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Reading 11: Running for Congress, Stayingin Congress Paul S. Herrnson

Reading 11: Running for Congress, Stayingin Congress Paul S. Herrnson

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Chapter 11: Congress: Balancing National Goals and Local Interests

primary, caucus, or convention, or by scaring off all opposition.

. . . Although they talk about the competition and are, indeed, wary of it, congressional incumbents, particularly House

members, operate in a political setting that

works largely to their benefit. . . . [I]ncumbents enjoy significant levels of name

recognition and voter support, are able to

assemble superior campaign organizations,

and can draw on their experience in office

to speak knowledgeably about issues and

claim credit for the federally financed programs and improvements in their state or

district. Incumbents also tend to get favorable treatment from the media. Moreover,

most can rely on loyal followers from previous campaigns for continued backing:

supporters at home tend to vote repeatedly

for incumbents, and supporters in Washington and the nation’s other wealthy cities

routinely provide incumbents with campaign money.

Things look different from the typical

challenger’s vantage point. Most challengers, particularly those with some political experience, recognize that most of the

cards are stacked against an individual who

sets out to take on an incumbent. Little in

the setting in which most congressional

campaigns take place favors the challenger.

Most challengers lack the public visibility,

money, and campaign experience to wage

a strong campaign. Moreover, because

those who work in and help finance campaigns recognize the strong odds against

challengers, they usually see little benefit

in helping them. As a result, high incumbent success rates have become a selffulfilling prophecy. Senate reelection rates

ranged from 55 percent to almost 97 percent between 1950 and 2002. Between

1982 and 2002 almost 4 percent of all Senate incumbents had no major-party opponent, and just over half of those involved

in contested races won by 60 percent or

more of the two-party vote. Only 16 percent of all senators seeking reelection in

2000 and 2002 were defeated. Between

1950 and 2002, House incumbents enjoyed

an overall reelection rate of better than 93

percent; the 2000 and 2002 elections

returned to Congress roughly 98 percent

and 96 percent, respectively, of those who

sought to keep their jobs. Even during the

tidal wave that swept away thirty-four

Democrats in the House in the 1994 elections, just over 90 percent of all House

incumbents who sought to remain in office

did so. With some important exceptions,

most experienced politicians wait until an

incumbent retires, runs for another office,

or dies before running for office. Thus,

many House seats fail to attract meaningful competition. . . .

Many explanations exist for the relative

lack of competition in House elections.

Some districts are so dominated by one

party that few individuals of the other party

are willing to commit their time, energy, or

money to running for office. In many cases,

the tradition of one-party dominance is so

strong that virtually all the talented, politically ambitious individuals living in the

area join the dominant party. When an

incumbent in these districts faces a strong

challenge, it usually takes place in the primary, and the winner is all but guaranteed

success in the general election.

Uncompetitive House districts are often

the product of the redistricting process. In

states where one party controls both the

governorship and the state legislature, partisan gerrymandering is often used to maximize the number of House seats the

dominant party can win. In states where

each party controls at least some portion of

the state government, compromises are frequently made to design districts that protect

congressional incumbents. Party officials

and political consultants armed with computers, election returns, and demographic

statistics can “pack” and “crack” voting

blocs in order to promote either of these

goals. The result is that large numbers of

congressional districts are designed to be

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Chapter 11: Congress: Balancing National Goals and Local Interests

uncompetitive. In 2002, for example, only

three of California’s fifty-three House elections were decided by a margin of less than

twenty points, and one of those seats might

not have been competitive if scandalplagued Gary Condit had not lost the Democratic primary. States that use nonpartisan

commissions, which often ignore incumbency, tend to produce more competitive

House races. In contrast to the situation in

California, four of Iowa’s five House seats

were decided by fewer than fifteen points.

The desire of incumbents to retain their

seats has changed Congress in ways that

help discourage electoral competition. Most

of those who are elected to Congress

quickly understand that they will probably

never hold a higher office because there are

too few of such offices to go around. Like

most people, they do everything in their

power to hold on to their jobs. Congress has

adapted to the career aspirations of its members by providing them with resources that

can be used to increase their odds of reelection. Free mailings, WATS lines, Internet

web sites, district offices, and subsidized

travel help members gain visibility among


their constituents. Federal “pork-barrel”

projects also help incumbents win the support of voters. Congressional aides help

members write speeches, respond to constituent mail, resolve problems that constituents have with executive branch

agencies, and follow the comings and

goings in their bosses’ districts. These

perquisites of office give incumbents

tremendous advantages over challengers.

