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Mitt Romney and the Impending Politics of Disjunction

Mitt Romney speaking at the Values Voter Summit (Omni Shoreham Hotel) in Washington D.C. on October 7, 2011.

Mitt Romney speaking at the Values Voter Summit (Omni Shoreham Hotel) in Washington D.C. on October 7, 2011. Photo by Gage Skidmore. CC-SA.

Lets briefly move away from electoral predictions and instead consider the following claim: should he be elected in November, Mitt Romney will be remembered as a failed president. In a January 2012 post to the blog Balkinization, Indiana University Professor of Law Gerard Magliocca briefly speculates on why this will be the case by invoking Stephen Skowronek’s research. Magliocca suggests that Candidate Romney has the potential to become a “disjunctive” President Romney who leaves office in political disgrace.  Through a brief examination of the Romney candidacy I will build on Magliocca’s claim and in so doing demonstrate that a Romney victory portends the coming politics of disjunction.

Skowronek builds his path-setting book upon one central claim: that “assuming the presidential office and exercising its powers has an inherently disruptive political effect, and that presidential leadership is a struggle to resolve that effect in the reproduction of a legitimate political order” (xii).  Presidents are politically and constitutionally disruptive because in swearing to “faithfully execute the Office” they make decisions, take action and wield power.  The constitution forces them to subvert the political status quo, thereby leaving politics looking far different on the last day of their terms than it did on the first.

Any president’s political success is contingent upon his ability to “legitimate” such disruption.  Those who do this successfully “control the political definition of their actions, the terms in which their places in history are understood” while those who fail in this task lack legitimacy and find their decisions opposed and undermined by supporters and opponents alike (17).  As a consequence, disjunctive presidents are forced to “look to some time in the distant future when people might begin to appreciate the wisdom of what they did” (18).

The crucial point in Skowronek’s argument is this: it is largely beyond the powers of any individual president to ensure his own legitimacy.  Each president takes office at a particular moment in “political time;” a moment at which the prevailing governing regime is more or less resilient (credible) or vulnerable (discredited).  Here, regime serves as a stand-in for a combination of the dominant “public ideology” and the relative strength/weakness of each of the two major parties.  An individual president’s affiliation with or opposition to a vulnerable/resilient regime determines his position “in time” and, in turn, his political fortunes. And whereas a candidate chooses his affiliation, he has no control over regime vulnerability/resiliency because it hinges on the decisions and actions of his predecessors.

Consider a comparison between two Democratic presidents – Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter.  Roosevelt took office as the prevailing governing regime, personified by Hoover’s Republicanism, was breaking down in the face of its inability to provide a credible way out of the Depression.  He took advantage of this by blaming Hoover for the crisis itself and by using this blame to legitimate the New Deal.  In this way, FDR occupied the most enviable position in political time because he came to office opposed to a vulnerable regime.  He could “legitimate” the New Deal and New Deal liberalism by presenting it as a cohesive package of policy and philosophy better suited to help the country move beyond the crisis than the policies offered by “Hoover Republicans.” FDR is remembered as one of our greatest presidents.

By the time Jimmy Carter took office the policy and ideological commitments of New Deal liberalism appeared as “failed or irrelevant responses to the problems of the day” (39). With these commitments discredited Carter could not appeal to them to justify his decisions, but he could not repudiate them without putting at risk necessary political support from Democratic allies still wedded to those same commitments. Carter found himself affiliated with a vulnerable regime and had no authority to “control the political definition of the moment.” He had no credible justifications for his decisions and actions, and in 1980 he lost to Ronald Reagan.  He is remembered as a failed president.

This leadership dilemma – being affiliated with a set of governing commitments no longer seen as credible by the public while simultaneously being unable to repudiate them – is the situation Mitt Romney now faces.  He must appease the base of the Republican Party by situating himself as an inheritor of “Reagan Conservatism” even as Reagan Conservatism is increasingly discredited.  In short, when we look at Mitt Romney, we should see Jimmy Carter.

Recent polling provides support for this claim.  A majority of Americans now support increasing taxes on the rich and most Americans also believe that material inequality, not government regulation bears responsibility for contemporary economic problems.  The public supports additional government regulation of Wall Street, and cuts to the defense budget, while it opposes Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s proposed budget.  A majority also blames President George W. Bush – the most recent incarnation of Reagan – for our current economic problems. 

On each point, polls show the public rejects Reagan Conservatism and on each point Candidate Romney is on the wrong side of the public. Yet he cannot repudiate these views because they represent central principles of Reagan Conservatism and they retain the support of Romney’s closest political allies.

Recognizing that he is torn between the increasingly unpopular but inherited commitments of Reagan Conservatism and the need to provide credible solutions to pressing public problems, Romney presents himself as a “skillful technocrat.”  Or, in the words of his supporters, Romney is a “no-nonsense problem-solver who can turn the economy around.”  Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Romney argues that his positions on economic policy are informed by “experience in the private sector” or the role he played in organizing the Olympics.  Self-definition as a “pragmatic problem-solver” with positions informed by private employment represents Romney’s strategy for legitimating his candidacy and will reemerge should he win the presidency.

What’s notable about this course of action is that it provides Romney with very little political support.  He avoids invoking Reagan Conservatism to explain his policy goals and he avoids providing specific details about his own proposals.  Here we see the disjunctive dilemma. Romney risks the support of his base by not enthusiastically embracing Reagan Conservatism, but he risks the support of the broader public by promoting policies that are seen as remnants of a discredited public ideology.  All he has left, then, is to elevate “proper administrative methods into a political cause” and to claim a “special insight into the mechanics of government” (40).  Such a situation leaves a future President Romney with very little room to maneuver.

In an attempt to discredit Obama’s tenure, the Romney campaign frequently analogizes his first four years in office to those of President Jimmy Carter. As I’ve described, invocations of Carter are not unwarranted.  But as a future President Romney may learn, they apply more to him than they ever did to President Obama.

Justin Peck is a 2012-2013 Miller Center National Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.

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