Ezra Klein takes exception to my claim that, “With incredibly rare exceptions, presidents are not policy wonks.” He observes — in a completely non-partisan way — that,
[T]he 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. [The asterisk on Bush Sr. concedes that he qualified as a foreign policy wonk.]
I’d note that, of those that Ezra classifies as “wonks,” only Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were actually presidents. Maybe wonks have a hard time getting elected?
Further, I think he’s being a little generous in handing out the title “wonk” (although, again, one could certainly argue that it’s a lefthanded compliment). I’ve always understood the term in the way Michael Quinion defines it, as “a policy expert, especially one who takes an obsessive interest in minor details of policy.”
There’s not much doubt that Bill Clinton was a wonk; indeed, he’s one of the “rare exceptions” I had in mind.
But Jimmy Carter? Certainly, he was an expert on nuclear policy. He also had a reputation as a micro-manager. But he’s not a guy who spent his life living and breathing the finer points of public policy.
For that matter, if Carter and Bush 41 qualify as wonks on the basis of deep subject matter expertise in limited fields, then surely Richard Nixon does, too? And, if Mondale and Dole were wonks, so was Gerald Ford. But, again, I’d argue that anointing people as “wonks” simply because they hung around long enough to learn something goes too far. True wonks are people like Bill Clinton, who love to hash out the little details and delight in the give-and-take of policy debate. (Although, ironically, Clinton was nonetheless willing to craft policy purely for political advantage, regardless of the outcome of said debates, on issues except those closest to him.)
Is Hillary Clinton a wonk? I honestly don’t know. She’s certainly smart and has spent a lot of years engaged in the public policy arena. But wonkery is about personality moreso than occupation.