The Agenda

Why We Need Stronger Parties

Earlier today, I had a conversation with two reporters on “big money and the GOP ‘civil war,’” hosted by Tom Ashbrook of WBUR, a Boston-based public radio station. My intention wasn’t to argue with the premise of the conversation, though I’m fundamentally skeptical about the idea that “big money” in politics is necessarily a problem. The Koch brothers were invoked more than once, and I was tempted to note that David Koch has explicitly stated that tax increases might be necessary to help reduce deficits and debt. Last year, I argued that while left-liberals often blame “big money” for fueling political extremism, wealthy donors have traditionally been more likely to support moderate, business-friendly candidates. I offered the following scenario last year:

What if David Koch’s high levels of political spending are the only way to protect a Republican president who decides to accept modest tax increases as part of a “grand bargain”? The conventional critique of billionaire-funded Super PACs is that they advance the narrow “income defense” and “wealth defense” interests of the superrich. Yet it is also true that the superrich are often less tax-sensitive than politically-engaged upper-middle-income voters, and so a politician who relies more heavily on tax-insensitive rich donors than on tax-sensitive HENRYs (Shawn Tully’s clever term for “high-earners, not rich yet”) might be more likely to back tax increases. One sufficiently committed or, if you prefer, zealous Koch brother can balance a very large number of doctors and lawyers and small-scale entrepreneurs.

Imagine if George H.W. Bush and his budget director Richard Darman had a billionaire-backed Super PAC at their disposal that could wage an air war on their behalf. They might have deterred Ross Perot’s quixotic presidential campaign and overmatched grassroots opposition within the GOP. The political history of the past twenty might have been quite different. This outcome was hardly inevitable, but it is a counterfactual worth contemplating — and incredibly, it is one that doesn’t seem to have occurred to the more ingenuous critics of lightly-regulated campaign expenditures.

This isn’t the only imaginable outcome, obviously, but it’s well within the bounds of possibility. 

My concern isn’t with big money as such. Rather, it’s with the weakness of America’s main political parties. Recently, Mark Schmitt of the left-of-center Roosevelt Institute wrote a short article for The New Republic on partisanship and governance. Though I disagree with some aspects of his analysis, e.g., I’m skeptical about the “corrupting influence” of corporations and the wealthy, I think he gets some things right: 

SuperPACs, political non-profits, and other outside spenders do more than just bring the corrupting influence of corporations and wealthy individuals into the process. They also destabilize and decenter the process, replacing the long-term interests of the party with those of individual donors. The Campaign Finance Institute reported yesterday that outside groups outspent political action committees for the first time in 2012. We’ve seen a massive shift in electoral politics away from parties, candidates and formal groups like PACs, and toward outside groups; it should be no surprise that we are now seeing a similar shift in the base of power in legislative politics.

Why would a party move to behave in ways that are in such conflict with its own long-term interest in expanding its base and winning elections? Consider this analogy: Traditional parties are like old-fashioned corporations, whose executives aim to build market share and long-term growth. But in the 1980s, armed with the doctrine that the goal of a corporation is to deliver returns to shareholders, a group of financiers swept in, and whether it was called a leveraged buyout, greenmail, or the more anodyne term private equity, they essentially extracted the value in the corporation for themselves and for other shareholders. As we saw with Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital portfolio, some companies survived these raids but many were wiped out. Cruz, the Kochs, Sheldon Adelson, DeMint, and even Paul Ryan should be seen as something like the corporate raiders of American politics. They are trying to extract maximum value from their current position in the system, with little regard to the long-term future of the Republican Party and its shrinking demographic base, or for the system in which it operates. That’s something very different from partisanship, and a little bit more partisanship, in the sense of a concern for the future of the party, might actually be the only cure for the current mania. [Emphasis added]

Schmitt’s history of the rise of private equity strikes me as wrongheaded, as the financiers in question spurred lasting productivity increases in the firms that survived. Nicholas Bloom and John Van Reenen have found that firms owned by private equity appear to be particularly well managed — far more so than family-owned, government-owned, and more so than founder-owned firms. If we were really seeing a leveraged buyout of the GOP, we’d have a more disciplined and effective party. I’d simply say that we’ve seen the rise of political entrepreneurs whose fortunes are increasingly independent of the party as a whole, and that many of these entrepreneurs are profiting at the expense of the party as a whole. This does not strike me as a fair description of Paul Ryan, for example. Yet it does fit a number of other political actors.