They also discourage experienced politicians who could put forth a competitive

challenge from taking on an entrenched


The dynamics of campaign finance have

similar effects. Incumbents have tremendous fundraising advantages over challengers, especially among PACs and

wealthy individual donors. Many incumbents build up large war chests to discourage potential challengers from running

against them. With the exception of millionaires and celebrities, challengers who

decide to contest a race against a member

of the House or Senate typically find they

are unable to raise the funds needed to

mount a viable campaign.

What’s Your Opinion?

As a citizen, are you troubled by a congressional election system in which

incumbents have an overwhelming edge over challengers? What are the

advantages and disadvantages of this arrangement? What steps, if any,

would you take to reduce incumbents’ electoral advantage?

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The Presidency:

Leading the Nation

[The president’s] is the only voice in national affairs. Let him once win the

admiration and confidence of the people, and no other single voice will

easily overpower him.



eorge W. Bush was sinking in the polls. The economy was weakening,

and the newly elected president was being criticized for not doing enough

to reverse the downturn. Bush was also getting heat for the defection of

Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, which cost Republicans control of

the Senate. The news media had given him the honeymoon period traditionally accorded a new president, but they were now turning on him.

Everything changed on September 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks

on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans rallied around

their president. Bush vowed that America would not rest until the terrorists were brought to justice and the international network of which

they were a part was destroyed. His presidential approval rating reached

96 percent, the highest level ever recorded. Not even Franklin Roosevelt

and Harry Truman had received approval ratings that high during the

Second World War. During the next two years, buoyed by public support,

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Chapter 12: The Presidency: Leading the Nation

Bush led the nation into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of his “war

on terrorism.”

By 2005, everything had changed again for President Bush. The U.S.

invasion of Iraq was followed by problems the Bush administration had not

anticipated. Continued attacks on U.S. forces, a failure to find weapons of

mass destruction, abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, and the escalating financial cost of Iraq’s reconstruction were eroding his public support.

Bush was able to win reelection in 2004, but his victory was by the

smallest margin for an incumbent since Harry Truman’s victory in 1948.

Bush’s reelection gave him a boost in the opinion polls, but it was shortlived. By early 2005, his approval rating was dropping again, and it eventually fell below 40 percent.

The Bush story is but one in the saga of the ups and downs of the modern

presidency. Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s dogged pursuit of the

Vietnam War led to talk of “the imperial presidency,” an office so powerful

that constitutional checks and balances were no longer an effective constraint

on it. Within a few years, because of the undermining effects of Watergate

and of changing international conditions during the Ford and Carter

presidencies, the watchword became “the imperiled presidency,” an office

too weak to meet the nation’s demands for executive leadership. Ronald

Reagan’s policy successes before 1986 renewed talk heard in the Roosevelt

and Kennedy years of “a heroic presidency,” an office that is the inspirational center of American politics. After the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986,

Reagan was more often called a lame duck. The first George Bush’s handling of the Gulf crisis—leading the nation in 1991 into a major war and

emerging from it with a stratospheric public approval rating—bolstered the

heroic conception of the office. A year later, Bush was on his way to being

removed from office by the voters. Bill Clinton overcame a fitful start to his

presidency to become the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the

1930s to win reelection. As Clinton was launching an aggressive secondterm policy agenda, however, he got entangled in an affair with a White

House intern, Monica Lewinsky, that led to his impeachment by the House

of Representatives and weakened his claim to national leadership.

No other political institution has been subject to such varying characterizations as the modern presidency. One reason is that the formal powers of

the office are somewhat limited and thus presidential power changes with

national conditions, political circumstances, and the personal capacity of the

office’s occupant.2 The American presidency is always a central office in that

its occupant is a focus of national attention. Yet the presidency is not an

inherently powerful office, in the sense that presidents routinely get what

they want. Presidential power is conditional. It depends on the president’s

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Chapter 12: The Presidency: Leading the Nation


President George W. Bush gestures as he responds to reporters’ questions in 2006 as part of

a White House effort to revive public support for his presidency. In 2001, his presidential

approval rating soared above 90 percent. By 2006, it had fallen below 40 percent and was

hurting his ability to lead Congress and the public.

own abilities but even more on circumstances—on whether the situation

demands strong leadership and whether the political support for that leadership exists. When conditions are favorable, the president will look powerful. When conditions are adverse, the president will appear vulnerable.

This chapter examines the roots of presidential power, the presidential

selection process, the staffing of the presidency, and the factors associated

with the success and failure of presidential leadership. The main ideas of

this chapter are these:

★ Public expectations, national crises, and changing national and world

conditions have required the presidency to become a strong office.

Underlying this development is the public support the president

acquires from being the only nationally elected official.

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Chapter 12: The Presidency: Leading the Nation

★ The modern presidential election campaign is a marathon affair in which

self-selected candidates must plan for a strong start in the nominating

contests and center their general-election strategies on media, issues, and a

baseline of support. The lengthy campaign process heightens the

public’s sense that the presidency is at the center of the U.S.

political system.

