Wonky Democrats

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. legion says:

    Another possible asterisk to the list – Jimmy Carter was running against the hapless & doomed Jerry Ford. Few leftys this side of Karl Marx’s zombified corpse could have failed in that contest…

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Democrats and Republicans typically expect different things from presidents. Democrats tend to prefer micro-managers. Consider LBJ, Carter, and Clinton. Republicans incline more to a top management model e.g. Eisenhower, Reagan, GWB.

    Each has its virtues; each has its flaws. I think you’ll probably get more wonks among micro-managers.

  3. Bithead says:

    Each has its virtues; each has its flaws. I think you’ll probably get more wonks among micro-managers.

    … And, certainly, Hillary Clinton qualifies as a micro manager, to the point of meglomania.

    Another possible asterisk to the list – Jimmy Carter was running against the hapless & doomed Jerry Ford. Few leftys this side of Karl Marx’s zombified corpse could have failed in that contest…

    I suppose that to depend entirely on which Jimmy Carter we’re talking about. Are we talking about the Jimmy Carter that basically nobody knew prior to his election as president? Or are we talking about the Jimmy Carter that everyone came to know as the unmitigated disaster in both domestic and foreign policy, that he was?

  4. So Mr. Klein thinks his side is full people with positive attributes and the other side is full of people without those positive attributes. Deep thinking there.

    But is it better to have a leader or a doer as president. Just how important is “the vision thing” in a leader? Should the president be a CEO or a COO? How many policy wonks really know the difference between those two terms and have practical experience with people who have served as each?

    What if you change the nature of the question a bit and ask whether Repuiblicans or Democrats tend to nominate people deeply committed to principles rather than policy? The answers look rather different for most of the contestants or presidents. Top of the list of most significant change would have to be Bill CLinton. But strangely enough, Jimmy Carter comes off looking better under this test. Even if I don’t share his particular beliefs I will credit him with having them and sticking to them.

  5. R. Alex says:

    I think a lot of Mr. Klein’s perspective can be explained by the notion that if a politician agrees with him, they must have seriously immersed themselves in the issue and are therefore a wonk and if a politician disagrees with him then either they are dumb or are ignorant of the many arguments that prove that Klein and his ilk are correct and there fore are not a wonk.

  6. M1EK says:

    Last two commenters are deluding themselves – he admitted that Dole was a wonk, and I doubt very much whether he agrees with Dole’s politics.