#APSA2015 Lara Brown will be chairing PRESIDENTS IN CONTEXT: POLITICAL TIME AND POLARIZATION on Saturday at 8 a.m. (Hilton, Powell Room) and is the discussant for PRESIDENTIAL COMMUNICATION IN A POLARIZED AGE (Hilton, Franciscan D) at 4:15 p.m.
Jockeying for the American Presidency
Chapter 1: Presidential Selection and Aspirant Opportunism
“…to say that all presidents are opportunists does not mean that they are all the same. As previously mentioned, the opportunism of the presidents most probably varies across the individuals who have held the office. Aside from innate character differences and aptitudes, each president acquired his opportunistic abilities from a unique set of professional and political experiences (e.g., legal practice, military service, partisan campaign activity, and other elected or appointed office), which includes their presidential campaign. Through trial and error as well as observation and imitation, they discovered which behaviors and attitudes—personal style—worked best for them in the political arena. Through the instruction of others, they also learned the more general strategies known to turn political opportunities to one’s advantage (e.g., “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”). Each president also tends to possess a “trick” or two that they rely on to make the most of the situations they find themselves in. Further, each president is likely to exploit opportunities in the ways that are most suitable to his time. Thus, although opportunism is a common trait among the presidents, it does not always show itself in a similar manner.”
Chapter 2: Parties, Aspirants, and Opportunities in History
“The major-party nominees are typically equally and highly qualified (experienced, opportunistic, etc.), and as such, the outcome of the general election does not necessarily turn on the aspirant (unless that aspirant is an incumbent president or their opponent possesses a substantially low level of aspirant opportunism), but instead on exogenous factors (e.g., the economy) and political conditions (e.g., each party’s prior electoral success). Still, the estimates reveal that these personal characteristics (breadth of experience, opportunism, etc.) help presidential aspirants win. That said, the presidential selection method does not appear to be working as it had in the past—in terms of favoring experienced aspirants—and this may be a cause for concern.”
Chapter 3: Presidential Winners from the Early Party Era
“The presidential aspirants in the Early Party Era guided the establishment of the two major political parties in America. The institutions they created, although they continuously changed, persisted because each presidential aspirant developed structures, procedures, and networks to help him win. The structures that they built to communicate a persuasive message and move people to the polls became more sophisticated over time as more people were included in the political process. The challenge these aspirants created for future aspirants was how to control these inherited structures and how to ensure that one’s party continues to serve the aspirant’s ambition, rather than the other way around.”
Chapter 4: Presidential Winners from the Strong Party Era
“Unlike the previous aspirants who rose to power by balancing partisanship and republican statesmanship, the aspirants from the Strong Party Era were successful because they balanced partisanship with the democratic demands for political reform.”
Chapter 5: Presidential Winners from the Modern Party Era
“This chapter considers some of the recent changes in the presidential selection process and presents case studies of Ronald Reagan, William J. Clinton, and George W. Bush. These stories reveal that whereas these modern aspirants exhibited opportunistic behaviors (resilience, tenacity, flexibility, etc.) similar to their predecessors, they were more dependent on the strategies crafted by political professionals than the aspirants from previous eras.”
Chapter 6: Presidential Losers from Each Era
“[…] losers, like winners, structure the context within which winners win. This chapter investigates three high-profile presidential losers (one from each of the three political eras): Henry Clay, Thomas Dewey, and John Kerry. These cases were chosen because they involved experienced, credible aspirants who lost elections that were competitive and closely decided. In short, they could have won, but they did not. Further, these contests seem to have turned on the losers’ missteps rather than the winners’ achievements. Hence, these losers appear to have created opportunities for the winners to win.”
Chapter 7: An Abundance of Opportunism: The 2008 Presidential Election
“On reflection, a few features about the 2008 election stand out. First, aspirant opportunism abounded. Throughout the nomination contests, the front-runners were looking for ways to game the rules, crafting their rhetoric to appeal to subsets of voters they were targeting, and adapting, imitating, and improvising their strategies on the fly. Although Obama’s team was the most successful in terms of executing the plan they originally designed, they also found themselves having to reposition and outmaneuver their opponents’ successful strategies. Second, along the way in the multiple competitions that take place during a campaign, the losses of the winners as well as the legacies left by the losers—both intentional and unplanned—structured the field as much as the winners’ achievements.. Third, until the economic collapse, the boosts of momentum that the different candidates enjoyed, particularly during the nomination contests, were surprisingly moderate. They were more ephemeral than in campaigns past, suggesting perhaps how successful many of these aspirants were in prodding their supporters to challenge the national media memes on the Internet and to engage in local activities—whether they were meet-ups, rallies, or town halls—and thus alter the state of the race.”
Conclusion: Opportunistic Aspirants and the Methods of Selection
“It should be understood that presidents are politicians whose behaviors are structured by the Electoral College and the path they pursued to earn their party’s nomination. Although their constituency is all of America, their electoral success is achieved through partisan and federal structures. Lastly, while eliminating the Electoral College may satisfy the aims of some reformers, it may also prove detrimental to not only the quality of the aspirants fielded and the presidents selected, but also to the security of the nation and the stability of its constitutional design. Thus, as the Framers understood, a presidential selection process is inextricably connected to executive power— altering the method changes the authority—and to neglect this in the study of the presidency is imprudent and may even be foolhardy.”
About the author: Lara M. Brown, Ph.D., is an associate professor and the program director of the Political Management Program in the Graduate School of Political Management at The George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter: @LaraMBrownPHD.
This book is part of the Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy in America (PIPPA) book series (Editors: Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly). See more well-reviewed books in the Cambria Press PIPPA Series.
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