Tuesday, December 14, 2010

VP & Foreign Policy: A Brief Literature Review

Believe it or not there are already two scholarly books about the vice presidency and foreign affairs! Naturally I have read them both with great interest. First there is Paul Kengor’s Wreath Layer or Policy Player? The Vice President’s Role in Foreign Policy which was published in 2000 and was originally Kengor’s PhD dissertation. The second, and more recent book, is Jack Lechelt’s The Vice Presidency in Foreign Policy: From Mondale to Cheney, which was published in 2009. My initial reaction, since I am studying the same topic, was that neither was the definitive work on the topic – that is the book I will be writing. On a second read, I came away with a great deal more respect for what the authors accomplished and that the books provided some guidance about how to approach my own dissertation. Both of them are also chock full of key details and useful footnotes that make my own research much easier.

Wreath Layer or Policy Player?
In his dissertation Kengor explores two critical questions:

1. How the vice president fits into the president’s foreign-policy framework
2. Recommendations on how or whether the vice president can be used to enhance White House foreign policy

Overshadowing these specific questions is that of presidential training. Kengor notes that one important factor in the increased foreign policy role of the vice president was the rocky succession by Truman after FDR died. Not only did Truman not know about the atom bomb project, he was also unfamiliar with FDR’s negotiations with Stalin about post-war Europe and had not even met the Secretary of State. Because of that instance, there have been many recommendations for expanding the vice president’s role in foreign policy. Kengor notes that while there is merit to these recommendations, they should be carefully considered. One of the big selling points for an expanded vice presidential role is that the VP does not have an institutional affiliation – but Kengor notes that they do have political ambitions and that their actions can be shaped with an eye to their own future candidacies.

To examine his questions Kengor does a series of case studies on vice presidents who played an active foreign policy role. One of the real virtues of Kengor’s work (that I did not appreciate on my first read but became clearer as I face the challenge of identifying a question that can actually be answered) is that it is grounded in observable phenomena with reasonably clear metrics. Kengor has a simple schema with six levels of vice presidential activity:

1. Access to paperwork relating to foreign affairs and sitting on the NSC
2. Serving as a foreign policy spokesman
3. Traveling abroad as an emissary to meet foreign officials, make policy announcements, and/or serving as a liaison with congress
4. A vice presidential national security staff
5. Negotiating with foreign leaders on behalf of the administration
6. Chairing or participating in a key foreign policy committee

Kengor only does case studies on VPs who are at level five or more (Nixon, Mondale, Bush, Quayle and Gore – Cheney hadn’t been vice president yet.) In the case studies, Kengor examines the VP’s place in the administration’s foreign policy process and then discusses various vice presidential actions in the national security realm. Kengor notes that he made it a point to emphasize negative results from vice presidential engagement. Identifying positive or negative outcomes from a political event is a dicey business. But it appears that the metric is whether the administration got what it wanted out of the event. For example in 1983 VP Bush traveled to Europe to push for the deployment of Pershing missiles, which was running into domestic opposition in the potential host countries. By all accounts – both in the general press and from administration figures - Bush did a fine job, bolstering deployment supporters and responding to critics. On the other hand in 1986, Bush went to Saudi Arabia to encourage the Saudis to keep oil prices low, which was devastating the Soviet economy. Instead Bush told them the US needed price stability, the opposite message the Saudis had been getting from Reagan and his senior cabinet officers. Kengor hypothesizes that low oil prices were hurting the oil industry and the states where it is based and that Bush wanted their support for his own upcoming Presidential run. There are similar examples in other vice presidencies (a Mondale statement in South Africa derailed the administration’s Africa policy – but may have helped Mondale with civil rights groups in the US.) This is an important observation, that while a VP may be free of institutional interests, he is not free of political ones that may run counter to the President’s wishes. It is worth noting that in the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, Gore may have acquired a loyalty to Russia policy, which was somewhat institutionalized under the GCC.

