Weak Political Parties Lead to Flawed Presidential Nominees

President Donald Trump makes a comment about how hot the room is during his Make America Great Again rally in Olentangy Orange High School in Lewis Center, Ohio, August 4, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
We should strengthen the bond between voters and the GOP and revise the rules by which the party chooses its candidate.

On Twitter last week, chess grandmaster and democratic activist Garry Kasparov had a strong word of condemnation for Republican politicians not actively opposing Donald Trump: “Those who stand against Trump will move on to many different things when he’s gone, but those who still support him should never be forgotten or forgiven.”

To this idea, Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution added a warning:

I will never forget the people who stared this moment in the face and made peace with it. I will never forget those who decided to tolerate it because of tax cuts, or judges, or to own the libs. . . . I will never be able to engage these people in the future — no matter how much I might agree with them — without a deep awareness that they lack what to me are the most important democratic virtues and commitments. Frankly, I will always hold them in at least some contempt.

A harsh judgment, indeed! And no doubt, it must feel emotionally satisfying for those who hold it — there are few natural “highs” that can beat righteous indignation. But is it fair? I think not. When we think about the world of American politics as it actually is, I have trouble seeing this as a judicious view. Instead, I would assign blame (causal or moral, depending on your politics) for Trump in a very different manner.

The sine qua non of homo politicus can be stated in one word: reelection. That goes for the virtuous and less than virtuous among us. Whatever ambition politicians wish to see satisfied in government — be it some great public policy or lining their own pockets — they usually have to be reelected first. And in an age of highly ideological party coalitions, reelection of the opposition party means that there is a lot to lose for the public-spirited, not just a failure to enact your own program, but the chance that the opposition is going to pass some bills you truly dislike.

Reelection does not happen in the vacuum of a single congressional district or state. Each seat is, rather, a satellite within an elaborate electoral system that spans the entire country. And all of the satellites revolve around one political star: the office of the president of the United States.

This is not the way the Founders wished our politics to function. One reason they split Congress into two branches was the belief that, in republican systems of government, the legislature would dominate both the courts and the executive branch. But as the presidency became the only office that every citizen in the nation could vote for, the political influence of that office grew.

Congressional elections are now dominated by the president. In the general election, the fortunes of candidates rise and fall based on the popularity of the president. This is why “wave elections” occur exclusively when the president is unpopular — voters use their congressional ballot to send the president a message by voting against members of his party. As for primary elections, presidents are usually extremely popular with their own partisans, which means that support for the president is typically a necessary precondition for renomination.

With this context in mind, let’s return to Wittes’s and Kasparov’s point. Let’s suppose that you are a Republican member of Congress who is deeply disappointed with the low tone that Trump has brought to the government. What are you to do? Basically, I see two options. You can try what Mitch McConnell has done: Engage seriously the business of government and endeavor to guide Trump, through indirect means. Or you can do what Jeff Flake has done: Loudly and proudly denounce Trump, alienate yourself from your own electoral base, and give the opposition an opportunity to win a seat it otherwise would have no chance of acquiring.

As a conservative who cares not only about the tone of government but also its substance, I see that as no choice at all. McConnell’s prudence does not get nearly the praise that Flake’s preening has generated, but the former is actually making a difference in the real world, with results to show for it, while the latter manifestly is not.

But let’s push this analysis a little further and identify one of the often overlooked reasons we are in this position. Wittes touts the need for a tone to politics that is more “democratic.” I am all for that and have time and again in this column bemoaned Trump’s rhetorical style. However, just as important to the tone of politics are institutions of politics that facilitate responsible democracy. And the last two generations of leaders — many of whom, now in gold-plated retirement, are disdaining the rise of Trumpism — saw to it that our single greatest set of democratic institutions was laid low.

I am talking about the political parties, which have been totally decimated over the last 50 years.

Since the 1790s, the parties have framed the discourse in our country through a variety of means. Their most important function has been the selection of candidates to represent the party in the general election. And today the most important arena of this most important function is the presidential nomination. No office does more to influence the course of American politics, so it follows that no set of party institutions is more consequential.

Unfortunately, political leaders on the Republican side designed the rules of this system in fits and starts since the 1970s in a way that they believed would favor the candidate who acquires the most campaign money. Never mind that, increasingly, these candidates have failed over the past 30 years to win the support of a clear majority of their voters. Never mind that favoring the monied candidates often undermines a robust debate about the future of the party by discouraging serious would-be challengers from getting into the race. The plain fact is that the people with access to campaign funds had the greatest pull over the nomination rules, and they wrote them to favor themselves and their allies — at the expense of the civic health of the party, and by extension our democracy at large.

Meanwhile, many of the public intellectuals now bemoaning the rise of Trumpism couldn’t be bothered to give the parties the time of day for the last half century. The parties were not outright destroyed so much as they withered away, taken for granted by “serious” people interested in public policy. Nobody in a position of power ever stopped to ask whether democracy could work well without strong parties. (Hint: It cannot.)

And then Trump happened.

Trump did not have money from the elite quarters of the party. But he didn’t need it. In the normal course of primary politics, money is supposed to buy early attention, to generate a front-runner who builds unstoppable momentum. Trump did not have the donor class’s money, but he got all the attention thanks to the news networks. And, in an unforeseen twist, the system built by the party elites was unable to do anything about it.

The party leaders in the “smoke-filled rooms” of the Gilded Age would never have allowed Trump’s nomination.

In my view, Trump’s nomination is a symptom of a deeply dysfunctional party system that is no longer able to accomplish its basic tasks and has therefore lost the trust of the voters who sustain it. This has been a long time coming. Trump’s nomination was a reaction to a widespread belief among most Republican voters that their leaders are disconnected from them. And what forges and maintains that connection in a responsible way? The party — its organization and its rules.

This is why the lamentations at John McCain’s funeral for the sorry state of  civil discourse fell so flat to my ears. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, whatever their merits (and I believe Bush was on balance a good president), did little to improve the parties. Bush did more than anybody in the last 40 years to weaken them, by signing into law the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002. And Obama pushed a politics of celebrity that emphasized the individual, in particular himself, over the party, while also allowing local Democratic organizations to languish.

And so here we are. It is too late to stop Trump if you are a Republican in government. So what is the point in assigning blame for the actions of the here and now? The time to stop him was not even in 2016 when Trump was winning primaries. The time to stop him was in 2013, when the Republican National Committee was writing its rules governing the nomination of candidates. The RNC could have, and should have, reformed their system to encourage a consensus among Republican voters, rather than allow a candidate like Trump, who won a plurality but not a majority of voters, to secure the nomination. They could also have redesigned their debate and primary schedule to make it easier for candidates who do not raise the same amount of cash from mega-donors, or in the case of Trump secure free airtime from the networks, compete for votes.

But back then, hardly anybody cared. The parties have long been taken for granted, even disdained by our public intellectuals. The people who care about the health of our democracy have long had no interest in maintaining strong parties, and the people in charge of the parties have no real interest in the health of our democracy.

As they like to say on Twitter, “That’s how you got Trump.”


Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.


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