At best, he would be hamstrung by the conflicting demands of a radicalized party. At worst, he would wreck the Reagan coalition.
What kind of president would Mitt Romney be? And what should we expect from Barack Obama's second term? To answer these questions, I'll draw on the work of Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek, who has argued that presidents' fortunes depend on how they establish their political legitimacy in the particular circumstances under which which they assume power. In this essay, I'll discuss the prospects for a Romney presidency; in the next, I'll discuss the second term of an Obama presidency.
Reconstruction or Disjunction?
When new presidents take office, they face not only the country's existing domestic and international problems but also the political regime created by their predecessors. That regime consists of the interests, assumptions, and ideologies that dominate public discussion, and the relative strength of the parties' electoral coalitions. Our current political regime emerged in the wake of Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, and it has continued even through the Democratic presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It is politically conservative and skeptical of government, at least in contrast to the New Deal/civil-rights regime that preceded it. And the Republicans have been the dominant party.
Skowronek's key insight is that a president's ability to establish his political legitimacy depends on where he sits in "political time": Is he allied with the dominant regime or opposed to it, and is the regime itself powerful or in decline?
For example, Lyndon Johnson was allied with the Democrats' New Deal regime, while Richard Nixon -- the second Republican elected after FDR -- was opposed to it. And the regime itself can either be resilient or vulnerable. For example, Harry Truman became president when the New Deal regime was robust, while Jimmy Carter took office when it was on its last legs.
A president who has the good luck to run in opposition to a political regime that is falling apart is in the best possible position politically. He can sweep away the old and begin a new regime with a new set of political assumptions. Such "reconstructive" presidents seize the opportunity provided by being in the right place at the right political time; they create a new political reality that their successors inhabit. Franklin Roosevelt was able to blame Herbert Hoover and Republican ideology for the country's predicament during the Great Depression, just as Ronald Reagan blamed Jimmy Carter and the Democrats during the economic difficulties of the late 1970s. Reconstructive leaders -- Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan -- are generally regarded both as pivotal in American history and among the country's most successful presidents.
Conversely, the unluckiest presidents -- like Hoover and Carter -- are those with the misfortune to be associated with a political regime in rapid decline. Skowronek calls these presidents "disjunctive," because they cannot hold their party's factions together, and things fall apart. These presidents are usually judged failures, and they place their successors in the best possible position to pick up the pieces and reconstruct politics in a new way.
The next Jimmy Carter will be a Republican president -- a Republican who, due to circumstances beyond his control, unwittingly presides over the dissolution of the Reagan coalition.
What Skowronek calls "affiliated" presidents take office allied with a regime that is still relatively strong. George H.W. Bush is a recent example. Affiliated presidents can be quite successful, but their political opportunities are strongly shaped by the interests and ideology of the dominant regime. Ultimately their political legitimacy depends on their ability to meet new challenges and innovate in ways that do not offend party orthodoxy. Lyndon Johnson, for example, sought to complete Roosevelt's New Deal in his Great Society programs. George H.W. Bush's presidency was widely regarded as Ronald Reagan's third term. But when Bush raised taxes, he faced challenges within his own party for violating Republican ideology.
The last group of presidents is the most interesting: They take office opposed to a still robust political regime. Skowronek calls them "preemptive" presidents, because they must find a "third way" to establish their legitimacy and forestall opposition. Bill Clinton, the first Democrat elected after Reagan, is a recent example. Preemptive presidents can achieve a great deal if they understand that they face strong political headwinds and must always trim their sails. They can only survive by appearing moderate, pragmatic, and non-ideological, and by finding ways to borrow ideas from their political opponents. It was Clinton, after all, who announced that "the era of big government is over," and who balanced the federal budget, reformed the welfare system, and continually triangulated in order to maintain his political fortunes. (Barack Obama, as I'll discuss, could fall into this category or could become a reconstructive president.)
The Last of the Reaganites
If Mitt Romney is elected, he will be the fourth Republican president in the Reagan regime. That regime is no longer in its glory days. Demographic shifts have weakened the Republican electoral coalition, while Republican politicians have grown increasingly radical and ideological. At best, Romney will be an affiliated president attempting to revive the Republican brand after it has been badly tarnished by George W. Bush; at worst, he will be a disjunctive president, unable to keep his party's factions together, and presiding over the end of the Reagan coalition.
Throughout his career, Romney has presented himself as a pragmatic, data-driven, hands-on problem-solver. In this respect he resembles our two last disjunctive presidents, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Yet in order to secure his party's nomination, Romney has had to twist his positions to conform to the most radical demands of the Republican base.
Part of Romney's problem is that the Republican Party's policy solutions seem -- at least outside the ranks of the faithful -- increasingly ideological and out of touch. No matter what conditions the nation faces, the Republican prescription is to lower taxes, increase defense spending, and weaken the social safety net. These ideas may have made sense in the 1980s. But by 2012, they seem as irrelevant as the Democratic Party's arguments must have seemed to many Americans in 1979.
Romney has been vague about his policy solutions because he rightly surmises that many of them will be quite unpopular. Yet once he becomes president, he will be forced to promote ideological commitments that are increasingly discredited with the public or risk losing political support within his own party. Romney, like Carter and Hoover, has argued that he will be an excellent administrator who will bring special problem-solving skills to the White House. But technocratic expertise is a tenuous strategy for maintaining political legitimacy, especially when a president must make unpopular decisions. Nor will it be enough to satisfy his base.
Movement conservatives have pushed Romney to take extreme positions throughout the 2012 campaign; they won't stop once he becomes president. As Grover Norquist explained in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee, "We are not auditioning for a fearless leader. We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget .... We just need a president to sign this stuff." If Romney doesn't do as he's told, he will be in the same predicament as Jimmy Carter, who entered office with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and yet found himself unable to move a domestic agenda because of intraparty bickering.