© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What Makes A Great Relationship Between President And Congressional Leader?


More now on the question of precedent for the bad blood that appears to be flowing freely between the president and the Senate majority leader of his own party. Has a comparable relationship been this bad? What are the models for forging a successful relationship between a president and a congressional leader? Well, we are turning to political scientist Thomas Mann, now at UC Berkeley and long of the Brookings Institution. Welcome to the program once again.

THOMAS MANN: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Conceding that powerful people in Washington don't always get along in the spirit of fellowship and mutual respect, is the Trump-McConnell relationship as you understand it typical, atypical or from a different planet from what we've seen in the past in Washington?

MANN: I'd go with the third option, absolutely unprecedented.

SIEGEL: Well, if you were to look back to past presidencies and you were to try to see, well, what's - what was a really bad relationship between a president and congressional leader or leaders of his own party, where would you look for some kind of comparable problems?

MANN: I think the closest we can get is the Jimmy Carter presidency. Jimmy Carter really got off to a terrible start. In his case, it began with a decision made within his White House to basically eliminate 17, I believe it was, of over 300 water projects on the grounds that his team had done the policy analysis. These were wasteful, and he was ending them.

SIEGEL: Yeah. We're talking about this likes of dams and that sort of thing - big projects.

MANN: That's right. That's right. And this was a little pork barrel politics. It greased the machine that made policy spew out of the government.

SIEGEL: And among others, as I recall, Mississippi Senator John Stennis was a Senate power who was not well-inclined to this effort to - not in the idiom of the day but of this day - to drain the swamp in that case.

MANN: Well, I think that's right. You can add Russell Long and Ed Muskie. There was great umbrage among members of Congress in both Houses at - both at the substance of what Carter was proposing but the way in which he did it. Most of the members - this will sound familiar in Trump days - learned about it from the press (laughter). It was rather, well, I've been elected president, and I'm here to shape up government.

SIEGEL: Well, that was a case of a Democratic president who got off to a bad start with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. If you were to look on the other side for a positive example of a president perhaps dealing with leaders of another party in Congress and doing it well, what would be the positive role model?

MANN: Well, I'd give Ronald Reagan some credit. Reagan and his team realized there were pretty conservative Democrats they could work with, particularly on the initial tax and spending ideas. So they spent a fair amount of time doing just that. It wasn't easy, but they went about it I would say in a rather intelligent way and got a good first chunk of the program through.

As importantly, as time went on and deficits increased, Reagan, in spite of his reputation as an ideologue, was quite practical in working with Democrats, signing tax increases after the big tax cuts and working well, producing fairly late in his tenure as president the most important tax reform bill in perhaps a century.

SIEGEL: Do you think that leaders can actually manage to negotiate and be political partners without necessarily liking each other or, for that matter, without especially respecting one another? Is it just a businesslike way that politicians might be able to get stuff done?

MANN: I think the key thing of getting something done is knowing what you want to get done. And that is having an agenda, having a public philosophy, an idea of what to do.

SIEGEL: Thomas Mann is a co-author with Norman Ornstein and E.J. Dionne of the forthcoming book "One Nation After Trump: A Guide For The Perplexed, The Disillusioned, The Desperate, And The Not-yet Deported." Tom, thanks for talking with us today.

MANN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.