The other day,Jack Balkin of Yale Law School posted an item on The Atlantic‘s website in which he argued that, if former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney is elected president of the United States a week from Tuesday, his administration will likely come with great cost to the Republican Party which he nominally leads. Professor Balkin links to the Amazon listings for two books by political scientist Stephen Skowronek (The Politics Presidents Make and Presidential Leadership in Political Time.) Professor Skowronek classifies US presidents by the relationship they and their parties have to each other and to what Professor Balkin summarizes as the “interests, assumptions, and ideologies that dominate public discussion.” Together, these interests, assumptions, and ideologies set the boundaries of the political “regime” of the period. Professor Skowronek asks two questions about each of the US presidents*: “Skowronek’s key insight is that a president’s ability to establish his political legitimacy depends on where he sits in “political time”: Is he allied with the dominant regime or opposed to it, and is the regime itself powerful or in decline?” Presidents who lead strong parties that oppose declining regimes can sweep those regimes away and implement sweeping new policies. Professor Skowronek’s label for the few presidents who have held and capitalized in this enviable position is “reconstructive president.” If the regime that takes shape under the administration of a reconstructive president continues to thrive after his time in office, his successors can be either “affiliated presidents,” who support the regime and try to extend it, or “preemptive presidents,” who oppose the regime and try to modify it. When the regime goes into terminal decline, affiliated presidents go down to political defeat, as “disjunctive presidents,” while preemptive presidents can attempt to join the list of reconstructive presidents.
Professor Balkin argues that the current regime in the USA emerged when the Reagan-Bush administration cut personal income taxes and increased defense spending on big-ticket weapons systems. These measures were intended to solve certain problems the USA faced at the beginning of the 1980s; the tax cuts did in fact precede an end to the “stagflation” that had plagued the 1970s, and the military buildup did in fact worry the Soviet Union. These measures, apparently successful as solutions to those particular problems, have been the foundation stones of national policy for nearly a third of a century. Thus, Professor Balkin classifies Ronald Reagan as a reconstructive president, the two George Bushes as affiliated presidents, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as preemptive presidents. Like observers well to his right, Professor Balkin has come to the conclusion that lower taxes and higher spending on big-ticket weapons systems have run their course. Our current economic woes are not an example of stagflation, and even if they were it is by no means certain that in an age of global capital further reductions in personal income tax could relieve them. Nor does the Soviet Union, or any other potential adversary against which the weapons systems that eat up most of our military budget would be useful, exists at present. Tied to a party that has become increasingly doctrinaire in its attachment to these anachronistic policies, a President Romney would be doomed to join the ranks of the disjunctive presidents. He might be comfortable in their company; the last two disjunctive presidents were Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, like Mr Romney businessmen who campaigned on their abilities as technocratic managers. Professor Balkin goes so far as to declare that “The next Jimmy Carter will be a Republican president — a Republican who, due to circumstances beyond his control, unwittingly presides over the dissolution of the Reagan coalition.”
I’m not altogether convinced that a Romney administration would necessarily end as the Hoover and Carter administrations ended, with a landslide defeat for the president after one term and a new American regime created by his successor. I suppose if I were a Democratic politician considering a bid for the presidency in 2016, I would find the idea irresistible, but it strikes me that an incumbent president does have some influence over his party. If it is so obvious that the policies that carried Ronald Reagan to reelection in 1984 are no longer applicable to the problems of our day, then a President Romney might not only see this himself, but might well be able to find powerful forces in the Republican Party that will support him in an effort to reorient the party towards some new agenda. He, not a Democratic successor of his, might then emerge as a reconstructive president who creates a new regime.
If Mr Romney is elected and rises to his historical moment in this way, I would suggest a parallel to the presidencies of William McKinley (1897-1901) and Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909.) Those presidents together enacted an agenda of territorial expansion, commercial regulation, and political centralization that marked a significant departure from main line of post-Civil War politics, and established the regime that Herbert Hoover was trying to preserve thirty years later. Surely we ought to would classify them as reconstructive presidents. Yet the regime they replaced had been created during the Civil War, when their fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln had played the role of reconstructive president. By this reckoning Democrat Grover Cleveland was at once a preemptive president ( 1885-1889 and 1893-1897) and a disjunctive president, opposing typical postbellum Republican policies of high tariffs and military pensions, and a disjunctive president, being the last to govern within the bounds set by the old regime. Barack Obama might follow President Cleveland in this regard, with such measures as his health insurance reform and his moderate stand on social issues qualifying him as a preemptive president while his warmaking and support for Republican-devised subsidies to the financial firms would place him in the line of post-Reagan presidents.
I should add that I am not at all optimistic that a new political regime founded by Mr Romney and his associates would be desirable. Given his platform, his background, and his associates, I suspect it would be pretty nearly intolerable, with taxes paid directly to the moneyed elite, frequent wars, and an end to civil liberties. In these ways, such a regime could fairly be labeled fascist. However, Professor Skowronek’s system focuses, not on what is desirable or undesirable, but on what is sustainable or unsustainable in a particular period of history. And I suspect that fascism of that sort might very well be sustainable for quite some time.
*No, not about how they would do in a mass knife fight to the death, unfortunately.