Let me list a few things we know about the president.
First, the very fact that he has ascended to the presidency is a bit of a surprise. No one—including, apparently, him—actually anticipated that this would happen.
Second, he comes into office without any ability to claim significant popular support. Indeed, a large number of politically engaged observers understand his presidency as rooted in a constitutional accident of sorts.
Third, he comes to office with, at best, lackluster support from the elites of his own party. Most of them have long harbored significant suspicions about whether he has any fundamental adherence to the party’s ideology. In fact, for significant portions of his life, he had publicly identified with the other party. His identification with his current party seems to have resulted at least as much from a personality-based fit of pique directed at a recent president of the other party as it did from any commitment to his current party’s policy platform.
Indeed, he only seemed to make it on the ticket in the first place because one more plausible candidate after another stumbled, imploded, or withdrew during the nominating process.
And almost immediately upon taking office, he began to alienate a surprisingly large percentage of his co-partisans in Congress. Despite the fact that his party controls both houses of Congress, he has gotten none of the usual trappings of a honeymoon period. Instead, as fissures within his party continue to deepen, facilitated by his personal unpopularity and lack of mandate as well as incipient policy disputes, things that ought to be easy in the opening days of an administration become increasingly hard.
Talk of impeachment is even in the air. Of course, it is highly unlikely that he will be impeached, but the mere fact that it is being bandied about semi-seriously at such an early date is telling. And even if he manages to serve out his term, it’s not at all clear that there will be much to show for it at the end of the day.
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The president about whom I’m writing, of course, is John Tyler, William Henry Harrison’s vice president who became president upon Harrison’s death in April 1841, a mere month after Harrison’s inauguration as the first Whig president. Tyler had begun affiliating with the Whig Party in 1834/35, when being a Whig was more about opposition to Andrew Jackson than it was about adherence to any particular platform or ideology. Although the Party, led by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, would come to develop stronger ideological commitments over the next decade, Tyler was never really on board, remaining a dedicated Old (i.e., Jeffersonian) Republican.
The election of 1840 was the first time that the Whigs had a unified national ticket. There was significant controversy over who would head the ticket—Harrison emerged as the presidential nominee only after Webster withdrew and threw his support to Harrison over Clay. The choice of a running mate was given little attention; Tyler was eventually selected after several others declined to be considered.
Upon assuming the presidency, Tyler was widely derided as “His Accidency.” He then set about thoroughly alienating his own party in Congress, vetoing more bills than any other antebellum president aside from Jackson. This included vetoing two separate bills that would have rechartered a national bank, as well as two separate tariff bills, both major elements of the Whig legislative agenda.
Within days of the second bank bill veto, Tyler’s entire cabinet, with the exception of Secretary of State Webster, resigned. That same month, the president was expelled from the Whig Party. He served the rest of his term as a president without a party and was the first president unable to find a party to nominate him for a second term.
In August 1842, about sixteen months into Tyler’s presidency, John Quincy Adams chaired a committee that returned an absolutely scathing report on Tyler’s vetoes of various tariff bills. Indeed, the committee majority expressed its view that impeachment was appropriate, but it stopped short of reporting out an impeachment resolution, instead reporting out a proposed constitutional amendment to allow veto overrides by bare majority. The (Whig-controlled) House agreed to the committee report by a vote of 100 to 80. When Tyler replied to the committee report with a vigorous protest message, the House resolved that the protest itself was a breach of the privileges of the House—the equivalent of a finding of contempt of Congress, a finding that had only been made against one previous president: Andrew Jackson.
What’s more, Tyler had what can only be described as an abysmal record with appointments. To quote Mike Gerhardt: “The Senate rejected seven of his twenty cabinet nominations—the largest number of cabinet nominations ever made by a single president to be rejected by the Senate. In Tyler’s last two years in office, the Senate blocked a majority of his nominations (including four cabinet and two minister nominations), and the Senate rejected eight of his nine Supreme Court nominations—the largest number of unsuccessful Supreme Court nominations ever made by a single president.” Some of those numbers are inflated by the fact that Tyler repeatedly renominated for the exact same position a nominee who had just been voted down in the Senate, in an attempt to pressure the Senate into acquiescing. The Senate—which, it should be noted, was Whig-controlled for Tyler’s entire presidency—was unmoved.
None of this is to say that Tyler accomplished nothing—he was somewhat more successful in the realm of foreign policy and westward expansion. Nevertheless, his presidency, both at the time and today, was and is widely considered a failure.
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Obviously, there are a quite a number of ways in which Tyler and the current occupant of the White House are very different. But there are also some striking similarities, at least thus far, and one key lesson that we might draw out.
That lesson is the contingency of partisanship. Partisanship is not a set pattern of actions and interactions; instead it is the label we use to describe whatever it is that political actors are doing with respect to parties at a given time. Parties weren’t any less important in the 1840s than they are today, yet America was then treated to the spectacle of a president being kicked out of his own party and then opposed by that party at every turn for the remainder of his term. Put differently, what we’re used to thinking of as the inevitable roles and forms of partisan contestation are in fact highly contingent and protean.
The standard line is that a party that controls both houses of Congress and the presidency—what is often called “unified government”—will be able to push through large amounts of policy change relatively quickly and with relatively little standing in the way. And this is sometimes true! The 111th Congress (2009-2011) looked like this, passing the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, massive fiscal stimulus, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and numerous other laws that would have been considered major in any other Congress.
But, of course, that was not how the Whigs in Congress behaved during the Tyler administration. Instead of working with a same-party president, allowing him a role in shaping their agenda, they insisted that he get on board with their agenda. When he did not, they turned overtly confrontational, expelling him from the party.
