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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 30, 2004 | Vol. 34 No. 1
Q&A: Power of U.S. Presidency Is Growing, Poli Sci Profs Say

Collaborating again: Political science professors Benjamin Ginsberg and Matthew Crenson discuss the power of the presidency, the subject of their next book.

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 election.html.


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 power 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 presidents.

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 under control.

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 campaign.

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 election?

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 turnout.

Crenson: So far there's no sign that the polarization of the electorate will be translated into higher turnout.

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 close election.

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: Ohio

Ginsberg: Pennsylvania.

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 contested?

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 will win.

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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