Presidential Reputation Addendum

>> Friday, December 11, 2009

Tracy Lightcap has a good comment in the thread below:

I'm not so sure that there are good and bad presidents, just good and bad opportunities.

I'm a big fan of Skowronek's scheme of political time and how it helps analyze how presidential leadership works. Johnson was in the same situation that John Tyler was when Harrison died: a veep chosen from the opposing party (or, at least, one faction of it) for purely political purposes. When he got to the presidency, he did exactly what Tyler did: he acted like a Democrat. Problem = that particular vision (especially the Jacksonian union aspect of it) had been cancelled by the Civil War and Lincoln's presidency. But expecting Johnson to realize that is simply expecting too much; he had been in politics for decades, had been a Democrat (though with Whiggish tendencies) all that time, and he was a prototypical Southerner of the day, given to concern about "principles" and just as prickly when crossed as Jackson or Polk. So he acted accordingly and got impeached for it.

In another time, I think he would have done ok at the job: he was a man of no mean capacity. But, like most presidents of his ilk, his time was wrong and, like most of us, he couldn't rise above his experiences or personality to meet the challenges.
I definitely agree with Tracy on a couple things. First of all, presidential rankings are indeed a parlor game and aren't scholarship even when informed by scholarly expertise; I happen to like such parlor games and do think they can illuminate some things, but if you prefer not to make these kinds of judgments and focus on explanations I can't argue with you. Secondly, I'm also a big admirer of Skowronek's structural approach, and tend to find explanations that focus on presidential character or psychology tend towards unhelpful tautologies and the concealment of normative judgments in ostensibly objective language. (At my wonkier blog, I actually have a couple of posts wondering how Obama will fit into Skowronek's framework, but I'll leave that for another post.)

With respect to the specific arguments about Johnson, though, I would continue to disagree in some respects. As I said, I think the "no bad presidents, only bad situations" argument does have a lot of purchase in the case of Buchanan and Pierce; it's hard to argue that they were effective leaders, but I've also never heard a convincing counterfactual explaining how even better leadership could have held the Democratic coalition together. (In a sense, their ineffectuality is what the situation demanded; a strong leader could never have successfully become the Democratic presidential candidate because too many people would have left the coalition.) Johnson, thought, is a whole different situation. I don't think the analogy to Tyler is apposite, because while Tyler's politics were different than Harrison's, they were different in a way that was consistent with the dominant ideological regime of the era. Johnson wasn't merely different than Lincoln; he was strongly opposed to the hegemonic politics of his time, which of course had been defined by Lincoln. Indeed, what makes Johnson so uniquely awful is that his behavior was highly unusual for a "pre-emptive" president that takes office during another party's ideological ascendancy. Cleveland, Ike, Clinton (at least post-94), Nixon on domestic policy -- they tried to attenuate and trim the existing ideological trends, but they also (for better or worse) fundamentally made peace with the larger political principles that dominated their era. Johnson -- who, after all, was put into office thorough an assassin's bullet rather than an election, and whose fundamental principles had not merely been rejected in a couple of elections but by a civil war -- had much more reason to be modest than those four presidents, but instead was much more obstructionist and arrogant. Those were his choices; they weren't demanded by his position.

Indeed, even Tracy seems to acknowledge that Johnson is one case where individualistic explanations say more than structural ones -- the stubborn commitment to discredited principles and thin skin Tracy cites where his personal characteristics, not the products of political time. Given this, to say that Johnson wouldn't have been such a catastrophic president in a different context is like saying that Juan Pierre would have been a better player in 1911 than Albert Pujols; if we're going to make judgments about effectiveness or value at all, I don't really think it's relevant. Johnson was a terrible president for reasons that were much more under his discretion than is the case with most of the other presidents with similarly bad reputations.


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