Why Brooks Is Wrong: The Case Against Strengthening the Presidency

In his column today, the New York Times’ David Brooks makes the case for strengthening the presidency as a way to overcome the partisan gridlock that afflicts our national governing institutions.  Brooks stakes his claim on the belief that the constitutional system of “checks and balances has morphed into a ‘vetocracy’, an unworkable machine where many interests can veto reform.”  A prime culprit for the current period of legislative stagnation, he argues, is a proliferation of interest groups and issue activists that have collectively usurped authority from Congress and the presidency.  This “mass of rentier groups” now “dominates the official governing sector. Throw in political polarization and you’ve got a recipe for a government that is more stultified, stagnant and overbearing,” Brooks writes.

His solution? Strengthen the presidency: “We don’t need bigger government. We need more unified authority. Take power away from the rentier groups who dominate the process. Allow people in those authorities to exercise discretion. Find a president who can both rally a majority, and execute a policy process.”

What is one to make of Brooks’ argument?  For starters, the critique and purported solution are hardly new.  Generations of constitutional scholars and other critics have charged that the constitutional system of shared powers, whatever its virtues two centuries ago, has become increasingly outmoded due to its tendency toward gridlock and ease of obstruction by minority interests. See, for example, Woodrow Wilson’s Congressional Government, published in 1885, which cites a list of defects associated with a congressionally-dominated system of shared powers.  And more often than not the proposed solution is to strengthen the presidency – a solution Wilson pursued with uneven success when elected to that office in 1912.

Why the presidency?  In  his brilliant article “Does the Separation of Powers Still Work?”, the late, great James Q. Wilson addresses why so many constitutional critics embrace what Wilson sees as an ultimately misguided effort to cure the “mischiefs of faction” by strengthening the presidency. Writing in 1986 at time when structural budget deficits against the backdrop of divided government led the David Brooks of the day to lament the inability under the Constitution to, as Lloyd Cutler famously put it, “form a government”, Wilson’s reasoning is worth revisiting in light of Brooks’ proposal.

Wilson begins with the observation that if one is asked what is wrong with the American system of government, more often than not the answer fingers the system of shared powers.  And with equal frequency, Wilson continues, these critics will propose a reform premised on reducing the influence of shared powers by strengthening the presidency.  The logic behind this proposal is similar to what Brooks appears to embrace: that a single elected individual, responding to a national electorate, is far better able to discern and pursue the public interest than is a decentralized institution like Congress, with its many actors and multitude of decision points.  In words that anticipates Brooks’ lament, Wilson notes that “If one listens to the reflections of presidents and their aides, no matter whether they are liberals or conservatives, the most common complaint is that presidents don’t have enough power.”

As Wilson points out, however, the lack of a strong president is precisely what the Framers intended when they established a system of shared powers:  “But of course the Framers of the Constitution were not trying to create a government that would discern national goals and serve them efficiently with dispatch; they were trying to create a limited government that would serve only those goals that could survive a process of consultation and bargaining designed to prevent the mischief of faction and the tyranny of passionate majorities or ambition politicians.”  What critics who want to strengthen the presidency are really saying, he suggests, is that the “separation of powers is a fine idea…except when it prevents me from having my way.”

Wilson concludes by citing two fundamental reasons for continuing with the system of shared powers (and thus rejecting Brooks’ call for a stronger presidency): “It helps preserve liberty and it slows the pace of political change.” It is easier today to lose sight of how the system of shared powers protects liberty, Wilson believes, because we have become accustomed to seeing an activist court take on that function.  But as Wilson points out, court activism also fosters legislative delay and uncertainty, although few seek to curtail judicial independence.

Wilson goes on to compare the ability of the U.S. system of shared powers with parliamentary systems in three major areas: reducing the deficit, making economic policy and conducting foreign policy.  In all three areas he makes the case that the American system is at least equally effective, if not more so, than are parliamentary systems.  Moreover, he reminds us that every generation tends to exaggerate the uniqueness and significance of its particular constellations of crises, while downplaying what came before.  In reality, however, it is hard to make the case that the problems we face today come anywhere near the seriousness of the difficulties the Framers sought to address by establishing the system of shared powers more than two centuries ago.

