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Regime change

MOVE OVER POLLSTERS, pundits, and other political psychics. Over the last few years, a "little-discussed theory of the American presidency" has had "startling, if unnoticed, success as a crystal ball," Swarthmore political scientist Rick Valelly argued last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The theory, he said, has predicted Clinton's impeachment, the Bush tax cut, and even the war on Iraq.

Valelly was talking about a theory laid out by Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek in his 1993 book "The Politics Presidents Make" (Harvard, revised 1997). Can the book support those grand claims? A perusal and a chat with the author failed to reveal who will prevail in the next presidential election. But the theory does hint at the challenges Bush will face if he's reelected -- and the savagery that Republicans and even fellow Democrats might show a future Democratic president.

The historians Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. both suggested that American politics swings from liberalism to conservatism and back every few decades. Skowronek's theory rejects the pendulum metaphor in favor of a sequence of political creation, decline, and reconstruction. Only a few presidents, he argues, get to set an agenda that lasts for decades, and they are those who come into office when the nation has hit some kind of dead end: Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, Reagan. They "repudiate" the old order and set up a new "regime."

Successive presidents from the same party will try to build on their predecessor's vision (as Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson built on Roosevelt's and the two Bushes built on Reagan's). But it gets harder and harder to do this with each new chief executive. Success breeds factionalization. Late-arriving presidents are apt to start "muscle-flexing" foreign wars, like Vietnam, to prove the continued potency of their political vision and consolidate their party's support.

Finally, every regime dies. The last president it coughs up gets treated by history as a loser (unjustly, Skowronek thinks): James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter (who arrived long after the New Deal). They muddle through until the way is cleared for a new Great Repudiator.

Of course, there are wild cards: presidents like Nixon (a Republican in a basically Democratic era) or Clinton (vice versa). As these chief executives follow their pragmatic paths, they get vilified, even by their own party, as slippery, calculating, and mongrel -- and suffer brutal personal attacks.

How well does this theory account for George W. Bush? For all his talk of bipartisanship, he's a Republican trying to build on the Reagan legacy, which explains his aggressive tax cuts. And Iraq is a "classic muscle-flexing war," Skowronek says.

One surprise is the absence of internal division within today's Republican party, which ought to be splintering by now. "There are two explanations," Skowronek offers. "One is that this Republican Party really is a new animal in American history, that is, a nationally organized, ideologically homogeneous party.... No regional differences or Main Street/Wall Street rifts." In that case, Reagan's regime might be proving even more robust than FDR's. The other is that 9/11 delayed the inevitable intra-party fits -- over fiscal discipline or gay marriage, say -- which may yet emerge in a Bush second term.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, they can't hurry the process. "My argument is that the dominant party in any period, like the Republican Party today, doesn't succumb to opposition. They fall apart from internal divisions," Skowronek says.

Reaganism doesn't look ready to succumb. So the next Democrat will most likely have to govern, again, as a third-way pragmatist. Which means the right will slag him as a devious trickster, and the left will cry "Traitor!"

* * *

EXPENSIVE PROFESSORS? As several perturbed academics have pointed out, a sentence in the last "Critical Faculties" column overstated the impact of "pressure from rising faculty salaries" on skyrocketing college tuition. According to Sandy Baum, an economist at Skidmore College, the salaries of full-time faculty members rose between 2.2 percent and 3.8 percent annually from 1992 to 2003, barely keeping up with inflation. At many state colleges, professors didn't even do that well.

Still, salaries and benefits make up 70 to 80 percent of the budget at many institutions, and they remain a huge challenge for would-be cost-cutters. (The figure includes non-faculty salaries, but professorial pay is the majority.) The cost of health-care benefits is soaring, and the pressure to at least stay in the ballpark of private-sector salaries is growing in business, law, technology, and other fields. The intended point wasn't that professors are living the high life. It's that academia is a labor-intensive industry employing highly educated professionals -- and therefore an inevitably expensive proposition.

Christopher Shea's column appears in Ideas biweekly. E-mail:

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