Monthly Archives: February 2012

Mitt’s Campaign: Heading to the Cadillac Ranch?

Charlie Cook became the latest prognosticator to acknowledge what I have been telling you for some time: that Mitt Romney is an exceedingly weak Republican frontrunner.  Noting Romney’s declining support among independents, Cook concludes his assessment of the Republican race this way:  “My assumption was that Romney would be the nominee and would make a good run. Now, I have begun to doubt both propositions. His odds of winning the nomination are growing longer. And even if he does, he has twisted and turned himself into a human pretzel. I’m not sure how electable he is. The alternatives, however, seem even less so.”

Events these past few days drive home Cook’s point. During Wednesday’s Arizona debate, we saw all the reasons why Romney must be considered the Republican frontrunner.   Judging by the applause, the audience seemed dominated by pro-Romney supporters – a likely sign of Romney’s superior organization as well as a strong Mormon turnout.  During the debate Romney proceeded to use his superior opposition research to focus attention on Santorum’s  Senate voting record – a strategy that kept the Rickster on the defensive most of the night as he tried to defend some of his votes that he acknowledged were either mistakes or against his principles.  The more time Santorum delved into the Senate weeds by, for example,  debating the merits of earmarks and Title X, the less he was able to attack Romney.  In the end, this was not a good performance for Rick, something borne out by the first two post-debate polls in Michigan which both show Romney edging ahead of Santorum by margins of 3% and 6%.

But while Romney was effective on Wednesday in driving down Santorum’s poll numbers, much as he did with Gingrich during the pre-Florida debates – it’s not clear to me that the debate strengthened Romney’s own case to be the nominee.  Although he effectively put Rick on the defensive, he also came across again as the rich boy used to getting his way, as when defending his right not to answer CNN moderator John King’s final question regarding misconceptions about each candidate.  It was the same blustering response we’ve seen from Romney in previous debates and it reinforce the impression that he’s not very likeable.

Today, in what was billed as a major economic speech at Ford Field in Michigan, Romney tried to build on any momentum he may have gained coming out of the CNN debate.  Leading up to the speech, however, critics seemed more concerned with the Romney camp’s tactics for downplaying the fact that he was going to speak to an audience of about 1,000 in a stadium that seats about 65,000 people. (The speech, hosted by the Detroit Economic Club, was moved to Ford Field after sponsors concluded that the sold out event was too large for the hotel conference room it had been slated for.)  With the Michigan primary just four days away, Romney used the speech to flesh out his economic plan for cutting government spending and taxes, and for protecting entitlement programs.  Most notably, he proposed an overhaul of the U.S. tax system to create a “flatter, fairer, simpler tax system,” cutting all tax rates by 20% and limiting deductions for the wealthy.

Once again, however, the often politically tone deaf Romney likely stepped on his own lead. This time it came during an effort to show his personal support for the automotive industry. Near the end of the speech, after noting that he has owned several Detroit-built automobiles, including a Mustang [a Ford product] and a Chevy, Mitt – always seeking ways to demonstrate the common touch – let this slip out: “Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually” before he completed the Big Three automotive trifecta by noting he also once owned a Dodge pickup.

Two Cadillacs?  Really? One isn’t enough?  I don’t want to overstate the significance of this throwaway comment.  Indeed, it’s not clear to me how much airplay, if any, it will get.  But I do think it is but the latest in a series of remarks by Mitt that collectively reinforce the point that he lacks that Reagan-like ability to empathize with Joe and Jane Sixpack.  And that failure shows in his campaign support; exit polls from the nominating contests consistently show that his support falls in linear fashion as one moves down the income ladder.

Let’s be clear. Mitt may yet pull out a victory in Michigan, to go along with a win that same day in Arizona.  But if he barely squeaks by Santorum in Mitt’s “home” state, this is not going to provide much boost, if any, heading into Super Tuesday on March 6.  And it may lead others to the same conclusion Cook voiced yesterday: that Mitt can’t close the deal with many Republican voters.

Mitt may own two Cadillacs, but it won’t do him much good if his campaign ends up at the Cadillac Ranch.

