Does the Office Move Presidents to the Middle?
The office of the president has a tendency to moderate the views and actions of its occupant, right?
That’s the conventional wisdom, says a University of Central Florida political scientist who has conducted research to test whether this belief is correct.
“We’ve been told that members of Congress who become president learn to look at issues differently than they did on Capitol Hill,” explains Barry Edwards whose work appears in Presidential Studies Quarterly. “The idea is that because presidents represent a broad national constituency rather than a mere congressional district, they tend to move toward the middle in terms of policy. But this assumption has never really been studied to see if it’s true.”
Well, it is true, more or less. Edwards examined the positions of 23 men who served in Congress and then became president. He found that, yes, they did moderate their previously held views. But we should be careful extrapolating from this finding.
“…when the occupant of the White House has never held political office, has little or no record of allegiance to the national GOP and is not — strictly speaking — an ideological conservative? What now?”
“From the time of the founding until the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, presidents moved to the middle,” Edwards says.
But everything changed during FDR’s presidency. From that day to the present, our politics became more partisan. As a general rule, Republican lawmakers who occupied the White House moved to the right after taking office, while Democrats tended to move to the left.”
And now, when the occupant of the White House has never held political office, has little or no record of allegiance to the national GOP and is not — strictly speaking — an ideological conservative? What now?
Even though Donald Trump isn’t an orthodox Republican, “it doesn’t look like he has any real interest in moving to the middle or to appeal to a broader national constituency,” Edwards says.
As for Trump’s inaugural address, which attempted to appeal to all Americans, Edwards was unimpressed. “Presidents these days routinely adopt a moderate tone in their rhetoric,” he says. “But even so, they tend to tack to one side or the other in terms of policy.”
Trump vs. Republicans
Edwards also warns against reading too much into the fact that Republicans on his right defeated his health care bill. “I don’t think health care will define his presidency, so the fact that Republicans thwarted him on that issue [doesn’t undermine the results of his research or diminish its usefulness.] Other issues will do that, and on other issues, he will move to the conservative Republican side. That, anyway, is my prediction.”