Kengor states that VPs at the end of their career may be better able to serve the President objectively and not seek to protect their future political careers. Since the publication of Kengor’s book the United States has seen two VPs who saw that position as the apex of their career – Cheney and Biden. In some respects Kengor’s observation seems correct – Cheney and Biden’s service (for better or worse) appears to be entirely focused on serving their President. However, under Cheney the recognition that this would be the VPs only opportunity to make policy at this level may have led to a highly public activist role that created rifts and tensions in its own right. Although it was not a foreign policy issue, there may have been a hint of this in Nelson Rockefeller’s difficult tenure in the vice presidency under Ford. Rockefeller hoped to “run” domestic policy. He was sidelined by Ford’s chiefs of staff – Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

In his conclusions, Kengor addresses 20 policy recommendations on the vice president’s national security role. Nine of the recommendations (including serving as a member of the NSC, receiving all presidential papers, having a West Wing office and a regular private meeting with the President) are seen as musts for a vice president to be in the loop on foreign policy. Another six recommendations (including serving as a general advisor or congressional liaison, chairing a short-term task force, or serving as emissary or foreign policy spokesman) are viewed as potentially feasible depending on the President’s preferences. Finally, five proposals including having the VP head an executive-level department or chair a major interagency committee are rejected because they could place the VP in the midst of turf battles and because if the VP is unsuccessful the president could be placed in the very awkward position of removing him (or her – although presumably future female vice presidents will be models of competence.) These are excellent points about the vice presidential role.

Kengor does not discuss in much depth the drivers for the increased vice presidential role. He mentions the National Security Act of 1947 and the increasing responsibilities placed on presidents since WWII. But those explanations seem inadequate. Although Nixon was given a greater role than any previous VP, the position then entered 15 years of marginalization. Nelson Rockefeller, who was appointed by Ford to shore up the legitimacy of his own unelected presidency, resurrected the vice presidency (although he focused on domestic policy). This expanded role was further increased under the Carter-Mondale administration. If Carter had not been willing to break the mold of vice presidencies by making Mondale a full partner it is not inevitable that the vice presidency would have fundamentally changed. Carter’s own election was the product of Watergate and the resignations of Nixon and Agnew. That being said, this issue may have been beyond the scope of questions Kengor sought to address.

Another area Kengor does not discuss in much detail is the vice president as an advisor. He describes some vice presidents as offering advice, both privately and in NSC meetings, but there is no discussion of the impact of VP advice. Under what circumstances were the VP’s preferred options accepted or rejected? This is not a shortcoming, rather an observation that will be discussed in greater detail below.

The Vice President in Foreign Policy
Lechelt’s book was not, apparently, his PhD thesis. It covers similar ground, although it does not include Nixon and does include Cheney. His major finding is the “semi-institutionalization” of the VP’s policy role. Paul Light in Vice-Presidential Power: Advice and Influence in the White House describes the institutional expansion of the VP’s office including its own budget and dedicated personnel. Without these changes the VP simply does not have the resources to play an effective role. (Ford, as a condition for accepting the vice presidency, demanded his own typing pool – because he knew that otherwise his work would be at the bottom of the White House job queue.) However, Lechelt discuses the expanded prestige of the position – regular private meetings with the President were instituted under Carter but have became SOP. This has fostered a defacto expectation that the VP act as a policy player. Lechelt cites Joel Goldstein’s The Modern American Vice Presidency which notes that once one President gives his VP this access, it is hard for the next President to revoke it. I would expand on that observation – in picking a vice president the president is effectively telling the American people that they would pick this individual above all others to be president in their place. This is an important statement and to follow that up by not including the VP in policy deliberations would effectively send the message that president did not take their VP selection seriously and call the President’s judgment into question.

