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George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and the “New” American Party System

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George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and the “New” American Party System

Sidney M. Milkis and Jesse H. Rhodes

Department of Politics

University of Virginia

Draft – Not to be quoted without the permission of the authors

Prepared for delivery at the American Politics Workshop, University of Virginia, September 30, 2005.


The relationship between the executive branch and the American party system has never been easy. The architects of the Constitution established a nonpartisan presidency which, with the support of the Senate and judiciary, was intended to play the leading institutional role in checking and controlling “the violence of faction” that the Framers feared would rend the fabric of representative government. Even after the presidency became a more partisan office during the early nineteenth century, a development resulting from efforts to hold the executive office more accountable to Congress and state and local interests, its authority continued to depend on an ability to remain independent of party politics, especially during national emergencies. The parties, in contrast, were deliberately welded to the Constitution by Jeffersonian and Jacksonian reformers to thwart executive ambition and to keep power close enough to the people for representative government to prevail. Rooted in local associations, the parties were perceived as bulwarks of decentralization, providing a vital link between the offices of government and the people and balancing the interests of the national government with those of state and local communities (Milkis 1999: Chapter 2).

By the end of the 19th century, the localized, highly mobilized party system posed a formidable obstacle to progressive reformers who considered the expansion of national administrative power essential to economic and political reform. Progressive and New Deal reformers looked to a “modern” presidency, emancipated from the suffocating grip of the decentralized parties, to become the principal agent of this reform. The Executive Reorganization Act of 1939, which Franklin D. Roosevelt achieved after a bitter two year struggle with Congress, transformed the executive office into an institution: it not only granted FDR the authority for the creation of the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which included a the newly formed White House Office and a strengthened and refurbished Bureau of the Budget, but also enhanced the president’s control of the expanding activities of the executive branch. The “institutionalization” of the modern presidency and the establishment of extensive national administrative capacity during the New Deal weakened the limited but critical relationship between presidents and parties and pointed toward a more centralized and bureaucratic form of democracy that focused American political life on the president and administrative agencies. Crafted with the intention of reducing the influence of partisanship, the consolidation of the modern presidency during the New Deal and expansion during the tenures of Presidents Johnson and Nixon contributed to the parties’ well-documented decline.

Administrative aggrandizement at the expense of party politics was particularly likely to happen when programs or benefits were championed as “rights.” With the advent of what FDR termed an “economic constitutional order,” a commitment to limited government gave way to support for programmatic rights, realized through programs intended to guarantee the social and economic welfare of the individual. ”Entitlement” programs such as Social Security and Medicare were viewed as tantamount to rights and thus worthy of protection from the vagaries of party politics and elections (Milkis 1993; 1999: Chapters 3-5).

These developments were reinforced by the emergence of the national security state. As the New Deal prepared for war, Roosevelt spoke not only of the government’s obligation to guarantee “freedom from want” but also of its responsibility to provide “freedom from fear”—to protect the American people, and the world, against foreign aggression. This obligation to uphold “human rights” became a new guarantee of security, which presupposed a further expansion of national administrative power (Roosevelt 1938-1950: v. 9, 671-672; Shefter 2002).

The creation of a modern executive charged with economic and international security resulted in a more active and better equipped national state, but one that has had troubling consequences for American democracy. Most damagingly, it has encouraged presidents to pursue their programmatic aspirations through executive administration rather than through collaboration with Congress and the parties, and thus has devalued collective responsibility for public policy. As the parties declined, the presidency, isolated from the stable basis of popular support they once provided and harried by a demanding constellation of interest groups, evolved, or degenerated, into a plebiscitary form of politics, in which citizens invested their support in an individual leader for a time, then all too often withdrew it (Tulis 1987; Lowi 1985). The unfulfilled promise of the “personal presidency” contributed to an ongoing crisis in public confidence in government evident in declining political participation and decreased public satisfaction with government performance (Lowi 1985; Milkis 1993, 1999).

Although the development of the modern presidency fostered a serious decline in the traditional, local and state patronage-based parties, the frequent eulogies to parties espoused during the 1970s and 1980s were premature (Aldrich 1995). Beginning with the New Deal realignment, and culminating with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the erosion of old-style partisan politics permitted the development of a new party system, forging new links between the parties and constitutional officers (Milkis 1993, 1999; Herrnson 1988; Bibby 2002). However, while traditional parties were formed to constrain executive power, the “new” American party system, characterized by nationalized organization and programmatic objectives, seemed better suited to serving the political and policy ambitions of the modern presidency. Equally troubling was evidence that the nationalized party organizations, while valuable to office-seekers as “vendors” of campaign services, made at best only a small impression on the American public.

