On the Presidency and Possibility—Bob Schmuhl, Notre Dame

the White House
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Episode Notes

Bob Schmuhl, now a professor emeritus at Notre Dame, joined the university’s faculty in 1980. He was the founding director of Notre Dame’s Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy and was later named the inaugural Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism. His areas of expertise include the modern American presidency and the relationship between American politics and the media.

Bob is the author or editor of some 15 books, the most recent of which prompted the conversation here. In The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump, published in 2019 by the University of Notre Dame Press, he examines the institution that is the presidency rather than focusing on the individual occupants of the White House.

He and host Ted Fox discussed potential reforms to how Americans elect the president, including the idea of regional primaries, as well as the path to the present state of our politics and the sense of possibility Bob believes the presidency should represent.


Bob’s latest book: The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump

Episode Transcript

*Note: We do our best to make these transcripts as accurate as we can. That said, if you want to quote from one of our episodes, particularly the words of our guests, please listen to the audio whenever possible. Thanks.

Ted Fox  0:00  
(voiceover) From the University of Notre Dame, this is With a Side of Knowledge, the show that invites scholars, makers, and professionals out to brunch for an informal conversation about their work. I'm your host, Ted Fox. This episode of With a Side of Knowledge is supported by Traditions restaurant and bar, located in the Embassy Suites directly across from the Notre Dame campus. Hours and other information are available at traditionsnd.com. If you see us recording there, feel free to stop by and say hi, preferably not when we're chewing. And when we're not recording, or chewing, you can always find us on Twitter--and now Instagram, too. In both spots we are at @withasideofpod. 

Bob Schmuhl, now a professor emeritus at Notre Dame, joined the University's faculty in 1980. He was the founding director of Notre Dame's Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy, and was later named the inaugural Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism. His areas of expertise include the relationship between American politics and the media as well as the modern American presidency. Bob is the author or editor of some 15 books, the most recent of which prompted our conversation here. In The Glory and The Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump, published in 2019 by the University of Notre Dame Press, he examines the institution that is the presidency rather than focusing on the individual occupants of the White House. We discuss potential reforms to how Americans elect the president, the path to the present state of our politics, and the sense of possibility he believes the presidency should represent. One note when you get to the spot where he explains how there were once such things as conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans? I promise you, you're not mishearing. (end voiceover)

Bob Schmuhl, welcome to With a Side of Knowledge.

Bob Schmuhl  2:12  
Pleasure to be here.

Ted Fox  2:13  
You wrote a book about the American presidency, which I would say to people is both highly readable and highly accessible. And the book focuses on the period from FDR to Trump. Why that period? Why was that what you chose to examine?

Bob Schmuhl  2:28  
I think we see dramatic change in the presidency over the past 75 years or so. And we see it really in the pendulum swing that is now in place in our presidency. What do I mean by that? For the first third of the 20th century, the Republicans were dominant. In fact, you see only an eight-year period with Woodrow Wilson when Democrats were even in the White House. 

Beginning in the early 1930s with the first election of Franklin Roosevelt, you see that the Democrats begin to take over. And of course, Franklin Roosevelt won one four elections. He's succeeded by Harry Truman, his vice president, who wins in 1948. There is an eight-year period of Republican domination during the 1950s with Dwight Eisenhower, but then in 1960, John Kennedy wins. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson wins, so that you see almost a mirror reflection of Democratic control of the White House.

Beginning in 1968, it starts to move back and forth and back and forth. So that Franklin Roosevelt is a very important figure because after his presidency, the government took upon itself the creation of the 22nd Amendment, which limits a president to two terms. And I would argue, and I do in the book, that that has changed how Americans view the presidency. And in the book, I argue that I think we should rethink whether or not that amendment serves a useful purpose. Someone said, You're arguing that with Donald Trump in the White House? And I said, I don't care who's in the White House, I think we need to look closely at the institution, which is what the book does. So much of our discussion of politics in Washington today focuses on the individuals who are president, whether it be Donald Trump or Barack Obama or George W. Bush and go on. What I'm trying to do in the book is look at patterns and trends in the presidency. And I think that one has to begin with Franklin Roosevelt and carry it into the present.

