Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

First-Term Presidents and Their Party's House Freshmen: Crafting a Strategic Alliance

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

First-Term Presidents and Their Party's House Freshmen: Crafting a Strategic Alliance

Article excerpt

Scholars have long maintained an interest in how presidents structure and push their policy agendas to get what they want from Capitol Hill and to enhance their own standing and that of their party. This article adds a modifier to the way we think about presidential agenda setting and presidential-congressional relations, especially at the start of a new presidential term. We probe an important connection between Congress and the White House in a president's first two years: the link between the new president and his party's first-term House members, who arrived in Washington at the same time. This facet of White House-congressional relations has been largely overlooked in earlier research, although some scholars over the years have studied House freshmen.(1) We argue that a president must protect and advance his party's House freshmen, the most electorally vulnerable element of the party's governing coalition, if he seeks to lead with the message that carried him (and many of them) into office in the first place.(2)

Consider the case of President Clinton and the House Democrats in the 103d Congress. The voters' trip to the polls in November 1994 yielded disheartening results for the party of the incumbent president: thirty-four Democrats seeking reelection to the House failed to retain their legislative seats. The outcome signaled widespread dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party's direction of policy in Washington, and it gave the Republicans control of the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years, reshaping the political environment for President Clinton's second two years in office--and perhaps for well beyond that.

Although these developments were significant in their own right, these broader contours of the 1994 House election results may have obscured another significant aspect of the outcome: Democratic freshmen in the House bore a disproportionately heavy share of their party's electoral defeat. While 12 percent of the nonfreshman Democrats seeking reelection were defeated, freshman Democrats lost at twice that rate--24 percent.(3) To a greater extent than other Democrats in the House, those freshmen were linked politically to President Clinton. They came to Washington at the same time he did and shared the same "temporal constituency" as the president. Although the specific circumstances that brought the Class of 1992 Democrats to Washington varied greatly, they all would be affected disproportionately by the president's popularity, by his performance, and by the policies he pursued. Lacking the long records of service for their districts that more senior members of Congress possess, many of these freshmen House members could expect to have their candidacies associated more closely with Clinton. And naturally, this linkage was a two-way street: if delivering on the promises of 1992 was a challenge for the president while Class of 1992 Democrats were in their seats, it would be nearly impossible once a significant number of them were gone.

In this article, we argue that a new president and his party's freshmen must construct and maintain a strategic alliance if their mutual interests are to be advanced. We attempt here to understand the nature of that alliance--why it is necessary and how it can be maintained. In support of our argument, we provide a brief historical perspective, examining not only House election data over time but also relations between House freshmen and the White House in earlier periods. Our inquiry will turn finally and more fully to President Clinton and his failure to craft such a strategic alliance in 1993 and 1994.

Why Craft a "Strategic Alliance"?

Our focus is primarily on presidents in their first term, freshman legislators in their own first terms, and the fundamental political tasks facing them and their party. In the case of presidents, our assumption is that they seek to do something, to have a lasting effect on the state of the nation through the exercise of political power and the governmental authority entrusted to them. …

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