No way, say two Johns Hopkins professors in a new book
The American presidency is out of control, and in the interminable run-up to one of the most hyped presidential elections in history, there's little hope of restoring the traditional balance of power in Washington, according to Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, Johns Hopkins University political scientists and authors of Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced (W.W. Norton & Co., April 2007, $27.95).
"We can't think of anything that would fix it," says Ginsberg, the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and director of the Center for the Study of American Government at Johns Hopkins. "It's not a problem that could be easily solved."
Adds Crenson, "It would take a mobilization like the nation's response to the Vietnam War, but it's not going to happen."
Picking up where Crenson and Ginsberg's first co- authored book, Downsizing Democracy, left off, Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced explains the exponential growth of the White House's authority since the second half of the 20th century. Writing for a general audience, they approach their subject as they would a murder mystery, looking at the motives, means, and opportunities leading to the aggrandizement of the commander-in-chief.
How did the world's most powerful democracy wind up delegating so much power and influence to just one person, despite our system of checks and balances? Crenson and Ginsberg point to a convergence of factors, including fractured political parties, a weak Congress and the return of national security issues and foreign policy matters to the center of American politics.
The American people also are responsible for strengthening the executive branch, thanks to waning citizen activism and a general lack of participation in politics. All this fuels presidential candidates who are pathologically ambitious, making the modern approach to electing a president much more cynical and calculated than in the past. Today, the authors say, a president is borne on the shoulders of an inner-circle of handlers and image-makers who fashion the candidate into an electable figure. Gone are the days when the candidate's political party shaped a candidate's character or the groundswell of a popular vote mattered. Crenson and Ginsberg call this "institutionalized ambition."
"Because of the way elections are orchestrated today, we have people running who are 'monsters,' to quote Mike Kelly of the Washington Post," Crenson says. "They spend their whole lives running for office. The party they belong to is irrelevant." Though the George W. Bush administration has capitalized on this situation, Crenson and Ginsberg are quick to note that it didn't create it. Presidential Power traces more than 200 years of political and presidential history, outlining how past presidents were chosen, elected and ultimately exercised their power. The book examines presidents from George Washington, who was elected more for his character than his talents, to George W. Bush, whose 2000 victory came in the Supreme Court. Crenson and Ginsberg outline how they feel the presidents of the past 100 years — and in particular, the past three decades — have exploited the power of the office.
Crenson and Ginsberg are great sources for reporters to consider when working on stories about the 2008 presidential election. Both are lively speakers who enjoy working with reporters and have spent their careers following national political trends. High resolution digital photos of Crenson and Ginsberg, as well as review copies of Presidential Power are available to members of the media by e-mailing Amy Lunday at email@example.com.
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