2016 Elections

Trump’s Personality Would Matter. Clinton’s Wouldn’t.

The Democrat is married to her party. The Republican is estranged from his. Why does that matter?

Party comes first.

Photographer: Yana Paskova/Getty Images

How would the presidential candidates differ in the way they behave in the White House? 

Scholars of the presidency don’t offer much for us to go on, and this isn’t just because Donald Trump is unlike any other candidate ever. We know, for example, that political instincts, coalition-building abilities and bargaining skills are important -- but it’s not clear how to compare Trump’s skills with Hillary Clinton’s. The many studies on how personality can help explain some of what presidents have done in office don’t allow us to reliably use a candidate’s visible traits during a campaign to predict his or her success. 

A more useful way to explain presidents’ actions is not based on their personalities or personal preferences but on their party. This “partisan presidency idea is how political scientist Richard Skinner and others have described the job starting with Ronald Reagan and continuing through Barack Obama. 

This notion doesn’t explain every choice these presidents made. For example, George W. Bush’s embrace of the No Child Left Behind education reform wasn’t dictated by the Republican Party. Events force many decisions. To pick the most obvious, after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, any president would have struck back against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. And when there are internal conflicts in a party, presidents sometimes have to choose among factions. 1  

Still, party has been a central organizing framework for recent presidents.

We could expect this to be true for Hillary Clinton. Her entire political life has been as a partisan Democrat. She worked for George McGovern in 1972 and as a House Democratic staffer; was long involved in the Children’s Defense Fund, a Democratic-aligned interest group; served as First Lady and as secretary of state in Democratic administrations; and was twice elected as a Democratic senator. 

Yes, she has surrounded herself with some long-term staffers who appear to be personally loyal to her, as opposed to being party officials, but many of them have backgrounds in Democratic politics. And she has consistently brought in new people who have experience working for other Democrats. 

If she is elected, Clinton will largely be a generic Democrat -- not very different from Barack Obama or from what Joe Biden might have been, had he run and been elected president. 

And Trump?

Even if we grant him a normal temperament and personality (this is just for the sake of argument) and ignore his lack of qualifications for the job, his estrangement from his own party would still likely mean that he would be nothing like a generic Republican president.

Instead, Trump would be a throwback to the personal presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, who, while very different, had little to constrain them in office. Their White House staffs were typically personally loyal to them, but had few connections with their parties. While one might suppose that would free them to work with anyone, Republican or Democrat, in practice it meant their decisions were often arbitrary and poorly connected to the governing coalitions that nominated and elected them. 

And when these presidents got in trouble (all presidents do at some point), party actors were less likely to stick with them, signaling to rank-and-file voters that there was no reason to remain loyal. 

Of course, not every partisan president has been successful (George W. Bush, for example), and one can make the case that John Kennedy was a successful personal president. 2  

But the exceptions don’t tilt the scale. Clinton -- like her or hate her, and despite all the personalized animosity directed at her rather than at her party -- would likely be a typical liberal Democratic president. Personal factors just haven’t been important for recent presidents, for strong institutional reasons. But for Trump? His personality and personal whims would be central to his presidency.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. To a large extent, however, those choices are constrained by the promises presidents had to make to win the nomination in the first place. 

  2. Although Bush may have failed in part because of long-term problems within the Republican Party that made governing difficult, the challenges have only become worse in the Trumpified party.  While personal presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter had their successes -- notably Johnson -- all three were terribly unpopular by the time they left office or, in Nixon's case, forced to resign.   

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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