Political scientists have tended to view the Modern Presidency as the enemy of strong parties. Through an “objective” media, presidents appeal directly to voters, over the heads of party leaders, seeking a non-partisan image. They build ad hoc coalitions of support in Congress without regard to party lines. They preside over an executive branch staffed by non-partisan experts, more interested in policy than politics. Presidents show little interest in their party’s performance in down-ballot races, let along its long-term fate.
All of these propositions held true for presidents of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, especially Eisenhower, Johnson and Carter. But since 1980, we have seen the rise of a new kind of presidency – a Partisan Presidency.
The following statements apply to the last four presidents, but most especially to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush:· “Partisan Presidents” have polarized the electorate along partisan lines to an extent unimaginable a generation ago, experiencing an “approval gap” of 40 points or more. (The “approval gap” is the difference between the approval given to a president by his partisans, as opposed to that given by members of the other party. Relatively few members of the other party have voted for them.· (Even Reagan's 1984 performance, winning 1/4 of all Democrats, was well below Nixon's carrying 1 in 3 Democrats in 1972. In no subsequent presidential election has any presidential candidate carried a comparable percentage of cross-partisans).
“Partisan Presidents” have received overwhelming support in Congress from their party. More notably, they have confronted strong – sometimes near-unanimous – opposition from the other party. They have often relied heavily on their party’s leadership to deliver votes on Capitol Hill, and they have been unable to enjoy the cozy relationship that earlier presidents had with the opposition, e.g. Eisenhower and the Democrats. Even a president disposed to such a relationship – George H.W. Bush – was unable to have one.
“Partisan Presidents” have sought to put a stronger partisan imprint upon the executive branch, centralizing personnel decisions, and favoring ideological loyalists over career civil servants or non-partisan experts. It’s hard to imagine presidents less interested in “objective,” non-ideological notions of “good public policy” than Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.·
“Partisan Presidents,” particularly Reagan and George W. Bush, have actively campaigned for their party’s candidates and sought to use the national party committees as tools of governance. (Compare to Eisenhower’s apathy towards the GOP, or Johnson’s and Nixon’s distrust of their national party committees). George W. Bush has famously recruited strong candidates for competitive Senate races (and "de-cruited" weak ones). Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush have all shown an interest in their party’s long-term fortunes that escaped, say, Jimmy Carter.·
George W. Bush, our most recent “Partisan President,” has shown little interest in wooing the conventional, “objective,” media. Instead he has sought to get his message out through arguably more partisan outlets – Fox News, conservative talk radio, the “Christian” media.
We need to move beyond out-dated notions of presidents rising above party politics and instead understand presidents who are passionately engaged in them, and seek to use their parties as tools of governance.