Presidential Leadership--JFK to Bush II:
Why it Has Failed and How We Can Fix it
by James MacGregor Burns
Basic Books, 272 pp., $26
James MacGregor Burns can succinctly be described as a poor man's Arthur Schlesinger: a prolific writer on American history for more than 50 years, whose scholarship is to some extent disfigured by Democratic partisanship. And partisanship is certainly to be found in Burns's new book, as when he observes that Republicans keep "faith with their values with . . . promises to destroy programs that provide a minimum of security to the ill and the aged." How's that for a fair and balanced assessment of Republican efforts at entitlement reform?
Overall, however, Burns's analysis here is relatively evenhanded, in that he examines a failing common to both Democratic and Republican presidencies--a failing that Burns traces to John F. Kennedy. Presidencies fail when presidents run (and subsequently govern) alone: "Running alone has become the dominant political strategy in the 40 years since Kennedy's death, with grave consequences for American government. . . . It has been the defining principle of presidential politics since Kennedy and a crucial factor in the failure of so many presidents to lead."
Although he does not seem to realize this, Burns means two different things when he speaks of running alone, and the two things are in tension with one another. Burns mostly equates running alone with a presidential candidate's running as an individual as opposed to a party leader: Such a candidate ignores his party, its platform, and its welfare. Thus, he faults Kennedy for his "separation from--even antagonism toward--the Democratic party." (Later Burns blames Nixon, Carter, and Clinton for similar failings. Nixon, for example, "exploited and degraded" the Republican party and achieved only a "personal"--as opposed to a "party"--victory in 1972.)
To run alone, as opposed to running as a party leader, is deplor able, because it is "a poor, even impossible, strategy for a leader hoping to weld government together to create some kind of transformation. Strong leadership require[s] that a president mobilize and unify followers numerous and committed enough to overcome the many forces resisting change."
But Burns also equates running alone with reluctance to consider a broad range of views from a variety of sources--a very different understanding, since it points less toward a partisan than a bipartisan or nonpartisan presidency. (If presidents need to hear a range of views, why should they restrict themselves to the views of their fellow party members?) Accordingly, Burns criticizes Kennedy for "cut[ting] himself off from the broader range of people and ideas that might be needed as new problems and crises arose," and Nixon for naming "not a single Democrat . . . to his cabinet." Conversely, LBJ is praised for achieving legislative successes by winning "cooperation from Republicans to overcome resistance from the Democratic party's conservative wing."
Burns concludes, more broadly, that "a closed decisionmaking process, impervious to outside voices and alternative information, too often [leads] to misjudgments and flawed or incompetent execution." That is true enough, but this assessment seems to call for presidents who transcend partisanship more than they embody it.
Burns devotes most of this slim volume to necessarily superficial assessments of all the post-1960 presidencies. It is noteworthy that Reagan comes off better than any other president in this time period: Reagan's was "the most dynamic display of principled presidential leadership since the early years of Lyndon Johnson. Like LBJ, Reagan had seized the moment for dramatic action and had orchestrated a broad and unrelenting collective effort to achieve it. Even more than Johnson's Great Society, though, Reagan's 1981 economic program altered the landscape of American politics."
Burns concludes with an extremely sketchy discussion of solutions to the problems that he highlights. His first recommendation--"Needed: Party Polarization"--is odd: We already have party polarization, so how can it be what we need?
Burns's implausible answer is that the Republicans have become a conservative party, but the Democrats have not become a correspondingly liberal party. Republicans have replaced Democrats as the governing party by becoming "the solidly conservative party we know today," so that voters know where Republicans stand. Democrats must offer (to borrow a phrase from the past) a choice, not an echo: "The leading discouragement to voting is the belief that 'Parties are alike.'" So Democrats must make it clear that the crucial choice between the parties "will have an effect on [voters'] lives" by mobilizing a "new majority of forgotten men and women, . . . tens of millions of the unequal and the unempowered."
How, in practice, would Democrats accomplish this? Burns has nothing to say about policy proposals that Democrats should advance, apart from the following bromide: "Demo crats must modernize and sharpen the durable economic issues of old: jobs, wages, education, women's rights, health. But more than that, they must send a strong, overarching message, with policy proposals set in a larger frame of liberal values."
Furthermore, why should anyone believe in the existence of a leftist silent majority? Burns simply ignores survey research that consistently shows that there are far more self-described conservatives than liberals in America: A third of Americans claim to be conservative, but only a fifth claim to be liberal (with almost half claiming to be moderate).
Burns concludes by advocating drastic changes to the American political system which, in effect, would make it a parliamentary system:
Candidates for the presidency, Senate, and House would run together on party slates, just as the president and vice president presently do. Voters would cast their ballots for these slates, not individual candidates. Such an amendment would discourage politicians from running alone, apart from their parties. Candidates for both executive and legislative offices would have to cooperate in shaping a united campaign strategy and platform.
This radical constitutional change usefully points to the tension between the two understandings of what it means to "run alone." The alteration would clearly cement party loyalty and reduce intraparty conflict; but then both parties have already become far more homogeneous of late. On the other hand, if "running alone" means that presidents fail when they ignore opposition to their plans, the change would worsen matters: Members of Congress from the president's party would be discouraged from voting against (or even pointing to problems with) legislation supported by the president. You can have a more partisan presidency, and you can have one in which presidents are more likely to hear (whether or not they choose to heed) dissenting voices. But you can't have both simultaneously.
A final irony should be noted. As Burns realizes, one result of his plan would be to abolish midterm elections. In principle Burns supports their abolition, because they "historically [have] almost always caused the president to lose support in Congress and increased the chances of deadlock." Since Burns is a Democratic partisan, one wonders whether the results of the recent election have led him to second thoughts on this issue. Isn't it sometimes a good thing when presidents lose support in Congress, increasing the chances of deadlock? But this question should transcend partisanship. From a Democratic or Republican standpoint, enabling voters to produce divided government in any particular election may be undesirable; from a democratic and republican standpoint, however, it seems highly desirable.
Joel Schwartz is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.