7:55 p.m. UPDATE:  Well, it didn’t take long.  The Hillin its coverage of the Romney speech, reacts to the Cadillac comment this way:  “But his claim might hurt him by reinforcing the image, being pushed by Democrats, of Romney as elitist and out of touch with average Americans. ”  You think?  Politico, meanwhile,  headlines its coverage of the Romney speech as follows:  “Mitt Romney’s Cadillac Flub One of Many”.  And the wags were out in force in the Twitterverse regarding Mitt’s automobiles.

He can’t help himself.


Live Blogging the Arizona Debate

We are on. Join in.

As always, it’s fun to see who actually sings the national anthem. Newt never does.  Mitt always does.

And they are true to form tonight – Mitt letting loose, while Newt is stonefaced.

John King – the fastest speaking moderator in the business.

Rick is smiling as he speaks of positive solutions to the Apocalypse as spelled out in the book of Revelations.

Right off the bat, as I predicted, Newt works the energy angle.

Question 1:  how to bring down the growing national debt?

Rick looks like he’s clenching his teeth again.  Not a good sign.  But he hits the major points.

John King invites Mitt to attack Rick….if you ask, I suppose I’ll oblige….

Mitt – I’m a businessman, not a political hack like Rick.

Rick is obviously going to be prepared to respond to Mitt’s attacks.  Mitt is a tax raiser….Rick is not.  Period.

Mitt is in top destroy mode. He is out to crush Rick.  Clearly he has been watching the polls.

Newt – offshore drilling.  Energy, energy, energy…

Ron Paul – love this guy.  Why did you call Rick Santorum a fake?  “Because he’s a fake!”  Even Rick has to laugh at Ron, which may be a sign of just how far Ron’s stock has fallen.  No one is taking him seriously, even when he attacks you…  Rick is still smiling, even as Ron eviscerates him…..

I confess that I’m not entirely sure why Paul has decided to target Rick, unless he’s hoping to be the not-Mitt candidate.

Paul’s medication has kicked in tonight.  He’s well rested and it shows. Feisty, and quick on the response.

Mitt doesn’t wait long to raise the immigration issue.  But why someone doesn’t point out he had to balance the budget by state law in Massachusetts is beyond me. He keeps claiming credit for it.

Newt still hasn’t attacked the media. Is this his opportunity?

Whenever Newt says, “There’s a different question”, he’s ready to pounce.  He plays his immigration card in the guise of talking about the failing of the national government.  Immigration plays well here, and Newt uses it effectively….

Rick – Mitt is an earmarker, and a hypocrite to boot for attacking Rick for earmarks.  Mitt is ready to reel off Rick’s earmark record, you wait.  Rick is trying to inoculate himself against the coming earmark attack.  the crowd doesn’t buy Rick’s extended defense of earmarks, and neither does Mitt.  Hard to make a case that is based on everyone in Congress does it.

Mitt my earmark was for the Olympics. Yours was for the bridge for nowhere.  Now Rick is mad.   And Mitt is getting prissy again.  Newt is winning by doing nothing….

Newt is going to step in to clean up this mess.   There are good earmarks and bad earmarks, and Newt makes it all clear.  Ron joins in.  Not clear that this food fight over earmarks is really helping anyone.  Let’s move on, please.

The auto bailout.  Defend your position.  Presumably this matters to Michigan voters.  (Notice how Mitt responds to jeers from the crowd – it’s what we call “rabbit ears”…    (Newt seems pretty relaxed here).  Mitt says he was a traditional bankruptcy for the auto industry.  I’m not sure people are following this, but I think Mitt’s answer is effective.  Rick does not.

John King: “It’s a tough issue.”  Newt:  No, it’s not. Newt attaboys Mitt, but still gets applause.

Ron Paul wants consistency on bailouts.   He uses the bailout to defend the sanctity of contracts, and liberty too.  Yadayadayada.

First Break

Rick spent too much time defending his record here and got sucked into an earmark foodfight, that as a member of Congress, he can’t win.  Romney was personally irritating, as always, but again he’s done his homework  and came prepared to demolish Rick, just as he did to Newt before Florida.   Ron is amusing, but irrelevant for the most part.  Newt is doing well, but he’s also back in the scenery a bit here….

Social Issue could get things going.  Newt is ready to attack the elite media…..and here it comes!  Newt sets the tone here which is to turn the issue away from Republican views and toward Obama’s views toward “infanticide” and religious exemptions.

