chaired professor at Yale, is
the author of The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership From John Adams to Bill
Clinton (Harvard University Press, 1997), which is a revision of his 1993 book
with the same main title but a slightly different subtitle, Leadership From John
Adams to George Bush. The books have foretold such major events as Bill Clinton's
impeachment and George W. Bush's tax cuts, as well as his drive for a second gulf
At recent conferences on the presidency in Princeton, N.J., and London,
there was little mention of the theory or Skowronek, nor were there
round tables or panels about his work at the annual meeting of the
American Political Science Association in Philadelphia over Labor Day
weekend. A survey of 930 or so hits on the Internet for Skowronek's name
indicates that no one seems to be commenting on his predictive
achievements. Instead, a previous book on the origins and evolution of
federal bureaucracies is widely cited.
The quiet over Skowronek's presidency books is ironic -- and also rather
troubling. It is ironic because political scientists say that we want
our discipline to become a predictive science of political behavior, yet
we seem to have overlooked one of those rare instances of apparent
success. It is troubling because it suggests that stereotypes about what
constitutes predictive science may be clouding our vision. Skowronek's
theory is historical and qualitative -- it doesn't have the right "look"
for such science.
In aspiring to predictive power, political science has become sharply
formal and analytic, innovatively adapting aspects of microeconomics,
psychology, and the mathematics of social choice and game theory.
Despite the strong social and professional cues to be on the lookout for
working predictive theories, the continuing accomplishment of
Skowronek's approach to understanding the presidency has gone
TO BE SURE, Skowronek never said in print that Bill Clinton would be
impeached. But reading his book before the event, a clever reader
(though, alas, I was not that reader) would have seen that the book's
typology of presidents clearly implied such a crisis -- the second
instance of impeachment in American history. Also, even as George W.
Bush took the oath of office from the chief justice, Skowronek's theory
foretold several salient features of the current administration. The
theory suggested we should look for Bush to be treated more
deferentially than his predecessor by both the news media and the
political opposition. Expect Bush to replicate the massive, signature
tax cuts of Ronald Reagan, his philosophical mentor. Expect, too, that
Bush will press for a war somewhere. Finally, be prepared for the
possibility that in agitating for war Bush will run the risk of
misleading the public and Congress about the rationale.
The predictive strengths of Skowronek's work are rooted in a brilliantly
simple scheme for classifying presidents and their impact on American
politics. The framework assumes two things.
First, presidents are elected into the most powerful office in America
against the backdrop of what Skowronek calls a "regime." In other words,
they don't start history anew the day they walk into the Oval Office. A
lot of their job has been defined beforehand.
Regimes comprise a particular public philosophy, like the New Deal's
emphasis on government intervention on behalf of citizens. Another
element of a regime is the mix of policies that further its public
philosophy. And a regime contains a "carrier party," a party energized
and renewed by introducing the new program. After the initial excitement
of the regime's first presidential leader (for instance, Franklin
Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan), the party becomes the vehicle for ideas
with which everyone has had some experience -- say, the Medicare
amendment of the Social Security Act, or the tax cuts under the current
administration. Late in the life of a regime, the once-dominant but
actually quite brittle governing party stands for worn-out ideas.
Skowronek suggests that there have been five such regimes: The first was
inaugurated by Thomas Jefferson, the next by Andrew Jackson, the third
by Abraham Lincoln, the fourth by Franklin Roosevelt, and the most
recent by Ronald Reagan.
Skowronek's second simple assumption has to do with a president's
"regime affiliation." Affiliation with or repudiation of the regime
comes from the incoming president's party identity. New presidents from
a party that has been out of power can and will repudiate the rival
party's regime if it appears bankrupt. Presidents inaugurated under
those circumstances call the country to a new covenant or a new deal.
Recall Ronald Reagan's famous subversion of a '60s catchphrase when he
declared, in his first inaugural address: "In this present crisis,
government is not the solution but the problem. ... It is no coincidence
that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the
intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and
excessive growth of government. ... So, with all the creative energy at
our command, let us begin an era of national renewal." Even if he is not
particularly successful in realizing the new public philosophy to which
he has pinned his colors, this kind of a repudiate-and-renew president
is widely hailed as a great innovator.