George W. Bush benefited from the “new” Republican Party that arose with the resurgence and transformation of conservatism during the Reagan presidency; just as surely, he used the powers of the modern presidency revitalized in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, to further advance and strengthen it. Indeed, no president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has tended to the health of his party with such care and enthusiasm. Bush’s active cultivation of Republican candidates and diligent fundraising have considerably strengthened the party organization, while his public displays of religiosity and steadfast use of moral language have served to consolidate a Republican identity of moral and religious conservatism that has energized Republican partisans. The president’s dramatic intervention in the 2002 midterm elections helped Republicans achieve historic victories in the House and Senate. Building on the successes in the 2002 elections, Bush and his advisors designed and implemented the most ambitious grassroots campaign in the party’s history for the 2004 elections. This “national party machine,” composed of more than a million campaign volunteers across the country, was credited as a key to Bush’s narrow but decisive victory over his opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, in the presidential election and helping to increase Republicans’ command of the Senate and House.

Bush’s leadership of the Republican Party represents a considerable political achievement. The critical question at hand, however, is whether Bush’s party leadership represents a significant new development in the party system, or merely continues the “new” party politics of the 1970s-1990s. Do the institutions and practices developed during the Bush presidency represent a new mode of presidential party leadership that will inform the electoral politics of the future? Do

the party innovations undertaken during President Bush’s tenure permit the contemporary parties to perform the parties’ historic role of moderating presidential ambition and mobilizing public support for political values and governing policies? Although the modern presidency’s responsibilities for managing the national economy and waging the War on Terrorism render impractical the kind of accountability provided by the decentralized patronage parties, it is yet unclear whether modern parties represent an instrument of collective responsibility or a capitulation to and celebration of the modern presidency.


Before we can evaluate the importance of Bush’s party leadership, it is necessary to describe and analyze (1) the national, programmatic party system as Bush encountered it; and (2) the party leadership of Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Once we understand the characteristics of the party system as Bush found it, we will have a benchmark against which we can identify innovations and calibrate their institutional significance. Similarly, an assessment of the innovativeness of Bush’s party leadership is made possible only through comparison with that of past presidents. Thus, in the following two sections, we provide a brief discussion of the “new” party politics of the 1970s-1990s and of Reagan’s party leadership strategies.

The Transformation of Party Organizations

During the 1970s, political scientists kept a death watch over the American party system. The declining influence of the traditional decentralized, patronage based party organizations was reflected not only in the reform of the presidential selection process, which codified the candidate-centered campaign that the modern presidency portended, but also in the political loyalties of the American public.1 Institutional changes that deemphasized partisan politics and governance, combined with television’s emergence as the most important platform of political action, begat an “age of ticket-splitting,” in which Americans delivered a split verdict in national elections for all but four years between 1968 and 1992 (White 1982).

By the late 1980s, however, it appeared that the age of divided government had brought not the decline but rather the metamorphosis of the American party system. Rather than simply withering away, party organizations underwent a transformation from locally-based engines of mass mobilization to nationally-oriented “vendors” of services to congressional and presidential campaigns (Aldrich 1995; Herrnson 1988). While the new service parties were more modest in their electoral import (no longer controlling nominations or directing campaigns), they appeared to have adapted to candidate-centered campaigns, making themselves useful to legislative and presidential candidates. National parties used the spoils of their successful direct mail operations to provide much-needed funding to candidates (Shea 2003), assist in candidate fundraising efforts, help create campaign advertisements (Herrnson 2002a:73), aid in the development of issue and opposition research (Reichley 2000: 302-303), and provide advice on campaign strategy, voter attitudes and trends, and election laws (Herrnson 2002a: 72).

Organizational innovation during this period was also associated with a greater party emphasis on programmatic politics: increasingly, the national parties engaged in activities such as publishing public policy journals and distributing comprehensive briefing books for candidates (Milkis 1999: Chapter 6).

Many state parties followed the example of the national parties, acquiring increased capacity to serve candidates, and even the local parties in some (mostly urban) areas expanded their activities by the late 1990s (Reichley 2000; Bibby 2002: 28; Paddock 2005). Nonetheless, the rebirth of the parties as service vendors was accompanied by a trend toward nationalization of the party system. The national parties reined in their local affiliates with numerous procedural and substantive rules (Aldrich 1995; Maisel and Bibby 2002), and exploited campaign finance laws to increase their influence over state party committees and achieve national party objectives (Maisel and Bibby 2002:71; Bibby 2002: 42). 2 As a result, the traditional apparatus of both parties, based on patronage and state and local interests, gave way to a more hierarchically-organized, programmatic party politics, based on the national organization (Milkis 1999).