In a later post I’ll address this portion of Wilson’s argument in more detail.  But his crowning point – one worth remembering before embracing Brooks’ advice – is that previous reform efforts suggest there are no constitutional remedies to the system of shared powers short of abolishing that system.  And that is a price, Wilson argues, “that two hundred years of constitutional government should have taught us [and Brooks!] is too high to pay.”

Why The Kennedy Legacy Endures

Why does the Kennedy legacy endure – indeed, seem to grow stronger – a half-century after his assassination? A recent Gallup poll of Americans finds that almost three quarters of respondents judge Kennedy to be an “outstanding” or “above average” president. That places JFK above all the post-FDR “modern” presidents, including Reagan, LBJ and Ike, in terms of public support.  To be sure, some of this popularity is undoubtedly caused by the torrent of recent media coverage commemorating his death.  But his high popularity is not a new phenomenon; JFK has been consistently ranked among the top presidents by the public in polls dating back several years. Here is the most recent Gallup poll:

dryjbwsowuqx4fqg_yojaq[1]Nor is there much evidence that this adulation will wane anytime soon. In the most recent Gallup poll JFK finds his strongest support among the youngest cohort of respondents; 83% of those aged 18-29 rate Kennedy “outstanding” or “above average”, compared to 67% of those aged 65 or older who place JFK in one of these two categories.  Even as Kennedy the man recedes from direct memory, it seems, Kennedy the myth grows ever stronger.

zm3qrthjwkcycrckp2tk4w[1]Note that Kennedy’s public popularity, for the most part, outstrips his standing among scholars.  Elsewhere I’ve discussed the problems with efforts by scholars to rank presidents, but suffice to say none of the scholarly rankings place JFK nearly as high as does the public.  I examined 15 such academic polls that have been issued since JFK’s death, and he comes out as the 11th-ranked president, behind his three immediate predecessors FDR, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.  Here are the top dozen presidents based on those polls. (Note that the rankings for those above JFK include polls issued before he became president.) :


Abraham Lincoln


Franklin D. Roosevelt


George Washington


Thomas Jefferson


Theodore Roosevelt


Woodrow Wilson


Harry S. Truman


Andrew Jackson


Dwight D. Eisenhower


James K. Polk


John F. Kennedy


Kennedy’s average ranking among scholars places him among the “good” but not “great” presidents. That he does not rank higher reflects, in part, scholars’ collective judgment that Kennedy’s presidency lacks enduring substantive accomplishments. Indeed, as the spate of recent news specials remind us, Kennedy is perhaps better remembered for how he died than for what he accomplished while in office.  Moreover, when we think of Kennedy as president, we tend to remember his words more than his deeds. His speeches include the stirring (and hawkish) inaugural address (“Ask not….”), his 1961 address to Congress setting the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and the 1963 speech at American University which in some respects anticipates the era of detente between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

To be sure, the American University speech served as a prelude to JFK’s negotiation with the Soviets of a comprehensive ban on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which stands as one of his most noteworthy achievements. But that call for peace must be weighed against his sanction of the coup that killed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem*, thus tying that country’s fate more closely to the U.S., and laying the foundation for the subsequent escalation of the American military presence there.  There is also JFK’s on-going obsession with toppling Castro, even after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. And even perhaps his most celebrated substantive accomplishment – his adept handling of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – has come under renewed scrutiny in light of recently declassified documents and newly-released audio recordings that more fully document his decisionmaking and the surrounding context during those fateful October days.  (I’ve said nothing, of course, regarding Kennedy’s deplorable treatment of women.)

So what explains his enduring popularity, if not a record of sterling accomplishments?  The answer, I think is a function of three related factors. The first is his youth.  At 43, JFK was the youngest president ever elected, one who seemed to personally embody his oft-stated understanding of the presidency as the “vital center of action”.  Never mind that Kennedy was in fact quite sick, and that he required a daily regimen of pills and injections to make it through the day. To most Americans unaware of the true state of his health, he was the emblem of the new, post-World War II baby-boom generation. It helped that he had a beautiful, soft-spoken wife and two delightful young children.  And Kennedy was not shy about utilizing Jackie as a political asset – it was why she sat next to him in the convertible on that fateful day.