Alternatively, an incoming president might affiliate with an existing,
strong regime but seek to improve it. Think here of Lyndon Johnson,
whose career began during the later phases of the New Deal. As president
he pushed for Medicare, the Great Society, and the War on Poverty. He
expressed his filial piety by signing Medicare, an amendment to the
Social Security Act of 1935, in the presence of Harry Truman. Think,
too, of George W. Bush, who has won Reaganesque tax cuts that --
together with increases in military spending -- are likely to force a
great reduction in government social-policy obligations, thus furthering
Reagan's dream of ending individual dependence on government. In
essence, then, a president strongly affiliated with a regime is a
defender of the faith.
PARADOXICALLY, though, such presidents can break their party in two, or
at least preside over serious factional disagreements. Skowronek
sketches various ways that can happen. One scenario involves war. Deeply
conscious of how important it is to hold his party in line, a president
can find war useful -- and in a dangerous world, it isn't hard to find
real enemies. But a president pushing for war risks the appearance of
possessing ulterior motives, or seeming impatient. In early August 1964,
for example, Lyndon Johnson stampeded the Senate into the Gulf of Tonkin
Resolution and then took the resolution, after his landslide over
Goldwater, as Congressional authorization for a military buildup in
Vietnam. Any subsequent military or diplomatic defeat following such an
apparent manipulation of Congress will spark party factionalism, as the
president's party colleagues scramble to keep control. It isn't hard, of
course, to see how all this might apply to the current Bush
administration. Criticism of Bush's plans for, and commitment to,
reconstruction in Iraq influenced his call for a doubling in spending
To take a third general type, a new president may have no choice but to
affiliate with a weak regime and try to muddle through. He
characteristically does that by stepping away from the regime's stale
public philosophy, emphasizing instead his administrative competence.
Such was the approach of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. That sort of
president is a caretaker of a threadbare public philosophy, doing his
best with a bad historical hand, often with great ingenuity, as
revisionist scholarship on Hoover has shown -- for instance, the extent
to which he had coherent programs for addressing unemployment and
collapsing farm prices that foreshadowed key elements of the New Deal.
Yet another kind of president is someone who, like the innovator,
repudiates the regime -- but does so when it is still going strong in
people's hearts and minds. That kind of oppositional president seeks
some "third way," even though other members of his party are convinced
that there is little wrong with the reigning political philosophy. He
quickly comes to seem disingenuous, even dangerous, to many of his
Andrew Johnson was unilaterally reconstructing the ex-Confederacy in
ways that subverted Republican plans made by Congress during the Civil
War. He was eventually impeached when he dismissed Secretary of War
Edwin Stanton, the cabinet ally of Johnson's Congressional Republican
opponents. Stanton's dismissal flouted the Tenure of Office Act giving
the Senate say over dismissal of officials whose appointment it had
approved. That provided the legal fodder for the impeachment. Richard
Nixon advocated many liberal policies -- proposing, for instance, a
guaranteed national income, an idea that now seems hopelessly quaint.
But he also disturbed and startled many of his opponents by openly
regarding them as dangerous enemies warranting surveillance and dirty
tricks, and that set the stage for his resignation. Clinton hired the
dark prince of triangulation, Dick Morris. Clinton too was impeached and
then tried after a desperately zealous independent prosecutor forced him
into a public lie, under oath, about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Third-way presidents get the worst of both worlds -- seeming
untrustworthy both to the partisan opposition and to parts of their own
base because they pursue policies that threaten to remove existing party
polarities. It is striking that eventually they blunder into some act
heinous enough to be plausibly treated as a crime.
In short, there is a simple two-by-two classification undergirding
Skowronek's historical account. One dimension of classification is
"strength of regime," which ranges from strong and commanding to
collapsing and discredited. The other dimension is strength of the
president's affiliation with the existing regime. That affiliation can
range from none (repudiation, as with Reagan, or opposition, as with
Clinton) through weak (Hoover or Carter) to strong (Lyndon Johnson or
George W. Bush).
