Advice to the next conservative President of the United States.

AuthorCalabresi, Steven G.

I am honored to be invited to submit this Article offering my advice to the next President of the United States and to discuss what I have learned from conservative governance in the White House. I approach this topic both as a former member of the Reagan and first Bush Administrations(1) and as a Northwestern law professor who teaches constitutional law. My experience, my academic writing, and my teaching all have been focused on the Presidency and on the role of the federal courts.(2) I therefore want to discuss five lessons we might learn from the Reagan-Bush years about conservative governance in the White House and five additional lessons we might learn from those years about the federal courts. Many of the points I will discuss are not wholly new, but novelty is something that I think the modern world greatly over-rates. My advice is directed to the next conservative President of the United States because conservative governance is the subject I know best from personal experience and academic reflection. I am absolutely delighted that the recipient of my advice is President George W. Bush, whose candidacy I signed on to support as an advisor in May, 1999.

First, the twelve year experience of the Reagan and Bush Administrations showed us the tremendous importance of public speeches that laid out a clear agenda in bold primary colors and not in pale pastels. Some of Ronald Reagan's greatest successes as President came from his ability to use public speeches to change the agenda and alter the direction of our national political life.(3) President Reagan did this by taking bold and principled positions, by explaining his positions in a clear and understandable way, and by speaking over the heads of the hostile media directly to the American people in a way the people could understand. Reagan's first Inaugural Address, his speech at the Berlin Wall, and his speech at the beaches of Normandy are but a few of the many powerful vignettes we all now carry with us.

Reagan's speeches as President built on his speeches as a candidate for the Presidency and on the ideas to which he was committed. He was as consistent in his themes as he was clear in his choice of words. Reagan's consistency and clarity, which was his hallmark, allowed him to rally the members of his Administration, the Republican Party, and ultimately the country itself to the causes of anti-communism and of limited government. One of the Presidency's greatest powers is that it offers "a Bully Pulpit" to those can use it. The first President Bush unfortunately was not able to claim and harness the power of the Bully Pulpit. This played a significant role in his loss of control over the policy-making agenda and ultimately in his loss of the 1992 election.

Conservatives governing from the executive branch have a special need to be able to reach over the heads of the media to rally their parties and the country itself. This can only be done by consistently, clearly, patiently, and cheerfully painting a conservative agenda in bold colors day after day.

A second lesson of the Reagan-Bush presidencies is the great importance of the first two years of any Administration. The modern Presidency--for better or worse--is something of a lightning rod. Presidents have little constitutional power in peacetime, and they can advance a domestic agenda only with support in Congress. For decades, presidents like Reagan have had the most support in Congress in the first two years of their term and have watched it dwindle with every subsequent election. While Reagan did not lose the 1982 midterm elections as badly as Clinton lost the 1994 midterm elections, he did nonetheless accomplish much less in the last six years of his term. Since 1934, every first mid-term election has turned out the President's opponents in higher numbers relative to his supporters than had occurred two years earlier.

The first two years are riot only relevant to the President's support in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but also to his levels of support in state-houses across the country. Well over thirty States, including California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania elect their Governors and state legislators during the off year midterm cycle. It is no accident that Republicans picked up a majority of governorships in 1994, for the first time since the 1960's, precisely as the Democrats had controlled a majority of governorships during the Reagan-Bush and Nixon-Ford years. One of the costs of winning the Presidency is that your party can expect to lose strength in Congress and in gubernatorial races.

This weakened status means two somewhat contradictory things. First, it is important to make the first two years of any conservative Administration in the White House really count. In fact, there is not a moment to spare. Nor is their any time to develop an agenda if you were not elected with one. Successful Presidents must have a successful first 100 days or at least a successful first 8 months. There is no time to lose at the beginning of an Administration.

At the same time, it is also desirable not to scare the public and make yourself even more of a lightening rod than the Presidency naturally tends to be. President Clinton made this mistake in his first two years in office with his badly thought out policy proposals on gays in the military and on socialized medicine. Clinton--like George Bush senior--had no clear agenda on election day for his first year in office, and he quickly floundered. President Reagan, on the other hand, came in with a clear agenda, executed it against formidable odds, and then stayed the course for the next six years, as his opponents tried at every turn to undo what he had already set in motion. We need to work hard to make sure that the new President Bush accomplishes as much as possible in these first two years, while not losing vital strength on marginal sideshows.

A third and...

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