Second, Kennedy’s “vigah” was on full display to the nation because his presidency coincided with the maturation of television. When we think of television and Kennedy, of course, we focus first on that awful day in Dallas.  But Kennedy was the first president to understand how to take advantage of this medium as a public relations tool, and in some respects, as with his televised press conferences, he set a standard that none of his successors fully matched. With his good looks, poise and appearance of ironic detachment, Kennedy projected a coolness that was perfectly suited for this new medium.

Third, and most important, his is an unfinished presidency.  To most of us, Kennedy is frozen in time – forever young and thus judged not primarily by his middling record but by dreams for what might have been. Had he only lived….what possibilities!  Those possibilities grow ever more grand, I think, the further the real JFK recedes in our memory.  Then too, the current era of polarized partisan politics makes us yearn even more for our admittedly idealized vision of the Kennedy years – a time when politicians from both parties worked together in great national endeavors, such as putting a man on the moon. Today, by contrast, government is more likely to shutdown than to accomplish great things. Indeed, even little things, such as setting up a health care website, seem beyond its capabilities.

As the Kennedy presidency recedes in time, it has been gradually superseded in our memories by the myth that his time in office was a modern-day Camelot – a myth that Kennedy’s intimates, starting with Jackie, first seeded in the public consciousness in the days and months after his assassination.  Less than two weeks after JFK’s assassination, Jackie summoned family friend and historian Teddy White to Hyannisport. She wanted to tell him something, she said. In the evening, after work, her husband often liked to play records, including one from the Broadway musical about King Arthur’s court.  His favorite song came at the end, she said, and contained this line: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”  According to White, Jackie told him:  “There’ll be great presidents again — and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me — but there’ll never be a Camelot again.”

But Jackie had it wrong – Camelot lives on, if only in our idealized remembrance of a presidency that ended far too soon.

(I shared some of these thoughts on radio earlier today on Jane Lindholm’s Vermont Edition. As always, I want to thank Jane for making the visit an enjoyable experience  – you can listen to the discussion here.)

*As several alert readers pointed out, I originally incorrectly had Nguyen Van Thieu, and not Diem, as the leader overthrown (and killed) in the coup that JFK authorized.   Got it right in the radio broadcast, but not in the print version!

Big Polarization or Big Papi? Why Howard Fineman is Wrong About America

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Media pundit Howard Fineman begins his Huffpost Politics column today by asking, “Why is America on the edge of a political and fiscal nervous breakdown?”  He goes on to answer his own question by providing, as the essay title neatly summarizes, “15 Reasons Why American Politics Has Become An Apocalyptic Mess”. With the exception of gerrymandering, I think a plausible case can be made that at least 13 of the 15 reasons Fineman cites contribute, at least in part (in some cases a very small part), to the current polarized political climate in Washington. DC. (Despite persistent media claims to the contrary, political scientists don’t find much evidence that gerrymandering contributes to partisan polarization.)  To be sure, Fineman’s essay would be more useful if he provided some relative ranking of the various reasons in terms of their impact on polarization, but on the whole I don’t think he does serious injustice to the topic.

Except for Reason 5.  Under the heading “Two Cultures” Fineman writes: “Americans used to inhabit a world of shared social mores, even if millions of people were coerced into accepting them. Now voters now live in two barely overlapping moral worlds: Secular Metropolitan America and Biblical Traditional America. Americans can spend most of their waking hours enveloped in one journalistic gestalt or another, staring at one cable show/website version of reality or the other. It makes political differences harder to bridge.”

Fineman is not the first to make this assertion, of course; the claim that we are a deeply polarized along cultural and moral lines dates back at least to 1992, when Pat Buchanan used his address during the Republican presidential convention to warn of an ongoing religious and cultural war for the “soul of America”.  In the aftermath of the 2004 election, political wags divided the U.S into a Republican-oriented “Jesusland” and a Democratic-leaning “United States of Canada”.  And, as my last post notes, journalists continue to trumpet the theme of a deeply polarized America today, most noticeably during reporting about the government shutdown.  Fineman is but the latest, but undoubtedly not the last, media pundit to make this claim.

