Saturday, March 8, 2008

Does Experience Matter? What does Skowronek think?

My students don't know it yet, but they will have to read this blog and comment on the post once they read Yale University political scientist Stephen Skowronek's influencial essay in Studies in American Political Development. The March 10th edition of Time Magazine has two fascinating articles on the relationship between experience and presidential success (see here and here). Unfortunately, the fantastic chart outlining the political experience each president had before achieving the Oval Office is not available online (I'm going to try and scan it and post it soon).

To quote from the first article ("Does Experience Matter in a President"): "At the same time, the value that voters place on resume is constantly shifting. James A. Baker III is an authority on this. In 1980, he managed the campaign of his well-credentialed friend George H.W. Bush, under the slogan 'A President we won't have to train.' But the public mood was sour on Washington, and victory went to an outsider, Ronald Reagan, who had never served in Washington."

How does this relate to Skowronek? Skowronek emphasizes that presidential success is less a function of individual skills and more a function of a president's place in historical and political time. In other words, great presidents don't make history but rather history makes great presidents.

The presidents with the most opportunity to transform the political landscape and implement a new governing regime, according to Skowronek, are the reconstructive presidents. Looking at the Time experience chart, what do all but one of the reconstructive presidents share? Very little previous political experience. Skowronek's reconstructive presidents are Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan. Jefferson had the most governmental experience: 27 years. But the others had only 5, 10, 6, and 8 years respectively. That is to say that in periods of great political transformation, when the public wants to radically alter the path away from a crumbling regime, they turn to political outsiders.

What about the failed presidents, the disjunctive presidents that precede a reconstructive president? They are John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter. The years of public service of each prior to obtaining the presidency was 24, 30, 35, 8, and 8. The election of Jefferson is the only time a reconstructive president had more prior political experience than man leaving office.

Another way to look at this is to look at the candidate rejected during the moment when politics shifted from disjunction to reconstruction. And in every case, less experience won out if we count the time served as president. Compare the following:

Adams' 28 years to Jefferson's 27.
JQA's 34 to Jackson's 5.
Stephen Douglas' 20 odd years to Lincoln's 10.
Hoover's 12 to FDR's 6.
Carter's 12 to Reagan's 8.

Obama's campaign is prefaced on the politics of transformation and change. And he's a fresh face with comparatively little political experience. Should he win election, is possible that we may witness one of those rare moments in political time where great political change is possible and, more importantly, the nature of the political debate shifts in such away that future politicians for a number of years will have to respond to that shift? It would also mark one of the shortest tenures of a dominant political regime (the Reagan conservative regime) in American political history. It would also mean that George W. Bush would become the first two term disjunctive president--a president who was in office while the public roundly rejected the set of ideas upon which the president was elected and upon which a existing regime is predicated.

As a political scientist and a fan of Skowronek's work, I find this election to be absolutely fascinating.

And by the way, if Obama is elected president, that's 10 years of political experience compared to George W. Bush's 14.


Aman said...

Great post. I just read this book and discussed it with some of my classmates, and we came up with the same possibility (Bush as both an articulative and disjunctive president). If he is purely articulative, we would expect McCain, for all his virtues, to be remembered as one of the worst presidents ever.

Hillary, it seems, would be a poorly-timed pre-emptionist, in that she doesn't realize/acknowledge the weakness of the current regime. That may be a historical first as well (though the chances of her getting elected appear dubious...)

Anfisa said...

Skowronek is certainly an interesting puzzle-man. His biggest advantage is that he is able to reverse minds and settled conceptions (such as importance of experience). He dares to question old truths and suggest new ones. He made all of us think and rethink, consider and reconsider during last two weeks of class. I would still keep some respect for experience in my own prospective, but I would love to learn this attitude of questioning everything no matter how reliable the source is. For it seems to be the only way to avoid mistakes of groupthink causing biggest problems in the society. Talking about you, Professor Parker, I really like your writing style. You try to stay objective as much as possible without trying to push a reader to any side of the playground. It encourages me personally to read more of your writings without having fear of being politically biased.



Matthew N. Paine said...

I have read Skowronek's piece on this a couple of times now. It is great at classifying past presidents. Unfortunately it leaves us guessing on the course of future presidents. As you stated, Bush would be the only disjunctive president that served two terms. But this only applies if Obama or Clinton win. If McCain wins in November, Bush would become an articulate President. Let's pretend Obama wins; does that make him a reconstructive president? Only if he is followed by an articulate president such as his potential Vice-President Hillary Clinton. If Obama is succeeded by a republican such as Romney, Obama would become a pre-emptive President and Romney would continue to articulate the regime previously articulated by Bush.

Skowronek is right on with his classification, I just wish it allowed more predictability!