The State of the Party-in-Government: The Resurgence of Congressional Partisanship

Just as the party organizations underwent a period of transformation and renewal, so congressional partisanship experienced resurgence (Sinclair 2002a, 2002; Davidson 2001; Pomper 1999, 2003). The dramatic intensification of partisanship in Congress was the product of equally dramatic shifts in the electorate following in the wake of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. The Republican candidacy of Barry Goldwater and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (Carmines and Stimson 1989) catalyzed a partisan realignment in the American South, with Southern white conservatives defecting in increasing numbers from their traditional Democratic allegiances to the Republican Party, and newly enfranchised (and generally liberal) African-Americans flocking to the Democratic Party (Rohde 1991; Beck 2003). Indeed, civil rights reform helped shatter the old New Deal order,: during the ascendancy of the New Deal coalition, Southern whites composed a solid Democratic voting bloc; since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, a majority of the white southern electorate has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. which had previously allied conservative southern whites and northern liberals in the Democratic Party.

In the same period, large numbers of northerners with traditional Republican allegiances, following employment opportunities, came to settle in the South. The increasingly large number of Southern Republican voters resulting from these trends gradually replaced conservative Democratic representatives with conservative Republicans; at the same time, “the constituencies that elected the remaining Democrats became more like constituencies elsewhere, so the roll call voting of southern Democrats became more like the roll call voting of Democrats from other regions, so the roll call voting of southern Democrats became more like the roll call voting of Democrats from other regions” (Jacobson 2000:15). Thus, as Jacobson concludes, “the southern realignment left both congressional parties with more politically homogenous electoral coalitions, reducing internal disagreements and making stronger party leadership tolerable” (Jacobson 2000:15). Outside the South, similar, albeit more muted, patterns were observed, with more ideologically homogenous Republican and Democratic constituencies electing more conservative Republican and more liberal Democratic representatives, respectively (Jacobson 2001: 249; Jacobson 2000:17; Bartels 2000). These trends reinforced the movement toward greater internal ideological coherence within each congressional party and greater ideological dissimilarity between the parties. The results of these trends were congressional parties with greater internal coherence and external dissimilarity.

As the congressional parties became more internally homogenous (Sinclair 2002a) and externally dissimilar (Pomper 2003; Jacobson 2001; Jacobson 2000) in their ideological orientations, voting became a much more partisan affair, with members of Congress voting with their parties at much higher rates in the 1980s-1990s than they did in the 1970s.3 Moreover, partisans became more willing to grant their leadership greater power over agenda-setting, committee assignments, and institutional rules, with the hope of achieving more favorable partisan outcomes (Aldrich 1995; Rohde 1991; Aldrich and Rohde 2001; Pomper 2003). The full exploitation of these rules for partisan advantage by Democratic majorities in the 1980s and Republican majorities in the 1990s served to exacerbate inter-party tensions.

Weaknesses of the New Party Politics: The Limited Scope of Renewal in the Party-in-the-Electorate

As the Republican and Democratic parties became more centralized, these organizations risked losing their connection with the American people. Indeed, party organizational transformation and intensified party conflict in Congress were not matched by resurgence in partisanship or political participation in the mass electorate. Although some more recent scholarship has suggested that mass partisanship is on the rebound since its low point in the early 1970s (Bartels 2000; Hetherington 2001; Fleisher and Bond 2001; Davidson 2001), other work has cautioned that evidence of increased mass partisanship must be tempered with the acknowledgement that as much as 40% of the electorate claimed political independence in the 2000 election, a greater proportion than identified with either of the major parties (Beck 2003).