You saw this coming – Santorum on the spot for his social views.  He’s not going to back down on this.  I’m never sure how his evident passion on this issue plays – is he too strident for some voters?

Rick likes Ron’s “pills are guns” analogy…

Mitt has really been trying to burnish his social conservative credentials tonight – I’m surprised the others are letting him get away with this.  Let’s see if Rick takes on his record as governor….

Newt takes up the cudgel here.  Remember, Newt’s audience here is southern evangelicals and Tea Party populists…

Great comment from RStrange – it’s hard to believe women are enjoying watching the Republican candidates bashing contraceptive use.  Remember, Rick and Newt have both had gender discrepancies in their polling…

Paul and Mitt are ganging up on Rick, and once again he is trying to parse answers.  The crowd turns….but this has been a pro-Mitt crowd from the get go. (Did he purchase their admission?)  They are even booing Rick attacking Romneycare…… the crowd is fixed!

Mitt is skating here, and Rick can’t do much about it….Again, it helps to have a great research team behind you.  The best debate coaching money can buy…

Finally, someone call Mitt on the phony balanced budget claim.  Rick is on fire…..note that Mitt skillfully blunts the attack by moving Rick to the Spector issue.  too convoluted an explanation by Rick here I think….. neither one of them is really doing themselves any good in this exchange.

Let’s move on to immigration….    (Rick Perry is holding Callista’s hand – turnabout is fair play)

Is Newt still on the stage?  yes he is, with another so simple it must make sense response for curing the border problem.  The Good Newt is back.

Not sure anyone gets very excited by “e-verify” – lots of people just don’t think it works as well as guns and fences.

It’s easy pickings here to back the Arizona law a few days before the Arizona primary.

Newt is finally picking up some steam here….again, he needs to impact voters on Super Tuesday….start with baby debate steps….so he is more likely to soft pedal the immigration issue in order to pick up some Latino vote.

Break II.

Easy one word answer to “define yourself:”  How about: “Presidential”

Santorum fought back a bit here to regain some ground.  But although he scored points against Mitt, it’s not clear to me he’s helped himself so far.  Mitt took some shots, but he’s still ahead on points.  Newt has been the best debater (shades of old Newt) but he hasn’t gotten much air time.  Paul has had some great one liners, and scored heavily against Rick early, but….. .

Courage?  Does Rick mean courageous?  And Newt as cheerful?   I still say presidential was the word of choice.

Did Mitt just mention “emotional” in the context of debating women in the military?  Can he be any more condescending?  How are women going to react to that?

If this Newt had showed up before Florida we might have seen a different outcome.  Of course, no one is attacking him tonight.

Rick already has a gender problem, so he needs to be careful in his response here on military service for women.

Newt is primed for the Iran nuclear issue (he’s got Adelson’s money at stake here!)   He’s not going to say “I’ll stop Israel” taking out Iran’s nukes.

King cuts this off too quickly – I wanted to hear Paul attack Newt on this.

Mitt ends every statement with some version of “If you elect me, that won’t happen, if you reelect the President it will…”

AS you see Rick work himself up on this issue, do you really want him with his finger on the nuclear button?

Here’s where Ron Paul reminds everyone why he can’t win the Republican nomination.  He doesn’t quite grasp the logic of nuclear deterrence.

“We talked to the Soviets” for 50 years, while the Iron Curtain stood in place…..

Did Rick say how he would actually solve the Syria problem?  If so, I missed it.

Newt harping on energy once again. This is a major part of his plan to resurrect his campaign.   He makes overthrowing Syria seem so simple.  Rick agrees. If only it was… .

Paul tries again, this time pushing the economic costs of overseas intervention.   My guess it won’t play any better than the moral and constitutional issues did with Republican voters.

Rick’s candid admission that he made a mistake backing NCLB for the sake of the team actually seems to have attracted some applause.

Newt is on his game tonight.  But again, it’s easier to do when everyone has counted you out.  And he only has one debate, not a dozen, to debate his way back into this race.   But he’s on a roll here with his riff on education…..

