Brandon Rottinghaus – The Institutional Effects of Executive Scandal

Brandon Rottinghaus is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston


If reports in the media are any indication, political scandals resulting from corruption or personal indiscretions are ubiquitous. Governors fly to international locations on the public’s dime for extramarital trysts or attempt to sell Senate seats. Presidents and their senior staff conspire to cover up political crimes. Political nominees are accused of financial misdeeds related to federal income tax returns. This year alone we have seen several governors under serious scrutiny, the President of the United States in hot water and dozens of mayors, members of Congress and state legislators involved in political scandals.

Scandals are argued to be on the rise because the media is more invasive, communications technology is more pervasive, laws are stricter and political opponents thrive in using these tactics as political weapons. Assertions of “gotcha” politics have become predominant in shaping American political culture, changing how the media and other political actors relate to the political system. American presidents, in particular, tend to be highly susceptible to the perceived growing tide of scandal as their political fortunes are often linked to such events. This is especially true of certain presidents who tend to be shrouded in accusations. The resulting legal skirmishes have given an avenue to the venom in partisan politics for a generation since Watergate.

My book, The Institutional Effects of Executive Scandal, takes a systematic look at the universe and scope of executive scandals, the nature of these scandals, the reaction of the participants to these scandals and the effect on the political system at both the state and national levels. Given the continual presence and the importance of scandal and the toll that such events have on cooperation, bargaining and the arc of political careers, we need to better understand the dynamics of what shapes the duration of a scandal, the way scandals affect the executives’ capacity to govern and the strategic choices executives make in confronting scandal.

This book will help to clarify our understanding of the dimensions of how scandals shape the political environment (and the aftermath) at both the state and national levels. It specifically explores the frequency of scandals at the state and national levels affecting both governors and presidents from 1972 to 2012, how these scandals cause executives to react to allegations, conditions under which executives and related officials “survive” scandals, the effect of scandals on policy and political actions, the effect of scandal on executive-legislative relations and the reaction of the legal system to scandals. These topics give us a broader perspective on why scandal is important and the specific effects on governing in the political system.

In the aftermath of scandal, political actors demonstrate a robust institutional resiliency, and although political accountability is often compromised, the political system responds with additional scrutiny. Indeed, chief executives are generally more likely to adapt than retrench. Executives react expectedly to scandals, dictated by their central position in the political system. Both presidents and governors respond aggressively to revelations of scandal, large and small, by adapting their behavior and using the powers of their office to demonstrate political fortitude. Although the institutions of government survive these crises, democratic accountability, the lifeblood of the public political system, is often limited by scandal. Scandals involving presidents or governors are more likely to be met with obfuscation rather than truth telling (especially if the scandal is serious), nominees involved in scandal are permanently thwarted and more legislative allies and political stonewalling leads to greater political survival. The system, though, bends but doesn’t break in the aftermath of these crises; the system maintains good health and is responsive in predictable ways. The system reacts to investigate and admonish further wrong doing in the aftermath of scandals: more legislative hearings are held to probe wrongdoing and more investigations by internal and external agencies are conducted. Ultimately, the institutional ramifications for executive scandals demonstrate impressive adaptability by the actors involved and the system at large.

Brandon Rottinghaus is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston. His primary research and teaching interests include the presidency, the media, public opinion, executive-legislative relations and research methods. His substantive interests are in how presidents and Congress work together to manage policy, presidential unilateral action, executive scandal and how presidents lead with their rhetoric. His work has appeared in Journal of Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly, Political Research Quarterly, Political Science Quarterly, Political Communication, PS: Political Science, Electoral Studies, American Politics Research, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Congress and the Presidency, White House Studies, American Review of Politics. He is the author of The Provisional Pulpit: Modern Conditional Presidential Leadership of Public Opinion (Texas A&M University Press).

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