Politico asked if Republicans need to cut their ties to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh? I answered the question, but not quite directly.
My regular fans (assuming I have any) know that I am quite taken with Steve Skowronek’s schema of the presidency.
One of his observations is that dominant political orders arise when the previous order is beholden to its various constituencies and can no longer take the actions needed to govern. Reagan established a new political order when the Democrats, in great part because of their commitments to their primary constituencies, could not effectively address the nation’s fundamental problems.
Now, decades later, the same is happening to the Republicans. Reagan’s rhetoric of cutting taxes and shrinking government resonated when top tax rates were 70 percent and the Democratic party shaped by FDR and LBJ had a reflexive response to every social problem of enacting a giant government program.
Three decades later, with Republicans effectively shaping the national political discourse, they are trapped by the weight of their history. Reagan did thus and such, so key constituencies of the party expect to continue on that course. But those responses, so necessary in the 1980s are less salient today. Smart Republicans want more flexibility. In the 1980s Reagan articulated messages of morality and personal responsibility that many welcomed. (Important note: That Reagan articulated messages of morality is not to imply that Democrats were in any way personally immoral. Personal weakness knows no party. Rather Reagan was able to discuss these issues in a manner that reached many Americans.) Now, decades later this message has become shrill, preachy, and at times downright offensive – the American people seem to have had about enough of it and it offers little guidance to the real problems faced by the American people.
But important components of the Republican party will insist on this, their own constituencies and livelihoods depend on them – and they believe in these values. It will be hard to distance the party from their own stalwarts.
Skowronek observes that after a dominant political order collapses, the losing party slowly learns its lessons and becomes the party of flexibility and maneuver because without those attributes they will be shut out from power. In a world shaped by Reagan, Bill Clinton became a great Republican president who pushed for a major free trade treaty, balanced the budget, and initiated welfare reform. But that only happened after nearly a decade in the wilderness and a series of devastating defeats.
That is what I wrote, now a few additional thoughts. First, I don’t think Obama is the transformational president, I believe he is in the category of Clinton, what Skowronek calls a pre-emotive President. The Republican order may have one last gasp. They still have control over the House and did manage to get 48% of the popular vote. But their next President will face impossible demands from his own constituencies and be, effectively a Republican Jimmy Carter. (This will be followed by an order establishing Democratic President – but I am far from ready to predict the details.)
Bigger then that is the question overshadowing Presidential studies: the man or the moment? So much of what we assert as Presidential leadership is a decision made that was incredibly constrained by political realities. Every President has a few specific programs that are “theirs.”. Carter seized on the Panama Canal Treaty and Middle East Peace as the foreign policy centerpieces of his administration. But in 1981 nearly any Republican President would have cut taxes. In the 1990s, facing a hostile Congress any Democratic President would have played defense and focused on small initiatives rather then big government programs.