Unified government, the two presidencies thesis, and presidential support in the Senate: an analysis of President Clinton's first two years.

Author:Conley, Richard S.

In an article published in 1966, Aaron Wildavsky attempted to systematize the study of presidential performance in the legislative arena by dividing presidential legislative proposals into two categories: foreign and domestic policy.(1) Wildavsky based his "two presidencies thesis" on congressional deference to presidential leadership in foreign policy. The exigencies of the Cold War occasioned bipartisanship within Congress and comity between the president and Congress. In light of considerable changes in domestic and world politics since Wildavsky's seminal article, scholars have used a variety of measures of presidential success in Congress to confirm or refute the theoretical utility of the two presidencies framework.(2)

This article tests the two presidencies thesis for the 103rd Congress, a period of unified government under Democratic control. The focus of the analysis is on the Senate. Using Senate roll calls and state electoral and demographic data, this research tests two primary hypotheses relative to the two presidencies thesis. First, it is hypothesized that no major differences in overall presidential support on domestic and foreign policy issues will be found in the Senate. Confirmation of this hypothesis would be consistent with prior analyses of the two presidencies that indicate that the phenomenon is more likely to surface for Republican presidents. Second, this research tests the hypothesis that the factors that influence senators' decisions to support or oppose the president are not symmetrical across policy issues. Ideology and electoral variables have different levels of impact across policy areas.

The two presidencies thesis is tested by analyzing presidential victories and presidential support scores in three policy areas. The analysis relies on Wildavsky's original classification of votes as domestic and foreign policy with the addition of a third policy area, "intermestic" issues,(3) to separate votes that have both domestic and foreign policy ramifications. After analyzing presidential wins and losses in the three issue areas, presidential support scores are examined in conjunction with electoral and demographic data to gain a clearer picture of Clinton's sources of support and opposition in the Senate by party and policy area.

The analysis uncovers a pattern of partisan voting behavior that undermines the two presidencies effect and reveals that the determinants of presidential support deviate by policy area. Party and ideology are consistently strong predictors of voting behavior on both domestic and foreign policy. A senator's margin of victory over his or her opponent in the last election matters least for domestic policy and more for foreign policy and intermestic issues. Support on intermestic issues depends on the extent that a senator's state economy is tied to international trade. Clinton's electoral margin over George Bush in 1992 in a senator's state is a consistently important factor for presidential support across policy areas.

Theoretical Background

Wildavsky argued that the president's monopoly over foreign affairs was at the root of the two presidencies thesis. In the age of nuclear weapons, a deferential Congress would not inhibit presidential leadership in foreign policy. Foreign policy matters require swift decisions and entail the need for steadfast action in the international arena. The committee system prohibits Congress from acting expediently on matters of urgency and speaking with a single, unified voice like the president. The president is most often the initiator of foreign policy decisions.

Congress is more concerned with domestic affairs. Because domestic policies are formulated on the basis of incremental adjustments to the status quo that are generally not irreversible and do not demand immediate action, Congress is more disposed to scrutinize domestic policy options and reject presidential hegemony over the legislative process. Members of Congress must cautiously evaluate the ramifications of the domestic policies they support on public opinion and on their chances of re-election when they are asked to defend their voting record.(4) Issues of partisanship are more likely to surface in the domestic realm. Presidents are often caught in policy cycles in which they lose support for their domestic agenda over time. Whereas foreign policy issues are usually defined by external events, the president's domestic agenda becomes a matter of finding the optimal time to capitalize on congressional support.(5)

