Why the Next President Will Disappoint You, Too
The Upshot's Brendan Nyhan kicked off an interesting discussion with an excellent item about how unrealistic expectations plague modern presidents. He points out that in the age of the partisan presidency, expectations that any occupant of the White House will transcend divisions are particularly inappropriate. That’s right. The partisan presidency is structural, created by the overall strength of the Democratic and Republican parties. No single president could bring us back to the more personal presidencies of Richard Nixon or John F. Kennedy.
So why do presidents keep promising to transcend partisanship? Indeed, Julia Azari finds that explicit claims by presidents to have a mandate from their party have increasingly given way to claims that mandates are derived from ideology or specific issues. While this reflects the ideological surge that Hans Noel details, it seems strange that we now have partisan presidents who are shy about invoking party.
The explanation could be two-fold:
First, although parties are much stronger than they were at their nadir in the middle of the 20th century, their ability to appeal on the levels of symbolism, ritual and rhetoric haven't revived. Formal party organizations thrive, and informal party networks are dense and vibrant; campaigns employ party resources and then elected politicians hire party governing professionals; party-aligned media threatens to displace the old "neutral" media as a primary source of information. And yet no new party rituals or symbols have evolved with those other types of party strength. What's the Republican Party song? What special day do Democrats celebrate? Yes, we still have donkeys and elephants, but I don't think they resonate. About the only development is the adoption of red and blue as party colors (it only goes back to November 2000). I suppose Ronald Reagan worship by Republicans might also count, though that’s usually either expressed as ideological or national pride, not party pride. Meanwhile, many extremely partisan voices claim they are independent liberals or conservatives. For whatever reason, old-school Progressive anti-party rhetoric has prevailed even though parties as institutions have never been stronger.
Then there is the fact that for presidents and presidential candidates, a particular strain of Progressive rhetoric has obvious appeal: Woodrow Wilson’s claim to speak for, in the sense of channeling the voices of, the American people. Wilson and presidents since have used that kind of rhetoric against Congress in particular, contrasting the (supposedly) particularized, interest-based orientation of legislators with the (supposedly) universal authority of the vessel of The People.
One can understand why presidents are drawn to that kind of rhetoric it. It’s one thing for a president to say that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell should do what Democrats want; it’s another to say that McConnell should do what the American people want. And presidents, who really do campaign up and down the nation, may genuinely feel they are connected to “the nation” in a way that McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid or House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi aren’t. The claim is complete nonsense, and hasn’t much helped presidents who make it (just ask Jimmy Carter, who perhaps used it more than any other modern president), but that hasn't made it go away.
The U.S. is a nation of strong political parties that has, alas, accepted foolish anti-party ideas. There's nothing much anyone can do about it – nor is there any incentive for most party leaders to even try.
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