Twenty years ago, Stephen Skowronek, a political scientist at Yale, published a book titled The Politics Presidents Make. It was generally recognized as one of the most important books on the presidency since Richard Neustadt’s book, Presidential Power. In his book, Skowronek argued that every 40 years or so, a “reconstructive” president comes along and establishes a new presidential “regime.”
A new regime, in essence, is a new order. In the case of the presidency, it involves three changes: a fundamental shift in the coalition of the president’s party, a change in the presidential style of campaigning and governance and, most importantly, a paradigmatic shift in policies.
Regime changes often come as a surprise because they reshape the political world in unexpected ways. In the past, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt could be considered reconstructive presidents.
It would be safe to say that Ronald Reagan was our last reconstructive president. In some sense then, Ronald Reagan is still our president and has been since 1980. But at some point, the old answers no longer address the new questions. The Reagan regime’s foundation is not working anymore: tax cutting can’t be continued forever, the Soviet Union is gone and the broadcast media has been replaced by cell phones and the internet. The Reagan regime has come apart.
We are due for a regime change.
I thought for a while that Barack Obama would be a reconstructive president. But because he lacked the vision and the boldness to construct a new regime and because he was blocked after his first two years by a completely recalcitrant Congress, he ended up being a regime-maintenance president. Hillary Clinton promised more of the same and that apparently was her undoing.
We are due for a regime change. And President Donald Trump could be that agent. Remember that regime changes don’t necessarily have to be enlightened or progressive. The policy of the Reagan regime, for example, was a policy of retrenchment. The new Republican Party that Reagan founded combined Wall Street Republicans with evangelicals, Libertarians and remnants of the Dixiecrat Party.
The problem is that at the national level, that coalition is no longer viable. Candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney were boxed in by the demographic limitations of a shrinking electorate. The party’s coalition needed to be reformed. Trump succeeded, not in expanding the base, but in exploiting the eccentricities of the Electoral College.
Reagan’s campaign for the presidency and his style of governance was based on the use of the mainly broadcast media to appeal to people over the heads of Congress. But the audience for news has become fractured. Fewer and fewer people get their news from television. Political candidates across the spectrum are searching for ways to harness the internet. Obama was successful with campaigning via email and social media. Trump utilizes Twitter to communicate directly with his constituency. No president has ever had a megaphone of this precision.
At some point, the old answers no longer address the new questions.
Reagan’s policies, which were revolutionary for their time, included supply side economics, devolution of federal responsibility to the states, the rejection of detente with the Soviet Union, a “Star Wars” defense shield along with a massive expansion of the military, a return to the overt reference to religious (mainly Christian) values in politics, an emphasis in social welfare policy on personal responsibility, a laissez-faire approach to environmentalism and a vision of the U.S. as a shining city on a hill.
Trump pays mere lip service to, if not downright disagrees with, Reagan’s policies. He has little interest in social values and only tepidly supports tax cuts. He is isolationist, opposes free trade and appears not to care what other countries think of the U.S. His pledges to protect Medicare and Social Security are out of whack with core Republican themes.
He has made us think the unthinkable. Maybe we should rethink American involvement in the world. Maybe free trade isn’t an end in itself. Maybe we should think about American workers and American infrastructure first. Trump has a unique ability to question the central precepts of the last 60 years. That’s what reconstructive presidents do.
Trump has the opportunity to set the terms of debate for the next generation.
And there is a very good possibility that Trump will succeed. It is hard to fight a reconstructive president. By and large, Americans want to be led. My own research suggests that there is a bias in our minds toward bold leadership, no matter where it takes us. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that with human beings, the facts bend to perception rather than the other way around.
Reagan’s policies were mildly successful, if at all. But that is not the understanding of most on the right. By the same token, there is no indication that core supporters of the Trump administration are likely to be interested in facts that contravene their narrative. Therefore, while it is important to point out that much of what Trump says is fiction, there isn’t really a point at which his supporters will slap their foreheads and vote Democratic.
I am doubtful as to whether or not Trump is self-aware enough to recognize the opportunity he has to build a new regime. By all accounts, he cares little for strategic thinking. He doesn’t like to read, so I doubt he’s ever heard of Skowronek. Nevertheless, by design or by accident, he has the opportunity to set the terms of debate for the next generation.