Skeptics of the two presidencies thesis charge that the underpinnings of a strong foreign policy president have been eroded. Donald Peppers contended that increased detente in the 1970s, the growth of non-executive military expertise that challenges the president's defense spending proposals, and negative public reaction to military intervention abroad after the Vietnam War greatly diminished executive predominance in foreign policy.(6) Revisionists also point to the reversal of congressional passivity in the foreign policy realm which characterized the era prior to Watergate and the Vietnam War. A resurgent Congress employed the "legislative veto" to force presidential consultation with the legislative branch and imposed other limits on the president's latitude in foreign policy, including the War Powers Act, the Case Act on Executive Agreements, and the National Emergencies Act of 1976. The majority of senators now employ at least one foreign policy specialist on staff. The number of aides serving on foreign and defense policy committees in Congress more than doubled between 1970 and 1979.(7) While much debate centers on the substance versus the symbolism of congressional resurgence,(8) presidential license over foreign policy has indubitably waned since Wildavsky first formulated the two presidencies thesis.

Revisionists also point to the growth of non-defense foreign policy issues that intertwine with domestic policy. Ronald Terchek maintains that "today more foreign policies affect domestic interests and more domestic interests affect foreign policy. In such a setting, the neat conceptual dividing line between domestic and foreign policies begins to fade."(9) For example, trade policy is generally considered domestic prerogative but has increasingly broad effects on international relations.(10) Intermestic issues are an increasingly important factor in executive-legislative conflict. Intermestic issues may engender augmented congressional activism and may pose risks for presidential leadership of Congress. Many intermestic issues are generally associated with domestic policies. Under constituency pressures members of Congress may scrutinize and alter presidential proposals despite foreign policy implications.(11) As the differences between foreign and domestic policy diminish and executive-legislative conflict extends beyond domestic policy to embrace foreign policy and intermestic issues, fading bipartisanship may dissolve the basis for the two presidencies phenomenon.(12)

In 1989 Wildavsky revisited the two presidencies thesis and noted that the theoretical framework is "time and culture bound."(13) Bipartisan consensus on foreign policy has largely evaporated in Congress and the public at large. As consensus about the proper international role of the United States was progressively weakened by the events of Watergate and Vietnam, domestic issues have produced new cleavages between the Democratic and Republican parties that undermine bipartisanship:

[F]oreign as well as domestic issues now divide the parties; and there are

many more issues--social, civil rights, ecological, defense--to divide the

parties. American parties are becoming more ideologically distinct.

Conservative southern Democrats are moving toward the Republican party.

Liberal Republicans are now an endangered species ... the parties are

slowly edging their way toward internal ideological unity.(14)

Increasing partisan divisions over domestic and foreign policy have subverted the sustainable bipartisanship characteristic of the 1950s.

What then is left of the two presidencies? A variety of scholars posit that bipartisanship is not the key to understanding the two presidencies phenomenon. George C. Edwards III maintains, that the two presidencies effect is a function of presidential proposals in foreign policy, but not domestic policy, that appeal to the opposition party.(15) Jon R. Bond and Richard Fleisher present compelling evidence that the two presidencies surfaces only for Republican presidents.(16) As Bond and Fleisher explain:

Republican presidents tend to win significantly more often on conflictual

foreign policy roll calls than on domestic policy, primarily because of

increased support from liberal Democrats on foreign policy. For Democratic

presidents, however, there is little or no difference in success rates in

the two policy areas.(17)

In a similar fashion, Lee Sigelman and Harvey G. Zeidenstein contend that the two presidencies thesis holds only for Republican presidents, especially in the Senate.(18)

If the two presidencies is particular to Republican presidents, the phenomenon should not surface for President Clinton, who enjoyed unified government during the 103rd Congress. Moreover, in an era of increased partisan divisions between Democrats and Republicans, it is reasonable to expect that party voting undermines the appearance of the two presidencies phenomenon. An analysis of Clinton's victories and defeats on legislative stands in the Senate, in combination with an evaluation of presidential support scores by policy area, is an appropriate means to test the presence or absence of the two presidencies during Clinton's first two years. The analysis renders a more complete view of how party voting behavior affects the two presidencies and details the extent to which the factors that underlay presidential support are not symmetrical across policy areas.


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