FEATURE — Winter 2008

Steven Smith is the Kate M. Gregg Professor of Social Sciences, a professor of political science, and the director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy, which is now located in the newly constructed Harry and Susan Seigle Hall (in background). (Photo by Joe Angeles)

A Passion for Politics

Professor Steven Smith leads the University’s Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy. Among his pertinent research, he analyzes the U.S. presidential nomination process and leadership in the Senate.

By C.B. Adams

Writer P.J. O’Rourke once wrote: “Politics are for foreigners with their endless wrongs and paltry rights. Politics are a lousy way to get things done. Politics are, like God’s infinite mercy, a last resort.”

Steven Smith would beg to differ.

As the Kate M. Gregg Professor of Social Sciences, a professor of political science, and the director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy, all in Arts & Sciences, Smith has spent his career researching, writing about, and teaching politics with a passionate intensity. And because 2008 was an election year, the dial of Smith’s intense interest in politics—both American and otherwise—was turned a bit higher.

One of Smith’s interests is the American presidential nomination process. He believes the major parties would be far better off if the presidential nominees were chosen much later in the process.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if both parties were to begin pushing for major reforms in the nomination process shortly after the 2008 elections,” he says.

Smith has nothing against states with early caucuses and primaries, such as Iowa and New Hampshire. But like many who follow national political races, he has serious misgivings about those states’ special role as the first in the nation to select nominees. Iowa, for instance, is far from representative of the nation because its population is too rural and too white. And, the way in which Michigan and Florida were treated during the 2008 election, both early in the process and later on, was also a controversial matter.

“Reforming the process is perhaps one of the more convoluted aspects of the American political system. We have some expertise in the subject at the University, and it makes sense that we pursue this,” Smith says.

Reform is a special challenge because America has a system in which the national parties set their own rules for selecting their nominee. However, the mechanisms by which these processes are implemented, especially at primary elections, are in the hands of state legislatures that have interests that may differ from those of the national parties. Smith cites Florida and Michigan specifically because their legislatures chose to move their primaries earlier in 2008 than allowed by national party rules.

“This created a bit of a stalemate and a tactical problem for the parties’ own candidates because they wanted to do well in those states in November. They didn’t want to alienate Floridians or Michiganders, yet they also wanted to recognize the legitimacy of their parties’ national rules,” Smith says.

The confluence of an election year and the Weidenbaum Center’s mission to serve as a bridge between policymakers and scholars—by supporting scholarly research, public affairs programs, and other activities—provided special opportunities to address public policy issues facing America. For example, the Center invited experts in the presidential primary process to contribute essays to an edited volume printed this past fall. The volume will be followed by a conference and other activities associated with the project.

Included in the volume was a national survey of public attitudes toward the process and reform proposals, prepared by James Gibson, the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government, and Melanie Springer, assistant professor of political science.

Professor Smith succeeded Distinguished University Professor Murray Weidenbaum (right) as the Weidenbaum Center director. Weidenbaum founded the Center in 1975 as the Center for the Study of American Business. It was named later for him to honor his contributions in public service.

“This volume will probably be the only major national survey on the subject available at the time serious reform discussions take place. And our book came out at the very time those reform efforts got under way,” Smith says.

Informing policymakers and the public
The Program in American Politics’ reform project is one of many diverse projects being steered by Smith and supported by the Weidenbaum Center. The Center’s other major research programs are Multinational Enterprises and the Global Political Economy; Macroeconomic Policy; and Citizenship, Civil Society, and Democratic Values.

The Center is named for Murray Weidenbaum, the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences, who founded it in 1975 as the Center for the Study of American Business. The Center was renamed when Smith arrived to reflect both Weidenbaum’s contributions in public service and to the University, as well as the broad mission of the Center.

When Smith became Center director in 2001, he vowed to expand opportunities for Washington University students and faculty to become more involved in Center research.

“My agenda is to enhance the research opportunities in economics, political science, and related fields,” Smith says. “I do not impose my personal research agenda on my colleagues, but rather allow the important work done by Washington University faculty to drive the agenda of the Center. I cultivate collaborations and seek outside funding to further their programs of research.”

With the Center’s support, Gibson is engaged in the debate about whether state judges should be elected or appointed. He recently published a popular piece advocating for a more democratized elective process for judges.

“It puts him at odds, I think, with most political scientists on the matter, and certainly most people in the legal profession, who really don’t like subjecting judges to election,” according to Smith.

Gibson understands the importance of the Center’s support to both his research and that of others. “Under Steve’s leadership, the Weidenbaum Center has become a major research organization with programs generating valuable insights into the performance of democracy in America, both in its institutions and in the beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors of ordinary citizens,” says Gibson.

Concurrent with these activities, the Center sponsors a wide range of public affairs programs that help to inform the public and policymakers by providing community contributors with a venue for addressing major questions on public policy. For example, this past fall, the Center facilitated a program on the economics of ethanol that was generally sponsored by the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES) and the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank.

“Our contributions are really quite broad, and a number of projects in which we participate end up having a significant influence,” Smith says.

On November 14, 2008, the Weidenbaum Center sponsored a forum on the costs, benefits, and future prospects of biofuels.

“Our contributions are really quite broad, and a number of projects in which we participate end up having a significant influence,” Smith says.

For instance, Melinda Warren, director of the Weidenbaum Center Forum, participates yearly as a co-author on a report about spending by government agencies that regulate the American economy or business. Publications such as The Wall Street Journal regularly cover this report and note its affiliation with the Center.

Smith believes the Center is positioned to remain a vibrant and robust part of the University. “It is sometimes difficult to measure concretely the ways in which we contribute to the larger public debates, but we do know that people very much appreciate being informed,” Smith says.

Studying congress and beyond
Smith himself is uniquely positioned to lead the Center and continue to pursue his own academic interests. He is the author of 56 articles and chapters and 10 books either in print or forthcoming. Earning a doctorate in 1980 from the University of Minnesota, Smith joined that university as associate professor of political science in 1987 and was promoted to professor in 1990. He later was named to two endowed professorships. A senior fellow at the Brookings Institute from 1985 to 1987, he continues to participate in Brookings programs. His new book on reform of the presidential nomination process will be published by Brookings.

At Washington University, Smith currently is working on several projects on the institutional development of the U.S. Congress, including Steering the Senate: The Development of Party Leadership in the U.S. Senate, a nearly complete book-length study of party leadership and organization and the emergence of the modern Senate (with Gerald Gamm, associate professor of political science and history, University of Rochester). Smith is interested particularly in investigating why the party leadership developed and grew late in the Senate’s history.

“The first person to be called a majority leader served in that capacity in the 19-teens, which is very late in the Senate’s history,” says Smith. “The central question we are looking at is, ‘How did the Senate organize itself before it had any real leadership?’ We are also looking at why the party leadership emerged when it did, and how it has evolved since that time,” he says.

Reuniting with Thomas Remington, Smith also is working on a project about the development of presidential parliamentary relations in Russia. Their previous collaboration on the development of the Russian Duma and its parliament yielded the book, The Politics of Institutional Choice: The Formation of the Russian State Duma.

Smith engages in a variety of other research projects having to do with congressional and American politics. With graduate and former graduate students, he addresses the biases introduced in conference committee negotiations in Congress, theories of the development of political institutions, and the mathematical ways in which we characterize the policy-making space in legislative bodies.

“I’m always interested in the mix of theoretical, methodological, and applied puzzles,” he says.

C.B. Adams is a freelance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri, and an associate professor of communications at Lindenwood University.

For more information on the Weidenbaum Center and its research and programs, please visit: wc.wustl.edu/index.php.