Newt has replaced Bachmann as the designated laugher in reaction to Ron’s one-liner’s …  Ron isn’t letting Rick off the hook here.  Still not sure why he’s serving as Mitt’s handmaiden.  Is this an effort to get Mitt to put Rand Paul on the ticket?


Last debate section went to Newt.  Mitt has receded a bit, but it doesn’t matter because Rick didn’t really step up to fill the void.  The pro-Mitt audience here is a reminder of why organization matters.

Last Question:  What’s the biggest misconception the public has about you?

Paul: That I can’t win.  Sadly, that’s not a misconception.  He can’t win.  Outside of a brokered convention.

Gingrich:  If there was one thing that I want the American people to know about me is what I accomplished while speaker….track record of getting things done.

Mitt:  As always, he’s not answering the question.  This guy is fundamentally unlikable, when you get right down to it.  Once in a while you see flashes of the guy who grew up expecting people to do what he wants.   Not a pretty sight.

Rick:  not really answering the question, but I guess he’s saying he’s more electable than people think.

And that’s it.  Time for the Spin!

Borger is up first with Rick and the Rickettes! Is Rick, Jr. wearing a sweater vest?  Oh yeah!

I wonder how kids feel when they are essentially props in a campaign?  Look at those smiling faces – painted on!

Now to Paul – he says he’s in second place in delegates.  Formally speaking, counting conservatively, I still don’t think that’s true.  I think Newt is ahead of him.  But, no matter.  Remember, for a guy making an argument that he’s most electable, the fact is he hasn’t won anything yet – not even Maine.

My quick impressions:  given the hype, no one really stood out as having an effective performance.  Of the four, Gingrich was the strongest performer, bringing back shades of the old Newt.   The problem is it is not clear that one debate is enough to change the media narrative here which is writing him off.  Perhaps it played better in some of the Super Tuesday events and will give him a boost over Santorum there.  If so, that’s what he hoped for.   The big loser in my mind was Santorum.  He stumbled early by getting dragged into the details of a debate over Arlen Spector and earmarks.  He sounded defensive.  He picked it up considerably in the second half, and turned the tables a bit on Mitt with the critique of balanced budgets and Romneycare, but he didn’t clearly differentiate himself from Mitt. nor perform so well as to give voters in Michigan and Arizona a reason to choose him over Mitt.  That’s what he needed to do, and I just don’t think he capitalized on his moment in the sun.

Mitt was Mitt – well prepared, but in a way that demonstrated that his strengths are his weaknesses.  He has money, a strong opposition research team, the organization to pack the hall – but he’s not very likeable.  Again, he showed flashes of the “I’m rich and therefore you have to play by my rules” Mitt that is hard to like.  I think he did enough damage to Rick here to perhaps squeeze out wins in both Michigan and Arizona, but once again I saw no evidence that he can expand his support into the Tea Party/evangelical crowd.  There’s just no connection there.

Finally, Ron Paul: Good night for him, but he’s running in the wrong nominating race when it comes to foreign policy.  This isn’t to say he’s wrong – only that his isolationist views (I know, it’s “non-interventionist”) just aren’t going to fly with this voting crowd.  Otherwise, he was entertaining, he was pithy, he hit the usual talking points but with high energy.  All in all a good performance for him.

(David Gergen was just on CNN arguing the contraceptive issues and other reproductive concerns drive the gender gap in presidential voting in recent decades.  This is completely wrong – the gender gap is rooted in different views toward security and social welfare – not so-called “women’s” issues.   Shame on David.)

Good job tonight – thanks for the great participation! I’ll be on tomorrow with the post-mortem…..meanwhile, everyone pour a scotch, kick back and relax….


It All Comes Down To Tonight

Put out the dog.  Get a sitter for the kids.  Heat up the popcorn, and ice down the beer.  Tonight’s CNN debate – the 20th of the campaign season – is slated to start in less than an hour.  And it may be the biggest one so far.  The debate comes less than a week before primaries in Arizona and Michigan, and polls in both states indicate close races between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.  One week after that, it’s March 6 – Super Tuesday – when Newt Gingrich hopes to resurrect (once again!) his campaign with a strong performance in the southern tier of states holding primaries that day. Ron Paul, meanwhile, continues his strategy of picking up delegates, piecemeal, as he continues his slow (very, very slow) slog toward the convention.

