Putting the Bush Presidency into Historic Perspective Yale Professor Stephen Skowronek says there have been presidents like George W. Bush before -- he calls them orthodox innovators. But then things tend to go wrong. Professor Skowronek and author James Mann take a historical look at the Bush presidency.
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Putting the Bush Presidency into Historic Perspective

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Putting the Bush Presidency into Historic Perspective

Putting the Bush Presidency into Historic Perspective

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

This morning President Bush met with a big group of former secretaries of State and Defense to talk about Iraq. It was an uncharacteristic meeting for the president because some of these former officials have made it known that they disagree with the administration's policies, and for the most part the president has kept his counsel to an inner circle much more sympathetic to his own points of view. Now nearly a full year into his second term, Mr. Bush's style of presidency is coming into focus.

Stephen Skowronek, a professor of political and social science at Yale University, says it looks like a number of presidencies in the past. He calls President Bush an orthodox innovator, a president who adopts the philosophy of a previous president--in this case Ronald Reagan--and then tries to apply it to present circumstances.

Later this hour, we'll bring you an update on Haiti, where presidential elections have been postponed yet again.

But first, the Bush presidency. How do you think George W. Bush fits into American presidential history? What presidents of the past does he remind you of? How well does he fit their pattern? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. Stephen Skowronek joins us now from the studios of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

Professor STEPHEN SKOWRONEK (Yale University): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And let me start by asking you about some of the other presidents you would regard as orthodox innovators.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Well, there are a lot of orthodox innovators in American political history, but I think Bush stands out in the company of some of the strongest and most impressive of the orthodox innovators. I would say James Polk--that is, the "Young Hickory," the Dem Jacksonian who fused the fulfillment of that old Jacksonian agenda to a new program of Manifest Destiny--or Theodore Roosevelt, who promised to redeem the bloody shirt of the Civil War in a new nationalism; or Lyndon Johnson, who promised to advance New Deal liberalism to a Great Society. These were all affiliates of the dominant dispensation in American politics, and more importantly, I think, these were second-generation affiliates--that is, they all had grown up politically with the new dispensation. This made them at once true believers poised to make a great leap forward on the received faith, innovators willing to consider what else needed to be done to secure the power of the faithful. So these are all very impressive presidencies, muscle-flexing presidencies, impatient at home and abroad to complete that work, to demonstrate the enduring vitality of the movement that brought them to power.

CONAN: Yet you also note that the term `orthodox reformer' is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: It is. These presidents have characteristic problems--that is, they seek to adjust the dispensa--to implement the agenda, yes, but also they have to adjust that agenda to a new day. They have to change the game plan; they have to redeem the old promises and uphold the consistency and integrity of the program while adjusting it and responding to new problems as they arise. And that's a difficult balancing act.

CONAN: I was interested, you described President Clinton, I guess, you reminded us of the description of him as Reagan-lite. Bush II, you say, is Reagan-plus.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Right--that is, it's not triangulation. It's not trying to find a middle ground between the old liberalism and the new conservative orthodoxy, as we might think of a Clinton triangulation. It's more implementing the orthodox agenda on taxes, on family policy, on regulation, on strong defense and then adding on top of it a sort of attractive, new superstructure that sometimes does and sometimes doesn't comport very well with those foundations, like a new entitlement in prescription drugs or a federal commitment to education, federal support for education.

CONAN: Well, obviously, people feel strongly about George W. Bush. Let's discuss this in terms of an earlier president that people might remember and slightly less emotionally these days, Lyndon Johnson.


CONAN: Give us an example of how this worked in the Johnson administration.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Well, for Lyndon Johnson, of course, there was a commitment to take New Deal liberalism to the next step, to build the Great Society, but to do that while meeting all the accumulated commitments of Cold War America, and in particular meeting our obligations in Vietnam. So, you know, Lyndon Johnson `we can'--this formula for governing. We can build the Great Society while also meeting our obligations. There are no choices to be made. We can do it all--this kind of grand scheme that the president needs to hold together and hope that events break his way so that he can meet all of those commitments and deliver the goods to all the various constituencies that he's trying to respond to.