The problem, of course, is that the evidence indicates that Americans are not polarized along party lines – at least not any more than they were five decades ago.  Indeed, if anything, they are perhaps less polarized, particularly when it comes to cultural issues. Here are two charts, courtesy of Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina, that show the partisan and ideological trend lines among Americans during the period 1952-2008. Let’s look first at partisanship.partisanship

The data show a similar story for voter ideology.ideology

As you can see, then, the trend lines indicate that the number of Americans who self-identify as independents (including leaners) is on the rise, albeit slightly, across the last five decades, while the portion of self-identified moderates (again including leaners) has remained largely stable. This is hardly the picture of an increasingly polarized people.  We find similar patterns when we ask Americans their views on key cultural issues, such as abortion.

bortionAs you can see, opinions toward abortion have barely budged since Roe v. Wade was decided almost four decades ago.  During that entire period, most Americans support the middle way on abortion rights.

And while Fineman is correct that the cable news shows do present two diametrically different portraits of the political world, the reality is that even the most popular such shows draw proportionally few viewers.  Bill O’Reilly’s “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox, one of the most popular political talk shows on cable, draws about 3.5 million viewers on an average night.  Rachel Maddow may draw .5 million on a good night. But 12 million viewers watched the season premiere of Duck Dynasty on cable, and about 8 million watched this epic shot by Big Papi:

Polarized? Not among Americans.  And not here in Red Sox Nation.

And really, aren’t they the same thing?


Busting Balz: Are Americans More Polarized?

There have been any number of instances when a media story tempted me to break my self-imposed hiatus from the Presidential Power blog dating back to my last post in January. Each time, however, I’ve told myself to stay focused on writing the White House staff book.

Then Dan Balz wrote this this story in today’s Washington Post and here I am, blogging again. Balz’ thesis is a familiar one among journalists: that the roots of the current budget impasse can be traced back to a deeply divided American electorate.  Balz writes, “Some may rightly blame politicians in Washington for behaving badly, but in reality the clashes in the nation’s capital reflect conflicting attitudes and values held by politically active, rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats across the country. Add to that a faction of conservatives in the House who are determined to disrupt business as usual and the current stalemate in Congress becomes almost unavoidable. The bonds that once helped produce political consensus have gradually eroded, replaced by competing camps that live in parallel universes, have sharply divergent world views and express more distrust of opponents than they did decades ago.”

Now, to Balz’ credit, he sometimes seem to believe that this deepening polarization afflicts mainly activists in both parties.  Had he stated this more clearly, and stuck to this line of argument, I’d still be writing my book instead of this blog post.  Alas, he goes further to suggest most voters are increasingly polarized as well.  As evidence, he notes the increased incidence of straight party voting in national elections: “Over the past two decades, the percentage of self-identified Republicans and Democrats who support their party’s presidential nominee has ticked higher and higher. In the past three elections, according to American National Election Studies data … 89 or 90 percent of Republicans and Democrats backed their party’s nominees. Three decades ago, those percentages were considerably lower.  The clear implication is that voters are increasingly polarized along party lines.”  Balz finds a similar trend in voting in House and Senate elections.

Balz is correct that there has been a decline in cross-party voting. But, as Morris Fiorina has been arguing for some time (see here and here) this is not necessarily evidence that rank-and-file voters are growing more polarized.  Instead, it reflects what Fiorina calls “party sorting.” By this Fiorina means that a variety of trends (I will discuss these in a separate post) have produced national parties that are more ideologically homogeneous than they were even two decades ago.  Put another way, among elected officials we see a declining number of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans.  Significantly, that process of party sorting has occurred mainly among party activists; the rank and file voters, on the other hand, remain mostly clustered closer to the center of the ideological spectrum.   As evidence, note that the number of people who self-identify as Democrats/Independents/Republicans and liberals/moderates/conservatives has not changed much in the last three decades.  As a result, faced with two increasingly homogeneous albeit more ideologically extreme choices among parties, moderate voters have less incentive to split their vote. In Fiorina’s words, “[I]f all the Democratic candidates on the ticket are liberals, and all the Republican candidates are conservatives, there is much less reason to split your ticket or vote differently from election to election than if each party’s candidates hold a variety of positions.”

In short, the evidence suggests the reason for the increase in party line voting among the rank and file that Balz cites is not that voters are more polarized – it is that their choices are.

Longtime readers know I have been pounding this drum for some time, but apparently many journalists refuse to follow the beat. This is perhaps not surprising – journalists thrive on playing up controversy and discord because these topics are inherently more newsworthy. But it is not just journalists – some political scientists agree with the Balz thesis that Americans are increasingly polarized.  Accordingly, I want to spend the next few posts discussing the evidence on both sides of the argument.