Ted Fox  5:41  
So you talk there about kind of rethinking and re-looking at the 22nd Amendment. That's one of the reforms that you discuss in The Glory and The Burden. There's several others, and they're all obviously of particular interest in 2020 because it's an election year. But this episode is coming out just a few days before the Iowa caucuses, after which we'll wade knee-deep into primary season. So I wanted to start by asking you, in terms of those reforms, about the idea of regional primaries and what problems would regional primaries seek to address, and how would you propose that they be organized?

Bob Schmuhl  6:20  
I think, Ted, that we need to look at the reasons why we have the Iowa caucus being such an important part of our nominating process. We have Iowa as a caucus. Then we have New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina. And what I say in the book is, What privileges these states? Why are they first? And let's face it, in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the representation is not diverse. By that, I mean the electorate is not diverse in both cases. The states are over 90% white. But what happened is that back in 1968, Hubert Humphrey was the nominee of the Democratic Party. Hubert Humphrey was Lyndon Johnson's vice president. He did not campaign for the nomination. Many of your listeners will remember that in 1968, Eugene McCarthy challenged Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire--didn't win, but did well enough that Johnson could see the writing on the wall and he withdrew. Then all of a sudden Bobby Kennedy is involved in the primaries. Coming out of the '68 convention in Chicago, the Democrats said, We need a system that is truly small-d "democratic." That has resulted in this open process with an Iowa caucus, with a New Hampshire primary, and on and on.

I would argue that for a national office such as the presidency that we should have a national nominating procedure. One of the possibilities would be a series of five regional primaries with 10 states in individual regions. And that would mean that over a five-month period, you would have candidates in specific areas of the United States--let's say the West Coast, the East Coast, Midwest, South, whatever. We divide it up so that there are 10 contiguous states in each of the regions. Beyond that, what I would propose is that the sequence of regional primaries not be determined until the year of an election so that someone could not go to one particular area and campaign the year before or whatever. And my suggestion is that at the end of the State of the Union speech that the president gives every late January or so, that the then-incumbent president, possibly running for re-election, would reach into a bowl and pick the sequence. First one is Midwest, first one is Far West, and all. And then the candidates would go to those areas and campaign, and some would be successful, some would drop out after the first one or two regional contests. But one, it would be national in scope. Two, it would not privilege any state or region above the other.

Ted Fox  10:37  
I think it's interesting, too, because even though when you're talking about a 10-state region, that's certainly not the whole country, it is serves as a ... would seem to serve as a better proxy for, Is your campaign going to be able to mount a national campaign? Because you're trying to compete in those 10 states simultaneously,

Bob Schmuhl  10:57  
Right. I would argue that if you drew the boundaries in the correct way, you would have a mixture of large urban areas and more rural, more suburban. Let's face it, look at Iowa, look at New Hampshire ...

Ted Fox  11:18  
I would say to listeners, too, an interesting aside to this, your son works on Pete Buttigieg's campaign, and Pete Buttigieg is a candidate doing very well in Iowa right now. So this really-- I mean, it is an impartial kind of idea of how could we do this better.

Bob Schmuhl  11:35  
Yes. I mean, I am someone who doesn't think that any candidate for president would embrace my ideas for the simple reason that they want to do well in Iowa, New Hampshire, and all. But I mentioned that there is not a great deal of diversity in the electorate in Iowa or in New Hampshire. But there isn't really a large urban area. So one of the reasons why urban problems are never dealt with in the way that I think they should be in our presidential contests is that the people who are winning the nominations never have to face those issues as they are running for the nomination. And once they get the nomination, they go to the big cities, they raise money there, they hope for votes from there, but I'm not sure they address the urban issues that are desperately in need of attention.