Lechelt finds that it is likely that VPs will continue to be substantial policy players. In this, Lechelt’s case study of the Quayle vice presidency is crucial. Lechelt takes note of the insider-outsider paradigm and explains that Quayle was serving an insider President who was well-versed in foreign affairs and had strong relationships with his top advisors (particularly Jim Baker the Secretary of State but also NSA Brent Scowcroft.) Nonetheless, while Quayle did not play the role played by Mondale, Gore, or Cheney he was in the mix. Bush’s key advisors were known as the “Big Eight” and Quayle may have been last on the list – but he was on the list. He was not in the innermost circle of advisors, but he did play a role and even persuaded Bush 41 to adopt his position on missile defense. A reduced role compared to his immediate predecessors and successors – but a vast role in comparison to 90% of the vice presidents who had gone before him.

It is beyond the timeframe of Lechelt’s work, but Biden’s active role in the Obama administration highlights this argument in the other direction. For Obama’s supporters the Cheney vice presidency was an awful situation that had led to bad policy and skirted the edges of constitutionality. Biden effectively promised he would not be another Cheney. Yet – he was quickly given prominent roles and has been the administration’s fireman on a range of issues including disputes in the intel community, coalition building in Iraq, and pushing START through the Senate. He has also played a leading role as an advisor – particularly on the issue of the Afghan surge. Biden’s role may be less then Cheney’s but it is obviously substantial (apparently more than Quayle’s and probably comparable to Gore and Mondale.) This indicates that, as Lechelt argues, the VP remains well positioned to play a leading policy role.

Both Kengor and Lechelt spend a fair amount of time analyzing that which can be observed clearly – vice presidential travel (for example.) This brings up an interesting point about future vice presidential roles. In an essay included in At the President’s Side: The Vice Presidency in the Twentieth Century the great Richard Neustadt observes the president effectively controls the vice president’s schedule. Even if the two officials get along, the President might find the most effective use of his VP on the road – fundraising, speaking, and meeting officials. Reducing the VP’s role would have to be done with subtlety – but it could be done.

This leaves open my question of what does the VP bring to the table that makes having him (or her) worth keeping around the White House? Perhaps the question I am interested in is the VP as senior advisor. Unfortunately this is difficult to test. Paul Light tracked cases where the VP advocated a policy and it was adopted. This approach has a number of disadvantages – one of which is Light only had two VPs in office for about 5 years (Mondale and Rockefeller.) I would have to gather data on 30 more years of vice presidents! I don’t have that kind of time if I want to finish my thesis before I retire. Also, advice isn’t always up or down on policy. VPs can have other kinds of impact – such as how an issue is portrayed or on key appointments. One metaphor that comes to mind is the VP as back-up QB. Besides being ready to take the field at any moment, can the back-up QB serve as a peer advisor to the QB and offer unique counsel. The VP is usually the only other senior politician in the White House – the only other figure who has had to actually run the political races and make the big policy calls. Can someone who shares that perspective be inimitably useful to the President?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Reviewing "Presidential Leadership in Political Time"

Stephen Skowronek’s Presidential Leadership in Political Time: Reprise and Reappraisal is an important book in the presidential studies canon and I am glad that I encountered it early in my reading.

This series on VeepCritique is an effort to warm-up as I prepare to work on my dissertation proposal. I will be reviewing most of the books I was assigned for my specialized reading exam. With each book there will be a series of basic questions:

1. What is the book’s fundamental question and argument?
2. What is the book’s methodology and analytical framework (and what can I learn from it)?
3. Is the book’s argument compelling?
4. What does the book offer my thesis, what can I take from it?

Skowronek’s 1993 book, The Politics Presidents Make won the Richard E. Neustadt Prize for research on the presidency. Presidential Leadership in Political Time revisits the his initial argument about a decade and a half (and a pair of consequential presidencies) later.

