Since the presidential race is well underway, it is perhaps timely to ask a question that almost no one ever seems to actually address in campaign coverage:
What, exactly, do presidents do?
You’d think the president’s job description would be front and center in any campaign coverage, as well as in any voter’s thoughts. After all, we are choosing someone to do a job, and in most interview procedures, hiring agents take the time to assess whether a given job candidate is right for a particular job. It’s hiring 101.
Unfortunately, far too many people believe that they know what it is presidents actually do. Or, put another way, lots of people have wrong ideas about what it is presidents actually do … which amounts to the same thing.
In popular imagination—especially in campaigns—we are beset by the notion that presidents are heroic figures leading their besotted nations to their promised lands. The marble men of history seem to teach us that strong, committed leaders who make speeches and direct armies can dictate policies that, in the end, will make the world a better place. If only we can pick the right person—insert your favorite inspirational president here—we can have the America we want and deserve: the shining city set on a hill.
(And yes: I keep saying “he,” and for at least two reasons: so far all US Presidents have been male, and the hero image is a profoundly gendered one, infinitely complicating women’s electoral chances for the office. I don’t endorse this. I just say it’s true.)
The thing is, this isn’t really what presidents do. The actual range of actions a president can take on any given day are severely constrained. Congress has power; interest groups have power; courts have power; established bureaucracies have power; established programs have power; economic and international conditions have power … and even the ultimate power of using nuclear weapons to blow up the world can only be used once, if at all. For all their speechifying and celebrity rock star status, presidents are, as Richard Neustadt long ago showed, relatively weak actors in the American political system.
So what is it that presidents really do? I think the job really comes to two things: setting a general policy tone for an administration, and then choosing people to administer agencies and programs on the president’s behalf.
Put another way, presidents delegate power to others who, they hope, will enact some piece of the president’s political agenda—preferably with some skill and to some effect. Then, if the president is smart, he (or she! someday!) reviews the officials to whom the president has delegated power, keeping high performing officials and removing poor ones.
That’s really about it.
You know what presidents don’t do? They don’t decide if evolution is real or not. They don’t decide whether America is a “godly” nation or not. They most definitely do not get to decide if a child says the Pledge of Allegiance before class or not.
But that’s what the Republicans seem to be focusing on today: who can be the most “religious” — within a very narrow understanding of “religious.”
Does faithful religiosity translate into a managerial skill set? Perhaps. But I wouldn’t count on it. At the end of this campaign season we may indeed find out which candidate God prefers. But will we find out whether or not the candidate can actually govern?
Since it’s going on today, a moment to reflect: does the Iowa straw poll matter? Does the winner “win” for real?
Spoiler alert: the answer is no.
YEAR Straw poll winner Caucus winner Republican nominee 1979 George HW Bush Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan 1987 Pat Robertson George H.W. Bush George H.W. Bush 1995 (tie) Bob Dole, Phil Gramm Bob Dole Bob Dole 1999 George W. Bush George W. Bush George W. Bush* 2007 Mike Huckabee Mike Huckabee John McCain
So, only twice since 1979 has the straw poll winner actually won either the Iowa caucus or the Republican nomination, and only once has the straw poll winner gone on to win the Presidency … and that (*) in the closest, oddest and most contested presidential election anyone currently alive has ever even imagined.
Arguably, losing the straw poll induces people to drop out, which shapes the election to some extent. But if a candidate is so weak that not winning the straw poll pushes him or het to drop out, that candidate was likely so weak they weren’t going to have much influence on the campaign in the first place.
So why doesn’t winning the straw poll matter? It’s not that hard to explain: think about who is likely to give up a Saturday to go pay to attend an event to register early support for one candidate or another? (Yes, you have to pay to vote in the straw poll.) Two types of people: 1) Intense partisans, who tend to be excited by ideologically extreme candidates (Robertson and Huckabee); and 2), people who are paid by the campaigns themselves, often bused in from out of state (which is what Bush did in 1999). It’s not even a vague indicator of anything except whether a campaign has money to throw around, or appeals to intense ideologues. Those things may matter, but they’re not definitive in a presidential election.
