Professor: Bush Is an 'Orthodox Innovator'

Host Renee Montagne talks with Yale professor of political science Stephen Skowronek about President Bush's tendency to take his orthodoxy from predecessor Ronald Reagan.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One political science professor from Yale has a name for presidents who possess Mr. Bush's determination to stay the course. Stephen Skowronek calls them orthodox innovators. These presidents subscribe to the governing philosophy of a president who towers above all others historically, such as Abraham Lincoln, and then apply that philosophy from another time to new and different circumstances. In the case of George W. Bush, the orthodoxy would be that of Ronald Reagan and his belief in cutting taxes, conducting an aggressive foreign policy and following a social policy that suits religious and social conservatives. Stephen Skowronek joins us from Yale University.

Hello.

Professor STEPHEN SKOWRONEK (Yale University): Hello.

MONTAGNE: President Bush takes his orthodoxy from Ronald Reagan, but he's not the first to take his orthodoxy from a previous president.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Oh, not at all. The orthodox innovator is a recurrent type that we see played out repeatedly in American political history. The last great orthodox innovator, I think, was Lyndon Johnson, who wanted to take the New Deal liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt to a Great Society. We saw it earlier in Theodore Roosevelt, who wanted to take the bloody shirt of civil war and redeem that in a new nationalism. We saw it even earlier than that in the presidency of James Polk, who wanted to take the orthodoxy of Andrew Jackson to a program of Manifest Destiny. This is a recurrent theme in American political history.

MONTAGNE: When such a president comes along, what are the strengths of that position?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Well, the principal strength, I think, even beyond the majorities that they might claim at election time, is simply the clarity of the agenda that these presidents bring with them to power. They're affiliated with a coalition that's been on the offensive in American national politics for many years when they get to power. So the orthodox innovator is the faithful son, charged finally to implement the agenda, to deliver the product, to secure the program to get the job done.

MONTAGNE: You have written that orthodox innovators, to succeed, they need to control events rather than dealing with events as they come along. Give us an example of that.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Well, these presidents, since they have a program, they come to power with a program, with a formula to implement, they need to press events into the service of enactment of that program. This president in particular has had a series of events that haven't really jived that well with the program that's to be implemented. So you press the contested election of 2000 into a mold where you can continue on the program. Then the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The immediate response to Afghanistan is clear, but then they press the events into a war that will redeem the promises or the expectations of the neoconservative wing. With Katrina, another unexpected event intrudes upon the program, and this one, I think, has been particularly difficult to press into service of the program. It exposes the need for government. It exposes the underside of poverty. So I think sort of events have caught up with the administration.

MONTAGNE: By comparison to what, a president and maybe one of the model presidents who responds to events?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Well, remember Lincoln's famous line: I confess plainly that I have not controlled events but that events have controlled me. That's a luxury that's denied to a president who comes to power to implement a formula to fulfill a definition or a program. Orthodox innovators are not pragmatists. They're not experimenters. They're fully committed up front, and that is both the source of their strength and ultimately, I think, the source of their weakness, because you can only orchestrate events for so long.

MONTAGNE: You've written that orthodox innovator presidents often do well for a while but then the presidencies tend to fall apart, and one big reason is they can't hang on to their orthodox base.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Right. The political authority of these presidents really rests on the full-throated support of the faithful. And the characteristic problem for these presidents is the charge of betrayal. This is what Lyndon Johnson referred to as the Bobby problem, the fear that Bobby Kennedy, who was arguably of equal national stature to speak for what the meaning of the faith was, what liberal orthodoxy meant, that Kennedy might break with Johnson. These presidents need to be the spokesmen for the faithful, and when the faithful begin to divide up, when the faithful reject the president's rendition of the faith, these presidencies tend to collapse very quickly.

MONTAGNE: Would the brouhaha over Harriet Miers on the part of the social conservatives and the right fit into this pattern?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Well, there's all sorts of signs of the characteristic breakdown of a presidency of orthodox innovation. I don't think we're quite there yet. In fact, I think this president has been quite remarkable. Orthodox innovators, at least as I count them, very seldom are re-elected to second terms. But we do see these kind of pent-up frustrations, the sign of failure to deliver on expectations, the failure to deliver the orthodoxy of the Social Security plan, the nomination of Harriet Miers, a disappointment. So you do see these kind of tensions building. I don't think we've seen actually leading figures. We haven't seen the Bobby Kennedy of the Republican Party come out and break with the administration. So I don't think we're quite there yet. Today we don't really see, either in the Democratic Party or outside of the Democratic Party, the makings of a new movement that will exploit the weaknesses in this dominant coalition and take American politics into a new era and to a different era, not just the return of the old liberalism.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Stephen Skowronek is a professor of political and social science at Yale University and the author of the book "The Politics Presidents Make." His article on the Bush presidency will be published in the December issue of Perspectives on Politics.

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