Ted Fox  12:42  
You share several more ideas for reforms in the book, and we don't have time to go through all of them, but one I didn't have a chance to ask you about--we did a live event at Ironhand Winebar here in South Bend about a month ago. And it was, I didn't have a chance to bring this one up then, but it was the prospect of eliminating the Electoral College, and in talking about this in the book, you include what struck me as a pretty remarkable fact. It was in 1969, Senator Birch Bayh, who--he was a Democrat, correct, Birch Bayh?

Bob Schmuhl  13:14  
He was a Democrat from Indiana, whose son later became both a governor of Indiana and a senator in his own right.

Ted Fox  13:23  
Right. So he spearheaded a constitutional amendment that would have made victory on the national level rather than state-by-state--which is the Electoral College, state-by-state--he proposed a bill that the national vote would be the standard for electing the U.S. president. And the remarkable part to me was, and you note this in the book, the House voted to approve the measure 339 to 70. And 12 days later, President Nixon endorsed the bill, but it went on to die in a Senate filibuster, and then you note that it's been approximately 700 attempts over the years in some way, shape, or form to eliminate the Electoral College. What's the case for getting rid of it, and was that time 50 years ago? Was that as close as we're ever going to get to doing it? Is it even a realistic prospect at this point?

Bob Schmuhl  14:13  
I'm not sure if it's a realistic prospect, but I would offer this fact. And that is that since 1992, the Democratic nominee has won the popular vote in every single presidential election except 2004. So that means in '92, '96, 2000, 2008, 2012, 2016. And yet, during that period, we saw in 2000 the victory of Georgia W. Bush in the election that was determined by the Supreme Court. In that particular election, Al Gore won the popular vote. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton got almost 3 million votes more than Donald Trump but still lost the presidency. If we would have another situation--and by that, I mean if, in 2020, the popular vote winner was not installed and inaugurated as president. And that would mean, then, in this particular century, that in 2000, in 2016, and in 2020, the popular vote winner did not prevail--that's a trend that I don't think America wants to see continued. How it might be solved, there are any number of ways that are mentioned in the book.

Ted Fox  16:12  
I know the one that's kind of interesting, is it called the Interstate Voter Compact?

Bob Schmuhl  16:16  

Ted Fox  16:16  
What is that?

Bob Schmuhl  16:16  
That is an initiative that various states have signed on to, which commits the Electoral College votes of that state to go to the winner of the national popular vote. Say, let's take Indiana, which has not approved it, but let's just say that Indiana would approve it. It would mean that if a candidate, say a Democrat, wins the national popular vote, but a Republican would win in the state of Indiana, the electors from Indiana would still vote for the popular vote winner. That's how that compact--and at this point they have many states that have approved it but not enough for a majority.

Ted Fox  17:18  
Can you, just for someone listening to this, I'm wondering can you make--regardless of your suggesting this as a possible reform--can you make the opposite argument? What the purpose in keeping the Electoral College as an institution is? Is there a good reason to keep it, or what is the best reason people put forward for keeping it? 

Bob Schmuhl  17:39  
Sure. The best reason, and it makes sense and the Founders realized it, was that a candidate for the presidency of the country should not be able to go to just large urban areas and drag out as many voters as possible to pile up the popular vote, that someone who is running for the presidency should be a person who has appeal not only in cities, but in regions of the country that might not be as populous. So there's a reason, and I can predict that small states, for example, would be very much opposed to getting rid of the Electoral College because they have a certain power and influence that they might lose. But what I'm suggesting is that if it becomes the way of American presidential politics that one party or the other keeps losing the popular vote but keeps occupying the White House, I think the people will finally say, You know, let's figure out a more democratic, a more representative way of selecting our president.

Ted Fox  19:18  
And just to kind of close that, they're not just losing the popular vote, but watching a trend line, losing it by increasingly large margins. I mean, if that were the case, in 2020, if you had a candidate that lost the popular vote by 4 or 5 million votes and still won the presidency, it's not an insignificant thing. I mean, it's becoming a larger spread in that way.

