Meet our election experts: Cary Covington

Photo by Tim Schoon.

As the 2012 Iowa Caucuses approach, fyi is taking a closer look at some of The University of Iowa’s experts in election issues. Today’s installment features Cary Covington, associate professor of political science.

As an expert on presidential politics in a state with first-in-the-nation caucus status, Cary Covington becomes pretty popular with the press every four years. He likens himself to a political cicada.

“I lay underground quietly, unobtrusive, and then every four years I pop out and start making noises that aggravate people,” jokes Covington, associate professor of political science in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “But I enjoy providing insights, sharing what I know. I’ve been here since 1982, and over the years you build up a body of knowledge that other people want to tap into.”

Covington conducts daily interviews with reporters from local and regional news outlets, and with national media such as the Miami Herald, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Washington Post, and Fox News. He shares his thoughts on the GOP field, President Obama’s unique approach to pursuing his legislative agenda, and how the debt deal could affect Obama’s bid for reelection.

Your research centers on “the presidency.” What, in particular, interests you about the topic?
I examine the president’s role in the legislative process: how presidents get their agendas enacted through Congress, what influences whether their agendas pass, and how a divided government impacts Congress’s ability to do what it wants. You take a tandem look at how the two institutions play against each other. The debt-limit debate was a good example of the give-and-take I study.

I’m especially interested in the role an individual politician makes in the larger process of politics. In political science, massive data sets encourage us to look at patterns and trends. That tends to wash out the role of the individual. What difference does it make that it’s George Bush instead of Al Gore, or Obama instead of McCain? I try to incorporate into our analysis the idea that it’s not all driven by processes beyond our control, but rather realize that people do make a difference.

How would you describe President Obama’s interactions with Congress?
He’s clearly practiced a different kind of leadership than other presidents. He chooses not to put forward well-defined policy proposals; instead, he advocates for a general goal, leaves it to Congress to handle the details, and comes in at the end to tie up loose ends and close the deal. He’s done that time and again, with the stimulus package, the health care package, and the debt deal. That approach has strengths and weaknesses, but it’s quite different from Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or George Bush, who articulated specific policy proposals that Congress would modify and adopt.

What will help or count against Obama as he seeks reelection?
Liberals are angry about the debt ceiling deal, saying Obama sold out. Bill Clinton was accused of the same thing when he supported legislation to change welfare from an entitlement program to a defined-benefits program. Yet, looking back, everyone says that was his linchpin to winning the ’96 election. Will the debt deal be a fatal flaw for Obama? Or will it help him appeal to moderates, and clinch the election against Republicans who will be pushed further to the right? It’s too soon to say.

What are your thoughts on the current roster of GOP contenders?
It looks a lot like 2008. There isn’t a candidate who is hitting the sweet spot of the Republican Party. Compare that to 2000, when George Bush was everybody’s favorite and it was hard for anybody to get traction against him. Rick Perry has made a strong first impression, but is still a long way from becoming the consensus candidate that social conservatives, economic conservatives, and the small government folks can all identify with.

Tell us a bit about your teaching, and how your courses intersect with the Iowa Caucuses.
In election years, I teach special courses on the presidential selection process. In 2008, I taught an honors seminar, Engaging the Candidates. Students went to rallies to hear candidates speak about campaign strategies. This time, I’m teaching a similar hands-on course, where students will hear from candidates, press, and party leaders, and evaluate ads, media coverage, and new media strategies. Over winter term, I’ll offer a class on the caucuses to get students ready to participate. I also teach Intro to American Politics and courses on the presidency, legislative process, and bureaucracy.

How do you keep up on politics, to provide informed commentary to the media?
I try to keep up on what’s going on politically and make my own judgments about it, to avoid parroting other people. I follow a variety of perspectives; today I’m reading the Washington Post, the New York Times, and I follow Roll Call, Newsweek, and the National Journal.

What other activities are you involved in at the University?
I supervise political science students doing internships. It’s important, because you can’t just learn about politics in a classroom. In 2000, I took students to do two-week internships at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, and in ’08 I took a group to Denver for the Democratic National Convention.

I also helped create a public engagement living-learning community that launches this fall. Students interested in politics can live in the same residence hall and take classes together.

And I’m engaged in a couple of Christian groups here on campus. Geneva Campus Ministry brings in academic speakers to talk about the intersection of their work and their faith, and we’re working to create a Young Life College program this fall—an outreach ministry to college students.