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The Modern Presidency

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  • Pages: 5
  • Word count: 1025
  • Category: President

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In his article “The Presidency and Political parties,” Sidney M. Milkis works toward a definition and understanding of the Presidency based on strictly Constitutional grounds, and contrasts that model with the manifest reality of the modern Presidency.  In Milkis’ appraisal, a great de-evolution from the original conception of the Presidency and of the purpose and power of political parties has taken place in post-Depression America.  Essentially, Milkis views the Constitutional ideal of the Presidency as a non-partisan, arbiter of partisanism. In effect, the Constitutional model for the President is one of a check against partisan division. One need merely reflect upon this idea for a brief moment to intuitively realize just how far from a  Constitutional conception of the Presidency has moved in modern American politics.

            Milkis sees the crucial, historical pivot in the modern Presidency as having taken place during the Roosevelt administration. During his pursuit of the “New Deal” politics, Roosevelt, while decrying Wilsonian partisanship, simultaneously moved the Presidency toward a more deeply  partisan role and used the Presidency to influence legislative agendas which emerged from the executive level down, rather than emerging from the elected representatives of the people in the United States Congress.

However, crucial to understanding the dramatic change that took place relative to partisanship and political parties during the Roosevelt era is the fact that Roosevelt stood not for a party ideal, but for ideals which — at least at first — transcended party lines. Later, however, Roosevelt like no President before him purged the Democratic party of those who did not share his core principles, and replaced them with believers.

               What Milkis concludes given the extremely complex political discourse adn evolution of the Roosevelt era is that Roosevelt, in the absence of a unified party-agenda, attempted to shape one from the executive level down, enforcing Presidential power over the Democratic political party, an attempt which was only partially successful.  However, Roosevelt’s actions and his increasing of Presidential authority paved the way for later Presidents to become deeply influential as the seat of political responsibility for a party rather than the party itself.

Interestingly enough, Milkis views the most early attempts at the conservation and increase of Presidential authority, those which he associates first with Wilson, then with Roosevelt, and later with Lyndon Johnson, as attempts to create a more liberal society. This observation, obviously, holds true more deeply for Roosevelt and Johnson than for Wilson, but Milkis makes it clear that it was the pursuit of what he calls a “liberal society” that gave impetus to the modern increase in Presidential authority.

            What has become known as the candidate centered campaign is the logical outcome of the modern vision of the President as the leader of a specific political party, rather than the Constitutional conception of the President as a non-partisan arbiter of the Congress. By this model, individual Presidential candidates, rather than the political parties themselves, emerge as the foremost consideration in Presidential elections. The rise of the “candidate” campaign has eliminated the old method of “platform” politics where a political parties ideological and issue-related stances are measured against one another with the direct contest between one candidate and another.

Due to the concentration of power on individual candidates, modern political strategists, Public Relations experts, body-language interpretors, and everyone from fashion designers to hair-stylists becomes as key of a component to the public perception of the candidate, who emerges as much more important than substantive issues. Advertising and “focus groups” which analyze debate performances, carefully scripted “talking points” and choreographed public appearances take the place of issues and platforms in modern Presidential politics.

              One clear result of this practice is that individual candidates are now virtually dissected by the media and by prospective voters to measure their probable “characters” and “defects.” The fascination with individual manners, faux pas, manner of dress, speech, religious affiliation, past memberships in social organizations or clubs, or even past associations with friends or acquaintances now play, arguably, a more important role than issues in recent Presidential elections. One question remains: what is the role of political parties in the Presidential election?

            In modern Presidential politics, the political parties often seem like afterthoughts. The present day situation presents a precisely opposite vision than that which Milkis identifies as a Constitutional model for the American Presidency. Because the Presidential candidates are now regarded as leaders of their respective parties and not simply as nominees of them, the expectation is that a given candidate will follow, to partisan exclusion, the aims and desires of his or her party. In fact, the expectation in modern politics is that the party and the candidate are virtually identical, but that in the long run executive, rather than democratic, authority is the final word. Political parties have largely become the “followers” of individual Presidents, rather than the populist directives over the executive branch.

            An entire library of observations could be written about the expansion of Presidential authority — indeed, the tyranny of Presidential authority — relative to political parties which is exemplified by the Bush administration. In point of fact, the Bush administration seems to represent the far-extremity of the empowered Presidency in its role as a Constitution-killer, a possibility which many of the Founding Fathers worried about considerably, likening the American President to a potentially destructive King or Dictator.

            Milkis’ article makes clear not only the danger of an empowered Presidency brings to the checks and balances of the American Constitutional system of government, but the enormously destructive influence this concentration of power exerts over political parties.

In conclusion, the evolution of the American Presidency and of American presidential politics has emerged, according to Milkis, as the worst nightmare anticipated by the Founding Fathers: the nightmare of dictatorship, emerged authority, and  blind allegiance to partisan ideologies. One may only speculate on the outcome of further concentration of presidential power: as Milkis points out, Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party represent an excellent model for a government with legislative and party power concentrated into one person’s hands.

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