For most of the nineteenth century, the decentralized structure of the Jacksonian party system acted as a constraint on presidential ambition. Patronage practices, nominating rules, and norms of deference to subnational party units limited the areas in which presidents could influence their parties and, perhaps most significantly, deprived them of the tools to ensure their own renominations. It was not until the 1880s and 1890s that presidents began to break free from those constraints and assert leadership over their parties. In a recent study, Daniel Klinghard (2010) explains that this change in the president's role was part of, and integral to, a broader shift in the nature of the party system—what Klinghard terms the “nationalization” of the political parties. In those two decades, the scope of national presidential campaigns underwent a dramatic expansion; new modes of mass political communication were employed; new expectations developed regarding national party unity; and new organizational capacities were built at the national level of the parties. Late nineteenth-century presidents contributed to these changes and were the primary benefactors of them. Drawing upon newly emergent resources, they began to more regularly initiate, articulate, and promote their parties' national policy commitments—thereby reversing the flow of influence between the presidency and the parties. Though it happened incrementally over the span of about 20 years, Klinghard describes this reversal as a developmental shift of the first order.
What Cleveland could do to advance his goals depended on the resources he had available to him. Cleveland found two resources particularly useful: the President's annual message to Congress on the state of the Union and the increasingly popular “educational” campaign, which had become widespread during the “associational explosion” in the years following the Civil War. The latter involved Cleveland's adoption of a new style of communication; the former involved using an old institution in a new way.
Every president since George Washington had delivered an annual message to Congress, following the constitutional directive that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Traditionally, these messages reviewed “the entire public business”—but as Cleveland observed, there was no requirement that they always do so. Cleveland's innovation was thus to devote his entire 1887 message to a single subject—tariff reform. This break with tradition drew considerable attention, which was precisely Cleveland's intention. Klinghard explains that Cleveland strategically sought to “grab popular attention, inviting public comment and giving the party-in-the-electorate reason to read the message in the privacy of their homes—it was the ‘campaign of education’ applied to presidential leadership” (Klinghard 2010, 167).
An early adoption of the modern strategy of “going public”—making direct appeals to voters so that they might pressure members of Congress to join with the president—Cleveland sought to shift public opinion in his favor. He was operating on the assumption that “if the public could only understand the actual situation [with respect to tariff reform], there would be an influence upon Congress which would effect the necessary reforms.”6 But Cleveland's message was also targeted at fellow partisans; he wanted his message to serve as a “guide” in upcoming elections. Of course, the Democratic platform already stood for tariff reform, so what Cleveland's message did was to raise the salience of the issue, “goading” Democrats to take a firm stand in favor of reform prior to the election. In this roundabout way, Cleveland sought to make subsequent legislative action more likely (Klinghard 2010, 166-67).
Cleveland's message did not result in the enactment of any major policy reform, but it was successful in committing the Democratic Party, “till then but half-hearted,” to a radical downward revision of tariff rates.7 Congressional Democrats mobilized for tariff reform, and on relevant roll call votes in the House between 1888 and 1897, the oppositional Democratic bloc disappeared completely. Some were replaced by Republicans after the 1888 elections, but Cleveland's effect on his party was clear: over 30 state party conventions endorsed tariff reform, many mentioning Cleveland by name; and the leader of the Democratic protectionists, Randall, was rebuked by his own state party and local party club (Bensel 2000, 471; Klinghard 2010, 169). Cleveland's message was also instrumental in ensuring his renomination in 1888. By tying himself so closely to the tariff reform issue, he required of his party “either an about-face on the tariff or a difficult effort to explain how another nominee better represented the party's stance” (Klinghard 2010, 171).
Though Cleveland lost the 1888 election (despite winning the popular vote), he remained the most popular figure in the party and in 1892 was renominated an unprecedented third time. Cleveland again assumed the mantle of party leader and presented himself as “a president who claimed distinct authority to define partisan purposes” (Klinghard 2010, 176-77). He helped to write the party platform, was personally involved in orchestrating the 1892 campaign, and upon his reelection, claimed to have received a mandate to carry out the party's objectives (Conley 2001, 55).
Cleveland's multiple assertions of party authority set important precedents, Klinghard argues. Most important was the lesson in leadership that Cleveland had provided to his successors—that “the presidential capacity to define party objectives was a valuable partisan tool” (Klinghard 2010, 171). Through skillful presidential leadership, he demonstrated that the president could “pressure the subnational party establishment” to promote his goals, thereby reversing the flow of influence and breaking with the traditional “Jacksonian mode” of president-party relations. Moreover, Cleveland showed how to do it: the critical move, as Klinghard describes it, was his appropriation and application of the “language and style of the educational campaign,” made familiar by national interest group associations, to presidential politics. This new mode of communication enabled him to bypass traditional constraints on presidential leadership and assert independent authority (Klinghard 2010, 168).
In addition, Cleveland's action contributed to the development of a new idea of party. In the new conceptualization, political parties would be more responsive to public opinion and more willing to shift positions “according to changing issues.” Instead of adhering to fixed principles and prioritizing “deferential compromise” among elites over responsiveness to voters, parties would now prioritize voter interests and policy substance (Klinghard 2010, 174). Further, Cleveland's actions suggested that presidents (and presidential candidates) could serve as the critical links between the parties and the voters, both listening to and shaping public opinion. By taking the initiative, articulating the party's policy agenda, disciplining party members to follow it, and educating the citizenry regarding its importance, Cleveland had demonstrated that presidential leadership was indispensable to the party. Thereafter, “both voters and party leaders looked to the candidates to articulate party doctrine” (Klinghard 2010, 175).
