Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Mission Accomplished

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Mission Accomplished

Article excerpt

Terry Moe's advisories preparing presidency scholars for the rational choice revolution were a staple at our annual conferences for many years. No one in attendance will forget those stunning presentations in which he heralded the power of the coming wave. So it is only fitting that now, with a good body of rational choice scholarship on the presidency ready at hand, Moe would offer a fresh assessment of the field. The objective is not just to congratulate the front lines on the occasion of their arrival, nor is it simply to savor their gains. Moe is eying as well their exposure at the flanks and the precariousness of their advance. He marks their accomplishment as a moment that is already slipping away.

It is not easy to focus a formal response to this new assessment. Like his disposition toward rational choice, Moe's stance toward the field as whole appears more complicated than before, and its different aspects seem to acknowledge that presidency research has become more diversified overall. The hard part is to figure out how far he wants to go with that recognition, for the premise of "revolution" could itself slip away in a serious contemplation of diversification. As it is, Moe's presentation shifts so nimbly between accommodation and exclusion, advocacy and criticism, assertion and redirection, that I found myself spinning through the pages in near simultaneous agreement and disagreement.

If I did not think it would misconstrue his priorities, I would simply discount the possible points of contention and build with enthusiasm on the rest. After all, it could be boiled down to this: Moe likes the new rational choice scholarship but sees serious problems in the theory; he is less keen on the new historical-institutional scholarship but sees that it is on to something that others have missed. Circumspection of that sort deserves high praise. It reminds me of the old truism: strengths are weaknesses, and weaknesses are strengths. It clarifies broad areas of agreement: scholarship in the field of presidency research has improved immensely since the days of Richard Neustadt, and all those now at work to make it better will, in the end, be superseded. A message like that invites a conversation.

But is that Moe's message? The imposing posture toward the field for which he is famous has been modified, but so far as I can tell, the essentials remain intact. Analogies between political science and armed combat come quickly to mind because Moe encourages them. He ushers us onto a field on which a well-trained "insurgency" has just gained the upper hand in its long campaign against "traditionalism." The old guard has been routed by those "struggling to join the mainstream," and the "revolutionaries" have shown that they have the firepower to "dominate." But the hegemony of the new "imperial" forces is not yet secure, and a declaration of victory remains premature. The more complete triumph lies just around the corner; superpower status now awaits the next big thing.

Much of the energy in Moe's assessment stems from this weird transposition of images. A preoccupation with winners and losers animates a field of battle. Strengths are pitted against one another, as if the point is to figure out who has the advantage and who will eventually prevail. As Moe surveys the scene, he is less concerned with the present position of his forces ("criticism is easy") than with the course of the larger campaign. With the initial mission accomplished, he is ready to redeploy assets. The idea seems to be to detach rational choice theory from the hierarchy of values it displays; for even as he mounts his own rather severe critique of the former, Moe exudes undiminished confidence in the latter. Theory trumps quantification, deduction trumps induction, wholes trump parts, models trump history, simplicity trumps complexity, structure trumps personality, rigor trumps riches. It is not entirely clear to me how stalwart certainty in these matters squares with a forceful critique of the leading framework to advance the case. …

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