He begins by summarizes to dominant arguments about the presidency. The first is that of Richard Neustadt in Presidential Power (to be reviewed later in this series). Neustadt and his progressive generation (Neustadt came of age under FDR, worked in the Truman White House, and advised JFK) saw the presidency as an engine for reform. His book examined the limitations on the president and but how with careful strategy the President can maximize his (and one day her) effectiveness. The focus is on the personal attributes and cleverness of the president. A pair of lousy presidencies (LBJ and Nixon) led to the rise of the antithesis, Arthur Schlesinger’s “Imperial Presidency” in which an out of control presidency is the center of the nation’s biggest problem. Jimmy Carter’s term did little to inspire confidence in the future of the Presidency. Where Neustadt highlighted the president’s skill – Schlesinger worried about the impact of the president’s neuroses. But then came Reagan and also Clinton who managed to serve two terms each, leave office relatively popular, and manage some substantial accomplishments. Skowronek believes another paradigm is in order:
The outstanding question of our third look is whether these stories fit larger patterns in the politics of leadership, whether it is possible to observe across the broad history of leadership efforts something more systematic about the political impact of presidential action in time and over time.
Skowronek describes the presidency as a fundamental force of upheaval and change. The president has enormous power. The challenge is in Presidential authority – does the President have a warrant for his actions that legitimates them? When Presidents lose that warrant, their allies are discouraged and their foes are energized.

The great struggle for Presidents is to define their actions in terms of a broader purpose that is coherent and consonant with the values of their supporters. So far, this does not sound out of joint with Neustadt’s description of Presidential reputation or prestige.

But, Skowronek explains that the most important factor in a president’s efforts to legitimate his actions will be the actions of the president before him and that this relies on broader political cycles. There are four types of presidents:

Politics of disjunction: This is the period when a long-standing political order is no longer capable of addressing the challenges facing the country. These leaders are caught between the demands of their supporters and their need to take actions their supporters oppose. The most recent example is Jimmy Carter; others include Hoover, Franklin Pierce, and John Quincy Adams. Not a distinguished list, but Skowronek argues it has less to do with their limitations then the reality that they were governing in impossible times. They could not satisfy the demands of their supporters, leaving them isolated and vulnerable to electoral defeat.

Politics of reconstruction: This is for the presidents who establish new political orders. After the politics of disjunction reveals the old order as incapable of governing any longer, a new order, which overturns the old order’s commitments, takes power. These presidents have enormous freedom to establish a new order, make new commitments, and exercise the enormous power of the presidency. Reagan was the most recent example, rejecting the values and programs of the New Deal coalition and establishing a new order. Other examples include FDR, Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and of course Washington. This would seem like a Presidential all-star team, but Skowronek states that they enjoyed an advantageous time in the sequence in which the collapse of a long-standing coalition allowed them relative freedom to use the full powers of their office to pursue their goals.

Politics of articulation: After the new order is established, follow-on presidents face a different set of challenges. They are charged with continuing the vision of their great predecessor – but there is discord among factions of the governing coalition over what that vision entails. Ultimately their decisions end up alienating substantial components of their support base. There are two prominent sub-groups. The first is the President who follows the coalition founder and is often seen as unable to stand in their predecessor’s footsteps (think Van Buren, Truman, and Bush 41). The later followers often vigorously attempt to renew the founder’s vision. Examples of this group include Polk, Teddy Roosevelt, LBJ, and Bush 43. This latter group has a disproportionate likelihood of engaging in wars of choice or other forms of international muscle flexing. There is usually one faction in the coalition with an expansive view of America in the world that the president needs to appease. These are the Presidents most likely to serve only one-term or to choose not to run for re-election. Since the establishment of a consistent two-party system (in the 1820s) only three won both of their Presidential elections (Grant, McKinley, and Bush 43.)