CONAN: Interestingly, you say that George W. Bush was presented with two enormous unplanned challenges in his first term as president that demonstrate both the strength and weakness of the orthodox reformer, and the first, of course, was the fact that the 2000 election was challenged and considered illegitimate by many.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Right. This is really the most interesting thing about the Bush presidency to me--that is, we would think that both of these great events, these strange events, the contested election of 2000 and also the 9/11 terrorist attacks--these would have been defining events for any presidency. And yet the interesting in this case is that they didn't really comport very well with the definition that Bush built for himself on his way to power--that is, the person who was going to implement a preset agenda to fulfill prestanding commitments. And the interesting thing is that Bush presses both of these extraordinary events into service for the orthodox agenda so that the contested election, after the contested election, where people are talking about a government of national unity and, you know, laying aside the political divisions that had brought him to power, Bush assembles a very strong, strongly political and strong conservative administration and moves forward with his agenda. And when people say, well, he has no authority to do this, he didn't--he was outpolled by his opponent, the response was quite clear. He's doing exactly what he said he would do. That was--the authority rested on the preformed commitments on the definition.

CONAN: The mandate was the decision.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: The mandate was the commitment to...

CONAN: Commitment, right.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: ...fulfill those commitments. Yeah.

CONAN: Yet that other transformative moment, 9/11, you say, illustrates some of the weaknesses of the orthodox reformer.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: That's right. I mean, I think one of the interesting things about those early months right after the contested election is we're thinking, well, how could so many major policy initiatives be implemented on the basis of very little electoral mandate. And we saw, well, the force of the president's commitment to his commitments sort of carried him through.

After 9/11, when the president is in a very strong position, the strongest possible position that any president could be in, the--you know, when he's authorized to preserve, protect and defend, there the assumptions in the politics at large were that, well, we're now moving in a completely different world; we have to set aside all our preconceptions and think about the world anew. And even the Bush administration was talking--the president now sees his presidency anew. But shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan, when the war on terror took this turn to a war in Iraq and these connections began to be made between neoconservatives in the Defense Department and the old-time commitment to Iraq, this question about whether the president was really moving in a new world, whether he was thinking anew and acting anew, to use a phrase from Lincoln, or whether he was just pressing this extraordinary time in American history into a preformed response--that became a question about the Bush administration and a challenge to what should have been a hands-down moment of unexampled, exemplary presidential authority.

CONAN: And you talk about, again, this group of orthodox reformers as being--that needs to be in control of events, and you think of a pre-emption policy of President Bush. How much more in control can you be than that?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Right. Pre-emption is a way of getting out in front of events and trying orchestrate and control their unfolding, to orchestrate the war on terrorism into a set of commitments that are more familiar. The political authority of the orthodox innovator historically and I think in the current instance rests on the delivery of the goods, on the delivery of the program, on the implementation of the agenda. And that requires extraordinary control from the center. Events have to be orchestrated and unfold in a kind of set way in which different constituencies are responded to and feel that this president is in fact delivering on the promise. That's very different than, say, an FDR who, you know, Herbert Hoover described as a chameleon on plaid, a guy who was always shifting a different way and moving about and experimenting and, if it didn't work, throw out that and try something else. Or it's very different than Lincoln, you know, who would boast `my policy is to have no policy.' Those presidents--I'm not saying that--what I'm trying to say is that FDR and Lincoln are in a very different political circumstance. They're not--it's a categorically different kind of politics that the presidency engenders.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address: totn@npr.org.

And here's an e-mail we have from Anand(ph) in Eugene, Oregon. I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. `The Bush administration acts most like the Nixon administration with its imperial presidency, unchecked by laws. I'm very surprised the media has put so little emphasis on this.'

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Yeah, well, this movement toward the aggrandizement of presidential power is very reminiscent of a resurgence of the imperial presidency. And I think in that sense it's not coincidental that many in Bush's Cabinet were around in the Ford presidency at the very nadir of--or the collapse of the imperial presidency and felt the need to rebuild what they thought had been lost after the Watergate episodes. But while--sure, there's all sorts of connections we can make among presidencies, and these are interesting to talk about. I think that that one would stand a little bit outside of this orthodox innovator framework. Nonetheless, I think it's real.

CONAN: We're going to be talking more about the legacy of those Ford administration holdovers later in the program--in fact, when we come back from a break. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is totn@npr.org. We're talking today with Professor Stephen Skowronek about the Bush presidency and orthodox innovators.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the talk of the nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the presidency of George W. Bush. Stephen Skowronek calls him an orthodox innovator. Professor Skowronek is the author of "The Politics Presidents Make," and he's joining us from the studios at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. If you'd like to join us, give us a call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org. And let's go to David. David's calling us from Tempe, Arizona.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. Thank you. My question is--I'm wondering how the Bush administration has been able to reconcile the difference between the traditional conservative Republicans vs. his presidency, which has, for better or for worse, found itself having to increase the size of the government and, not only that, you know, raising the size of the deficit as well.

