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The Chronicle of Higher Education's Career Network
10/31/2003, 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 war.

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 unremarked.

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 there.

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 contemporaries.

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 uncertainty.

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," or 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," and 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.