So why does the Iowa Republican Party run this? That’s easy: it’s a fund-raiser. And a pretty successful one, too.
So why does the media pay attention if this is an essentially meaningless event? Hey: it’s made-for-TV friendly, with faces and partisans and simple story lines with visuals of flag-draped railings. It’s hard to ignore … which, of course, is part of what’s wrong with the American political media today.
So you won’t see a lot—make that any—analysis of the Iowa straw poll results from me in the days going forward. And you shouldn’t read much from others unless you have a lot of time to kill and don’t care that it almost certainly won’t matter in the least come the actual Iowa caucuses next year.
This is a nice bit of analysis from The Monkey Cage. It links to research that looks at the question of how predictive of election outcomes polls are by how far out from the election we are. You can see the whole report here.
The upshot is: current polls likely mean little, except to the degree that they inform the dynamics of the pre-race: who is able to raise money, who is able to command media attention, and the like.
As I have pointed out before, if you want to know who is likely to win a party nomination for president, early polls can help a lot, at least for Republican candidates: early polls tend to be more predictive for Republicans when it comes to winning the nomination, and less predictive when it’s Democrats seeking the nomination. But for the general election, 300 days out is still a long, long way out.
Since we all sin, or at least screw up, human beings have developed elaborate rituals for letting sinners back into “good” society. Sometimes these rituals work; sometimes they don’t; but in any case we have created systems through which we can signal our recognition of the error of our ways and our desire to be let back in to polite society.
In the west, at least two practices seem central to any effort to overcome sin: confession—acknowledging error; and atonement—the making of wrong things right. These things may be central to all cultures’ practices of sin and forgiveness, of course, but I don’t know enough about other practices to make such a universalist claim. It is certainly true in my culture, in any case.
As I pointed out in last night’s blog post, Newt Gingrich effectively sinned against tea party dogma over the weekend when he had the temerity to suggest that the Ryan Plan for Medicare was a too-radical, misbegotten effort at right wing social engineering. And, as happens to sinners who challenge dogma, Gingrich faced the wrath of the keepers of the faith: Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, and FOX News, among others, all pounded Gingrich for his faith crime. The neoconservative editorialist Charles Krauthammer announced that Gingrich’s campaign is over, although it’s not at all clear that he gets to make that declaration.
It has, in other words, been a pretty rough 48 hours in Newt Gingrich’s political life.
Now, like a sinner who wants back in, Gingrich is confessing and atoning. As he confessed to FOX News’ Greta van Susteren, “When I make a mistake, and I’m going to on occasion, I’m going to share with the American people that was a mistake because that way we can have an honest conversation.” “I want to set a precedent for new kinds of presidential campaigns,” he continued: “I made a mistake and I called Paul Ryan today, who’s a very close personal friend, and I said that.”
I have sinned against you, he might as well have said.
He is also engaged in atonement exercises, meeting with and calling tea party leaders. It’s not hard to imagine that Gingrich is saying something to the effect of: “don’t worry. I won’t do it again.” His loyalty to dogma will no doubt be reconfirmed shortly.
There is, however, at least one aspect of Gingrich’s performance of the sin, confess and atone ritual that may undermine others’ sense of his sincerity—which is a problem since it is the community’s acceptance that confession and atonement are sincere that is central to a sinner’s chances of reemerging into “good” society. This aspect derives from the fact that he is still running a presidential campaign. Thus, interestingly, as he has confessed his sins and sought forgiveness for them, Gingrich has also said that “Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood, because I have said publicly those words were inaccurate and unfortunate.”
In other words, you can’t trust what I said then … so trust that I am being sincere when I apologize now and promise I won’t do it again.
No, no … today it’s not the infidelity, although that’s bad enough.
No, as my wife pointed out, today Newt Gingrich’s sin is? Having an opinion that doesn’t square perfectly with tea party dogma.
