Featured scholarship: A Federal Army, Not a Federalist One: Regime Building in the Jeffersonian Era

by Julia Azari

Our featured piece is by William Adler and Jonathan Keller, and it addresses Thomas Jefferson’s approach to the national military. It appeared in the November 2014 issue of the Journal of Policy History.

Subfield: American politics

Research question: How did Thomas Jefferson’s administration “remake” the national military to serve its values and aims? A strong national military was at odds with Jefferson’s suspicions of centralized government. The authors note that Jefferson had considerable capacity to redirect American public policy according to his own priorities, but that the military was left “very much intact.”

Methods: Qualitative, historical

What’s here for non-specialists: The main audience for this article will no doubt be students of American political development, especially those with an institutional focus. Adler and Keller use Stephen Skowronek’s political time thesis as their main theoretical framework, and they identify Jefferson’s adaptation, rather than complete transformation, of the military, as an example of the limitations that all presidents, even those who serve at “reconstructive” moments, face.

This argument should be of interest to scholars of institutional change and institution-building as well; the unique institution of the American presidency provides a potentially useful basis for comparing the relative capacity of political actors to change or dismantle institutions. In other words, if American presidents have limited to capacity to change institutions, are there other institutional actors – in the United States or elsewhere – who have the ability to do so? Under what conditions is institutional transformation possible? Scholars of the contemporary presidency may also find Adler and Keller’s argument useful. One of their arguments is that Jefferson’s ideology “proved remarkably flexible” when it came to the real demands of governing. This seems like a promising framework for understanding more recent presidents, who take office after running on big ideas but often find their plans thwarted by entrenched institutions and interests. The Jefferson case study produces insights that could be very valuable for those studying later presidential transitions.

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The real reason for Obama’s new resolution on ISIS

By Jesse H. Rhodes 

On Wednesday afternoon President Obama sent a draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force to Congress, seeking explicit congressional authority for a limited military campaign against ISIS. The president wants the new authorization to supplement the 2001 AUMF – adopted in the wake of 9/11 – which Obama has already cited as legal authority to conduct military strikes in nations such as Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. He’s also already claimed authority to battle ISIS under the War Powers Resolution.

This raises an interesting question: given that Obama has already interpreted the 2001 AUMF to permit military strikes around the globe, why seek new authority from Congress to battle ISIS?

Over at Vox, Matthew Yglesias has argued that Obama’s main objective in seeking the new resolution is to limit presidential power in national security affairs. According to Yglesias, Obama is deeply concerned with the concentration of power in the executive provided by the 2001 AUMF. While he has been relatively restrained in exercising his authority under the AUMF so far, Obama is fearful that a future president might use the ambiguous terms of the authorization much more aggressively – for example, by “dispatching hundreds of thousands of troops to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram.” As Yglesias notes, Obama’s draft Authorization is a (slight) improvement on the 2001 AUMF: in addition to setting the precedent that new actions should be authorized under a new resolution, it limits the scope of authorized actions and sunsets after three years.

Pointing to these features of the resolution, Yglesias concludes that Obama’s ultimate objective is to “jolt Congress into limiting executive authority…not just his own authority, but his successor’s.” But there are several problems with this argument.

First, as Yglesias notes, the new AUMF would not actually tie the president’s hands as a practical matter. The 2001 AUMF would continue to stand; and, in any case, Obama and his successors would have little trouble creating new justifications for using force beyond the terms of the proposed authorization if they found it necessary or desirable.

Furthermore, Yglesias’ interpretation of Obama’s motives – that Obama wants to hem in future presidents’ room for maneuver in fighting terrorism – doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Obama faces the very serious and difficult problem of fighting ISIS right now; it’s unlikely that he’s overly worried with dealing with the longer-term (and much more abstract) problem of excessive presidential power. Furthermore, to the extent that Obama is concerned the scope of presidential power as a general matter, chances are that he would prefer to expand it. After all, one of great lessons of American history is that presidents have relentlessly pushed the envelope in foreign affairs, seeking to concentrate authority in the executive branch. It’s hard to see why Obama would be any different in this regard; indeed, Obama has already pushed the envelope.

Why, then, is Obama requesting a congressional vote for new authority to fight ISIS? Part of the answer is politics, plain and simple. Obama realizes that any fight against ISIS is going to be extremely difficult, involving considerable risks to American soldiers and uncertain prospects of success. The fact that Obama is requesting more authority suggests he believes further military action against ISIS is necessary. The political value of requesting a formal vote on a new resolution is that it forces members of Congress to stand up and register their support or opposition to broadening the fight. In effect, Obama is saying that if members of Congress want to expand the conflict against ISIS, they have to own it: no taking ambiguous positions now, and then criticizing the president later when things don’t go as well as hoped.

