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September 06, 2007

Wonky Presidents!

In context of the supply side argument, James Joyner writes, "With incredibly rare exceptions, presidents are not policy wonks."

This isn't meant to be a partisan post, so I hope it doesn't come out that way. But the exceptions, so far as I can tell, are called Democrats. Clinton was a policy wonk. Carter was a policy wonk. And to keep the pattern going, Al Gore was a policy wonk. Michael Dukakis was a policy wonk. Walter Mondale was a policy wonk. Hillary Clinton is a policy wonk. Wonk wonk wonk. Democrats nominate wonks.

George W. Bush, of course, is not a policy wonk. Bob Dole was, but he didn't win. George Bush senior wasn't a policy wonk*. Reagan wasn't a policy wonk. This isn't a value-laden judgment -- an argument can be made that non-policy wonks are actually more effective presidents, as they're less likely to micromanage the process. But it's nevertheless a significant difference. And it may help explain why some of us liberals are so incredulous that the conservatives accept their president pushing policies that don't make sense based on arguments that don't track. We Democrats don't need our presidents to get things done, but we damn well expect to see some graphs while they fail!

*I think it's fair to say that George H.W Bush was a wonkish -- or at least deeply involved -- on foreign policy. It's also worth saying that he's the least popular of the crew with the right. I, again, don't think it's necessarily a good thing that the Democratic primary is tilted so towards the preferences of educated elites within the party, but it is, and it produces and champions wonky candidates. Just look at the detail being demanded on health care and Iraq on the Democratic side, versus the vaguer statements of principle that seem to suffice among the Republicans.

September 6, 2007 | Permalink


How are we defining policy wonks?

George Senior was most certainly a policy wonk in foreign policy and intelligence issues. Look at his resume for heavens sakes! Nixon and George Senior were experienced technocrats who clearly had depth on issues that were important to them. Jimmy Carter was most certainly not a policy wonk on foregn pollcy, nor was Bill Clinton. Clinton was a fast learner with a gift for absorbing and grasping information and ideas quickly. That's not important to a President?

This is the sort of hamfisted and shallow reasoning that reinforces the sorts of media narratives that get incompetent boobs like Bush Jr. elected. Does anyone question the competenence of a CEO if he is "wonky" on the issues of the business he or she runs? Why is the ability to be briefed on a topic and demonstrate a measure of knowledge and competenence so threatening? It appears to be to media elites like Maureen Dowd and the hate sisters of Ceci and Kitty.

Let's not do the GOP's job for them please!!!

Posted by: Hebisner | Sep 6, 2007 3:35:42 PM

Neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton strike me as particularly wonkish when it comes to policy, although they seem fairly astute and knowledgable (wonkish?) when it comes to politics.

At the end of the day, it seems like this post is "Presidents (or possible Presidents) that I like are wonkish while those I don't are not. It tells us something about you I think, but little about those figures themselves, and still less about Democrats or Republicans in general.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Sep 6, 2007 3:55:47 PM

I think Ezra is laying the groundwork for a Presidential run in -- what would it have to be? 2020? If he starts working now, he can get the trope established that wonkiness is good Presidential material, and then he's a shoe-in!

Posted by: Glenn | Sep 6, 2007 4:01:20 PM

I think Bill Clinton was most definitely a policy wonk on foreign policy. Clinton had an extremely broad knowledge of all manner of relatively obscure matters in other countries. He would not have ever been stumped by the "name the prime minister" game.

I agree that both Nixon and Bush I were also foreign policy wonks. Neither, as far as I can tell, really cared about domestic policy except as a political exercise.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Sep 6, 2007 4:01:29 PM

I would not refer to Mondale and Dole as wonks. Among Republicans, Nixon was probably the most wonkish with Ford close behind.

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett | Sep 6, 2007 4:07:35 PM

I think the Clintons are undeniably wonkish. They are very detail oriented and have vast knowledge about any number of things. If you ever seen either of them speak, they seem incredibly conversant in issues in a way that is surprising.

