The Divisive Presidency

Richard Skinner’s work on the partisan presidency has been getting some well-deserved attention in the last few days, most recently from Brendan Nyhan and then here from Hans Noel, who provides useful context about the development of parties and ideologies.

Richard’s research provides a terrific framework that’s been really helpful in making sense of the data I’ve gathered on how presidents interpret election results. The era he identifies as that of the partisan presidency coincides pretty closely with what I’ve termed the “age of mandate politics,” although the polarization/sorting of the party system isn’t the only contributing factor.

In his post, Hans points out that the partisan conflict that shapes presidents’ opportunities and limitations is “in sync with the ideological conflict.” The research in my book suggests that there’s been a systematic shift in how presidents invoke party and ideology in their post-election rhetoric. In the middle of the twentieth century, presidents would invoke the idea of a mandate for their parties – if their parties had, in fact, won big in some demonstrable way, or if they were addressing groups of fellow partisans. FDR and Eisenhower referred to their respective party platforms when talking about the elections of 1932 and 1952, which delivered both solid presidential victories and unified party government. When addressing a group of fellow Democrats at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, Truman talked about the Democratic Party platform as a factor in his 1948 victory.

In contrast, contemporary presidents have claimed victory for their policy positions even after elections that brought narrow victories or divided government. Even in more decisive contests, presidential communications about the meaning of the election have referred less to party labels and platforms, and more to issues and ideological commitments. Reagan and his aides talked about their “conservative” mandate. George W. Bush spoke about “the reasons I was elected” when promoting tax cuts in 2001 and Social Security privatization in 2005. Obama spoke in 2009 about theories of economic growth, noting on several occasions that conservative ideas about economic growth, like tax cuts, “had been tested, and had failed,” had been “rejected” by the electorate, and called them a “losing formula.” These comments were delivered in a variety of contexts, not just at partisan events (perhaps reflecting the fragmenting media environment).

Why does this shift from party to ideology matter? Parties – even ones that are ideologically sorted – are collective enterprises. They’re organizations and coalitions. Leading a party involves brokering among interests and distinct groups. Articulating an ideology does not. To the extent that presidential rhetoric shapes public expectations about what leaders will be able to accomplish, laying out an ideological agenda makes compromise even more difficult to achieve. As Hans points out, “Speaker Boehner has to placate a Tea Party faction that mostly differs with mainstream Republicans over how much they should compromise with Democrats.” When the president tells the nation that the election was a contest between highly distinct governing visions, it’s even harder for members of Congress to defend compromise to their constituents. When presidents cast themselves as the vessels of new political visions, they contribute to the idea that the right leader, with the right words and enough political will, can simply cut through the “mess in Washington” – i.e., the organized interests of the people of the United States, and the Constitutional checks and balances – in order to bring about wholesale change and costless problem-solving. (Nyhan has smartly labeled this the “green lantern theory of the presidency,” and president scholars like George Edwards and the late Richard Neustadt have long noted the gap between expectations and actual presidential capacity.)

In other words, the relationship between party and ideology has certainly shifted, as Hans’ scholarship shows. And the work on the presidency that Richard and I have both published suggests that this shift has in turn changed the relationship between the presidency and the political parties. But party and ideology are still analytically distinct. Furthermore, what presidents say and do isn’t just a function of the state of party politics. Presidents – and the people they employ to craft their communications – have choices they can make about how they present choices and priorities in politics. Their words may not have magical powers to change the political landscape, but they can provide clues about the ideas that shape it.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.