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Why Do Presidents Screw Up?

Brookings Institution Press
The book cover for "Why Presidents Fail" by Elaine Kamarck.
Why Do Presidents Screw Up?
Why Do Presidents Screw Up? GUEST: Elaine Kamarck, author, "Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again"

We've just been through two big loud and highly produced presidential nominating conventions. After a very long primary season, America's two major parties have official nominees. Is the way the political parties pick nominees a good way to pick effective presidents? More people than ever before are probably asking themselves that question this year. It's a question posed in the new book "Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again" . I'm joined by the author Elaine K mark -- come mark -- Elaine Kamarck. In modern times both Democratic and Republican Party rules have increasingly given the edge to candidates who are good. Prior to 1972, we nominated our presidential candidate in conventions that were composed of party insiders. Prior to 1972 all of our nominees were selected by superdelegates, people who had some kind of party position or elected position. There were many problems with that system, which is one of the reasons that a reform movement changed it and we now a elect our delegates to conventions mostly through presidential primaries. With that shift has come some shifts in the way we select our presidential candidates. The superdelegates system for the Democrats, which you helped create, is as you say being reformed. Some are uncomfortable with party elders, potentially voting against the People's choice. Of course, that's inevitable once you move a system from a semi public system to a public system. It's inevitable that that would happen. The problem is, we lost something when we moved from an intraparty system to a public system. What we lost was the ability to party leaders, elders to evaluate a potential president in terms of their capacity to actually be the president. To do the job, to do the negotiations, to understand the government and to understand the needs and places of other people in the electoral system. Sometimes candidates are referred to as policy wonks and that's not always a compliment. Is that the policy wonks that we should want in the Oval Office? No. It's a combination of three things, the first step is in fact, getting the policy right and policy wonks certainly help and it's good if the candidate know something about policy, they don't have to know everything. The second step is the president needs to be able to communicate what they want to the public and get support for it from Congress and from voters. The third step, this is what my book emphasizes, they need to be able to implement the policy, they need to be able to actually do what they say they're going to do and what they get support for doing. That's where our recent presidents are really falling down. They don't implement well. There's been criticism up but the type. What you are saying the way that candidates, what they know about how the government works is never really discussed. That's right. I will give you two examples completely bipartisan. President Obama, during his campaign had a great applause line, at least among some people when he said, I'm going to close down Guantánamo in the first year. Well, it's 7 1/2 years and he hasn't close down Guantánamo yet. Lots of people at the time he said this, knew that it would be an extraordinarily difficult thing to do for a whole bunch of complicated reasons. Again, he could say it, everybody liked him saying it but he couldn't do it. Similarly, this year we have Donald Trump saying he's going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. He gets a lot of applause for that line, nobody thinks he can do it. He was never really pushed in the debates on how would you do that, how would that actually happen. The news media is partially responsible for this because they let outrageous statements be made and then not surprisingly the voters who don't need to know all the details of this, the voters are consistently disappointed in their presidents. How do we change this? There are discussions underway. Is there a way for parties to insert themselves in the choice of the nominee. The second way is that we need somebody who asked us -- tough questions this is where the media has to be going along with the show and all the things that get clicks and ratings not holding candidates feet to the fire when it comes to these promises. That was Elaine Kamarck author of the book "Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again" . You can hear my full conversation with the author at 1029. Coming up from coast to Cactus, a new trail and field guide for San Diego hikers. You are listening to KPBS Midday Edition.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties this year threw nominating conventions that were at times chaotic. But despite the specter of insurgent delegates trying to nominate someone other than Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump, there weren't any surprises.

Brookings Institution senior fellow Elaine Kamarck believes both parties would benefit from changing up their nominating rules. She's a former staffer in the Clinton White House and has been a member of the Democratic National Committee's Rules Committee since 1997. She now studies the presidential nominating process at Brookings.


In her new book, "Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again," Kamarck details some of the most egregious presidential blunders, including President George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina and President Barack Obama's failed rollout of Those failures, according to Kamarck, happened because recent presidents aren't prepared enough to manage the complex bureaucracy in the federal government.

For all its faults, she said, the smoke-filled room nominating process meant candidates needed to convince experienced party elders they could actually govern. While the post-1972 reforms gave voters a greater role in the primaries, they rewarded skilled speakers above all else, Kamarck said.

"They spend so much time talking that they mistake talking for doing," Kamarck wrote of modern candidates. "Their closest advisors tend to be the people they campaigned with, people who are skilled in the art of communicating but not in the art of governing."

Kamarck joins KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday to discuss her suggestions for picking presidents and her role in creating the Democratic Party's superdelegate system.