As the nomination battle on the Republican side drags on, with no ostensible end in sight, I can’t help but ask myself: Who is responsible for the Republican party? What person or group is out there to make sure that the GOP does not shoot itself in the foot before November? Who is there to guarantee that the disputes between different factions are resolved amicably and efficiently? Who is looking out for the long-term prospects of the Grand Old Party?
In the pre-reform era, that was a fairly easy question to answer: the state and local party organizations were in charge. Political scientists often conceived of the old system as a “truncated pyramid,” with the local party organizations on the first rung, the state party organizations on the second, and really nobody above them (the national committees were mostly just figurehead organizations). The main vehicles for party business were the conventions – local, state, and national. This is where the party nominated candidates to compete for office and established the platform (once important documents that were actually read and indicated the party’s positions on the big issues).
The early 20th century progressives hated this approach, and tried to foist primaries upon the parties as the way of selecting candidates, but the fad mostly died off after the 1910s. After the debacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, left-wing insurgents got hold of key Democratic reform committees, and shoved major changes down the party's throat. The eventual result was the primaries that we have nowadays.
This effectively destroyed the old party. In its place arose a candidate-centered political party – if the old system was a truncated pyramid, the new system was a series of disconnected circles, representing individual candidates and the organizations they build up to pursue elective office. The party organizations were no longer responsible for selecting nominees, and the candidates (not the platforms) came to define the issues in the campaign. Unsurprisingly, the state and local parties atrophied, and the national convention devolved into the useless spectacle that greets us every August in a presidential year.
So, who is responsible for the well-being of the party in this new system? Consider the possibilities.
The people? The primary system gave the power of nominating candidates to the people writ large, rather than party organizations. But check out this chart from RealClearPolitics tracking the average of the national polls. What we see here is that a whopping five Republicans have had a lead at one point or another. This strongly suggests a mass electorate that is paying precious little attention – too little to be responsible for the reputation and success of the Republican party over the long haul. As I have argued before, without the competition between the parties to define the stakes of the campaign, we cannot hope for a responsible electorate. And thus intra-party competitions such as the primaries are bound to disappoint.
The national committee? It is a happy thought, for sure, and the media likes to bill the national committee chairman as the leader of the Republican party. But to be a leader, you have to have political power, and the national chairman has very little of that. Instead, his major role is to act as a legal money launderer to help the party’s presidential candidate get around the campaign finance laws. As past disputes have indicated, the national committee has, at best, only nominal control over the most trivial of matters, like when state parties hold their primaries.
The candidates themselves? One would hope so, but the reality is that candidates face a classic prisoners’ dilemma. Suppose you told a candidate that, for the good of the party, he has to drop out of the race. If he drops out, the party stands a 50 percent chance of winning, but if he stays in the probability of success drops to 20 percent. From the perspective of the party, this is a no-brainer, but what about the candidate? Maybe he would do the altruistic thing and withdraw, but it’s just as likely that he would conceive (correctly) that his chances would be better if he stayed in the race – a 20 percent chance of victory is greater than a 0 percent chance, after all. So, party be damned.
The party establishment? Recent scholarly work has suggested that this shadowy group has more power than originally thought, but that is not to imply that it has a lot of power, or that it is capable of behaving responsibly for the good of the whole party. In terms of its capacity to be responsible, the establishment nowadays is mostly the candidates for and occupants of various political offices, and the donors, strategists, and hangers-on that orbit in their particular circles. Thus, it suffers from the same potential prisoners' dilemma as declared candidates do. In terms of its power, the establishment works almost exclusively through ad hoc, informal channels that are nowhere near as dominant as the formal rules that governed the almighty pre-reform conventions.
So, in their zeal to reform the party system, the lefty do-gooders of the late 1960s and early 1970s denuded those supposedly vile party organizations and replaced them with…nothing. In reality, nobody is responsible for the well-being of the party, to manage its reputation and maximize its chances for a broad victory in November and beyond.
We have seen the problems with such an arrangement in the current cycle. The differences between candidate voting blocs are fairly insubstantial this time around – mostly dependent on different tenors and tones from the candidates, or regional affinities, or what have you. In the grand history of the parties, these sorts of disagreements are par for the course, and would usually be ironed out within 10 or so ballots at the national convention. The local and state parties would send their representatives to Chicago (or some other central city), they’d haggle a little bit, but come to an agreement in short order, and probably all head home happy.
But not this time. Because there is no such governing body, we have this mess that possibly might stretch on for months, leave lingering bad blood between the factions, and ultimately give Barack Obama a boost in the general election. That’s the difference between having somebody in charge and having nobody in charge.
We implicitly take for granted the idea that the way things are done now is either the way they have always been done, or that it was changed from the old ways for good reasons. Perhaps it is the march of technology or the seemingly endless growth in the American economy that gives us confidence that today’s rules of the road are better than yesterday’s. But it is not so in the case of the party operations. The sad truth is that Americans who lived and died 150 years ago – who didn’t have modern medicine, personal computers, cars, airplanes, easy access to higher education, "sophisticated" manners and all the rest – had a much better party system than we do today.
And the Republican party is paying the price for this right now.