The Party Decides the Transition

By Heath Brown


Much attention has been paid to The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform and its implications for this primary season (see here and here). The book argues that party elites have a strong voice in the selection of presidential candidates. Rather than candidate selection determined primarily by members of the party voting in primaries and caucuses, those in a party’s organizational coalition – large donors, interest groups, and major activist organizations – drive party decisions. A second argument of the book is that much of this happens during the invisible primary, largely unobservable to most of the public and the media since it happens behind closed doors shrouded in secrecy.

Whether or not the book accurately predicted what has transpired in this year’s campaign has been debated at length elsewhere, and seems far from resolution. What has not been addressed so far is whether the book speaks to subsequent phases of the election. In particular, whether the arguments at the core of the book can help better understand the 72 days between the Election and the Inauguration, what is called the presidential transition phase. During this time, the president-elect and a transition team make thousands of decisions about the direction of the country including hundreds of personnel appointments and policy choices.

Plutocrats Decide

Though there has been considerable descriptive political science research on this period, notably by Martha Kumar, there have been scant few efforts to develop and test a theory of presidential transitions. For example, one approach has treated the transition period as an opportunity for unchecked political patronage and a demonstration of the biased pluralism or plutocratic tendencies of American politics. Perhaps it is best to understand that an election may result in the president-elect rewarding family, friends, and mega campaign contributors, including awarding dozens of Senate-confirmed jobs, ambassadorships, and hundreds of other ceremonial positions. Recall George W. Bush awarded major campaign donor and Enron CEO Ken Lay with a position on his transition team. From this perspective, the spoils of electoral victory are divvied up among the 1% donor class during the transition period as the outgoing administration leaves en masse.

While often assumed to be a feature of presidential administrations from the distant past, Gabriel Horton and David Lewis showed aspects of the patronage system and big money politics were alive and well as late as 2008. They found that, following his transition, President Obama appointed numerous large campaign contributors to his administration, though often in agencies that were not central to the his policy agenda. For example, President Obama named one of his campaign donors, Louis Susman, an investment banker who bundled $300,000 to help pay for the Inauguration, ambassador to the United Kingdom shortly after the transition ended.

Bi-Partisan Consensus

Another line of thinking worries that the transition period between presidents is fraught with grave national security risks. Show runners for the cable TV show, Homeland, have even seen juicy plot points in a fictional presidential transition for their upcoming season. Those hostile to US interests might take advantage of the confusion and partisan bickering that may occur during a transfer of presidential power, especially between parties. These concerns have been heightened during this era of fear of global terrorism and economic upheaval, but fit with classic approaches to the nonpartisan presidency.

Thus, after the election, the president-elect should quickly move to de-politicize the transition process to promote bi-partisan cooperation across administrations and emphasize objective public management values. We see this normative approach argued by good government groups going back to the Brookings Institution in the 1960s, and more recently by the Partnership for Public Service and the National Academy of Public Administration.

Recent Evidence

Based on my own research, I’ve found that presidential transitions are neither stolid bureaucratic affairs nor big money free-for-alls. In 2008, Barack Obama’s transition team established a transparency policy in order to “give the American people a ‘seat at the table’” and curbed ways lobbyists might profit from the transition. While this gave the appearance that all were welcome to participate in the planning for the new administration, the actual transition team was dominated by those in the Democratic coalition, such as union leaders like Patrick Gaspard and civil rights lawyers like Alan W. Houseman, and other longtime allies of the President-Elect. For this reason, it seems that The Party Decides offers an apt theoretical framework to understand what happens during this period and anticipate what will happen starting on November 9th.

During the transition period, as Cohen et al. might expect, members of the coalition of party insiders vie for positions on the transition team and for influence over key personnel, policy, and organizational decisions. As such, those in the losing party’s coalition (or those in neither party coalition) sit on the outside looking in, often resigned to reduced access over the next four years or content to remain marginal political players. The transition period, especially during the pre-election planning phase, but also after the election, happens out of the view of the public. Edwin Meese, who had been tapped by Ronald Reagan to begin transition planning a year before the election in 1980, met in secret at a Northern Virginia Bob’s Big Boy restaurant to discuss personnel appointments with Pendleton James. Notwithstanding Obama’s transparency measures in 2008, the process typically involves no voting, limited public input, and the participation of only a fraction of those directly involved in the campaign. In the past, campaigns were loathed to admit they were even preparing for the transition out of fears of accusations of arrogance and presumptuousness. Just as Cohen et al. talked of the invisible primary, one may accurately talk of the invisible transition.

My evidence is drawn from original survey data that I collect during the last presidential transition in 2008 and published in my book, Lobbying the New President. I collected surveys from interest groups and other Washington policy organizations in the transportation and criminal justice arena. These groups ranged from trade associations representing airline companies to public sector unions to citizen groups focused on prison reform. I asked each organization a series of questions about how they had participated in the previous transition in 2000 and how they were participating in the 2008 transition.

What I discovered was that the richest interest groups did not dominate the period; resources were not correlated with access to the transition team or activity during the transition. Instead, those in the Democratic coalition supporting Obama, labor groups and civil rights organizations, for example, were much more active during the transition period. They were significantly more likely to meet with the transition team, submit policy recommendations, and even to gain personnel appointments to federal agencies. On the contrary, those in the Republican coalition supporting John McCain, business groups and trade associations, were much less likely to participate in the transition.

This finding largely conforms to the theoretical argument made in The Party Decides, but a second interesting pattern emerged. I compared organizations that believed they had lost access to the White House following the transition in 2000 with those organizations that had gained or experienced no change in access. Those that had lost access in 2000 following George W. Bush’s transition were statistically much more active in the 2008 transition of Barack Obama. The change in party seems to elevate one set of organizations, presumably those in the party’s coalition, while diminishing another set of organizations, presumably those in the out-going party coalition, and this dynamic first happens during the transition period.

What this suggests about the 2016 presidential transitions is that those groups endorsing and supporting Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will look to November and December to capitalize on the campaign. In fact, given that short window of time, the most prominent organizations in each party’s coalition are already actively planning for the transition period, likely drawing up lists of names to recommend for key appointments and drafting policy papers for how to advance policy goals should their candidate win. On the Democratic side, this will surely resemble 2008. The Clinton coalition already resembles the Obama coalition, and John Podesta – who oversaw Obama’s transition in 2008 – is now Clinton’s campaign chair.

On the Republican side, much remains uncertain. The traditional Republican coalition made up of business interests, foreign policy neoconservatives, and the Religious Right are not obviously a part of the Trump coalition, and may not be elevated in the same way as we would expect following a change from Democratic to Republic administration. The uncertain role of Tea Party organizations and pro-Trump anti-trade populists, neither established members of the Republican coalition, still must be reconciled.

Just as Trump’s primary victories challenged some of the findings of The Party Decides, so too will a Trump general election campaign victory challenge what we have come to understand about presidential transitions. Whoever wins, The Party Decides offers interesting and theoretical frame to better understand presidential transitions.

 Heath Brown is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at City University of New York Graduate Center and John Jay College

One thought on “The Party Decides the Transition

  1. Pingback: Why the Veepstakes matters less than you are told and more than you realize | The New West

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