CONAN: Stephen Skowronek?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Yes, I think that this is exactly what I mean by the problems that orthodox innovators get into--that is to say, very often the kinds of innovations they have to make in order to update and make more attractive and expand the reach of their movement tend to have a kind of a debilitating effect or kind of schismatic effect on the very commitments that they're seeking to bring to power or seeking to affirm. So, yes, there is that kind of tension, the contradictions of orthodox innovation of--right, of a conservative Republican administration that is espousing new entitlements, of a conservative Republican administration that is expanding the federal debt.

Now there is a question as to what tradition--the caller says traditional Republican--what traditional Republicanism is. There is a traditional Republicanism of fiscal responsibility. It's not clear to me that that is really part of the Reagan orthodoxy. The Reagan orthodoxy, after all, was quite willing to run up a large federal debt--a large federal deficit. So I agree with the general premise--that is, that the orthodox innovator is calling into question--or at least exposing contradictions within the orthodoxy, even in the very act of enacting it. But there is this question about whether federal debts are part of the orthodoxy or not part of the orthodoxy.

CONAN: But is it--but isn't the essence of Reagan orthodoxy that government isn't part of the solution, government's part of the problem?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Government is part of the problem, right. But Reagan did not give us less government; he gave us a huge federal debt and a large defense establishment.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Just as quick follow-up, though, do you see--there are these sort of deficit hawks arising in the congressional--particularly in the House of Representatives; Mike Pence of Indiana, you think of him.


CONAN: Is that a challenge, do you think? Do you see challenges emerging among the orthodox that President Bush might be irritating a little bit?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: This is exactly what I think we would see. The characteristic effects of orthodox innovation are that they raise these questions about what is the true meaning of orthodoxy. Is the true meaning of orthodoxy limited government? Is the true meaning of orthodoxy less government? What about this expensive and explosive debt? The very fact that Republicans begin to talk about that is characteristic of orthodox innovators that, in fact, in the very name of implementing the project and of fulfilling its work and of updating the agenda, they raise questions about what the nature of that orthodoxy is. Is this a true representation of our faith? That schismatic effect is, in fact, what these orthodox innovators do to American politics, it's how they change American politics, I think, making openings for new kinds of political movements and political thinking.

CONAN: Another unplanned event for an orthodox innovator who wants to control things from the center, of course, Katrina...


CONAN: ...which again challenges the idea that the government that governs least governs best.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Yes. This was a particularly potent challenge, I think, and one that, in fact, did expose or raise questions about the orthodox exactly as you say, about the parts of American politics that the Bush administration doesn't want to talk too much about, which is the extreme poverty, inequality, inequities in opportunities and, in fact, the need for government to step in or at least to have some infrastructure or some safety net for people who are in dire straits.

CONAN: As we mentioned earlier, President Bush generally keeps his counsel to an inner circle of advisers whose views are in line with his own. Two of the people closest to the president are Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In his book "Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet," author James Mann describes how and where the members of this core group of advisers--which also included Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Armitage--developed their own political philosophies. James Mann is with us here in Studio 3A.

Nice to have you back on the program, James.

Mr. JAMES MANN (Author, "The Rise of the Vulcans"): Good to be here again, Neal.

CONAN: So this part of the Bush administration in a sense doesn't look back to the Reagan administration, but really to the Ford administration.

Mr. MANN: Well, in the case of Rumsfeld and Cheney, absolutely. They started--actually, they started in the Nixon years, but really came to the top levels in the Ford administration when Rumsfeld was White House chief of staff originally and Cheney was his assistant. And then Rumsfeld went on to become secretary of Defense and Cheney chief of staff.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And how did that circumstance--of course, they're coming in the Ford administration, an unelected president who's president as a result of Watergate and the disgrace of Richard Nixon, and this also at the very end of the war in Vietnam.

Mr. MANN: I think it's crucial to their views of the world now. Again, let's put it in context. As you say, this was--at the time, the United States was pulling out of Vietnam. It was concerned about its military power. Both these guys developed a strong view of the importance of rebuilding and building as much as they could American military power, and they emphasized military power over diplomacy.

Secondly, during those years in the '70s, Congress enacted a number of limits on presidential power. And, in fact, some of these limits are precisely the ones that the current Bush administration is either lifting or trying to find ways around.

CONAN: This would be the War Powers Act, for example, which no president has accepted, I should point out.

