About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« The Celebrity-in-Chief? | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | The Limits of Bipartisanship »

Why Are Senate Republicans "Scared To Death?"

Yesterday on the Laura Ingraham Show (h/t Hot Air), Louisiana Senator David Vitter took a direct shot at his fellow Senate Republicans, saying:

What's been going on in a lot of these votes is that some folks are scared to death, quite frankly, of the new President and his polling numbers, and they're sort of hiding under the table.

When asked who, he said, "half my caucus, and just look at the Holder vote and that gives you a pretty good, general sense of what I'm talking about."

As Allahpundit notes at Hot Air, this is something that conservatives have been complaining about for a while. What's interesting about this is Vitter's directness, which leads me to ask, why are Republicans "scared to death?" They're the opposition...shouldn't they oppose? This question becomes especially sharp when we consider that, when President Bush was still in charge, congressional Democrats had no trouble opposing him. It's the same office, why are Senate Republicans "scared to death?"

To answer this question, I'd draw on Richard Neustadt's classic work, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. It's a really good, lively read - and though it is a bit older, it's still a core text for understanding today's presidency.

When you think about the formal powers of the presidency - i.e. that which is in the Constitution - you're hard pressed to come up with much. Here are the relevant sections from Article II:

Section 2. The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.

He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.

The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.

Section 3. He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in case of disagreement between them, with respect to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper; he shall receive ambassadors and other public ministers; he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and shall commission all the officers of the United States.

Considering the importance we ascribe to the office, this is a pretty paltry set of powers, especially on the domestic front. Neustadt says that these enumerated powers make the formal presidency indistinguishable from a clerkship, which is how we might characterize many of the 19th century chief executives.

What makes the office special is the informal power the President has the potential to wield. Those powers are not listed in the Constitution, but instead they come from the image of the President himself. Do people believe he is a man who gets things done, a man not to be trifled with, a man who makes his decisions felt far and wide? If the answers to those questions are yes, then the President's powers can extend well beyond the narrow scope carved out by Article II. He then becomes a man who can persuade others to do what he wants.

I suspect this is one reason why most every President enjoys a honeymoon period. There is always something humbling about being in the presence of the President, but that is especially so when he is new to the office. He is at his most prestigious and magisterial. Unsurprisingly, a new President can typically depend on strong polling numbers (a handy metric for the informal power of the President, as Vitter implies) at the start of his term. Not only do people wish him well early on, but the image that the public sees of the new President is very impressive. That's ultimately the source of his informal powers - how impressed are we with the man in the Oval Office?

This is probably what has the Republican caucus so intimidated - and why we've seen reports that their strategy is to frame opposition to the stimulus bill as opposition to the unpopular Democratic caucus. President Obama is at a high point in his informal powers, and it is politically dangerous to stand in his way.

For the moment, at least. The second part of Neustadt's argument is that the informal powers of the presidency can wax and wane, depending upon the actions of the President himself. Neustadt delineates a whole list of "do's" and "don't's" for Presidents, but the bottom line is that the President must always be concerned about protecting and expanding the scope of his powers. Otherwise, he can be slowly reduced to the clerkship role delineated by Article II. And remember, the goal of the opposition party - Republican or Democrat - is to take control of the government. That includes the presidency, so a President's opponents can always be counted on doing whatever they can to sap his prestige. So, he has to retain his powers against the efforts of those who wish to diminish them.

So far, I'd give President Obama mixed marks on protecting his power. Obviously, the problems with the Commerce, Treasury, and HHS nominees do not reflect well on him. And then there was his efforts at wooing Republicans on the stimulus bill, only to have them vote nay. That's an indication that he misjudged their position. These are the sorts of things that, over time, can damage his prestige, and thus diminish his power. This is also why I've been harping on his presence in the celebrity culture, which I think doesn't help him anymore.

But it's still really early. The new President and his team are still learning the in's and out's of political life in Washington. It's easy to be critical, but at least a few mistakes like this are bound to happen early on. I wouldn't underestimate the acumen of the White House or the President - and today's focus (again) on limiting executive pay is a case in point. That's a politically popular measure, and for the President to get behind that is smart politics.

Ultimately, I think his power in the early part of the presidency is going to be conditioned by the final result on the stimulus bill: can he guide a measure through Congress that gains bipartisanship support? Can he convince both sides to put partisanship aside, come together, and take ownership of a national recovery strategy? That's what he campaigned on, and I think that is what the public expects.

-Jay Cost