Gingrich’s sinful opinion, of course, is his notion that the Ryan Plan to overhaul Medicare with a voucher plan, all while protecting benefits for people over 55 and further cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans, is simply too radical. It is, as he put it on David Gregory’s Sunday morning show, right wing social engineering, and as such is no better than left wing social engineering. Ever the legislative incrementalist, Gingrich implied that there needs to be a middle way to deal with the United States’ looming budget and entitlements problems.
Notably, the Ryan plan was actually in political trouble before Gingrich made his comments. Whatever Ryan’s intentions were in exempting people over 55 from any pain and suffering in his “new Medicare,” senior citizens had largely turned against his proposal. Similarly, expanding budget deficits made Ryan’s claim that tax cuts would lead to economic growth suspect, especially given the vast amount of empirical data that demonstrates that after 30 years of such policies, lower taxes do not inevitably promote economic growth. There was, in other words, no political momentum behind Ryan’s plan.
From Gingrich’s point of view, then, the moment may well have seemed rife for an alternative. After all, the purpose of any primary campaign is to allow an array of candidates espousing a range of policy alternatives and employing a diversity of political styles to offer themselves to potential supporters for consideration. Voters choose candidates from this array (for a wide variety of reasons), and parties consequently end up with nominees.
Gingrich may well have expected this kind of politics as he made his point Sunday. After all, he is an experienced, established politician with a long history of deal making and an expansive, policy-oriented mind. He no doubt expected that moderates and political elites would rally to his position. He probably figured that he would emerge as a reasoned alternative to the tea party wing of the Republican Party. In one fell swoop, Newt Gingrich would be a leading candidate for the Republican nomination for President.
Whatever his expectations, however, what Gingrich got in response to his comment was a lesson in the way the right wing ideological outrage machine works to shape contemporary Republican politics. Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, and FOX News attacked him as a traitor to Republican principles. A citizen in Iowa called Gingrich an embarrassment to the party—on video, which is all that matters. He was, in other words, pilloried for transgressing the dogma of the Ryan plan.
I’m not a Newt Gingrich fan. There are lots of reasons I would prefer he not be elected President of the United States. But if he is driven from the race because he opposes … opposed? … the Ryan plan, then he is as much a victim of the conservative outrage machine as Shirley Sherrod was. Mind you, Gingrich has benefited from this machine’s workings in ways that the entirely innocent Shirley Sherrod never did. But he may well be its next—although surely not its last—victim.
If the tea party way is the only way, the Republican primary is going to be brutal. As is the Republican Party’s loss in November 2012.
If CNN, MSNBC, FOX and the other “news” channels report that Newt Gingrich will announce his presidential candidacy on Twitter and YouTube at a given time and on a given day, hasn’t Newt Gingrich already announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President? After all, his campaign had to tell the news sources …
A wonderful example of so much media coverage of politics today: the circular linkage orgy.
So Haley Barbour, the former Republican National Committee Chair who is currently Governor of Mississippi, has announced that he is pulling back on plans to run for President … which office he never announced he was running for in the first place.
Analysts will doubtless note that he was receiving limited support in the pre-election polls. Which is true. But it is quite a state of affairs when people announce they are pulling out of races that they never enter because, eight+ months before anyone votes for anything, they aren’t getting support.
Maybe Max Headroom was right: maybe we should just let the television networks run candidates and pick the one with the highest ratings at a pre-arranged time.
A useful summary of possible Republican presidential candidates by popularity/poll. Notably, the Republican leading in the polls in the Spring of the year before a presidential election tends to win the party’s nomination. I have a feeling that will not be true this time.
From Charles Blow, The New York Times, April 23, 2011
So Donald Trump has turned himself into a birther to try to establish his credentials before the tea partying, pro-family values Republican Party presidential primary electorate. To augment his claim, he has released what he alleges is his birth certificate, proving he is a US citizen. Except, it turns out what he released is not his birth certificate. I think we’ve seen this movie before.