Political engagement (measured by participation in politics and support for the political system) also failed to respond to party “renewal.” Despite the rise of politically potent national party organizations, voter turnout remained soft, with less than 50% of the voting age population voting in the 1996 presidential election.4 In addition, the public expressed continuing high levels of frustration with the performance of the government and its officials.5

Critics of the national programmatic party system have charged that its characteristics have left the mass public either indifferent or alienated. Some have argued that the nationalized parties’ heavy emphasis on providing fund-raising and services to individual candidates have distracted them from their traditional role in educating, organizing, and mobilizing the public, thereby preventing the reestablishment of strong institutional links between citizens and their government (Shea 1999; Shea 2003; Reichley 2000; Coleman 1996). As Reichley lamented, “by moving the direction of parties further and further from grassroots party organization and party identifiers, and by emphasizing process over substance…[party elites] weakened the bonds of emotion and self-interest that formerly attracted most voters to one major party or the other (Reichley 2000: 291; see also Sorauf 2002:92).” Further, Rosenstone and Hansen’s (1993) work suggests that the national programmatic parties’ emphasis on high-tech campaigning rather than grassroots mobilization accounts for more than half of the observed decline in voter turnout from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.

Equally important, some students of the nationalized party organizations suggested that, unlike their predecessors, the national programmatic parties served more as vehicles of presidential ambition than as organs of collective responsibility or mass engagement (Milkis 1993, 1999, 2005). Indeed, presidents continued to pursue their programmatic goals through executive administration rather than through the parties or Congress (Milkis 1993, 1999; Skowronek 1997). Moreover, as the presidency developed into an elaborate and ubiquitous institution, the personnel in the White House Office and Executive Office of the President preempted party leaders in many of their limited, but significant, duties: providing a link from government to interest groups, staffing the executive department, contributing to policy development, organizing election campaigns, and communicating with the public (Milkis 2005). The expansion of national administrative power that followed in the wake of the New Deal was directed not just to creating presidential government but also to embedding programs in a bureaucratic structure that insulated administrative personnel from electoral change (Milkis 2005a).

The unpopularity of national parties and Congress gave presidents little incentive to curb their personal ambition. Although some scholars found that increased congressional partisanship encouraged greater mass attachment to their partisan identities by making partisanship more salient with the public (Hetherington 2001), other research suggested that heightened Congressional partisanship actually increased public disdain for the parties and Congress (Hibbing and Smith 2001:48-49; Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1995). Indeed, as Hibbing and Smith found in a recent analysis of public attitudes toward Congress, “the more that parties and institutions are at odds, the more the people believe the interests of ordinary Americans are being neglected” (Hibbing and Smith 2001:49). Raw and disruptive conflict between Congress and the President and between the parties in Congress rubs against the deep rooted antipathy to partisanship in American political culture; moreover, the traditional disdain for militant partisanship has been further aroused by the close alliance that contemporary Democrats and Republicans have forged with Washington based policy advocates.6 Since, as Hetherington (2001) shows, the effect of Congressional partisanship on mass partisanship was greatest among those with the highest levels of political sophistication (i.e. those most likely to be activists), a plausible conclusion is that the increased congressional partisanship of the 1980s-1990s energized political activists while failing to move (or even estranging) the broader public.While heightened congressional partisanship may have energized the most politically aware partisans, it seems not to have greatly strengthened partisanship in the broader public.

Thus, as the literature suggests, the changes in the party system beginning in the 1970s failed to overcome some of the fundamental problems created by the rise of the modern presidency and the administrative state. While the party organization and the party-in-government experienced a renaissance of sorts, the national programmatic parties largely failed to renew the ties between the public and the government, inspire greater public engagement with the political system, or moderate presidential ambition. Indeed, there was substantial evidence that the transformed party system actually weakened the public’s engagement with the political process and facilitated presidents’ administrative politics.7

Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office, revealing the great potential and imposing limits of modern presidential party leadership, is a critical backdrop to George W. Bush’s efforts to strengthen the Republican Party. Although he was, in some ways, a vigorous partisan, Reagan’s party leadership illustrates the ambivalent relationship between the modern presidency and the national programmatic party system. Even as he strengthened the Republican Party organization and drew new groups into the Republican coalition, Reagan’s candidate-centered campaigns and his tendency to govern through bureaucratic channels short-circuited collective responsibility and forestalled the revitalization of partisanship in the electorate.
Rhetorical Leadership

As a party that expanded national administration, the Democrats established the conditions for the end of parties unless or until a party sprang up that was anti-administration. Reagan was the first modern president to issue a fundamental challenge to the emphasis that the New Deal and Great Society placed on administration and entitlements. The president’s basic message, as William K. Muir has argued, was that “centrally administered government tended to weaken a free people’s character. By overregulation and fiscal overindulgence, distant government demoralized and enervated its citizenry” (Muir 1988:288; see also Hamby 1992, chapter 8). Since 1964, in fact, when Reagan gave a nationwide television address on behalf of Barry Goldwater, he had consistently questioned the New Deal’s redefinition of the social contract – the new idea of rights FDR championed that obviated the cultural underpinnings of limited government in the United States (Scaife 1983: 4-5).