That being said, I am not sure that wonkiness per se is a very desirable quality in a president. A big picture person with leadership skills, broad knowledge, good instincts, and firm principles is probably a better bet in the position.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Sep 6, 2007 4:07:39 PM

I don't think that Hebisner and Klein's TL Nut give Nixon appropriate credit for wonkiness. In terms of IQ, he was arguably the strongest President of the century. (His law school note on auto accidents was long cited--a fate rare for student notes. Clinton, FWIW, did not make the Yale Law Journal.) Remember, the Nixon administration invented the EPA and affirmative action, and gave serious consideration to the negative income tax. Conjoined to this intellect was a notorious work ethic.

Of course, he was also Dr. Evil: a practitioner of the politics of fear and loathing, and the inventor of the Southern Strategy. But he gets good wonk points by me, along with Ike (much smarter than Adlai; smart enough to know the the electorate didn't want him to show it.)

Posted by: Joe S. | Sep 6, 2007 4:10:54 PM

Finally, I think that there is a bias toward a greater degree of wonkishness in Democrats because the Party's constituency expects a programatic approach to solving problems. When the basic premise of your party is cut taxes and let God/market sort the rest out, there is not a great premium on being a wonk. See, Bush, George W.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Sep 6, 2007 4:11:16 PM

Clinton was the ur-wonk. The stories of his policy detail are legendary and rife.

Posted by: Ezra | Sep 6, 2007 4:23:06 PM

A big picture person with leadership skills, broad knowledge, good instincts, and firm principles is probably a better bet in the position.

I'm having trouble thinking of an actual president who fits this description. Maybe Kennedy, although I'm not sure he had principles that were very firm. (He's the earliest president within my own memory. Perhaps some earlier presidents like Eisenhower and FDR would fit the description.)

Posted by: Herschel | Sep 6, 2007 4:36:37 PM

HWBush seems to me a wonk. Carter, less so. Mondale ... I dunno ... I would say Hart was the wonk candidate of 1984. Bradley was more the wonk than Gore, but Gore was pretty darn wonky himself.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Sep 6, 2007 4:42:50 PM

A big picture person with leadership skills, broad knowledge, good instincts, and firm principles is probably a better bet in the position.

Reagan did a pretty decent job with three out of four.

Posted by: Senescent | Sep 6, 2007 5:00:50 PM


FDR is quintessentially the guy with these qualities and to a lesser degree Truman.

Despite his reputation as sometimes less than articualte, Eisenhower was very smart, an impeccable writer, and showed tremendous organizational, diplomatic and leadership skills as the head of the ETO in World War II. As president he was focused heavily on foreign policy and I don't think there were that many domestic initiatives that caught his fancy other than the Interstate Highway system. His biggest domestic accomplishment was the normalization of the New Deal as something accepted by both parties.

I wasn't questioning Nixon's IQ in the least and am aware of some of the domestic initiatives that occurred on his watch. I just never had the sense he much cared about them in the way that he did about the big geo-politial issues.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Sep 6, 2007 5:01:27 PM

Republicans don't need policy knowledge - they've got principles! Or ideology, or something.

Posted by: FS | Sep 6, 2007 5:04:17 PM


I think Reagan has to be credited with three out of four as well. I assume you think he lacks the broad knowledge component, which I would agree with. However, although it is somewhat heretical among my fellow travelers, I actually think Reagan was far smarter than he is credited with being and that he spent a lot of time writing and debating about issues -- he was not a deep thinker and didn't have a particuarly penetrating mind, but he was far from being the village idiot either. But definitely not a wonk.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Sep 6, 2007 5:09:41 PM

I wouldn't give Reagan more than one or two. Leadership skills, although he spent much time in office not being in the loop, so he wasn't leading then, is probably his strongest case. As far as good instincts, I guess one would have to ask about what. He had the one of the most indicted executive branches in history, so he didn't choose people well. His initial policies generally did not work well, so his policy instincts weren't great. But he did have a good nose for a one-liner and off the cuff remarks. Broad knowledge again about what seems important. Firm principles, I don't see how Reagan as president can be credited these. One of the few decent things about Reagan is that he did eventually negotiate with Gorbachev, he did pull the troops out of lebanon, he did raise taxes after he almost broke the Treasury. These would indicate to me his principles were more malleable than firm

Posted by: BillCross | Sep 6, 2007 5:23:54 PM

This is pathetic. In my life up to 1968 the four Presidents had been Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Believe me, when Nixon ran for office nobody was talking about how smart he was.