So what do the candidates have to do?  For Mitt and Rick, this is a high stakes event. Despite his surge in the polls since his three-state victories in early February, Santorum has yet to prove that he can win in a high turnout state. His best chance to do so may be Michigan, where he is running neck-and-neck with Mitt, and where his brand of economic populism may play well.  He is undoubtedly going to be pressed on some of his more strident comments that have been resurrected in recent days (Is that you….Satan?) I don’t expect him to back away from his socially conservative views, particularly since several social issues, including Obama’s effort to find a compromise with religious organizations on funding for contraception, are sure to be raised tonight but he may seek to repackage them in a softer, kinder manner.

Mitt, meanwhile, released a more detailed tax plan today, the first step in a strategy designed to return the campaign toward the economic issues where he feels more comfortable, and which he sees as his strength. (It’s also an effort to trump the President’s own corporate tax plan, which he released earlier today.) Romney is slated to give a major economic speech later this week, and I expect him to preview that in tonight’s debate.  Because immigration is such a big issue in Arizona, I also think Mitt will reiterate his hard line on illegal immigration, which may set up a reprise of the Mitt-hiring-illegals snafu we saw raised in an earlier debate.  I expect him to try to throw Rick’s Senate record back against him, particularly key votes on spending bills, in an effort to present him as another Washingtonian who couldn’t rein in spending.  Look for Mitt to try to do to Rick what he did to Newt in Florida – bear down with a steady barrage of criticisms citing Rick’s Senate record.

Keep in mind that Newt Gingrich, having already written off Arizona and Michigan, is gearing tonight’s performance to Super Tuesday.  That means making the case to Tea party conservatives and evangelicals that he, and not Santorum, best represents their views. He needs to regain his policy mojo as the man with comprehensive, yet simple, solutions to the nation’s problems.  In recent days he been pinning his comeback on energy policy, and I expect him to stress that quite a bit during the debate.  Which Newt will we see tonight?  The media-baiting, elite-hating, policy-stating, stage-dominating Newt who clearly won most of the early debates, or the I’m-not-bold, I’m-just-old Newt who fizzled in the Florida debate?  This may be his last chance to use the debates to reignite his campaign.  Indeed, it may be the last time we see him in a debate, period, pending the Super Tuesday results.

Finally, Ron Paul, who has seen a bit of the luster of his candidacy wear off after disappointing caucus performances, is hoping a strong performance will help build a bit of momentum heading into Super Tuesday.

CNN’s John King, who inadvertently ignited Newt’s campaign in the debate prior to South Carolina by asking about Gingrich’s ex-wife, will be moderating tonight’s event.  We can only hope that similar Newtonian moment takes place.  Even without that, this promises to be a no-holds-barred event. The one question I do have is how many people are still tuning into these debates.  It’s been almost a month since the last one, so I suspect the viewing audience will be large, but I can’t be certain.

No matter. Sit back and enjoy.  I’ll be back on live blogging in a bit.  As always, I invited you to join in view the comments sections.

Let the Games Begin!

Rest in Peace, Harry McPherson

Harry McPherson, who worked for Lyndon Johnson in both the Senate and as LBJ’s White House Special Counsel and speechwriter, died last Thursday at the age of 82.  McPherson got his start in Washington in 1956 working for the Democratic Policy Committee, which served as the agenda-setting arm for Senate Democrats under the leadership of then Senate Majority Leader Johnson. After seven years in the Senate, McPherson left in 1961, serving in several other government positions before joining Johnson’s White House staff in 1965, working his way up to become one of LBJ’s most trusted advisers. As Special Counsel, McPherson served Johnson as speechwriter/policy adviser/political counselor, reprising a role created by Samuel Rosenman under FDR and later performed by Ted Sorensen under JFK.