This move will have an especially devastating effect on congressional Republicans’ capacity to criticize the president’s dealings with ISIS. Arguably, Republicans’ strongest criticism of Obama to date is that he is weak on national security. Republicans have also been especially vocal in calling for more vigorous action against ISIS. However, if Republicans support the president’s request, they will suddenly lose the ability to mount an effective attack on his policy (unless things go terribly wrong, which of course is possible). Just as George W. Bush made political hay between 2002 and 2005 by attacking as “flip-floppers” Democrats who supported the 2001 AUMF and then criticized his policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama could charge Republicans with hypocrisy if they support his request and then turn against his management of the war.

Interestingly, though, Obama’s request is also good for American politics (though a request for a formal Declaration of War would be much better). As Yglesias notes, most members of Congress would probably prefer to remain ambiguous on this issue, for fear of picking the wrong side and then being punished in a future election. Put frankly, this kind of “blame avoidance” is bad for democracy, because it prevents voters from holding their representatives accountable for the decisions they make. By forcing members of Congress to vote on the authorization, Obama’s request will clarify to voters where their representatives stand on a matter of pressing national concern. This, in turn, can help them make more informed decisions in the voting booth in 2016. Small wonder many representatives aren’t thrilled about voting on the resolution!

In short, Obama isn’t calling for a new AUMF because he thinks he needs it, nor is he doing it because he wants to limit presidential power. Rather, the president’s request is a smart political play, but one that also serves the interests of the political system. If there is going to be a war, the least members of Congress can do is stand up and vote for it.

Jesse Rhodes is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is the author of An Education in Politics: The Origins and Evolution of No Child Left Behind. 

Did Mitt Romney just lose a presidential campaign? Yes and no

By David A. Hopkins, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Boston College 

If you’re a strong believer in the idea that presidential nominations are determined by the coordination of party elites during the invisible primary period, with the choice of “the Party” merely ratified by the voters once the actual state primaries and caucuses begin, then Mitt Romney’s announcement on Friday that he will not seek the 2016 Republican nomination, after a month-long period in which Romney was very obviously measuring support for another bid for the presidency, should be interpreted in the following manner: Romney did in fact run for president in 2016–and he lost badly. His publicly-revealed decision not to embark upon another “presidential campaign” occurred after he in fact actively ran another campaign, dropping out of the race after discovering that he stood almost no chance of winning the nomination, just as he would have if he had placed seventh in the Iowa caucus a year from now.

While I agree that (1) candidates seek elite support because it helps them win votes, and (2) Romney decided to remove himself from consideration after concluding that he wouldn’t have as much of that support as he wanted, I still believe that it’s useful to continue drawing a distinction between the testing-the-waters phase and the active-campaign phase of the nomination process. In Romney’s case, there’s plenty of reason to believe that he would judge his chances of winning the nomination in 2016 as significantly greater than zero. Putting aside the fact that most politicians are more likely to overstate than understate their own appeal, Romney would have some evidence on his side for this view. His standing in the national polls is very strong (often placing first by a wide margin in surveys testing the Republican presidential field); he has plenty of money and access to much more; he has a natural advantage in the influential New Hampshire primary; and he already proved the ability to win the nomination in 2012. According to the Washington Post, Romney advisors had collected polling data showing that he indeed retained “broad and deep” support among Republican primary voters, suggesting that he indeed viewed his chances as far from remote. However, whatever probability of success Romney thinks he would have had must be weighed against the cost of failure—and for Romney, more than most potential candidates, that cost would have been high. To lose a third presidential campaign would be something of a humiliation, and to lose in the primaries after having won them last time around would be especially so. If it’s an honor just to be nominated…well, he’s already had that honor.

So even if Romney thought he had at least a legitimate shot to win, once it became clear to him that most party elites were not spontaneously exploding with joy about the prospects of another campaign, that he would have to really fight hard to hold off Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, and that his chances of victory, even if well above zero, were probably below 50%, the idea of slogging it out on the campaign trail once again probably lost most of its appeal. Whereas another candidate, differently situated, might take similar odds as sufficiently encouraging to jump in the race. Certainly Barack Obama must have concluded that he would likely lose to Hillary Clinton in 2008, but the cost of running anyway and hoping for some lucky breaks (which, in the end, he got) was much lower for a young, first-time candidate taking on the party favorite than it would be for Romney today. Other candidates take the plunge in other years—and no doubt many will in 2016 as well—despite what they themselves must view, and certainly other party elites with whom they converse view, as fairly long odds of success. Once a candidate formally joins the race, however, the calculation changes. If you’re already openly running, there’s usually no reason not to keep going until your chances of winning truly dwindle to effectively zero. After all, you’ve already taken the step of publicly presenting yourself to the electorate for their approval, so there’s no reason not to try to collect on that risk until it’s no longer possible to do so. By bowing out gracefully before he officially jumped in, Romney manages to avoid the danger of being openly rejected by the voters who embraced him in 2012, in exchange for trading his presidential ambitions for the role of an elder statesman in the GOP.