The Heir Apparent Presidency of James Madison

By Zinman, Donald A. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Heir Apparent Presidency of James Madison


Zinman, Donald A., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Second in Line in Political Time

A president who assumes office as the ideological heir apparent to a predecessor who fundamentally changed the terms and conditions of American politics and government is expected to govern along a tightly established set of boundaries. These successors are expected to continue the policy legacy of their predecessor, protect their predecessor's signature policy achievements against attacks, and respond, as all presidents must, to unexpected foreign and domestic crises on their watch. Heir apparent presidents who succeed a transformative predecessor of their own party enjoy the advantage of inheriting a robust governing coalition, which allows them to continue governing along their predecessor's ideological and governmental commitments. On the other hand, heir apparent presidents face a more challenging political environment, which includes a stronger opposition party and emerging divisions within the governing party that are likely to become sharper and more intense as the governing coalition ages. In addition, an heir apparent president must contend with the consequences of his predecessor's policy choices.

James Madison was fortunate enough to govern in an era when organized political party opposition had yet to fully mature. In spite of his own party's divisions and policy failures within his administration, Federalist weaknesses precluded a complete resurgence by the opposition party. Madison's presidency, however, did reveal many of the emerging problems that would complicate matters for the Jeffersonian political order in the future. Governing in the immediate shadows of a president who fundamentally altered the terms and conditions of American political life will impose great demands upon the heir apparent to rectify unresolved problems from the predecessor's tenure. The successor is expected to creatively meet the challenges of an always changing republic, while still governing in accordance with the tenets of an established political regime that his party worked so hard to build.

A president's standing vis-a-vis the dominant regime of American politics helps to shape possibilities for action and potential limitations and risks. In addition, presidential leadership is strongly influenced by what Stephen Skowronek (1997) calls "political time," which refers to the life cycle of the dominant governing regime. In assessing midlife regime-affiliated presidents, Skowronek's work carefully examines the leadership dilemma of presidents who must balance the competing objectives of innovation in government policies alongside expectations of loyalty to established commitments from their regime's coalition partners. These midlife regime articulators struggle to innovate within a political environment where the governing party's cohesiveness cannot be taken for granted. Articulators also face resistance from skeptics within their own party who charge that the governing regime's orthodoxy is not being followed by these presidents' new policy innovations.

A more complete understanding of the plight of these presidents who Skowronek calls articulators demands a full examination of the leadership dilemma of the heir apparent presidents within this category. As a subset of articulator presidents, it is important for us to appreciate the challenges and opportunities the heir apparent president faces because the problems of midlife regime articulators begin to crystallize during the heir apparent's tenure. Indeed, heir apparent presidents may face a unique and particularized set of challenges that are common to similarly positioned presidents. A detailed study of heir apparent presidents will help us to better understand the rhythms of political time through the life cycle of a given political order.

Many presidents fall into this articulator category, raising questions about its breadth and its explanatory reach. Some articulators serve early in the life cycle of their respective regime, while other presidents in this category serve at the approximate midpoint of their regime's lifespan. …

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