★ The modern presidency could not operate without a large staff of assistants,

experts, and high-level managers, but the sheer size of this staff makes it

impossible for the president to exercise complete control over it.

★ The president’s election by national vote and position as sole chief executive

ensure that others will listen to the president’s ideas; but to lead effectively,

the president must have the help of other officials and, to get their help,

must respond to their interests as they respond to the president’s.

★ Presidential influence on national policy is highly variable. Whether

presidents succeed or fail in getting their policies enacted depends

heavily on the force of circumstance, the stage of their presidency,

partisan support in Congress, and the foreign or domestic nature of

the policy issue.

Foundations of the Modern


The writers of the Constitution knew what they wanted from a

president—national leadership, statesmanship in foreign affairs, command

in time of war or insurgency, enforcement of the laws—but they could

devise only general phrases to describe the president’s constitutional

authority. Compared with Article I, which enumerates Congress’s specific

powers, Article II of the Constitution contains relatively general statements

on the president’s powers.3

Over the course of American history, each of the president’s constitutional powers has been extended in practice beyond the Framers’ intention. For example, the Constitution grants the president command of the

nation’s military, but only Congress can declare war. In Federalist No. 69,

Alexander Hamilton wrote that a surprise attack on the United States was

the only justification for war by presidential action. Nevertheless, the

nation’s presidents have sent troops into military action abroad more than

two hundred times. Of the more than a dozen wars included in that figure, only five were declared by Congress.4 All of America’s most recent

wars—the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq

conflicts—have been undeclared.

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Chapter 12: The Presidency: Leading the Nation


The Constitution also empowers the president to act as diplomatic

leader with the authority to appoint ambassadors and to negotiate treaties

with other countries, subject to approval by a two-thirds vote of the

Senate. The Framers anticipated that Congress would define the nation’s

foreign policy objectives, while the president would oversee their implementation. However, the president has become the principal architect of

U.S. foreign policy and has even acquired the power to make treaty-like

arrangements with other nations, in the form of executive agreements.

In 1937, the Supreme Court ruled that such agreements, signed and

approved only by the president, have the same legal status as treaties,

although Congress can cancel executive agreements with which it

disagrees.5 Since World War II, presidents have negotiated more than ten

thousand executive agreements, compared to fewer than one thousand

treaties ratified by the Senate.6

The Constitution also vests “executive power” in the president. This

power includes the responsibility to execute the laws faithfully and to

appoint major administrators, such as heads of the various departments

of the executive branch. In Federalist No. 76, Hamilton indicated that the

president’s real authority as chief executive was to be found in this

appointive capacity. Presidents have indeed exercised substantial power

through their appointments, but they have found their administrative

authority—the power to execute the laws—to be of even greater value,

because it enables them to determine how laws will be interpreted and

applied. President Ronald Reagan used his executive power to prohibit the

use of federal funds by family-planning clinics that offered abortion counseling. President Bill Clinton exerted the same power to permit the use

of federal funds for this purpose. The same act of Congress was the basis

for each of these actions. The act authorizes the use of federal funds for

family-planning services, but it neither requires nor prohibits their use for

abortion counseling, enabling the president to decide this issue.

Finally, the Constitution provides the president with legislative authority,

including use of the veto and the opportunity to recommend proposals to

Congress. The Framers expected this authority to be used in a limited way.

George Washington acted as the Framers anticipated: he proposed only

three legislative measures and vetoed only two acts of Congress. Modern

presidents have assumed a more active legislative role. They regularly submit

proposals to Congress, and most of them have not hesitated to veto

legislation they find disagreeable.

The presidency is a more powerful office than the Framers envisioned,

for many reasons. But two features of the office in particular—national

election and singular authority—have enabled presidents to make use of

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Chapter 12: The Presidency: Leading the Nation

changing demands on government to claim the position of leader of the

American people. It is a claim that no other elected official can routinely

make, and it is a key to understanding the role and power of the president.

Asserting a Claim to National Leadership

The first president to forcefully assert a claim to popular leadership was

Andrew Jackson, who had been swept into office in 1828 on a tide of

public support that broke the hold of the upper classes on the

presidency. Jackson used his popular backing to challenge

Congress’s claim to national policy leadership, contending


Background that he was “the people’s tribune.”