Mr. MANN: The War Powers Act, yeah. But I'm referring also to two things. Specific restrictions--in fact, the Vietnam War ended in part when Congress cut off funding for Vietnam.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MANN: But secondly, I'm talking about intelligence restrictions, restrictions on the FBI. There were a whole series of investigations in 1974 and '5 of the intelligence community, which--and Congress responded to some extent by adopting new laws. In fact, the law now at issue, which is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was passed during that period.

CONAN: The FISA act and then, of course, that's what's come up in relation to the warrantless interception of electronic communications...

Mr. MANN: Exactly.

CONAN: ...that we've been talking about over the past couple of weeks.

I wonder as you listened to Professor Skowronek's theory of orthodox innovator, I wonder how that squares in with the view of the Bush Cabinet that you wrote about.

Mr. MANN: Well, I guess I see things slightly differently. I focus on foreign policy; he focuses, I think, a little bit more on domestic policy. And in foreign policy, President Bush really came to office, I think, without any formed views and relied heavily, particularly in the earliest years, on Cheney and Rumsfeld and the other people who'd served in previous administrations.

CONAN: Until 9/11? Well, anyway, Professor Skowronek, would you agree?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Well, I do agree, but I think that exactly as the discussion's unfolded, we see the alternatives gestating in earlier periods that we can point back to. We can point back to the Goldwater revolution, the Goldwater candidacy; we can point back to the aftermath of the Nixon presidency. These things gestate, even while other ideas and values are dominant in American politics, and then they come full--to fruition or flower in a new presidency that identifies a kind of new stance for America, both domestically and internationally. I would say that that was the Reagan presidency, and I think that what we see here is a president who is, if not himself, surrounding himself with people who came up with that new dispensation and are eager to deliver it.

CONAN: Interesting. And by the way, again, if you'd like to join the conversation: (800) 989-8255.

You've talked about other orthodox innovators, including James Polk--we remember him for the Mexican War--and Lyndon Johnson; we remember him for the war in Vietnam. And again, wars that started with--Well, should we say?--dubious incidence--one in Texas and one in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Right. I think these orthodox innovators tend to press events into the service of their agenda. So when there's a skirmish on the Mexican border, Polk goes to Congress and says, `It's war by act of Mexico.' And when there's a skirmish in the Gulf of Tonkin, or whatever happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, Lyndon Johnson presses that event or presses that incident into a rationale for pursuing this agenda. And I think that there are uncanny parallels to the pressing of events or the pressing of facts or the enlisting of evidence to support the turn to Iraq and the war on terror.

CONAN: And I guess the next three letters we think of, James Mann, are W-M-D.

Mr. MANN: Correct.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Anyway, here's an e-mail we have from Pam in Norman, Oklahoma: `I'd like to hear more comparison and contrast with Bush and Polk. I think often of this comparison, especially in reference to their dedicated attitudes toward actual day-to-day work of the presidency and personal levels of commitment.'

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Hmm. Well, Polk was actually a workaholic. I wouldn't have associated--I would think of that more as a contrast with the current president, who is, you know, early to bed, I think.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: I would see more the comparison in terms of Polk's fully committed presidency. It's not simply the Mexican War, it's not simply expansion to the Southwest; it was expansion to the Southwest and expansion to the Northwest. And at the same time, implementing the domestic agenda of the Jacksonians and doing all of these things at once and trying to hold it all together and balance all these different parts against one another. And what you see--what I see from Polk is, you know, Polk, who comes to power as consistent and orthodox and true--that's what the Democrats said about him, `Vote for him because he's consistent and orthodox and true'--within two years, they're calling him the `Polk the Mendacious,' who's manipulating the very interests he came to power to serve.

So it's what I would be looking for, if this is a true rendition of the Bush presidency, is that Republicans would feel that their interests and that their commitments have been somehow--in the very act of dedicated service, had been somehow manipulated or slighted or played fast and loose with. And that it's that schismatic factionalism that I think we're just beginning to see emerging within the Republican Party that strikes me as the apt comparison with the impact, the political impact, of Polk's presidency.