After leaving government, McPherson chronicled his experiences in one of the most beautifully written political memoirs, A Political Education, published in 1972.(Before going to law school, McPherson had ambitions of being a teacher and poet.) In addition to the graceful prose, the book offers some of the best insights available anywhere into Johnson’s presidency and into the man himself. But for a more unvarnished look at Johnson, I recommend McPherson’s oral histories at the LBJ Library. Here’s McPherson’s description, taken from one of those oral histories, of the famous “Johnson treatment”:

“A great deal has been written about the Johnson treatment and it is an overpowering treatment. It always reminded me of Kid Gavilan, the Cuban boxer, who had a bolo punch that came over the top of his head, or of that fellow–it wasn’t [Wilmer “Vinegar Bend”] Mizell but another pitcher for the Reds years ago; he had such long arms that when he threw a side-armer, it looked like it was coming down the third base line. You know, he could argue any kind of way on any kind of level: the highest policy, the narrowest self-interest, political interest. He keeps probing until he begins to score. And then there’s something about the tremendous drive of his confrontation; something about his physical height, which he uses very effectively. His very massiveness and bigness. That has an almost irresistible force to it. But there is also something, when someone really cries out “I can’t do that,” there’s something that snaps him back up. And I’ve seen him become almost tender with people who just said they couldn’t do it, and he’s let them alone, and that has been it. And he hasn’t gone out to try to ruin them later whatever. He has a considerable respect for such men.”

Here’s a famous illustration of the Johnson treatment:

Some of McPherson’s best memories, however, are of Johnson’s role as Senate Majority Leader, particularly his effort to craft a coalition strong enough to pass a civil rights bill without permanently fracturing the Democratic Party.  Here’s what McPherson said in response to a question about Johnson’s role in getting the 1957 civil rights bill through the Senate:

Questioner: Can you separate in Mr. Johnson’s mind principle and expediency? That is, in 1957 was he sincerely interested in getting a civil rights act passed because of the effect it would have on Negroes and others, or was he just trying to chalk up another piece of legislation? Or can you answer that?

McPherson: Well, it’s difficult for me to answer it, because I didn’t know him anyway near as well as I do now. And the subject of Lyndon Johnson and the field of civil rights is worth a good deal of talk. My guess is that at that time he felt that there were certain historical necessities for the Democratic Party that required the passage of legislation.

That is, this was Eisenhower’s bill; it had passed the House; here it was in the Senate; no legislation had passed in eighty-five years. Secondly, the very fact that no legislation of this kind had passed in eighty-five years was an inducement to try to pass it, to bring off a great coup of this kind. He needed thirdly, I suppose, to establish himself as a more than sectional leader. The year before, in 1956, he had refused to sign a Southern manifesto which every other Southern Senator did sign–the one that condemned the [Supreme Court’s] Brown decision of 1954.

Johnson, I believe, is your typical Southern liberal who would have done a lot more in the field of civil rights early in his career had it been possible; but the very naked reality was that if you did take a position–an advanced position in Southern terms–it was almost certain that you would be defeated, not by someone else with an advanced position, but by a bigot. That happened all over the South for years and years and years. But Johnson was one of those men early on who disbelieved in the Southern racial system and who thought that the salvation for the South lay through economic progress for everybody.”

Of course it was McPherson who penned most of Johnson’s most famous speech – the nationally televised address in March, 1968 in which Johnson was supposed to announce a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam.  Johnson did so – and then took himself out of the running for reelection as president, a decision that stunned everyone, including McPherson.

May you rest in peace, Harry McPherson.

On President’s Day We Salute the Guardian of the Presidency

As I have done every President’s Day since I began this blog in the late 1950’s, I post my traditional column commemorating the late, great Richard E. Neustadt.  Until his death in 2003 at the age of 84, Neustadt was the nation’s foremost presidency scholar.  In his almost six decades of public service and in academia, Neustadt advised presidents of both parties and their aides, and distilled these experiences in the form of several influential books on presidential leadership and decisionmaking.  Perhaps his biggest influence, however, came from the scores of students (including Al Gore) he mentored at Columbia and Harvard, many of whom went on to careers in public service.  Others (like me!) opted for academia where they schooled subsequent generations of students in Neustadt’s teachings, (and sometimes wrote blogs on the side.)

Interestingly, Neustadt came to academia through a circuitous route that, unfortunately, is rarely used today. After a brief stint in FDR’s Office of Price Administration, followed by a tour in the military, he returned to government as a mid-level career bureaucrat in President Harry Truman’s Bureau of the Budget (BoB) in 1946, gradually working his way up the ranks until he was brought into Truman’s White House in 1950 as a junior level political aide.  While working in the BoB, Neustadt took time to complete his doctoral dissertation at Harvard (working from Washington), which analyzed the development of the president’s legislative program.  When Truman decided not to run for reelection in 1952, Neustadt faced a career crossroads. With the doctorate in hand, he decided to try his hand at academia.

