William Howard Taft, twenty-seventh president of the United States, is primarily remembered as an insignificant leader serving between far more interesting presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. But Taft is also remembered as offering a rather different understanding of presidential leadership than these two presidents as well; particularly, Taft's so-called "Whig" (or "strict constructionist" or "literalist") view of the presidency is often counterpoised to Roosevelt's "stewardship" theory. For a variety of reasons, Taft's theory of the presidency largely has been relegated to the ash heap of history, seen as anachronistic if not downright reactionary and deleterious.
This article seeks to revise the traditional understanding of Taft's theory of presidential leadership and also the conventional understanding of Whig or Whiggish leadership in general. First, I reexamine Taft's ideas on presidential leadership through an analysis of both his presidential actions and his postpresidential academic writings, particularly his 1925 book Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers. Taft's theory of presidential leadership is often labeled "apolitical," "weak," and "passive," but I argue that his theory is far more subtle and substantial, embodying a conception of leadership that prizes democratic presidential action but within a balanced political context. Next, I show that Taft's theory is rooted in the Whig theory of the presidency that predominated, especially among Whig and Republican partisans, in the nineteenth century after the 1830s. Similarly labeled weak and apolitical, a nuanced examination of nineteenth-century Whig leadership reveals a far more viable option for presidential leadership falling somewhere between the poles of dominant public opinion leader and independent constitutional officer. Finally, I conclude that Taft's theory of the presidency (and Whig theory in general) has much to contribute to contemporary debates on proper presidential leadership.
William Taft's "Whiggish" Theory of the Presidency
It is well-known how the reluctant, judicial Taft came to the presidency. Having faithfully served Theodore Roosevelt (TR) during his administration, when TR declined a third term (at least for the time being), Taft became Roosevelt's "anointed one" for the Republican presidential nomination in 1908. Just as George Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan with the intention of continuing the Reagan legacy, so did Taft assume the presidency in 1909 with the clearly stated purpose to continue the work begun by Roosevelt (see Taft 1989, 213-14). Yet, it would become immediately clear that while Taft may have wanted and attempted to follow Roosevelt's policies as president, he had a fundamentally different understanding of what his role--as president--should be in promoting those policies.
Taft was troubled by what he viewed as Roosevelt's aggressive use of the presidency, but he did not see his role as being simply an administrator or a constitutional clerk. To be sure, in Taft's view, the presidency should not be the driving force in the political system. However, Taft's actions as president and his writings after leaving the office suggest that he did believe a president had an important role to play in the system, a role that fell somewhere between that of a mere administrator or constitutional clerk and a modern, rhetorical leader. Taft carved out a role for the presidency that is well worth another look.
As Donald Anderson (1982, 28) has argued, Taft's political thought had four main principles: support for "constitutional democracy, separation of powers, [and] political parties as essential instruments of democracy," plus a concern with "the dangers of radical majoritarianism." Taft's theory of the presidency is consistent with these main principles. Taft's concern with limiting or at least "balancing" the office of the presidency corresponds to his concerns with constitutional democracy (as opposed to mass or plebiscitarian democracy), the sanctity of the separation of powers, and the problem of radical majoritarianism. For Taft, each branch of government had an essential role to perform and one should not dominate the others; the separation of powers was at the heart of our constitutional democracy. Moreover, while Taft thought the Court would be a critical branch in checking majoritarian excesses, he also believed that a balanced and restrained presidency would help to check or even prevent majoritarian excess as well. After all, as we will see, it was Roosevelt's "plebiscitary" presidency that so troubled Taft, a presidency that, because wedded to majority public opinion, seemed to know no bounds. But Taft's presidency was not a passive presidency; the president's powers would be balanced and restrained, but they would certainly not be allowed to atrophy, nor would the president simply reserve administrative duties for himself. (1)
Here is where the other Taftian principle, support for political parties, comes in. Taft firmly believed in the efficacy of political parties and saw the presidency as playing a key role in party politics. As Anderson (1982, 28) says, "Without parties, Taft believed there could be no effective way in which people could transform their private opinions into public policy." Taft saw parties as having an important role in bringing Congress and the presidency together; rather than standing above the parties, presidents should work with their partisans in Congress to redeem the mandate of the people. The president would not be a nonpartisan clerk but would be an active and contributing member of his party, deferential, but not slavish, to his partisans in Congress, at least when it came to legislating. (2) And because of this presidential party role, although Taft disdained trying to please the public, his conception of the presidency was rather "popular" and democratic in form. TR is often credited with popularizing the presidency, making it an office of the people. But the presidency had already been democratized to a significant degree with the rise of mass political parties in the 1830s and 1840s. It was this partisanized and popularized presidency of the nineteenth century to which Taft's presidency had much similarity.
As will be seen in the following examination of Taft's presidency and writings, it is a fundamental distortion to characterize Taft's theory of the presidency as juridical, administrative, apolitical, or passive. It might be labeled Whig leadership, but because of the caricature which has been made of the term Whig (to be discussed below), it is better to give the more precise appellation, "party agency" Whig presidential leadership. This makes clear Taft's concern with limiting and balancing the office of presidency and also his understanding that a major part of the president's role was being an actor in the collective of his political party and being responsible to public opinion, at least as channeled through the parties and their diversity of leaders.
When Taft accepted the nomination of the Republican Party in 1908, he actively embraced the party and, particularly, its platform. Upon his victory and assumption of office, he took the platform pledges quite seriously. For instance, in the second paragraph of his inaugural, after talking about his fidelity to his predecessor, TR, he says,
I should be untrue to myself, to my promises, and to the declarations of the party platform upon which I was elected, if I did not make the maintenance and enforcement of those reforms a most important feature of my administration. (Taft 1989, 214) (emphasis added) Several times throughout the rest of the inaugural Taft again brings up his fidelity to party. In talking of tariff reform, Taft notes its necessity and that a bill should "be drawn in good faith in accordance with promises made before the election by the party in power." Furthermore, the "incoming Congress should promptly fulfill the promise of the Republican platform and pass a proper postal savings bank bill." Finally, the labor issue was a "subject of great controversy during the election" (Taft 1989, 215, 220, 224). For Taft, elections were about parties and issues, and parties and leaders were supposed to honor their commitments once elected to office. To be sure, Taft was no radical democrat, but he did believe that the office of the presidency should be tied strongly, via parties and elections, to the people. It was a fundamentally political office, in Taft's view.
Taft attempted to honor the Republican Party's most important electoral commitment quickly. He called the new Congress into special session to deal with the tariff issue. Taft's message to Congress was very short and frank, drawing criticism from certain corners. It was argued that Taft should have taken a stronger leadership role, laying out a detailed plan to the incoming Congress and hence leading them toward tariff reform. Not only was Taft uncomfortable with a large legislative role for the president, he was also concerned that a strident message might undermine party unity (Coletta 1973, 63). In Taft's view, the president should have a role to play in the legislative process, through consultations, messages, and perhaps lobbying through cabinet members. But that role should be played with the best interests of the party, and public accountability, in mind. In fact, after leaving office, Taft concluded that a president's legislative role might be rather large at times, especially with regard to party platform issues. Speaking of presidential influence in Congress, he said,
I think he ought to have very great influence, because he is made responsible to the people for what the party does, and if the party is wise, it will bend to his leadership as long as it is tolerable, and especially where it is in performance of promises that the party has made in its platform and on the faith of which it must be assumed to have...