Q&A: Power of U.S. Presidency Is Growing, Poli Sci
Collaborating again: Political
science professors Benjamin Ginsberg and Matthew Crenson
discuss the power of the presidency, the subject of their
PHOTO BY HPS / WILL KIRK
By Glenn Small
Benjamin Ginsberg and Matthew Crenson, professors of
political science in the Krieger
School of Arts and Sciences and co-authors of the book
Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens
and Privatized Its Public (Johns Hopkins University
Press, 2002), are currently working on another
collaboration, this time a look at the growing power of the
U.S. presidency. They recently sat down to talk about their
book and the 2004 presidential race. The following is a
shortened version of their conversation; to read the full
transcript, go to
Q. What is the new book about?
Crenson: It's about why even though presidents for
the last generation have all been embattled for one reason
or another — because of the Vietnam War, because of
Watergate, because of Monica Lewinsky, because of the
abduction of U.S. diplomats in Iran — nevertheless the
of the presidency has continued to increase. Even though we
have all of these supposedly failed presidents, the
presidency grows more powerful, and we try to answer the
question why. And the answer has two parts.
One is that in order to become president today, as
opposed to the 19th century, you have to be almost insanely
ambitious. It used to be that people were nominated on the
36th ballot and came out of nowhere, and all of sudden they
were presidential candidates. Now you have to go through a
grueling process, not just the primaries but public
exposure. You have to have a very thick skin. You have to
be extremely ambitious. So it's changed the character of
And the other thing that's happened is participation
in American politics has gone down, which is what Ben and I
talk about in our previous book. And the result of that is
to disempower those branches of government that depend on
popular mobilization, most notably Congress. The president
has within his power the wherewithal to carry out his own
wishes. Congress has to rely on the executive to carry its
will, and the only thing it has working for it is popular
support. That's the only way it can keep the president
Ginsberg: As Matt indicated, this book is an
outgrowth of our previous collaboration, Downsizing
Democracy, which we did with Hopkins Press in 2002. And
when we finished that collaboration, we were a little tired
of talking to one another, but we had an idea — and that is
[that] the things we talked about in that book, namely the
sharp decline in popular political involvement, had
institutional consequences that neither we nor other
scholars had really fully appreciated.
And we conducted with one another a little thought
experiment, and it was really inspired by the events of
2002. If you recall, there was an ... anthrax attack on the
Congress which resulted in Capitol Hill being closed for a
long period of time. If you walked over to the Hill, it was
rather eerie. It was empty except for security guards. And
yet, unless you happened to live in Washington, you never
noticed this. The government of the United States went on.
Congress was sort of irrelevant to things.
Crenson: You can see how the presidents have
attempted to capitalize on that. Look at the way the war in
Iraq has been fought. [Secretary of Defense] Rumsfeld's
idea is to keep the number of troops very low [and] to make
up for numbers with high-tech targeted weaponry. In a way,
it sort of takes the whole war out of the public sphere. It
means you don't have to draft a lot of people. It means you
don't have to go to Congress for a lot of stuff. The whole
thing can be carried on within the executive branch. That's
one of many examples of the same thing.
Q: Do either of you see anything that distinguishes this
race from previous races?
Ginsberg: Well, we have a war, we have an economic
downturn. It's just like every other presidential race.
Crenson: There's one distinctive thing about this
election. There are very few undecideds ... [compared to]
previous elections. I think one in 10. Everyone else has
made up his mind. In fact, you wonder why we bother to go
through all of the preliminaries, because the candidates
were already nominated long before the conventions. We
might as well have it out right now, instead of having a
Ginsberg: It's very curious because a record amount
of money will be raised and spent in this election to
change the minds of a very tiny number of voters.
Q: Speaking of voter turnout, I imagine the trend will
continue and we'll have fewer people voting in this
Crenson: It's hard to say. If you go by the
Democratic primaries, turnout wasn't actually that high.
Ginsberg: It was very low in the Democratic
primaries. I think that's why people are pessimistic about
Crenson: So far there's no sign that the
polarization of the electorate will be translated into
Ginsberg: Each party is primarily concerned with
activating its base, and that's one reason the last
election was so close. The two parties are fairly evenly
divided in the electorate, and if they don't reach beyond
their solid cores, then we'll see low turnout and a fairly
Crenson: Because of changes in population,
distribution of population, states that Al Gore carried in
2000 have lost population and therefore lost electoral
votes. So even if the states come out the same this time,
the margin of electoral votes between Bush and Kerry would
be even bigger. Kerry has to pick up states that Gore
didn't win, in order to win this election.
Q: What are some of those states?
Crenson: Illinois. Florida. If Kerry can carry Ohio
and Illinois, there's a good chance he'll win. But
President Bush has been to Ohio something like 22 times.
Q: With things being so close, is it possible to see a
repeat of 2000, in terms of the election being
Crenson: I think we're going to see some disputed
votes. The new touch-screen voting machines have some fatal
defects. They're accessible to hackers, but the biggest
deficiency is they don't leave a paper trail, so, in fact,
it's impossible to conduct an independent recount, when you
cast your votes.
Ginsberg: People argued about chads in 2000, but in
2004 we will be looking for electrons. The problem for the
Democrats, as Matt has indicated, the sort of "getting
electoral vote mentality," gives Bush the advantage. The
Democrats have to win states that they didn't in 2000, and
if the Republicans simply hold on to what they had, they
Now, the difference is significant but not
insurmountable. Yet if you had to handicap the race, you
would make Bush a slight favorite, whatever the polls are
saying at the moment.
Crenson: I think I would have to go along with that.
If I were a betting man, I would demand odds if I were
going to bet on Kerry.
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