TO BE SURE, a tale of recurring patterns that can be surmised from a
two-by-two classification seems very distant from the presidency as it
is experienced by the president, and by citizens, day by day. Conscious
that a president's personal strengths matter greatly, specialists on the
presidency, aided by recent theories of emotional intelligence, sort
presidents according to their interpersonal skills. They also analyze
the application of formal and informal powers: how presidents fare with
Congress under different conditions of party control and by type of
policy request, whether they move public opinion when they would like
to, and how well they resist the inevitable undertow of public
disillusionment. Scholars ask, as well, how the institutional evolution
of the executive branch magnifies or frustrates such applications of
temperament and skill. Finally, formal legal analysts assess any changes
in the balance of executive and legislative power. In other words, in
the subfield of presidency studies, most analysts look over the
president's shoulder. They hew to the actual experience of being an
overworked politician who makes literally thousands of anticipated and
unanticipated decisions in the face of enormous ambiguity and
In the end, though, there is no gainsaying the performance of
Skowronek's theory. Yes, there are lots of alternative explanations for
the major events it has predicted. But that is precisely where the
counterintuitive parsimony of Skowronek's theory comes in. By parsimony,
political scientists mean successfully explaining the widest possible
range of outcomes with the fewest possible variables. In 1993, there was
no other coherent theory of presidential politics that anticipated the
full range of events that Skowronek's theory did: impeachment of a
Clinton-like president; and, if the Republicans recaptured the White
House, tax cuts, war, and related outcomes like the news media's doting
(at least for a while) on a chief executive who would use the rhetoric
of common cause in a time of crisis.
Presidents, Skowronek's theory insists, are highly constrained actors,
seemingly fated to replay variations on one of the four roles he
outlines. That this seems fatalistic or cyclical -- unlike the
complicated lived experience of the presidency -- doesn't lessen the
theory's power. If the model works, then the right question to ask is
not whether it is realistic, but why it works.
OF COURSE, the prerequisite for such a discussion is adequate
recognition that the theory is working -- which is what seems to have
eluded Skowronek. Here a subtle scientistic prejudice against his chosen
scholarly identity may be in play. If so, the silence about his work
raises an important question about the contemporary organization of
American political science.
A bit of intellectual history is in order. The sort of work for which
Skowronek is known is often called "American political development,"
APD. (A disclosure: My own professional identity is closest to APD.) APD
scholars roam interpretively across huge swaths of American political
history. Their work so far has been qualitative, and thus tends to
eschew any number-crunching beyond descriptive statistics.
For many years, APD's critics regularly knocked it as "traditional,"
thus not "modern," political science. They often called it "bigthink"
speculative, broad rumination without any scientific value.
Those days are now happily over. APD is much less controversial than it
was when Skowronek and Karen Orren, of the University of California at
Los Angeles, founded the subfield's flagship journal, Studies in
American Political Development, in 1985. Since then, other journals with
the same focus have appeared -- for example, the Journal of Policy
History -- and APD work has been published in mainstream refereed
journals, too. The outgoing president of the American Political Science
Association, Theda Skocpol of Harvard, a widely known social-policy
scholar, has played an important role in mainstreaming APD work.
But does that acceptance disguise a lingering refusal to acknowledge
that APD scholarship can say as much about the present and future of
American politics as other kinds of research? I fear that many political
scientists draw a line in their minds between "real," possibly
predictive political science -- work that requires lots of data, big
computer runs, formal modeling, and regular National Science Foundation
funds -- and work that they consider pleasantly stimulating but not
scientific enough to serve as a reliable guide to, or predictor of,
events. It would be a sad paradox if, while honoring the appearance of
science, we let that prejudice block powerful and elegant predictive
theories like Skowronek's from coming to the fore.
Rick Valelly is a professor of political science at Swarthmore College.