Politics of pre-emption: While there is a dominant order linked to one party, occasionally the other party elects a president (Andrew Johnson, Cleveland, Wilson, Eisenhower, Nixon, Clinton, and Obama). These presidents usually distance themselves from the past failed order of their party – Clinton, claiming to chart a third way and avoiding the designation as a liberal. These presidents are less hemmed in by ideology and readily adopt policies from the dominant order. These presidents are frequently tarred as dishonest or tricky by their political opponents because of their ideological inconsistency (and consequent effective freedom to govern). Impeachment and other confrontations with the legislature appear more likely under these Presidents (Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton for example.) However many of them have served two terms. But, just as Clinton sought a “legacy,” many of this type of President try to find an over-arching issue with which to define their Presidency.

As for methodology, I have no idea how this argument works. I probably should have read his original book, The Politics Presidents Make, but it seems intuitively strong. The patterns appear to hold up. Impeachments and wars of choice are not, as Skowronek says, randomly distributed.

How does this help me for my thesis?

Notes: There have been 44 presidents, but this list excludes Presidents who served a very short time (such as William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, along with Gerald Ford who was an anomaly.) The modern vice presidency began with Mondale, since then every vice president has played a significant role. Quayle however is not considered a significant policy player, although objectively he was more involved then the vast majority of vice presidents that preceded him. Of the modern vice presidents he played the least significant role. Vice Presidents who played substantial roles prior to Mondale include Martin Van Buren, Henry A. Wallace, and Richard Nixon. Rockefeller played a substantial role, but is not included since the Ford presidency is an anomaly.

The n here is far too small for any statistical significance, but do any patterns appear?

Reconstructive and pre-emptive presidents would appear most likely to make use of their vice presidents, while the presidencies in periods of disjunction and articulation (is there some irony that the two Bushes had presidencies of articulation?) appear least likely to give their VPs opportunities. But, pre-emptive Presidents include Nixon who actually despised Agnew (despite Nixon’s own opportunities as VP under Eisenhower.) Meanwhile Presidents in periods of disjunction include Jimmy Carter, who initiated the modern vice presidency with Mondale. Presidents in periods of articulation include Bush 43, who gave his vice president the most expansive policy role of any VP.

The item most relevant from Skowronek’s schema is that Reconstructive presidents appear most likely to give their VPs a policy role. The great monadnock of the pre-modern vice presidency was Martin Van Buren, who had been Andrew Jackson’s top political operative and was a member of Jackson’s kitchen cabinet. The next significant VP (with the limited exception of John Nance Garner who did some lobbying for FDR, before turning against him) was Henry A. Wallace who ran a 3000-person agency for a bit over a year – for FDR. This does reflect an important point – these presidents were powerful enough that they could select their VPs, rather than having the party force someone onto the ticket to satisfy the opposing wing. Most VPs were clear rivals to the President and kept far away from the White House.

Outsider Presidents refers to Presidents who are not DC insiders. Carter highlighted the phenomenon (although Eisenhower before him wasn’t a career DC politician). Except for Bush 41, every President from Carter on has been an outsider. I’ve written on this before, but there is a strong correlation between outsider Presidents and Vice Presidential influence and opportunity. However, for my purposes, there doesn’t appear to be any particular correlation between types of presidency and insider/outsider status.

I’m not sure if Skowronek’s thesis has much direct impact on my work – but it raises profound questions. The first is whether my thesis is worth doing at all. Skowronek argues that structural factors define presidencies. Bureaucratic politics would argue that the machinations of individuals matters a great deal in shaping outcomes. Fundamentally, my thesis is routed in Neustadt: Presidents need to look like they know what they are doing to be effective and VPs can be helpful, both as advisors and messengers. Clever use of a vice president can be a force multiplier for the president.

Even if Skowronek’s specific argument does not hold, what of the importance of structural factors in shaping a Presidency? For starters, “It’s the economy, stupid.” If the economy tanks just before an election a President will probably lose, whereas if the economy does well the President is likely to be popular. Presidents can do some things to affect the economy, but they are far from all-powerful. I am reminded of Voltaire’s line, “Medicine is the art of humoring the patient while nature cures the disease.”

