The Agenda

‘Plan B’ and the Importance of Strong Parties

David Frum recently made a provocative point about the failure of Speaker Boehner’s “Plan B”:

For almost any given Republican, the best possible outcome of the Plan B negotiations would have been for Plan B to pass – but for that particular Republican to vote nay. The trouble was, that there were too many Republicans who wished to avail themselves of that outcome. They all rushed the exits together, and there was not enough room to accommodate the stampede. It’s a classic “prisoner’s dilemma” problem from political science, and the dilemma achieved its usual grim result.

The more haunting question is: why was this dilemma allowed to exist?

The prisoner’s dilemma arises, remember, because the prisoners have no way to make binding agreements. But the whole point of a political party is to overcome that dilemma, to create structures that reward cooperation and punish defection.

The deepest moral of the Plan B debacle is that those structures have broken down inside the GOP. And that’s a very scary moral indeed.

David and I are both admirers of Better Parties, Better Government, a book by Peter Wallison and Joel Gora that offers a new approach to campaign finance regulation. Rather than impose new expenditure limits or call for more public financing, Wallison and Gora call for allowing party organizations to freely coordinate their spending with candidates. In a 2009 review, David wrote the following:

In other countries, the central party organizations raise money, conduct polls, state a platform, hire experts, and present advertising. In the United States, every candidate must do these functions for himself or herself. That may sound admirably independent. But in liberating candidates from dependence on party, we have left them beholden to donors–unless of course they can afford to pay the costs of their campaigns themselves, as happens more and more often.

Acting as independent entrepreneurs, candidates refuse to be bound by party programs. This makes governance more difficult for the majority party while making it more difficult for the minority party to articulate a national message. In Britain, Canada, Australia or Germany, the opposition party offers alternative policies: in the United States, the party that loses the presidency can find itself–as Republicans now find ourselves–without any agreed message at all.

More ominously, while parties want to want lots of seats, individual candidates care intensely only about winning their own. So a vicious cycle has been unleashed: as the parties weaken, politicians look out for themselves. Self-seeking office-holders strike deals with officeholders of the other party to protect all incumbents against all challengers–which is what almost every so-called reform since 1974 has tended to do. [Emphasis added]

One of the dangers of the status quo for Republicans under our candidate-centered system of campaign finance regulation is that it is difficult for the national party to craft a message that can prove popular outside of GOP strongholds. This isn’t necessarily a problem in House elections, due to the fact that conservative voters are more advantageously distributed across geographical constituencies — liberals tend to concentrate in dense areas, and so they are somewhat more difficult to spread around into numerous safe districts. But it is a problem in statewide races and in presidential races, insofar as self-seeking office-holders in the House, to use David’s term, damage the GOP’s national brand.

My own view is that it would have been perfectly coherent for a stronger national Republican Party to oppose something like “Plan B.” Yet it is hard to deny that the failure of “Plan B” is emblematic of a deeper problem, namely the weakness of our national political parties. Republicans gain strength from the party’s relative ideological coherence, but this isn’t enough to overcome the collective action problem David identifies. 

To briefly indulge in a counterfactual, perhaps a stronger GOP would have pressed for increased military expenditures, the attachment of strings to transfers to state and local governments, and a large investment tax credit as part of a stimulus compromise. Even if this offer had been rejected, as seems likely, it would have given Republican challengers in swing districts a tangible and attractive agenda. 


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