But we don’t have to go all the way back to the 1840s to find presidents having trouble getting their way with a same-party Congress. Consider the 109th Congress (2005-2007), with Republicans in control of both chambers and Republican George W. Bush as president. Despite a major, sustained push by the president, his signature issue—Social Security reform—failed even to make it through the House. And, of course, his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court was withdrawn after it became clear that she did not have enough Republican votes in the Senate.
So what might explain this? Many things, obviously—in politics, there’s always a lot going on. But one key factor, as I explore in far greater detail in my forthcoming book, is the president’s standing in the public sphere.
Tyler was of course in a weak position. He was not elected in his own right, and the first fight of his administration was over convincing people that he was actually the president, not just the “acting president.” He lacked either a national or a partisan constituency, and he devoted little effort to developing one.
George W. Bush in 2005 might have seemed to be in a stronger position. He had just been reelected—albeit by a very narrow margin—and his party had kept control of both houses of Congress. And, of course, he was a consummate party insider. But 2005 marked the beginning of a downturn in his public standing that would last for the remainder of his presidency. By April of that year, his poll numbers were the worst of his presidency, and the administration’s widely panned response to Hurricane Katrina in late-August of that year sent his approval ratings yet lower. Many Republicans in Congress could see the writing on the wall, and Democrats recaptured both houses of Congress in the 2006 midterms. In the political climate of 2005, it is hardly surprising that the president was unable to convince other GOP elites to follow his lead.
By contrast, in 2009, Obama had just been elected in a landslide, and the Democrats had significantly increased their margins in both chambers. Obama’s popularity remained high for most of 2009 and into 2010. Even so, Democrats were crushed in the 2010 midterms.
Donald Trump, of course, comes into office having lost the popular vote by quite a bit. Additionally, the gap between his favorability rating and his polling in the run-up to the election suggest that many who voted for him did so reluctantly. He was opposed in the primaries by nearly the entirety of his party’s elite, and he made little effort to cozy up to them during the general election. And his approval ratings have been substantially underwater since at least the second week of his presidency—normally the period in which one would expect them to be at a zenith.
So, if the mere fact of deference does not dictate a deferential attitude by Congress, and if the public conditions are ripe for potential intraparty opposition, what might that opposition look like?
First, and most obviously in the light of this week’s news, enough Republicans in Congress might oppose the president’s legislative agenda so as to make it unpassable. I was always skeptical that Republican healthcare reform could get through the Senate, but the failure to get the AHCA through the House was shocking. Moreover, Republican elites have been signaling deep hostility to the White House’s budget proposals since their release.
Second, Congress—and especially the Senate—can use its power over personnel. We saw the Whig Congresses use this power extensively against Tyler, denying him both the executive and the judicial officers of his choosing. We can see it in another nineteenth century president-without-a-party, Andrew Johnson, whose impeachment and near-conviction largely centered around questions of who got to choose executive personnel. We saw it with George W. Bush and Harriet Miers, and even with Obama’s inability to get people like Dawn Johnsen, Goodwin Liu, and Debo Adegbile through Democrat-dominated Senates.
So far, in the Trump administration, we’ve only seen one Cabinet nominee go down (Andrew Puzder, for Labor), but we’ve seen an administration remarkably slow to staff up, especially at the sub-cabinet levels. To the extent that Trump’s popularity remains depressed, it will be interesting to see how much trouble he has getting his nominees confirmed, once he bothers to nominate them. (In this vein, by choosing a mainstream conservative as his (first?) Supreme Court nominee, Trump made a very savvy move, one designed to ensure that the Republican caucus remains united behind Gorsuch.)
Third, both houses of Congress have significant powers of investigation. Part of the congressional pushback against Tyler involved committee investigations and harshly condemnatory reports, and committee inquiries in the twentieth century had major impacts, as well, ranging from the Nye Committee in the 1930s to the Watergate investigation by the House Judiciary Committee to the Church Committee and the Iran-Contra investigation. Even when (as in the case of Iran-Contra) the investigation has not led to major legislation or impeachment, it has nevertheless released to the public information that significantly altered the balance of power between the branches.
It is still too soon to tell what form the current inquiries into Trump—and especially into his ties with Russia—will take. But last week’s testimony of James Comey and Michael Rogers before the House Intelligence Committee put the White House on the defensive, and calls for a select committee have been growing in recent days. Moreover, several Trump-skeptical Republicans serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee. There may even be signs of increased activity from the heretofore relatively quiescent House Oversight Committee.
And perhaps the loudest sounds coming out of Congress are those of silence. Given that we are only just over two months into the new administration, it is striking how little Republican members of Congress are willing to defend him publicly. More common, it seems, are statements like, “[I’m] not going to comment on every tweet or comment that [Trump] makes,” in the words of House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry.
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Of course, this could all change. If Trump’s standing in the public sphere improves, Republican members of Congress will get on board with his legislative agenda; they’ll confirm his personnel; they’ll drop investigations; they’ll publicly vouch for him. But it’s worth noting that there’s a dialectical relationship here: failure to implement promised policies, or bad implementation of them, or investigations that turn up damaging material will also help lower his standing in the public sphere, which in turn will produce more of those things. In that regard, last week’s news was about more than just healthcare or the Russia investigation: it was about Trump’s interactions with Congress going forward. Politics is inertial that way: once a political figure starts losing, he’s likely to keep losing, absent some external shock.
One thing, at least, is fairly clear: Trump can’t rely on partisan allegiance alone to save his presidency.