February 27, 2012

Scott Meinke, associate professor of political science

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Scott Meinke, associate professor of political science, discusses presidential historian and award-winning author Robert Caro's visit to Bucknell, and how Caro's work relates to this year's presidential election.

QUESTION: How do you feel Robert Caro's work as a historian and author ties in with what we are see in this year's election?

ANSWER: Robert Caro is more than a storyteller. He thinks like a journalist, a historian and a political scientist all at once. He manages to tell a fascinating, riveting and engaging story about his subjects while, at the same time, being faithful to the craft of historians in the way that he uses archival research. He also thinks like a political scientist in that he's interested in power, he's interested in how individual figures use political institutions, and how that shapes outcomes.  His work is fascinating to read and I'm sure he will be fascinating to listen to.  

I believe Caro has a unique perspective on political power, on the way both elected officials and unelected officials develop and use power. At a time in American politics when we're having a debate between the two ends of the political spectrum that is, to a great extent, about political power, his perspective has a lot to offer.

In his work on Lyndon Johnson, Caro has studied in more depth than anyone else I can think of, an administration that is one of the most important to understanding current American politics and American politics over the last 60 or 70 years. He has also written extensively about elections and has made the argument that some of Johnson's elections tell us a lot about how elections have changed, how the media and how money have changed electoral politics.

Q: You are in the unique position of interviewing Caro. What do you plan to ask him about?  

A: Having Robert Caro here at Bucknell during a presidential election year is exciting and valuable. Something I am particularly interested in hearing him talk about, and a topic I feel ties directly to what we're seeing in this year's presidential race, is the characteristics that we use to evaluate presidents.

I think Caro is particularly impressive in his ability to see both the dark and the light in the presidential biographies on Johnson. He doesn't seem to shy away from the real weaknesses that Johnson had. But at the same time Caro is able to juxtapose those weaknesses with the strengths Johnson brought to his various positions in government and the real accomplishments he had.

In Caro's work on Johnson we see how individual characteristics can make a great difference in the outcome of an administration and the ways in which they might be important for people to consider beyond just ideology and policies in making voting decisions.

You can see some of those themes when you look at the conflict within the Republican party. Leadership style is a big part of what the battle between Romney and the not- Romneys is about. It is about faithfulness to ideology in a political environment that has become increasingly polarized, but it's also about leadership approach and the tone of the candidates' messages. For the voters who make up the base of the party, they're looking for a candidate whose words resonate with their concerns about the current administration, with their deeply held concerns about the direction of the country. I think candidates like Gingrich and Santorum have had appeal not just for what they stand for, which in many cases is not that different from what Romney stands for, but also because of the way that they say it, and what that suggests to the base of the party about how they would lead.  At the same time, some of the not-Romney candidates have faced significant questions about their own character and what it would mean for their leadership in the White House

Q: As someone who studies political science, what are some of the more engaging themes to focus on at this point in the election?

A: It's fascinating to watch this year's presidential election for all kinds of reasons. There is a lot of attention being paid to the role of Super PACs in the changed financial environment that we're in and how that's affected the trajectory of some of these campaigns. All of the major Republican candidates have benefitted from large independent expenditures from groups that are technically independent of-but closely allied with-their campaigns. There is also what is going on with the Republican field. The baseline expectation is that Mitt Romney will be able to win this race because he has organization, because he has money and because he has a strong set of endorsements from party leaders, which political scientists have found is one of the best indicators of who gets the nomination. So it's somewhat surprising, even to a lot of political scientists, to see Romney is having so much trouble at this late date.  It goes against some of our expectations about how these races unfold. I think that suggests a party is in a bit of upheaval over the direction that it should take between perceived ideological purity, leadership approach, and electability. The fact that President Obama's political position has strengthened somewhat in the last few months makes all of this that much more interesting. The improving economy has taken Obama from being a slight underdog to being a slight favorite in the fall election. This shift should make electability even more important to Republican primary voters, but the Republican candidate who seems to have the strongest electability claims has faced renewed challenges.

Interviewed by Andy Hirsch

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