However, Jackson’s view was not shared by most of his

successors during the nineteenth century, because national conditions did

not routinely call for strong presidential leadership. The prevailing conception was the Whig theory, which held that the presidency was a limited or constrained office whose occupant was confined to the exercise of

expressly granted constitutional authority. The president had no implicit

powers for dealing with national problems but was primarily an administrator, charged with carrying out the will of Congress. “My duty,” said

President James Buchanan, a Whig adherent, “is to execute the laws . . .

and not my individual opinions.”7

Theodore Roosevelt rejected the Whig tradition upon taking office in

1901. He attacked the business trusts, pursued an aggressive foreign

policy, and pressured Congress to adopt progressive domestic policies.

Roosevelt embraced the stewardship theory, which calls for an assertive

presidency that is confined only at points specifically prohibited by law.

As “steward of the people,” Roosevelt said, he was permitted “to do

anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was

forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.”8

Roosevelt’s image of a strong presidency was shared by Woodrow

Wilson, but his other immediate successors reverted to the Whig notion

of the limited presidency.9 Herbert Hoover’s restrained conception of the

presidency prevented him from acting decisively during the devastation of

the Great Depression. Hoover said that he lacked the constitutional

authority to establish public relief programs for jobless Americans. However, Hoover’s successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, shared the stewardship

theory of his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt, and FDR’s New Deal

signaled the end of the limited presidency. As FDR’s successor, Harry

Truman, wrote in his memoirs: “The power of the President should be

used in the interest of the people and in order to do that the President

must use whatever power the Constitution does not expressly deny him.”10

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★ Leaders

George Washington


George Washington, the nation’s first president

and its greatest in the minds of some historians, was born into a Virginia planter family. As

a child, he excelled as a horseman, a skill that

along with family connections earned him an

officer’s commission. He was involved in the

first major skirmish of the French and Indian

War. His daring and bravery under fire—two horses were shot out

from under him as he rallied troops who had fled in the face of the

enemy—made him a national hero. When the American colonies a

decade later declared their independence from Britain, he was the

natural choice to lead the Continental Army. Throughout the sixyear Revolutionary War, Washington avoided pitched battles,

knowing that his poorly equipped soldiers were no match for British

regulars. Finally, in 1781, his forces trapped the British army at

Yorktown and with the help of French naval vessels scored a decisive victory that ended the war. Some of his countrymen thought

Washington should be named king, but he dismissed the idea, saying America would instead be a new type of nation. He retired to

his Mount Vernon plantation, only to grow increasingly worried by

the growing discord among the states and the inability of Congress

to govern effectively.

In 1787, Washington presided over the Philadelphia convention

that drafted a constitution that became the basis for a stronger

central government. Following ratification of the Constitution,

Washington was elected president by unanimous vote of the Electoral College. He recognized that his presidency would define

future ones. In a letter to James Madison, Washington wrote, “It

is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents may be fixed

on true principles.” Washington pushed for a strong national

government, believing that it could keep the nation from devolving into sectional rivalries. He also kept the United States out of

foreign affairs, believing the new country was too weak militarily

to play such a role. Washington could have been elected to a third

term, but he stepped down after two terms, stating that the



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Chapter 12: The Presidency: Leading the Nation

presidency was a citizen’s office, not a monarchal one. It was a

precedent that all presidents adhered to until Franklin Roosevelt

ran for and won a third term in 1940 at a time when the country

was confronting the twin threats of economic depression and war.

Roosevelt’s presidency prompted Congress to initiate the TwentySecond Amendment to the Constitution, which limits a president

to two terms in office.

Today the presidency is an inherently strong office.11 The modern presidency becomes a more substantial office in the hands of a confident individual like George W. Bush, but even a less assertive person like Jimmy

Carter is expected to act forcefully. This expectation not only is the legacy

of former strong presidents but also stems from changes that have occurred

in the federal government’s national and international policy responsibilities.

The Need for Presidential Leadership

of an Activist Government

During most of the nineteenth century (the Civil War being the notable

exception), the United States did not need a strong president. The federal government’s policymaking role was small, as was its bureaucracy.

Moreover, the nation’s major issues were of a sectional nature (especially

the North-South split over slavery) and thus were suited to action by

Congress, which represented state interests. The U.S. government’s role

in world affairs was also small. As these conditions changed, however, the

presidency also changed.

Foreign Policy Leadership The president has always been the nation’s

foreign policy leader, but the role was initially a rather undemanding one.

The United States avoided entanglement in the turbulent affairs of

Europe and was preoccupied with westward expansion. By the end of the

nineteenth century, however, the nation was seeking a world market for

its goods. President Theodore Roosevelt advocated an American economic empire and looked south toward Latin America and west toward

Hawaii, the Philippines, and China for new markets (the “Open Door”

policy). However, the United States’ tradition of isolationism remained a

powerful influence on national policy. The United States fought in World

War I but immediately thereafter demobilized its armed forces. Over

President Woodrow Wilson’s objections, Congress then voted against the

entry of the United States into the League of Nations.

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