Yeah, that Nixon was a real smart guy- so smart he taped himself conspiring against the Constitutional government of the US. Then along came Reagan, the single person most responsible for destroying the fine California system of higher education, and everybody started talking about how maybe Nixon was a crook, but he didn't depend on his wife's astrologer for decision-making.

Now we have Bush, and people are talking about what a great leader Reagan was. This is the guy who fell asleep during his audience with the Pope, for heaven's sakes! Apparently he preferred watching old westerns on tv to actually governing. Have you watched any old westerns lately? Right- and the reason you haven't is that they are so stupid they make your brain hurt.

But in spite of all of this, people are looking for a President to solve problems and present programs.

Get. A. Clue.

Posted by: serial catowner | Sep 6, 2007 5:27:01 PM


You are right about the sometimes contradictory nature of Reagan's rule. But probably another characteristic of good leaders that I should have cited is operational flexibility and an ability to respond to actual facts on the ground. FDR was especially good in this regard. He had overarching principals guidng him, but he wanted things to work. In other words, outcomes rather than means interested him most.

I will credit Reagan with going against his own dogma in dealing with Gorbachev and for high tailing it out of Lebanon following a very bad decision to stick troops there. Reagan also had the virtue of talking big, but not really acting on it all that much. Hence, an administration that preferred proxy wars to actual wars.

I'm starting to get nostalgic.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Sep 6, 2007 5:30:18 PM

Bill Clinton, super wonk. Everyone knows about his charisma. But they don't know that he could spend hours talking about Scottish land use policy or whatnot once he got on a roll. This is a man who improved a SOTU address when the prompter failed. Maybe a little more focus would have helped him. He sure played Newt well though.

Posted by: chris | Sep 6, 2007 5:33:05 PM

with Ford close behind

Wow, really? That's really interesting, because I don't think that's the standard story. I think (but am really not sure) that everyone credits him with a pretty talented team, up and down the chain. But I hadn't known that he was himself wonky. His estate needs a better PR firm.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Sep 6, 2007 5:54:02 PM

Bill Clinton is a kind of uber-wonk. There's an interesting passage in his autobiography about his time at Oxford where he talks about being aware of the tensions between knowing he was there because he earned it, but still feeling that he had to keep running just to stand still in that environment. That's the classic trait of the overachiever. A few friends who've bumped into him post-presidency (visiting Chelsea in Oxford) have the same story: he's incredibly eager to talk details. And the thing I took from the Starr Report was how the Clinton White House had all-nighters like a bunch of students facing an essay deadline.

(Sarah Vowell's essay on 'The Nerd Voice' actually hints at how Clinton got away with it, even while Gore got pegged as the class nerd.)

That belies a tempting bifurcation between legislative wonks and executive 'visioneers'. I think that's where you can distinguish Reagan from Bush the lesser: Ronnie could say something vague, uplifting and bullshit, and his administration could do something with it; Bush's 'vision thing' has a habit of sketching out something that can only be filled out by taking hints from Bosch.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Sep 6, 2007 6:17:42 PM

Bill was a wonk. Hillary was widely perceived to be a wonk by both her initial allies and her detractors. But she wasn't (and still isn't) the wonk she was perceived to be ...

Posted by: DAS | Sep 6, 2007 6:54:35 PM

I'd agree with Bruce Bartlett that neither Dole nor Mondale strike me as the wonk type, otherwise I think Ezra has everyone pegged correctly.

Posted by: Jestak | Sep 6, 2007 8:22:16 PM

Of course, Lenin was the wonkiest of them all. A hell of a scholar. Wonkiness is not necessarily a virtue.

Posted by: Joe S. | Sep 6, 2007 9:41:05 PM

"We Democrats don't need our presidents to get things done, but we damn well expect to see some graphs while they fail!"

Cons don't make jokes like that about their own. Maybe that explains how they take stupidity like "supply side economics" and win elections.

Posted by: david | Sep 6, 2007 9:57:49 PM

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