Reagan’s challenge to modern liberalism had important consequences for his party. His presidency would never fundamentally threaten the New Deal state (Hamby 1992, chp.8, Berman 1990; Mann 1990:22). Indeed, as Hugh Heclo has noted, Reagan’s rhetoric had a serious “blind spot” – it failed to come to terms with the rise of “big government” as an important reality of modern America (Heclo 2003). Still, as Paul Allen Beck explains, “[Reagan’s] assault on big government put liberalism on the defensive and lent such respectability to conservative ideas that they permeated the public more deeply than ever before (Beck 1988:161).” Reagan’s forceful rhetoric thus fundamentally altered the national political agenda, placing traditional Republican issues such as tax and budget cuts, defense spending, and traditional morality at the center of American politics (Beck 1988:161; Berman 1990:11).

Moreover, by showing that conservative rhetorical appeals could lead to electoral victory, Reagan helped remove the last remnants of resistance to the party’s move toward the ideological conservatism initiated by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. Goldwater’s nomination signified a conservative shift in the Republican party; Reagan advanced GOP conservatism one step further by making the Republican party and program an electoral success, albeit primarily at the presidential level (Milkis 1993:270).

Reagan’s Efforts to Strengthen the Republican Party

Reagan’s effort to inaugurate a new political era benefited from, and in turn helped to galvanize, the renewal of party politics. Whereas the national party organization suffered at the hands of presidents such as Roosevelt, Johnson, and Nixon, all of whom considered it an obstacle to their intentions, a case can be made that Reagan was remarkably concerned with nurturing party responsibility and organization (Milkis 1993:267).

Because the national and issue oriented party system that had begun to take shape by the late 1970s was associated less with patronage than with policy issues and sophisticated fund raising techniques, it did not pose as much of an obstacle to the personal and programmatic ambitions of presidents as the traditional system had. Indeed, by 1984, the GOP had become a solidly right of center party, made over in Reagan’s image.

Significantly, it was Reagan who broke with the tradition of the modern presidency and identified closely with his party. Reagan’s commitment to party was evident even during his run for the presidency: as the party’s presidential candidate, he posed with Republican congressional candidates on the steps of the Capitol “to symbolize his association with the entire party ticket” (Reichley 2000:296). As president, Reagan’s party leadership marked a sharp departure from that of previous modern presidents, especially from those who harbored ambitions for significant policy reform (Milkis 1993: 267). Indeed, whereas the national party organization suffered at the hands of presidents such as Roosevelt, Johnson, and Nixon, all of whom considered it an obstacle to their intentions, a case can be made that Reagan was remarkably concerned with nurturing party responsibility and organization (Milkis 1993:267).

Following the Republicans’ disappointing showing in the 1982 elections, Reagan intervened to improve coordination between the White House, the national committee, and the legislative campaign committees. In January 1983, the President chose his close personal friend, Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, to fill a newly created position, General Chairman of the GOP. Senator Laxalt’s close associate, Frank Fahrenkoph, former chairman of the Nevada Republican party, replaced the ineffective Richard Richards in the traditional post of the RNC chair. The White House, with Senator Laxalt’s support, then actively interceded to replace the head of the Republican Senatorial Committee, Senator Robert Packwood of Oregon, a frequent critic of the president, with a more reliable political ally, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana. These developments enabled the Reagan administration to improve the coordination of campaign efforts and policy development within the party without undermining the GOP’s organizational strength The president made a successful effort to ensconce allies in the Republican National Committee and the Republican Senatorial Committee, which enabled the administration to improve the coordination of campaign efforts and policy development without undermining the GOP’s organizational strength (Fahrenkoph 1992; Milkis 1993:267).

Fahrenkoph and LaxaltReagan’s allies at the RNC also oversaw the expansion of the Party’s direct mail fundraising efforts, which grew from a base of twenty-four thousand contributors in 1975 to over two million by the mid-1980s (Busch 2001:65). The dramatic growth in the party’s financial resources under Reagan’s leadership “allowed Republicans to engage in unprecedented professional party staffing, voter contact, polling, media advertising, candidate recruitment and staff training, research and data sharing, party communication, and outreach” (Busch 2001:65).