Bob Schmuhl  19:45  
I mean, when you when you look at it, it's really interesting. In 2016, Donald Trump--to his great credit, I would interject--he won in Michigan, in Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, those three states, and I believe that's 46 Electoral College votes. He won those three states together with fewer than 78,000 votes.

Ted Fox  19:54  
Right. That was the margin of those three together.

Bob Schmuhl  20:12  
It was the margin of those three important states. And he, again to his credit, campaigned in those states vigorously. I believe I'm right in saying that Hillary Clinton did not go to Wisconsin during the course of the 2016 campaign, a huge mistake on her part and the part of her campaign. But he played by the rules that currently exist. 

Ted Fox  20:55  

Bob Schmuhl  20:55  
And won. I'm not sure that we want to continue to see the future of this country and its presidency determined in the fashion that we've seen in some of these recent years.

Ted Fox  21:15  
So, speaking of Donald Trump, you and I, this episode is coming out, like I said, right before the Iowa caucuses, but we're actually having this conversation on December 20, 2019--two days after the United States House of Representatives, with its current Democratic majority, voted to impeach the United States president for only the third time in the nation's history. Whether or not it's happened by the time people are listening to this, the overwhelming, basically foregone conclusion is that the United States Senate, with its current Republican majority, will vote to acquit President Trump of the charges against him, meaning he would not be removed from office. And I would just, as an aside, if things don't turn out that way, you and I will have another breakfast because something very unexpected has happened, and it's a whole different conversation. But assuming things all play out as all indications say they will, how does this impeachment compare to the other that's happened in our lifetimes, that of Bill Clinton? Which, as you noted in a piece for the Irish Independent this week, was within one day of being 21 years to the day of the Clinton impeachment. But I'm wondering, how are the two similar, and how is it different this time?

Bob Schmuhl  22:27  
They're similar in this respect that in the book, I argue that the real beginning of the partisanship that has grown in recent years, I date it to 1987, and to the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, and the way that he was handled by the Democrats in the Senate. I also note that at the very same time that Robert Bork was being treated the way that he was, that Newt Gingrich, a young member of the House of Representatives, was trying to get rid of James Wright as the speaker of the House, and he was successful in doing so. The knives came out, and the knives have gotten sharper and sharper and sharper.

And in 1998, Bill Clinton having won re-election in 1996, he is impeached, and he perjured himself, committed perjury. It was indeed an outgrowth of an affair with a White House intern, the kinds of acts that one would not ever sanction. But there was a certain partisan feeling to that, even though--and it's interesting, 31 Democrats voted in favor of the inquiry of Bill Clinton; that didn't happen this time with the Republicans and Donald Trump. And what I see, and have said so on a number of occasions, is that government really has been usurped by politics. And what we have now is this gotcha game of, My side is going to get you, and we're not really thinking about the good of the country. It's what is good for this party, whichever party, and both parties are at fault, and I'm not naive enough to think otherwise. So that I think that this extreme partisanship to the point of polarization, to the point of tribalism, has taken over.

And 20 years ago, I used to go around the countryside and give a talk called "American Politics at the Breaking Point." And I think the last time I did it was about eight or nine years ago, and each time I would say, Now look, we are not fulfilling the dream of the Founders. Checks and balances are not working. Harmony is not visible. There is a lack of compromise, a lack of consensus, and we need somehow to bring our politics to a more central position--central and more-centered position. And all I can say is, every time that I gave that talk, I might as well have been whistling in the wind given the results.

And I mentioned 1987 as a hugely important year as far as I'm concerned, but one could also look back to 1964. And in 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed one of the great civil rights bills, and after he signed it, he was depressed. Great victory for him, but he was depressed because he could see that the Democratic Party would lose its advantage in the South. And what has happened is that as the country has changed, and our politics have changed, our politics have become more partisan themselves. We no longer see the Democrats having conservatives from the South and more liberals from the North. And the same was true on the Republican side. I'm old enough to remember when there were moderate to liberal Republicans on the East Coast. And then there were conservative Republicans in the Southwest and some in the Midwest, too. The two parties have become more homogeneous, with the Democrats more on the progressive side, with the Republicans more on the conservative side. And as that has happened, partisanship has replaced comity, community, consensus, compromise. I fear that this partisanship will continue to inflame and affect our politics to the point where an awful lot of people come up to me and say, You know, I just don't follow what's happening anymore because it all seems like a food fight among grade-school children.