When he began working his way through the presidency literature to prepare to teach, however, he was struck by just how little these scholarly works had in common with his own experiences under Truman.  They described the presidency in terms of its formal powers, as laid out in the Constitution and subsequent statute.  To Neustadt, these formal powers – while not inconsequential – told only part of the story.  To fully understand what made presidents more or less effective, one had to dig deeper to uncover the sources of the president’s power. With this motivation, he set down to write Presidential Power, which was first published in 1960 and went on to become the best selling scholarly study of the presidency ever written. Now in its 4th edition, it continues to be assigned in college classrooms around the world (the Portuguese language edition came out four years ago). Neustadt’s argument in Presidential Power is distinctive and I certainly can’t do justice to it here.  But his essential point is that because presidents share power with other actors in the American political system, they can rarely get things done through command or unilateral action. Instead, they need to persuade others that what the President wants done is what they should want done as well, but for their own political and personal interests.  At the most fundamental level that means presidents must bargain. The most effective presidents, then, are those who understand the sources of their bargaining power, and take steps to nurture those sources.  It is a simple point, but one that is often overlooked by presidents and their strongest supporters who in the heady days after election often overestimate just how much power a president has.

At its core, Presidential Power is a handbook for presidents (and their advisers). It teaches them how to gain, nurture and exercise power. Others have picked up on his themes, but none have distilled the essence of presidential leadership quite so well. The reason why Neustadt’s book retains its power, I have come increasingly to believe, is because Neustadt was, at heart, a government bureaucrat more than an academic.  Beyond the subject matter,  what makes his analysis so fascinating and compelling are the illustrations he brings to bear, many drawn from his own personal experiences as an adviser to presidents. Interestingly, the book might have languished on bookstore shelves if not for a fortuitous event: after his election to the presidency in 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy asked Neustadt to write transition memos to help prepare him for office. More importantly for the sale of Neustadt’s book, however, the president-elect was photographed on an airport tarmac with a copy of Presidential Power clearly visible in his jacket pocket.  Believe me, nothing boosts the sale of a book on the presidency more than a picture of the President reading that book!  (Which reminds me: if you need lessons about leading during an economic depression, President Obama, I’d recommend this book. Don’t forget to get photographed while reading it!)

Neustadt was subsequently asked to join Kennedy’s White House staff but – with two growing children whom had already endured his absences in his previous White House stint under Truman  – he opted instead to stay in academia.  He went on to help establish Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote several more award-winning books, and continued to advise formally or informally every president through Clinton.  After the death of Bert, his first wife, he married Shirley Williams, one of the founders of Britain’s Social Democrats Party (and now a Baroness in the House of Lords), which provided still another perspective on executive politics.  He also continued churning out graduate students (I was the last doctoral student whose dissertation committee Neustadt chaired at Harvard.). When I went back to Harvard in 1993 as an assistant professor, my education continued; I lured Neustadt out of retirement to co-teach a graduate seminar on the presidency – an experience that deepened my understanding of the office and taught me to appreciate good scotch.  It was the last course Neustadt taught in Harvard’s Government Department, but he remained active in public life even after retiring from teaching.  One of his last advising roles involved traveling to Brazil to advise that country’s newly-elected president Lula da Silva. In my last conversation with him, a few weeks before his death, he was his usual generous self, providing me equal parts career advice, scotch and a mini-lesson on the history of presidential war powers and their relevance to the Bush presidency.

And so sometime today take time to hoist a glass of your favorite beverage in honor of Richard E. Neustadt, our own Guardian of the Presidency. If you are interested in learning more about him, there’s a wonderful (really!)  book available on edited by Neustadt’s daughter and that blogger guy from Middlebury College (see here). It contains contributions from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Al Gore, Ernie May, Graham Allison, Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harrison Wellford, Harvey Fineberg, Jonathan Alter, Chuck Jones, Eric Redman, Beth Neustadt and yours truly.

Here’s to you,  Dick!