Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Power of the Presidency is the Power to Persuade--Really?

In 1960, Richard Neustadt penned the seminal study of the American Presidency: Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. The book really lay the cornerstone for the behavioral revolution in presidential studies and political scientists still assign the book to undergraduate students. In fact, I'm teaching it right now and re-reading portions as I prepare for class discussion today.

And, as I do my prep, I wonder how useful the book is today in an era of polarized political parties.

Neustadt's main argument is that, in a government with separate institutions sharing powers, the chief power of the president is the power to persuade. He claims that if the president has to resort to his formal powers to achieve his objectives, he's already failed and is likely to pay a high price that will further undermine his persuasive capital in future endeavors. To be effective, a president must husband his prestige among the Washington elite and convince other political players that their interests are aligned with the presidents.

Fundamentally, the political landscape has changed tremendously since Neustadt wrote the book. As well-documented elsewhere, the 1960s was an unusual moment in political time when the parties were relatively heterogeneous ideologically and members of Congress represented diverse and competitive congressional districts. Presidents could effectively marshal public opinion with the bully pulpit because the pulpit that mattered was the Washington press corps, and there were only a few television networks to command the attention of the American people.

Oh, how the times have changed.

The media elite no longer have the sway or swagger they once did. Traditional media empires are struggling to stay alive. As fewer people read them, newspapers are folding and consolidating. People are increasingly aligning their political beliefs with the blogs they read and the newspapers they subscribe to. And members of Congress are less trapped in the bubble of the Washington establishment than ever. They spend more than half the time at home in their congressional districts, and very rarely mingle across party lines. Members of Congress depend even less on the president to win elections and hold their seats. In ideologically polarized districts, the elections that matter are primaries and not the generals; giving into a president and compromising draws grumbles from the party base and ever more successful primary challengers who are ever more extreme. Just ask Dick Lugar and Bob Bennett the price of appearing too willing to go along with the other party. Here in Montana, Republican Steve Daines has received his fair share of gripes from members of his own party when he voted to re-open government. One candidate, Champ Edmunds, is reconsidering his decision to switch to the House race and may opt to challenge Daines in the primary once Daines makes his widely anticipated Senate campaign official.

Neustadt wrote that "the essence of a President's persuasive task, with congressmen and everybody else, is to induce them to believe that what he wants of them is what their own appraisal of their own responsibilities requires them to do in their interest, not his" (p. 40). That might have been possible in 1960. But in 2013? A nigh impossible task. Consider the healthcare debate and debacle. Not a single Republican member of Congress voted for the Affordable Care Act. In fact, Republicans want to actively repeal the law and, as I read this morning in the National Journal, Republican legislators have placed numerous obstacles in states with the express objective to make the law unworkable. How can the president exercise persuasion  when the objectives of the two parties is at cross-purposes?

And the President is not blameless. Although a grand show was made to appear inclusive during the development of ACA, the president knew--ultimately--that he had enough votes in both chambers to push through legislation without Republican involvement and input. In fact, the final piece of ACA was implemented using fast track reconciliation procedures--to the dismay of many Republican legislators.

How can the president--or anyone--be persuasive in an environment when the bargaining tool kit has been left bare? The president has no electoral mandate--he won reelection in a tight contest. The president has no congressional coattails. The president can't campaign in congressional districts where a Republican member of Congress is cross-pressured--hardly any exist. The president can't even campaign in districts where Democrats are moderate or conservative because that might endanger their reelection. The president can't lubricate the legislative process with earmarks--those have become toxic in this political environment and have been eliminated in the House. The president can't marshal the public's attention in a fragmented, narrowcasted media environment. Worse, neither side can attend even to the simplest  functions of government without using the opportunity to gain political leverage. The debt crisis and government shutdown are a case in point. No bargaining occurred and that was never the point. It was about bludgeoning each side into submission while satisfying the base of each party to raise campaign cash. No wonder no one escaped unscathed from the sorry escapade.

Neustadt is right on one point. When the president fails to persuade and relies on his formal powers, he admits failure and pays a hefty political price. The problem is the failure to persuade is not the president's failure alone today. It is a failure of the political system which has, for all intents and purposes, made it impossible for institutions sharing power to bargain. Instead, we have institutions hording power. The result is dysfunction and an increasingly frustrated American public. Will that frustration lead to some grand swell up from the masses for political change? We can only hope, but that hope belies political realities.

2 comments:

Greg Strandberg said...

Well, c'mon, when was the last time we had a president able to persuade more than half the country to vote?

Think back to that 1980s Roman Polanski movie, Frantic. Harrison Ford tries to convince the French police of how utterly-average and inconsequential they are by saying "we don't even vote anymore."

And why should they? No one's persuaded me on how my life's going to be better with a (D) or (R) in there. I just figure it'll be worse.

Most feel the same way, and until people say fuck it and start speaking their minds a-la Howard Beal then we'll continue to see the same backward, incompetent, and cute government that we've got.

(And probably one of the reason's you've got few blog comments is because you make people fill out a captcha. What are you trying to protect yourself from, spammers that don't even notice you?)

Greg Strandberg said...

Moderation, that's why.

I guess this blog has the same aura of fear as much the rest of this country.