What made Ronald Reagan so formidable wasn't so much the "movement" he led, as much as it was that vast informal network of intellectuals, political activists, congressional and corporate operatives who all contributed and, for the most part, headed in generally the same direction.
The networks take the form of tacit coordination, rather than functioning from the top down. Reagan provided the rhetorical blueprint; the network did the detail work and provided the necessary mobilization "inside the Beltway." The network Reagan relied upon back in 1981 was most impressive.
Consider one personal experience: At the time Reagan came to office, I was on academic leave, doing consulting for the National Ocean Survey, an office in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Immediately after the election, our NOS director was summoned to Reagan transition headquarters. The team wanted to give some indication of things to come and decide whether or not our leader was someone with whom they could work.
The NOAA admiral returned wearing a strange look on his face. How did it go, we wanted to know. He seemed a tad dazed. "These guys already know everything there is to know about us," he said. They had a detailed understanding of the NOS budget, they asked pointed questions that they wanted answered, as well as detailed specifics regarding their plans for the agency.
I later learned that the questions had been prepared well in advance by senior Republican staffers (economists and budget analysts for the most part) who worked for a Joint Senate-House Economics Committee. The budget markup that came a few weeks later was precise, insightful, pointed and defied any kind of bureaucratic smokescreen.
That's what I mean by a tacit coordination network, and Reagan's was particularly effective.
In contrast to Reagan's network and tacit coordination, Jimmy Carter relied on a network that was limited and proudly inexperienced. Carter, you'll recall, had run against Washington; he considered networks all but immoral. After telling us about the Reagan team, our dazed NOAA Corps admiral recalled his very different experience with Carter's transition team four years earlier: "Carter was in office for six months before his people even knew we existed."
While much remains to be known about the respective networks of McCain and Obama, we have some clues. About McCain, on economic and fiscal issues we can make a good guess. Over the years, McCain's mentor has been former Senator Phil Gramm. Gramm, an economist himself and a long-time champion of deregulation, remains part of a network that leads directly back to the supply-siders, champions of the trickle-down economics brought to Washington by Reagan in 1981. I refer to deregulation (now under siege, but still touted by Gramm); a less progressive tax code (McCain came on late to support the Bush tax cuts, especially in the higher income levels, but he now is now fully on board); and privatization of government (Blackwater et al.).
On foreign policy and national security matters, the best guess is that a McCain presidency would re-establish the neo-conservatives as the default go-to guys. Richard Perle, William Kristol, Douglas Feith, maybe even Paul Wolfowitz -- all the usual suspects would seem to have McCain's ear. They all support the "league of democracies" concept advanced by Bush, a position that McCain has shown he supports wholeheartedly.
Obama's network is more obvious. Whether the issue concerns economic policy, foreign policy or national security, Obama is clearly relying on an establishment bipartisan network. Regarding economic policy, he has already revealed some influential people in his network. In the last debate, after cleanly blowing off the Bill Ayers smear diversion, he said that for economic advice he is listening to the likes of Warren Buffett and Paul Volcker. From these names we can, with a high degree of predictability, connect Obama to a broader network.
On foreign policy and national security matters, Obama, again, has associated himself with establishment actors. He may well ask Robert Gates to stay on as Secretary of Defense. On the foreign policy front, he has stated that he seeks advice from both Joe Biden and Republican Richard Lugar.
And don't leave out Richard Holbrooke, U.N. Ambassador during the Clinton years. Holbrooke likely is a strong candidate for Secretary of State in an Obama administration. As if he wanted to send out signals, he uses his sweeping article appearing in the current issue of the very establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, to reintroduce himself to the Obama network, while associating both with establishment foreign policy views. Consider:
Although both Bush and McCain attack Obama as weak, Obama's position is in fact closer to the traditional default position of almost everyone who has ever practiced or studied diplomacy or foreign policy. Even loyal pro-McCain Republicans, such as James Baker, Robert Gates (before he became Secretary of Defense), Henry Kissinger, and Brent Scowcroft, have disagreed with the McCain position on Iran and Russia.
Now, we can add to Obama's network another establishment figure: Colin Powell. With Powell's endorsement, Obama has been given access to Powell's network. That's how this works.
All presidents dance with those who "brung 'em" -- those networks essential to getting things done. Understand the network and you'll better predict the actions of the next man in the Oval Office.