Reagan worked hard to strengthen the Republicans’ organizational and popular base, surprising his own White House political director with his “total readiness” to raise funds and make speeches for the party and its candidates. Indeed, Reagan exhibited an enthusiasm for partisan responsibilities unprecedented among modern presidents (Personal interview with Mitchell Daniels, assistant to the president for political and governmental affairs, June 5, 1986).8 As one account has it, “in 1983 and 1984 during his own reelection effort, Reagan made more than two dozen campaign and fundraising appearances for all branches of the party organization and candidates at every level…[and] During the pitched and ultimately losing battle to retain control of the Senate for the Republicans in 1986, Reagan played the good soldier, visiting twenty-two key states repeatedly and raising $33 million for the party and its candidates” (Sabato 1988). Former Republican Party Chairman William Brock, who had observed the relationship of every president since Eisenhower with the party, concluded in 1987 that “…Reagan has been in many respects an ardent party leader. Of the six presidents I have known, he has worked the hardest to strengthen the party” (Personal interview,: August 12, 1987).

Strengthening the Republican Coalition

Reagan’s rhetoric and attention to party building were joined to important policy changes that served to disrupt the old Democratic coalition and forge new ties between the Republican Party and important constituencies. Tax cuts, coupled with dramatically increased defense spending, led to an increasing federal deficit which constrained Democrats’ ability to provide resources and programs to constituents, while deregulation weakened the position of key Democratic constituencies (for example, labor and consumer groups vis a vis employers and business, respectively) (Ginsberg and Shefter 1990:337-338).

Just as Reagan’s policies imposed strains on the Democratic coalition, so they served to broaden Republicans’ electoral appeal with Southern whites, big business, working class voters, and the suburban middle class. Due in part to his identification with evangelicalism and his staunch anticommunism, Reagan’s leadership helped advance the gradual realignment of Southern whites into the Republican Party (Ginsburg and Shefter 1990; Busch 2001; Black 2004). Reagan also made a largely successful effort to unify the business community, “[taking] advantage of the dissatisfaction of big business with high taxes and growing regulation to reattach it to small business as part of the Republican coalition” (Busch 2001:231).

Working class voters were wooed with a two-pronged strategy. Having weakened the links between Democrats and the working class by attacking labor unions, Reagan and the Republicans sought to attract blue collar voters by emphasizing moral issues and by making patriotic appeals, ultimately winning “a majority of Catholic voters and nonunion blue-collar households, as well as 46 percent of the union vote” in 1984 (Busch 2001:231;Ginsburg and Shefter 1990:345). Reagan’s Republican Party also made considerable inroads among middle-class suburbanite voters, in large part by encouraging them to think of themselves as taxpayers (financiers of others’ government benefits) rather than as beneficiaries themselves (Ginsberg and Shefter 1990:341-343).

The Reagan experience suggested how the relationship between the modern presidency and the modern party can be mutually beneficial. Republican support solidified the president’s personal popularity and laid the political foundation for his programs in Congress, which helped the administration overcome the paralysis of divided government.9 In turn, the president served his fellow Republicans by strengthening their fund raising activities and by encouraging voters to extend their loyalties not just to him but to his party. Ultimately, Reagan’s tenure witnessed dramatic growth in Republican party identification (to virtual parity with Democrats), growth in the proportion of Americans who believed that Republicans were best able to handle the country’s most pressing problems, and an increase in Republicans’ share of state legislatures and governorships (Beck 1988).

The Limits of Reagan’s Party Leadership

Reagan worked diligently to strengthen the party apparatus and draw new groups into the Republican coalition; however, at critical moments, he failed to present his programs in the strongly partisan terms that would give voters a compelling reason to endorse enduring Republican leadership or a fundamental reshaping of liberal programs (Milkis and Nelson 2003:357). Most important, Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign relied on the feel-good theme “Its Morning Again in America” rather than on sharp issue stands that clarified the choice between Democratic and Republican views of the future (Milkis and Nelson 2003:357-63; Milkis 1993; Mansfield 1987). Similarly, although the president made considerable efforts to help elect Republican congressmen in the 1986 midterm elections, the White House ordered the Republican National Committee to avoid a highly partisan campaign (Milkis 1993).

Reagan’s failure to emphasize the differences between Republicans and Democrats and to make a strong case for his conservative programs may have undermined Republican efforts to complete the “Reagan Revolution.” Following a disappointing 1984 congressional campaign in which Republicans lost two seats in the Senate and failed to recoup seats lost in the 1982 House midterm elections, Harvey Mansfield (1987:281) charged that

Reagan’s failure to demand anything of the American people may have improved his own chances for re-election, but by reducing the size of the task [facing the country], it softened the argument for voting for his party. Why give up the apparent benefits of the Democrats’ established programs if the new policies require no sacrifice? Why then replace Democrats with Republicans?