CONAN: After one year of President Bush's second term, we're talking about the style of his presidency with Stephen Skowronek at Yale University and James Mann, author in residence with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, here with us.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Professor Skowronek, you were talking about James Polk. Of course, his political father, I guess if you will, was Jackson. And if you're talking about another one, you mentioned Theodore Roosevelt, his political mentor in this respect would have been Abraham Lincoln. If you're talking about Lyndon Johnson, he regarded--I think once described LBJ as his--once described Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his daddy. All one-term presidents.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Yes, this is really right. Orthodox innovators are notorious one-termers. Not only that, but orthodox innovators are notorious for pulling themselves out, withdrawing from re-election bids, and in this sense truly Bush has been an extraordinary figure. Not only did he put himself into the ring for a second term, but he won a second term, which is quite an extraordinary feat for the orthodox innovator. There's only one other president who could conceivably be thought of as an orthodox innovator who won a second election outright in a straight-out national two-party contest, and that was William McKinley. And I would note--it's just notable that McKinley had a splendid little war on his back ushering in his second term.

CONAN: Are those splendid little wars--are they characteristic of orthodox innovators?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Well, they're little--I don't know how splendid they are, but they--orthodox innovators tend to have, I would say, muscle-flexing wars would be more consistent with this. That is, these are presidents who represent the nation at its most robust and most self-confident. These guys know what they're about. They know where they've come from. They're ready to do the job and they tend to flex their muscles both at home and abroad.

CONAN: Do they tend to lose that--the Bush administration was noted--and I think, James Mann, you'd be helpful on this point--noted for its discipline in its first term, in particular, a discipline that seems to be eroding a little bit at this point.

Mr. MANN: Well, actually, Neal, most--it was disciplined in one way. In another way, it was unable to prevent the disagreements among its team in the first team from emerging. It was very disciplined in preventing the press from getting information. But certainly you saw Secretary Powell clearly in a different place from Vice President Cheney. I always, oddly enough, look at the most disciplined administration as the first Bush administration. It wasn't particularly ambitious in some ways, but in doing two books I find all kinds of disagreements among the foreign policy team of the first President Bush--Scowcroft vs. Baker or Cheney--that were covered up. And this administration can't cover up its internal disagreements.

CONAN: At least not anymore, Stephen Skowronek.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: No, it seems like they're coming home to roost. Although I would say I agree with the point that was made about the first Bush administration and foreign policy, but the tax policy of the first Bush administration was a source of serious disagreements that was played out to disastrous effect on the political stage.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller. We just lost a question. But it's--well, there is the question of interestingly one of the orthodox--that President Bush is not following the footsteps of his own father, who was in the office not all that long ago.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Right. Right, he seems to--in fact, just the opposite--seemed to be using his father's administration as an example of what not to do. And...

CONAN: I am not the aristocrat from Connecticut. I am not the pragmatist.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Right.

CONAN: I am not the lifelong government official.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Right. Right. Right.

CONAN: I am different from all of those things.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Right. I am committed. I am sol--rock-solid. I am authentic. I am the stalwart, which is a very different view than his father. Interestingly, though, the first Bush also articulated this idea of compassionate conservatism. But at that time, coming right after the Reagan administration, it appeared to be an assault on orthodoxy, not a second-generation orthodoxy.

CONAN: Well, we're going to talk more about this after a break and also talk about Haiti, where presidential elections have been postponed again. James Mann, I wanted to thank you for coming in today. Appreciate your time.

Mr. MANN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: James Mann's book is called "The Rise of the Vulcans." He's at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

This is NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains in critical condition after emergency brain surgery. He had a massive stroke yesterday. Sharon's medical condition has thrown the Israeli political scene into turmoil. And at least 120 people were killed in two suicide bomb attacks in Iraq today, one at the holy Shiite city of Karbala and the other at a police recruitment center in Ramadi. Five American soldiers were also killed when their patrol hit a roadside bomb. Details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow it's "Science Friday." Ira Flatow will be here to discuss how DNA was used to identify victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION/"Science Friday."

Right now we return to our conversation with Stephen Skowronek, a professor of political and social science at Yale. He calls President Bush an orthodox innovator. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Van, Van calling from Santa Rosa in California.

VAN (Caller): Yes. I've followed some of the presidencies and, while I don't go back through history, I think there's something about Bush that is totally different than any other president I've ever seen, in that most presidents are what I'll call directionists, in that they have a direction they want to take the country and they get the country to go along with them. Bush seems to be more of what I'll call a destinationist, in that he has a place he wants us to be. He's going to do everything to take it there and sort of fill in around it and fill in the rest of the world afterward.

CONAN: Well, what do you think...

VAN: I'd like you to comment on that. You know, as your guest comments I'll listen off the air.