Under those circumstances, is there any purpose in studying the presidency, if the outcome of the game is shaped by broader, structural factors?

My “gut” response is that it is impossible to ignore the vast power of the presidency itself. Even very weak presidents can often get what they want – and this goes doubly in national security policy where the President has a dominant role. Jimmy Carter, a politically weak and unskilled President, still obtained Senate approval on the Panama Canal Treaty. There was no major constituency supporting this treaty domestically and if anything it was politically unpopular. It was a real foreign policy achievement (regardless of its merits – we are studying process here.) However, Carter later admitted that he didn’t do much of anything else while working on this. How did the President decide to focus on this issue, and what was not achieved because of this focus. Bush 43, at the lowest ebb of his Presidency still had the unquestioned authority to order the troop surge into Iraq.

There are numerous examples of costly Presidential failures as well. Maybe American politics made the Vietnam war inevitable under LBJ – but Bay of Pigs was not. Nixon did not have to have Watergate and a stronger policy process could have prevented Iran-Contra (although Reagan’s political strength saved him from impeachment.) Bush 43, of course, could have reacted competently to Katrina – there is no question he had the authority, he had a poor process in which the issue was lost in the shuffle. I recently reviewed a fine book on non-kinetic counter-terror measures that the US should deploy. I observed that there was nothing preventing the Bush administration from deploying many of them except that its decision-making process was dominated by the conduct of the war in Iraq and by immediate counter-terror measures.

It is extremely difficult to accept that argument that presidential choice and intervention is without significance. Yes, the US economy boomed in the 1990s and Clinton was well positioned to achieve push NAFTA forward. Nonetheless, his skill in doing so contributed to the boom, as did his careful management of relations with Russia. Only Nixon could go to China – but there was nothing inevitable about the trip. It still required political vision to conceive of it and political acumen to carry it off without

Bigger picture, northern victory in the Civil War and US victory in WWII seem inevitable – particularly due to the massive economic advantages the US possessed. But were they truly? Could a President less capable then Lincoln have held the Union together? What if Grant had been killed at Vickburg and Lincoln continued to be saddled with inept generals. Theoretically the southern army still would have been worn down even if it won every single battle. But would the north have tolerated another two years of bloody fighting?

Not every President is Lincoln, but every President has a fair amount off autonomy and can get a substantial portion of what he wants. He can’t have all of it. Supposedly FDR said of Lincoln, “He was the saddest man there ever was. He wanted it all and couldn’t have it. No one can.” Even the greats face limits. At the same time, even the weakest Presidents (the Carters and Hoovers) can achieve some useful things if they so choose.

The question is how to choose and maximize these opportunities? Put another way, can .275 hitter, buy careful study and diligence improve his batting eye and hit .285 (alternately can .300 hitter who is lazy and unfocused only end up hitting .290)?

This brings up an important point that Neustadt and Skowronek seem to have in common. Presidents need to control the narrative. Reagan and Lincoln, among others, were great storytellers. Neustadt discusses it in terms of reputation and prestige. Skowronek notes that Reagan and Lincoln seemed like such effective communicators because the politics of their times in effect made us ready to listen. Nixon and Clinton were both effective pre-emptive Presidents – one was an exceptional communicator and one was not. The most important thing for a Presidential legacy is to seem to know what you are doing and this is achieved by controlling the narrative. Real world events can limit this – if the economy bottoms out or there is a military defeat, it is awfully tough to “spin.”

What About Vice Presidents?
Much of what I have written questions the extent to which specific Presidents are masters of their destiny. If the President’s own skill determines very little then vice presidential activity matters less. Can Vice Presidents help expand (or reduce) the areas where Presidents can successfully exercise their authority (either by giving the President advice or by serving as a messenger to the bureaucracy, the public, or foreign governments)? If it is all structural, then probably not. But, at least on the margins it must make some difference – for better or for worse.