The results from the 1986 midterm were even worse for Republicans, as the party lost eight seats and its majority in the Senate, giving the Democrats full control over Congress. Again, contemporary analysts faulted the president for failing to provide a compelling reason for retaining a Republican majority (Ehrenhalt 1986:2803). The inability of Republicans to achieve unified government during Reagan’s tenure cast a shadow over the “Republican Revolution” and ultimately prevented the fundamental restructuring of governmental priorities Reagan envisioned.

Given that the Reagan White House gained the RNC’s complicity in emphasizing presidential politics, it is not surprising the national Republican Party also failed to mobilize grass roots partisan support. RNC Chairman Fahrenkoph designed an ambitious 8-year plan to strengthen the local party organizations by redirecting RNC resources to county and township organizations. However, there was little evidence by the end of the 1980s that the plan had succeeded (Milkis 1993:274).

Moreover, while Reagan’s tenure saw an important increase in the percentage of Americans considering themselves Republicans, a significant proportion of the electorate remained alienated from both of the political parties. The share of “pure” independents remained approximately constant throughout Reagan’s presidency, and at a proportion (between 10-12%) about twice that observed in the early 1950s10; and the proportion of independents (including party leaners) continued to exceed that of Republican Party identifiers. The continued weakness of mass partisanship during Reagan’s tenure pointed to Republicans’ and the president’s failure to move beyond forms of media-based campaigning toward extensive engagement with and mobilization of the electorate.
Reagan and the Administrative Presidency
Spurred on by the limits imposed by divided government and by his belief that a strong national state was necessary to foster growth, oppose communism, and nurture family values, the Reagan White House often relied on executive administration to achieve its policy objectives. Reagan’s wielding of the administrative presidency frequently short-circuited the legislative process and weakened the prospects for policy to emerge as the result of collaboration between different elements of the party (Milkis 1993: Chapters 10 and 11). His presidency thus ultimately failed to alleviate the crisis of the liberal order; indeed, it demonstrated that an institutionalized presidency forged for liberal purposes could be redeployed for conservative ends.

As numerous scholars have noted (Busch 2001; Milkis 1993; Rudalevige 2003), Reagan “pursued a campaign to maximize presidential control over the federal bureaucracy that was more self-conscious in design and execution, and more comprehensive in scope, than that of any other administration in the modern era” (Benda and Levine 1988). Many of the president’s signature policies (such as the tax and budget cuts of 1981 and the “New Federalism” of 1982 (Milkis 1993; Rudalevige 2003)) were developed primarily in the Executive Office of the President.

The Reagan administration also “attempted to harness the permanent civil service bureaucracy, by ensuring through an elaborate screening mechanism that all political appointments – not only cabinet secretaries but the crucial ‘subcabinet’ of assistants, deputies, and lower officials – were filled with people committed to the president’s program” (Busch 2001:59). The appointment of strong ideological conservatives at subcabinent levels – such as Ann Gorsuch at the Environmental Protection Agency, William Bradford Reynolds at the Civil Rights Division, and Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – ostensibly controlled the behavior of career civil servants and advanced Reagan’s objectives of reducing environmental regulations and rolling back certain civil rights programs (Golden 2000). This administrative strategy often backfired, however, especially in the domain of environmental policy.11 Reagan’s efforts to impose his will through his appointments suggested that his reformist ambitions outstripped the limited agreements that could be forged in a fragmented political system.

As even admirers have admitted, “Reagan also made frequent use of executive orders to impose his agenda to the fullest extent possible without congressional action, especially in the regulatory sphere”(Busch 2001:59, emphasis added; see also Milkis and Nelson 2003:360). Even in the area of regulatory relief, a project ostensibly designed to “get government of the backs of the American people,” the Reagan administration’s efforts came not through legislative change but through comprehensive reviews mandated by executive orders and executive task forcesadministrative action. Reagan’s Executive Orders 12291 and 12498 mandated a comprehensive review of proposed agency regulations by the Office of Management and Budget (Milkis and Nelson 2003: 361); Reagan also appointed a Task Force on Regulatory Relief, headed by Vice President Bush, to apply cost-benefit analysis to existing rules. Comprehensive reviews were subsequently used to attempt to weaken environmental, consumer, and civil rights regulations (see Golden 2000; Milkis 1993; Harris and Milkis 1996).

