The historical presidency: the perils of restoration politics: nineteenth-century antecedents.

Author:Crockett, David A.

George W. Bush, like his father, was a "regime manager" trying to advance the political project established by Ronald Reagan. Unlike his father, however, the younger Bush came to power after an opposition party interregnum, placing him in the position of restoring, rather than simply advancing, the Reagan agenda. So, while in Stephen Skowronek's political time taxonomy both Bushes are classified as presidents of articulation (1993), the fact that they came to power as part of different partisan sequences--Republican-to-Republican for the elder Bush, Democrat-to-Republican for the younger--is an important aspect of the historical context of their presidencies.

This distinction between presidents of articulation suggests the possibility of a second level of classification of regime managers, one of which could be labeled "restoration presidents." Restoration presidents are presidents from the dominant party who come to power immediately following opposition presidents. Their leadership task is to restore the political agenda of the regime's founder after an opposition party interregnum. The existence of common elements among this group can be helpful for understanding our own political era, for if George W. Bush represented a "restoration" of Reagan conservatism following the Bill Clinton interregnum, the lessons learned from similarly placed presidents in political time are important to evaluate both Bush's performance as president and our current placement in political time.

This article focuses attention on the nineteenth-century presidents who first experienced the opportunities and constraints peculiar to this category and established the pattern of leadership. The argument proceeds in three stages. First, I summarize earlier work placing presidents in historical context. Second, I profile these nineteenth-century antecedents, focusing on the restoration efforts of Jacksonian Democrats James K. Polk and Franklin Pierce, and Republicans Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley, highlighting the extent to which the presidencies of opposition leaders compel restoration presidents to pursue specific agenda paths. Finally, I conclude with some remarks about what this analysis indicates for contemporary American politics.

Subcategories of Regime Articulation

In Skowronek's (1993) taxonomy, the regime affiliate is the largest category. Of the 43 presidents through George W. Bush, only six have been presidents of reconstruction and 12 of preemption. That leaves 25 who were affiliated with the dominant regime after it was established. And whereas presidents of reconstruction and opposition almost always follow presidents of the opposing party, regime affiliates follow varying patterns of succession.

Focusing strictly on the question of sequencing, there would appear to be four different types of regime affiliates. The first is the one who immediately follows the regime founder. Several scholars have examined variations of this category (Burnham 1993; Langston 2002; Zinman 2009), and these "heir apparent" presidents include John Adams, James Madison, Martin Van Buren, Ulysses Grant, Harry Truman, and the elder Bush. Each of these six regime affiliates shares a common characteristic--picking up the standard of the founder of a political dynasty and wrestling with the question of how to lead while paying obeisance to the party's patron saint.

The second type of regime affiliate is the president who restores the dominant party to power following an opposition party interlude. Unlike the heirs apparent, who follow a president from their party, restoration presidents always enter the office in a partisan change of power. The complete set consists of the Jacksonian Democrats following the Whig presidents (James K. Polk and Franklin Pierce), Republicans following Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson (Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Warren G. Harding), Democrats after Dwight Eisenhower (John F. Kennedy) and Gerald Ford (Jimmy Carter), and George W. Bush following Clinton.

The third type of regime affiliate is the dynastic successor who continues the regime, following a dynastic ally and extending governing party control over the White House for additional terms in the sequence. These regime affiliates follow presidents from their party, but they follow other regime managers, not regime builders. Some of these dynastic successors follow heirs apparent, extending the initial phase of regime consolidation to an unusual extent--presidents like James Monroe and Rutherford B. Hayes. Other dynastic successors follow restoration presidents, extending the control of the governing party in the latter phase of the regime era--presidents such as William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge.

The final type of regime affiliate is what Skowronek (1993) calls the president of disjunction. Because it is impossible to predict when exactly a regime's vulnerability becomes so great as to prepare the way for a shift in party dominance, presidents of disjunction actually enter office as one of the three other types of affiliates. As the prevailing regime collapses, they become increasingly enmeshed in the politics of disjunction. Both Presidents Adams are in this category, as are Buchanan, Hoover, and Carter. This category is unique in this discussion of sequencing because it is defined not by who the president succeeds, but by who succeeds the president--presidents of reconstruction.

Because, then, presidents of disjunction start their presidencies as a regime affiliate of one of the first three varieties, there is some overlap between the presidents of disjunction and other categories. Otherwise, the categories are fairly distinct. Table 1 depicts these four categories, listing those individuals having two labels in italics.

There is a generational aspect that distinguishes the heirs apparent from restoration presidents. Heir apparent presidents are always part of the founding generation of the regime, their task being to consolidate the gains of the regime builder. Adams and Madison, of course, were integral parts of the founding of the American nation itself as well as the Federalist and Jeffersonian eras. Van Buren was the architect of Andrew Jackson's victory and Democratic supremacy in 1828, while Grant was the leader of the military arm of Abraham Lincoln's effort. Franklin Roosevelt's exceptionally lengthy presidency posed a challenge to his junior peers who aspired to his position. Nonetheless, his sudden death at the start of his fourth term brought to power Harry Truman, who first entered national politics as a successful candidate for senator in 1934, nearly at the ground floor of the New Deal system. Finally, the elder Bush was Reagan's principal competitor in 1980, brought into the inner circle as vice president.

By contrast, restoration presidents typically are not involved in the establishment of the regime. Polk was the restoration president with the strongest claim to having been "present at the creation," having served as speaker of the House in the final days of Jackson's presidency. But even "Young Hickory," who came to power just 16 years after the founding of the Jacksonian regime, stood in relation to the regime founders as a dutiful son--the leader of a new generation of "Jacksonians"--more than a younger brother. Pierce was younger still, beginning his political career in the New Hampshire legislature as the Jacksonian era began, and coming to power 24 years after the founding. The next restoration presidents to take office, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley, were junior partners in the party system established in the Civil War. Harrison was a Civil War veteran who did not enter national public office until he won a Senate seat in 1881, 20 years after the founding of the Republican era. McKinley was also a veteran of the Civil War, not entering national politics until his election to the House in 1876, 16 years after the era's founding. Warren G. Harding came next among the restoration presidents. He won national office in 1914, and looked to McKinley as his personal hero. John Kennedy did not join the New Deal coalition until 1946, 14 years after Roosevelt's first victory. Finally, George W. Bush served as a behind-the-scenes aide to his father, not coming to national prominence until he won the gubernatorial race in Texas in 1994, again 14 years after the Reagan regime began.

The pattern, then, is that restoration presidents enter national public life after the initial battles that mark a regime's establishment, often years after the regime's beginning, and they win the presidency nearly a quarter century after the governing party's rise to power. In fact, with the exception of Polk's unusually quick rise to the presidency just 16 years after the establishment of the Jacksonian regime, the other restoration presidents all obtained the office from 20 to 36 years after their eras' respective foundings. They are the only category of regime affiliates who effect a partisan change in the White House. They are what Kennedy called a "new generation of leadership." Their task is to return from exile to reorient politics to its proper course--to "return to normalcy," in the immortal words of Harding. Whereas the heir apparent faces the task of furthering the regime founder's agenda in his immediate wake, all restoration presidents run for office responding to the leadership of an opposition president. By the time they enter the scene, a quarter century after the regime's establishment, some of the core issues that divided the parties during the reconstruction phase of the era have been resolved. New issues have arisen, which become the seeds of future turmoil.

The critical question for the restoration president is how to respond to having been in exile for one or two terms and what to focus on upon their return to power. Does the fact that restoration presidents follow opposition presidents give rise to...

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