The Historical Presidency: The Perils of Restoration Politics: Nineteenth-Century Antecedents

Article excerpt

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. …