The transformation of president-party relations was far from complete, however. Cleveland had demonstrated that presidents could seize upon available resources to move their parties into closer alignment with their views, but his efforts were more of a foreshadowing of what was to come than the commencement of a path-dependent process. Klinghard argues that it fell to Cleveland's successors, especially William Jennings Bryan (the Democratic nominee in 1896) and President William McKinley, to flesh out the new mode of presidential party leadership we find so familiar today.
Because Klinghard's main focus is the nationalization of the parties, he does not explicitly discuss the causal links between presidential actions, their effects, and subsequent presidential behavior. He does offer strong suggestions, however, that Cleveland's bold assertions of party leadership were necessary conditions for Bryan and McKinley to do the same, and that taken all together, the behaviors of all three fundamentally altered the trajectory of president-party relations. Cleveland's influence is detected, for example, in Bryan's ability to run a national campaign that circumvented recalcitrant state party organizations, which Klinghard notes was “only possible because the party had become flexible and independent under Cleveland” (2010, 189). Similarly, Cleveland's crusade on behalf of tariff reform is said to have “paved the way” for Bryan's crusade on behalf of silver, partly because Cleveland had “introduced the Democratic party to the kind of interest-based economic appeals that Bryan would expand” and partly because Cleveland had alienated the silver movement and allowed it to build up steam (Klinghard 2010, 190). Likewise, Bryan's legendary speaking tour during the 1896 campaign is described as a logical next step in the gradual routinization of candidate-centered campaigns. Bryan's campaign “was no surprise,” Klinghard writes, “and should be viewed as the culmination of two decades of party transformation” (2010, 184). Bryan's efforts “displayed just how central presidential candidates had become to their parties, and how thoroughly party leaders had accepted the campaign of education” (Klinghard 2010, 187).
But Bryan's campaign in 1896 was more than just a repeat performance—he also made his own distinctive contributions to the development of modern president-party relations. Like Cleveland, whose attempt to reduce the incongruity between existing party structures and his incentives for leadership contributed to a long-term rearrangement of authority in the party system, Bryan's pursuit of a major shift in the party's stance on monetary policy (the inherited party structure with which he was most dissatisfied) had major long-term ramifications for the way citizens understood the role of party in American politics. Bryan's efforts, Klinghard writes, “shaped the way Americans viewed the national party organizations. The old view of the national parties as grounded in deferential compromise and restrained by local organizations was challenged by a view that recognized the primacy of the national candidate as central to the party's message” (2010, 189).
McKinley, the victor of the 1896 election, is also said to have learned directly from Cleveland's example. “Following Cleveland's lead,” Klinghard writes, McKinley further established “a role for the presidency in holding his party accountable to party commitments.” In particular, McKinley's landmark speech on the gold standard in 1898, just like Cleveland's 1887 message, “was meant for the public as much as its immediate audience.” It, too, was designed to shrink the gap between the party he inherited and the party he wanted. Also an educational appeal to the public, McKinley's speech aimed to discipline the Republican Party in Congress and end its vacillation on the most pressing policy issue of the day (Klinghard 2010, 232-33).
Various other actions taken by McKinley—including his letter accepting renomination in 1900, in which he claimed the prerogative to define his party's purposes on his own terms—likewise demonstrated that “Democratic-style presidential party leadership had been fully embraced by the Republican Party.” The GOP had been “inching slowly toward the new idea of party that this style implied” for decades, Klinghard writes, with its evolution culminating in “McKinley's full embodiment of the modern president as party leader” (2010, 234).
Klinghard argues further that McKinley's “example influenced later presidents—and later American publics,” both anticipating and helping to legitimize Theodore Roosevelt's assertions of presidential authority. Though TR was undoubtedly a unique individual with bold ideas of his own, Klinghard contends that it was “McKinley's presidency [which] showcased the mode of presidential party leadership that came to dominate the twentieth century … Roosevelt got away with it not because of his personality but because party leaders had, by then, learned a lot about the value of presidential party leadership” (2010, 234).
As these brief examples suggest, by working to reduce the incongruity between inherited party structures and their incentives for leadership, presidents and presidential candidates in the 1880s and 1890s contributed to the gradual nationalization of political parties and the emergence of a new mode of presidential party leadership. As parties expanded the scope of their campaigns, emphasized more concrete policy issues, and adopted new communication techniques, they enabled presidents to assert more authority, which further contributed to the nationalization of their parties. These were mutually reinforcing patterns that depended on the persistent efforts of presidents and presidential candidates to modify inherited arrangements so as to make them more congruent with their purposes. Though Klinghard does not use these specific terms, those presidential efforts would appear to be historically necessary conditions for the timing and form of party change as it occurred (Whittington and Carpenter 2003).
To be sure, further historical work is needed to clarify the causal links between presidential actions, their effects, and subsequent actions. To pinpoint exactly how presidents were constrained or motivated by earlier presidential efforts (as well as how they subsequently constrained or motivated their successors), a narrower site specification is probably necessary, with more space devoted to substantiating causal claims. But what Klinghard achieves is significant. In addition to posing a formidable challenge to the received wisdom regarding the timing of party nationalization and the emergence of the modern presidency, he makes an important contribution to our collective theory-building enterprise. His study reinforces the notion that discrete presidential actions, often undertaken for instrumental, short-term purposes, can incrementally but cumulatively contribute to major shifts in the structure and role of party in the long term.