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Although there is an enormous literature on presidential leadership, only a handful of books on the subject shape the terms of debate regarding the place of the presidency in the American political order. Edward Corwin's classic, The President: Office and Powers, written during the New Deal, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Imperial Presidency, written during the Watergate era, are examples of such constitutive texts. Each reconceptualized the understanding of presidential leadership and connected that understanding to problems in the political order as a whole: they were synoptic, as well as constitutive texts.
Over the past decade, William Riker has written a series of articles that reinterpret the founding of American politics in light of insights gleaned from theories of rational choice. In the course of these efforts, he has invented a new subject, “heresthetics,” having “to do with the manipulation of the structure of tastes and alternatives within which decisions are made.” With Evelyn C. Fink, for example, he has shown more systematically than previous analyses how the federalists structured the the ratification process by attaching an informal promise of future amendment to a formally unconditional ratification. In the present essay, Riker moves from heresthetics to rhetoric: “Rhetoric and heresthetic are both techniques of winning. But they are different kinds of techniques. Rhetoric is persuasion.… With heresthetic, on the other hand, conviction is at best secondary or not involved at all.” Riker describes federalist and antifederalist ratification rhetoric in an effort to display the persuasiveness of “negative” campaign appeals for those who wish to attract the support of marginal voters.
On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit. By George C.
Edwards, III. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 320p. $35.00.
The funeral of Ronald Reagan marked a celebration not only of the
president's political accomplishments but also of the idea that
the core of presidential leadership is mastery of the bully pulpit.
Published shortly after Reagan was laid to rest, Bill Clinton's
autobiography also reflects our modern preoccupation with rhetorical
leadership. Clinton credits many of his political victories—most
notably fending off an impeachment charge—to the power of
rhetorical appeals. He also attributes many of his failures to an
inability to communicate effectively. George Edwards thinks that
Reagan, Clinton, and the conventional wisdom they exemplify are just
plain wrong. In a thorough and forcefully articulated study, Edwards
argues that public opinion is never altered by presidential speech.
Efforts to advance a president's political agenda through
rhetorical appeals over the heads of Congress to the people are futile
wastes of time and energy.