Executive orders were not the only means used to achieve substantive (and controversial) policy ends through administrative means. Reagan’s most controversial administrative action targeted Social Security. In May 1981, without consulting members of Congress, the president proposed deep and immediate cuts in benefits for early retirees—that is, persons who chose to retire with reduced benefits before the normal retirement age of 65. The administration also proposed to eliminate a statutory provision that guaranteed retirees a minimum benefit. The attempt to cut Social Security benefits sparked a furious reaction in Congress. Members of both parties repudiated the administration overwhelmingly, with the Senate voting 96-0 against the early retirement benefits and the House voting 405-13 against the minimum benefit proposal. Although Congress’s opposition was bipartisan, Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill turned the Reagan administration’s mistake into a partisan issue that the Democrats exploited in the 1982 midterm election and for years to come In the aftermath of this debacle, O’Neill famously called Social Security the “

Nevertheless, the defeat did not discourage Reagan appointees in the Social Security Administration (SSA) from trying to cut Social Security through administrative action. Claiming authority from a 1980 law that mandated a review of the disability program, they engaged in a large-scale effort (ultimately affecting nearly half a million people) to purge the rolls of those whom they considered ineligible. (Milkis and Nelson 2003, 360-1). After the federal courts and congressional Democrats maintained that the Reagan administration’s action violated the intent of the 1980 legislation, a two year struggle ensued that ended in Congress passing the Disability Benefits Act of 1984, which required the SSA to prove that a recipient’s medical condition had improved before it could cut off benefits

The protracted battle over disability insurance testified dramatically to the Reagan administration’s fervent commitment to challenging the social welfare policies of the past, with or without the authorization from Congress or the courts. The Iran-Contra affair revealed that this administrative ambition extended, with equal, if not greater fervor to foreign policy. The selling of arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages and the diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan Contras required the development of an alternative intelligence apparatus unknown to Congress, the circumvention of a 1985 congressional prohibition on aid to the Contras, and the violation of the administration’s own pledges not to bargain with terrorists or to provide military assistance to Iran. Although it is unclear whether Reagan was fully aware of the diversion of funds from the arms sale to the Contras, the episode dramatically revealed the administration’s determination to achieve its objective of aiding anti-communist forces, even if doing so required going outside normal congressional and bureaucratic channels. Many Republican members of Congress supported the substance of the president’s actions, criticizing Reagan only for his secrecy and his failure to make the case for his policy to the American people.12

Reagan thus left an ambiguous legacy of party leadership. He enhanced the fund raising capacity of the Republican Party organization, articulated principles that reset the terms of political debate to the Republicans’ advantage, and bolstered the Republican coalition. At the same time, the importance of presidential politics and administration may have reduced the prospects of a Republican realignment, discouraged an effective outreach to the potential grassroots supporters, and short circuited public debate and resolution about the challenges he posed to the liberal state.

From a historical perspective, Reagan’s emphasis on executive administration was a logical response to the New Deal and the consolidation of the modern presidency. Given that the modern presidency established during the New Deal was designed to replace partisan politics with the non-partisan administration of the liberal state, it is not surprising that Reagan’s challenge to liberal policies produced a conservative administrative presidency which complicated the reemergence of party politics. Ultimately, Reagan’s administrative presidency exposed the “new” party system’s inability to hold executive power accountable; at the same time, his two terms in office demonstrated that, absent a comprehensive partisan strategy, forceful and centralized executive administration could not nurture the substantial change in public values and institutions necessary to bring about an enduring political transformation. Moreover, because the conservative administrative presidency challenged the purposes for which the modern presidency had been forged, its wielding by Reagan prompted a raw and disruptive struggle between Congress and the presidency for control of the bureaucracy (Milkis 1993, 1999). This struggle, reflected most clearly in the series of investigations in which Democrats and Republicans sought to discredit each other, largely served to discredit partisanship and the government itself in the eyes of the public.


However, as fierce partisan battles were waged within the “beltway,” the influence of Democrats and Republicans on the perceptions and habits of the American people continued to decline. For example, in the 27 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that register voters by party, the number of voters who chose not to identify with either of the major parties rose significantly during the 1980s and 1990s; just as important, with the exception of 1992, when a number of voters were drawn to the polls by H. Ross Perot’s independent campaign, turnout in elections during these decades was chronically low, rivaling the ennui of the 1920s, when many women, newly enfranchised by the Nineteenth Amendment, were unfamiliar with voting and many states had registration laws that discriminated against recent immigrants and African-Americans (Cook 2004).

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