Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Theory and History, Structure and Agency

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Theory and History, Structure and Agency

Article excerpt

I received George Edwards's request for a response to Professor's Hoekstra's critique in the closing weeks of 1998. This was, I confess, a heady time for me and a peculiar one in which to read about the limits of the theory set forth in The Politics Presidents Make (Skowronek 1993). With the impeachment of Bill Clinton unfolding apace, I was beginning to think that my work on presidential leadership was more powerfully predictive than I had ever imagined.

The original edition of Politics, which was finished just before Clinton took office, had linked certain kinds of leadership to certain kinds of political situations. It then sought to explain and illustrate the characteristic political effects of each type. In one particular, the book postulated that when a president is identified with the opposition to established commitments and those commitments still claim formidable political, institutional, or ideological supports, leadership will tend toward radical independence, with the president staking out a highly personalized, if not wholly erratic, course. I argued that the president in this situation will appear a political wild card and ideological mongrel. His leadership stance will be "preemptive," tactically scooping some of the dominant issues and playing on divisions among factions supportive of established commitments. I pointed out that these preemptive leaders tend to foment major constitutional confrontations-showdown institutional challenges to their authority--and that, of all presidents, they run a particular risk of impeachment. The final tag in the original edition of the book suggested that Bill Clinton, "the first Democrat to take office in the post-Reagan era," would "come to the politics of preemption as a matter of course."

To be sure, I did not predict in 1993 that Clinton himself would be impeached but held out the hope that he might explore the potential of preemptive leadership for pragmatic experimentation. Furthermore, I still find myself astounded that congressional Republicans grasped a cover-up of sexual indiscretions to press this broadside-constitutional indictment. But in portraying the preemptive type so vividly for so long and in finally provoking the emblematic response, Clinton's experience seems to me particularly arresting in terms of the patterns I had identified. As I began to hear from colleagues around the country who said that their students were putting these pieces of my analysis together on their own, I began to entertain thoughts that run very much against the grain of Professor Hoekstra's remarks. Far from thinking that I had indulged in "excessive determinism" in my initial presentation, I began to wonder if I had not been deterministic enough. I found myself even more impressed in 1998 than I was in 1993 with the durability of the underlying political dynamics I had uncovered and more certain of the value of cutting through some of the "flux, uncertainty, and detail" that Professor Hoekstra seeks to protect from my alleged indifference. Who knows, had I stripped away all attention to nuance and contingency in my original presentation, I might now be enjoying the kind of celebrity status that came to James David Barber after Nixon's impeachment!

So much for the main chance. As I started to read Professor Hoekstra's brief for fluidity and indeterminacy in presidential leadership, I felt myself coming back down to earth. His reminder of the dangers of straitjacketing real historical actors into theoretically derived structures went far toward dispelling the conceits of the moment and helping restore a due sense of proportion to my thinking. But as I consider, on one side, Professor Hoekstra's arguments against placing too much stock in a retrospective analysis of patterns and consider, on the other side, a leader like Clinton who has conformed to type right on cue, I am inclined to think that the balance struck in the book was right all along. My own brief was for closer attention to distinctive political tendencies within differently structured leadership situations, and I venture that presidential studies has a long way to go beyond my observations, theoretically informed as they are, before it risks unduly slighting historical contingency. …

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