When I talk about a stronger party, I really mean a much, much stronger party, along the lines of the parties outlined in Peter Wallison and Joel Gora’s Better Parties, Better Government. Wallison and Gora call for a shift from a candidate-centered campaign finance system to a party-centered system, in which all restrictions on the ability of political parties to finance the campaigns of their candidates are removed. The benefits of this approach are legion, e.g., candidates could outsource fundraising to political parties, thus reducing the appearance of corruption and reducing advantages for wealthy candidates (and candidates with wealthy contacts) and allowing candidates to spent more time serving constituents, building expertise, forming working relationships, etc. It’s clear how this works to the benefit of candidates. What is also clear, however, is that strengthening the parties would improve the prospects of challengers, as incumbents have a huge advantage in fundraising as individuals over opponents, yet this advantage would be blunted if parties played a larger role. 

But the most interesting contention Wallison and Gora makes is that there would be governance benefits to a more party-centric system:

The most effective way to bolster the parties is to provide them with the power to develop programs to present to the electorate at each election, and this in turn would require that the parties have some mechanism for enforcing party discipline among their candidates. It is at this point that the role of the parties in campaign finance becomes important. If the parties were to become the principal source of campaign finance for their candidates, they would have the leverage to assure some adherence to a party program, and to create the majority for action to which Professor Aldrich refers.

To be sure, stronger parties would inevitably engender concern about the rise of party power and the influence of party “bosses,” and would raise other doubts about political parties that have always been a part of American politics. These issues should be carefully considered, but they must be weighed against the consequences of continued political party weakness. This weakness-reflected in a chronic inability to form a national majority for action-is clearly having an adverse effect on the capacity of this country to address its problems. Presidents come and go; they have a brief honeymoon with Congress before the decentralizing power of the many special interests asserts itself in opposition to the president’s initiatives. In the absence of a crisis, there is no sustained pressure to develop a working majority for any particular course of action. After a brief effort, everything is deferred to the next administration.

It is this virtual paralysis in government – the collapse of consensus – that must be weighed against the fear of more power for political parties. It is important either to accept the proposition that only the parties can create a majority for action, or to suggest an alternative. Since the decline of the political parties became obvious in the 1960s, policymaking has been paralyzed. That unavoidable fact is the principal governance-related reason for strengthening the parties.

Moreover, Wallison and Gora argue, stronger parties promise more continuity in policy (decisions reached by a party leadership with a long-term focus will trump the short-term focus on individual candidates), better choice in public policy (we will have a clearer sense of what the parties stand for on a wide range of issues), and a fostering of accountability (as voters won’t no who to blame for party failures unless the party functions as a meaningful collective enterprise). The reason I find most compelling is the party’s role in aggregating special interests:

The position of the party as a broad-based institution that is raising substantial amounts of money for a national campaign immediately attenuates the influence of any single contribution. Any contribution is likely to be lost in the huge sums that the parties will be able to raise from many different constituencies. In addition, the party, unlike the individual candidate, has an interest in winning nationally, and to do so must assemble a broad coalition of interests. Tilting toward any particular special interest will impair this balancing process. In other words, if political parties are given the power to develop policy and programs, they will be able to reduce the power of special interests, not be swayed by it, and be more likely to develop a broad national program of legislative action.

What we need is a Republican party that can develop a policy agenda that is geared towards securing a national majority in legislative and executive elections, and that can induce Republican candidates to adhere to this agenda by wielding the power of the pursue. Individual candidates could still raise money if they chose to do so, and rebels could still fight to secure party nominations. But candidates who are in tune with the national party’s effort to secure a national majority will have a significant advantage. This kind of discipline arguably arises when a party controls the White House, and the incumbent is popular among his fellow partisans. But this is informal power that can’t always be counted on.

I should stress that the stronger parties I have in mind could have any ideological valence — a stronger GOP might organize itself around the ideals associated with the Tea Party or with political figures like Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels. There is nothing about stronger parties that prejudges the outcome of intraparty disputes. Stronger parties do mean that political entrepreneurs will have a much harder time undermining the long-term interests of the party as a whole, whichever direction the party chooses. So, for example, the GOP as a whole might embrace Ted Cruz’s strategic position. But if this effort fails, Cruz won’t be able to blame the “party establishment,” as the lines of accountability will be much clearer than they are at present.

Moving towards stronger parties will be difficult. But I think it should be the first priority of political reformers. Campaign finance regulations that aim to micromanage the political system have largely failed to achieve their intended outcomes, and they’ve left us with a less accountable, less coherent system than we’ve had in the past.


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