Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Party in the Presidency and Mitt Romney

Hey, I have a new article in the new Washington Monthly all about party networks, campaigns, and presidencies. Or, if you want the stuff that people other than myself are interested in: it's about how we know that Mitt Romney will govern as a mainstream Republican.

This comes out of something I've worked on for a while but never turned into a political science publication (there's a conference paper version. Make that two conference paper versions). It's about the partisan evolution of senior White House staff and other leaders within the Executive Office of the Presidency -- what some call the "Presidential Branch" of the US government. So here's some background.

First of all, remember that all of this only goes back to (more or less) Truman. Before Truman, there's hardly any White House staff; no National Security Council; no Council of Economic Advisers; no White House offices, period. The Bureau of the Budget, as it was then called, doesn't move from Treasury to the Exec Office of the Presidency until 1939 (becoming OMB under Nixon). It's a huge change in the US political system; it's a shift from a president to a presidency composed of hundreds and hundreds of people.

Within that, there's been a big change from a personal presidency to a partisan one. Under JFK, LBJ, and RMN, many if not most of the senior White House staff were people who had longstanding personal ties to the president, but little if any experience within party politics.* That starts changing, oddly enough, with Jimmy Carter; it turns out that while Carter famously brought many Georgians with him, there were actually a few more people with some sort of party ties in the Carter WH, at least among the people I looked at, than there were for Nixon. That increases for Reagan, and by the time George H.W. Bush is president his staff is dominated by people who have party ties.

I don't have data on campaigns, as opposed to Presidential Branches, going all the way back, although the great Casey Dominguez and I once wrote an article about the Gore and Bush campaigns from 2000.

So for the WaMo I looked at the Romney campaign. What I found was sort of twofold. The main story is definitely more of the same: many of the Romney people are relatively new to working for him. But there is a bit of a hint of a story that Romney has a somewhat higher concentration of personal loyalists than some recent presidents. Now, I don't want to make much out of this -- and I didn't in the WaMo story -- because, among other things, I'm really not sure how it works across campaigns, as opposed to presidencies. That is, for governing purposes we want to know how a Romney White House would compare to the Obama, Bush, or Clinton White Houses, not how the Romney campaign compares with those White Houses. And I don't have data on most of the other campaigns. But just as a general impression that could easily be wrong, I do have a sense that there's a bit more personal attachment to Romney than what you would have found in some previous campaigns, particularly Obama, Clinton, and George H.W. Bush.

Now, for the most part, the switch to partisan presidencies is structural, not personal. It's not as if Barack Obama is an especially partisan person; it's that the system he's in pushes presidents to be partisan and their administrations to be closely integrated with their party by recruiting mainly from their party network. Indeed, the incentives for presidents are almost certainly to go personal, because politicians generally have incentives to avoid constraints -- but, fortunately for democracy, they usually can't do that. Still, presumably there's some ability to affect things at the margins, and it's possible that a Romney White House could be somewhat less partisan and more personal than some other recent ones. It certainly won't be like Nixon or Kennedy, though.

Would that change policy outcomes? It's hard to say. Generally, it's not easy to tie specific policy choices (say, from presidents) to specific personnel choices. I think generally I'd advise thinking of it in terms, as I said, of constraints; the more a president "must" choose from party-approved people to staff an administration, the more the president will wind up sticking to orthodox party positions (and, to be sure, the better his ability to work with party loyalists outside of the White House).

Anyway, I think the piece came out okay, so I'll link to it again and invite you to check it out.

*I think that's true of LBJ, but my data are actually only from presidents who reached that office after first being nominated by their party, so I haven't actually examined him, Truman, or Ford systematically, although everything I do know of LBJ suggests he fits right in.


  1. But there's still a distinction between White House staff and Executive Office of the President, no? With the EOP being the more policy oriented of the two, and the White House being the more political?

  2. So when Clinton came into DC in 1993, the Democrats had been out of office for 12 years. The 4 years when they had had anyone in the White House, Carter's period, had been pretty well demonized. Did Clinton hire any of Carter's old staff? I remember back then there was a lot of criticism - lord, how Clinton was criticized - for bringing in so many people from Little Rock.

    The story in 2008, of course, was that Obama brought a significant number of old Clinton staffers, as well as keeping a few Bush II guys around, like the SecDef.

    Do you have any graphs that could give us a visual on the proportion of former White House, local DC, and personal hires over the last few administrations?


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