Ted Fox  28:58  
I've had that in my own family when I've tried to engage people about, you know, Why do you think this way, this is why I think. And that becomes a response of, Oh, they're just all, this is all of them, and I can't pay attention to it. So yeah, I think that's right.

So I wanted to end with, you reference this quote from Charles de Gaulle, who was president of France. He said, "How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 different kinds of cheeses?" And when you bring that up in the book, you're talking about the media landscape today in particular, and that certainly, certainly could be part of this answer. But I'm wondering if I could broaden it a little. What would you say to someone who wants to be president of the United States in the year 2020? What can the history of the presidency tell us about how that should be approached? And how do they need to adapt to all these new different kinds of cheeses that we're dealing with now? Because I feel like there's an element where we really can learn from the history, but it is a--there's elements, too, I feel [where] it's a very different game today than it was for quite a long time.

Bob Schmuhl  30:10  
It is a very different game, and it's being played by a very different player. And by that, I mean that Donald Trump won the presidency by appealing to his base. This is a word that came into the American political lexicon not all that long ago, the base, and Donald Trump has exploited that. That is why you see him going around with great frequency to these rallies. And he goes to places where he knows he can draw 10,000 people and energize them, and mobilize them, and hope that they go back and get others involved. And the reason I mention it is that it's quite different from what we have seen before. Before a person would win the presidency and then try to do certain things that would bring others along, enlarge the appeal, enlarge the number of supporters.

I am old-fashioned. One might even say I'm conservative in this respect. I think that's an important element of the presidency, to appeal to as many Americans as possible, and I'll give you an example of someone who I thought was quite effective. And that was Ronald Reagan. There were people who would criticize quite vociferously his policies and some of the governmental actions. But the way that he presented himself and talked about America, you knew that even if you disagreed with his political views that he had this larger frame of reference about the country, its role in the world, and what it might do in its future. I fear I don't hear that with Mr. Trump, that his appeal continues to be almost exclusively to those who think as he does. And again, is this to criticize him? Possibly, but it's more to recognize how effective he has been within the construct ... 

Ted Fox  33:08  
Right. The strategy behind it.

Bob Schmuhl  33:09  
The strategy behind the Republican Party because so many of the things that he's done over the course of his time in the White House has been antithetical to what Republicans had done in the past in terms of budgets, in terms of viewpoints of Russia, in terms of free trade, in terms--you could go down the line and say, My goodness, is that the heritage of the Republican Party? So I think it's important, as you said earlier, that America's president would be at the forefront of world affairs, and that our capacity for leadership, our capacity to lead the world by our values, would be emphasized and really sustained. Right now, I don't see that as happening. So it's a very different time. Now, granted, Mr. Trump is someone who never served in elective office before, he never served in the military, so we are dealing with someone very different from the others who have occupied the office. He has gone his own way, he won that position in the way that he did and that we have explained. 

But I think from the book, we get a sense that the American presidency is hugely important. The very end of the book, I quote Max Lerner, who taught at Notre Dame back in the 1980s. And people would say, Mr. Lerner, are you an optimist or a pessimist? And he would always say, I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist, I'm a possiblist because America is the place of the possible. And I would hope that our presidency would also be a position of possibility, and one that would continue to be a beacon of hope, and light the way for the world at large.

Ted Fox  35:41  
The book is The Glory and The Burden. Bob Schmuhl, thanks so much for making time to talk to me about it. I've really enjoyed it.

Bob Schmuhl  35:47  
Thank you, Ted, very much.

Ted Fox  35:49  
(voiceover) With a Side of Knowledge is a production of the Office of the Provost at the University of Notre Dame. Our website is provost.nd.edu/podcast.