Label this series: Busting Balz.

Obama’s Victory And The Power of Incumbency In The Modern Era

A reporter recently emailed asking me to comment on the following observation: “This is the first time in American history since Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe that the United States has elected three consecutive presidents to two terms (Clinton, Bush, Obama). I was wondering if you had any thoughts regarding why there has been a gap of almost 200 years between the first and second occurrence of this?”  Those who were in attendance on Election Night at the Karl Rove Crossroads Cafe heard me reference this fact in the form of a trivia question.

And that’s largely what I think this is: trivia.  As I told the reporter, I think there’s much less here than meets the eye. That is, if you view this historical oddity as an indication of just how hard it is for a president to win reelection, you are likely misreading history.  In fact, if you look at the so-called “modern” presidential era which scholars typically date to the post-FDR period, one is struck by the power of incumbency. Indeed, the more surprising fact is that there are incumbents who lost their bid for reelection in this era.  Let’s run down the list:

There have been a dozen presidents in the post-FDR era.  Of these, all but Kennedy had an opportunity to run for reelection.  Among the remaining 11, only Ford, Carter and Bush I failed in their reelection bid.  Ford’s effort fell just short which, in retrospect, was an impressive performance given the Watergate-induced backlash against all things Republican in 1976.  Bush I’s 1992 reelection bid was undoubtedly negatively affected by the presence of a strong third-party candidate in the person of Ross Perot, who won nearly 20% of the popular vote.  To this day Bush believes Perot cost him reelection.  That leaves only Carter among the dozen who lost a straight up bid for reelection under “normal” political circumstances.

Put another way, if we “adjust” our calculations to address the modern presidents who initially took office by non-electoral means, the “gap” between Monroe and Obama seems much less meaningful. So, we can consider Truman, who took office less than three months into FDR’s final term, as essentially a two-term president.  Similarly, the eight years under JFK-LBJ, and the eight years under Nixon-Ford, can also be viewed as two-term presidencies, since neither Kennedy nor Nixon were removed by electoral defeat. From this perspective, it turns out that from 1944 through 1976 we saw four consecutive two-term presidents.  If we step back one administration, FDR makes it five-plus.  Viewed in this way, the real question becomes: how did Carter lose?

My point is that it is difficult to defeat a sitting president in the modern era.  Yes, I understand that both Truman and LBJ opted not to run again in part because of their electoral vulnerability, but both had won election in their own right at least one time. By comparison, if we look at the pre-FDR sitting presidents who won their party’s nomination, by my back-of-the-envelope calculation almost half – eight of 18 – went down to defeat in their first bid for reelection.

Why is it so difficult to defeat an incumbent president in the modern era?  One likely reason is that the office is much more visible, so that presidents simply by virtue of carrying out their duties in a non-partisan way, such as providing disaster relief, can score political points. It may also be the case that in an era of nuclear weapons and other WMD’s, the presidents’ foreign policy role enhances their political standing. That is, as national security issues loom larger in voters’ calculations, the incumbent president’s foreign policy role is magnified. Moreover, despite the criticisms his comments entailed, Romney was right when noted – albeit perhaps not in the most diplomatic manner – that Presidents are relatively well situated to influence policies in ways that reward key voting blocs. All this is somewhat speculative, of course, but I am persuaded, in the absence of countervailing evidence, that modern incumbents generally run for reelection with advantages that their premodern forebears did not possess.

A note to readers: the audience for  this blog has expanded considerably in the last year and for that I am very appreciative.  Thus it is with some regret that I am announcing that I will be posting much less frequently during the next several months.  I have a book deadline, and added administrative duties, that are cutting into my blogging time.  This is not to say I will stop posting completely – I’m still going to respond to the most egregious punditry errors (“Obama Won A Mandate!”  “Most Voters Want Unified Democratic Control!”), particularly when political science provides some insight and/or countervailing evidence.  And I’ll try to keep up with the major events affecting the presidency, but perhaps not quite as regularly as in the past.  Of course, I encourage you to submit questions – I will try to get to them in due time.  And, as always, I thank you for reading, and for participating in what are almost always very interesting discussions – and for not turning this site into still another partisan-driven echo chamber.  Lord knows we have enough of those out there already.