CONAN: OK, Van, thanks very much. And I wonder, Professor Skowronek, what you think of Van's theory?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Right. Well, I think that that captures very well the thrust of the orthodox innovator's political project, which is that they know where they've come from, they know where they want to take the nation, they sense that this is the moment and it's time to implement this kind of preset definition or these preset formulas for governing.

CONAN: Is it a sense of destiny, in some respect?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Well, in the case of Polk it was Manifest Destiny.

CONAN: I guess so.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: But there is the sense of we know what the answers are. We know what the solutions are. We have the solutions to the problems of governing in our day and, therefore, it's time to implement them. It's time to complete the work.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Tom, Tom calling from Denver.

TOM (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to comment about the comment about muscle-flexing wars in a time of national confidence. That might have applied to McKinley and Polk, but not so much with Johnson and especially with Bush. I mean, now we're--especially now we're not so much in a time of a national confidence. We're more, I think, in a time of national insecurity and national fear. Like we do this war because we are afraid, not because we're flexing our muscles. And I think that was also true of Vietnam. With Vietnam--I remember Vietnam and that was all about the fear of Communist encroachment and the domino theory and we had to stop them now or it was going to be too late.

CONAN: But also, I'd have to say, Tom, a feeling of America can do anything also, that no burden too great, no challenge too--John Kennedy was saying, I think there was an aspect of co--but let's hear from Professor Skowronek.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Yes, I think both of those are right. There is a sense, Lyndon Johnson--`We can do it all. We have the resources. We have the power. We have the commitment. We have the obligations. We can do it all.' But there's also a sense in Johnson, I agree with the caller, that the Vietnam War for Johnson is very different than the Mexican War for Polk. For Polk, the Mexican War was the innovation. It was the expansion--it was the extension of the agenda into new spheres, into new horizons. The domestic agenda for Polk was the holding action.

For Johnson it was just the reverse. Vietnam was the holding action, the thing you had to do to secure old commitments, and the Great Society was the great love, was the great extension, the expansion, the innovation. So there was--there is that difference, I think.

CONAN: Interesting. Thanks for the call, Tom.

TOM: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: That most recent orthodox innovator you talk about, Lyndon Johnson, of course, the candidate he defeated for president of the United States was Barry Goldwater, a candidacy which, as you pointed out, gave rise eventually to Ronald Reagan and new orthodoxy. Now we have another orthodox innovator. Do you see a similar new idea emerging to oppose it?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Right. I think that this is the great question that hovers around the Democratic opposition. Usually, even at these moments of the most--the fullest and most robust expression of the previous--of the established orthodoxy, you see the gestation of an alternative. You can point to an insurgent movement that is taking on this whole conception of government. The abolitionists were alive and well in the Polk administration. The populists were alive and well in the--under McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. The Goldwater insurgency was already afoot under Lyndon Johnson.

You don't see--I don't see at least--a similar alternative movement that is generated in reaction to this vision of government which is being so prominently displayed in America today. I think that that's the most--if we're thinking about the regeneration of American politics and how American government regenerates itself and develops and moves in new directions, I'm not sure--I don't think that this necessarily has to be a liberal insurgency, but some new and alternative idea gestating within this full flowering of orthodoxy is what I--is the great missing element.

CONAN: Might that explain the, as you're saying, historically anomalous fact that George W. Bush was re-elected?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: I think that might be part of it, the inability of the Democratic Party to define a clear alternative.

CONAN: Do you detect signs, just before we let you go, that this president is not following the patterns of other orthodox innovators?

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Well, there are--there's that, what we just spoke about, that is the...

CONAN: Getting re-elected, yeah.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: There's getting re-elected, and there's also the absence of a new insurgency, both of which give you a sense that maybe--one of the interesting things about these patterns is they really highlight what's distinctive about this current moment. One thing you could say is that George Bush has created a new kind of party--a new kind of Republican Party that is much more resistant to these factional schisms within the ranks, that is much better able to hold itself together even as it does innovate, that is able to make the party much more adaptable to whatever the president wants to do with it at the moment. These are questions of present-day American politics. There's certainly all sorts of also underlying tensions and fissures and schisms that you could point to, more familiar things with orthodox innovators, but there are these other deviations which alert us to the fact that this might be something different.

CONAN: Stephen Skowronek, thanks very much. Appreciate your time today.

Prof. SKOWRONEK: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Stephen Skowronek, a professor of political and social science at Yale. His article on the Bush presidency appeared in the December issue of the journal Perspectives on Politics, and he joined us from the studios of Yale in New Haven, Connecticut.

Coming up: Haiti.

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