Thursday, May 20, 2010

Rand Paul, Arlen Specter, Political Parties, and Matt Bai

I'm trying to get a handle on just how awful Matt Bai's piece in the NYT is today.  It's really a prize-winner.  I mean, to begin with, drawing massive conclusions from a handful of primaries is always a losing game, as John Sides memorably noted a while back.  But Bai manages to get things almost completely backwards, anyway. 

Where to start?  I'll skip the opening paragraphs and get to the substance, such as it is. 

Bai frames Tuesday's results as a revolt of voters against parties:
The old laws of politics have been losing their relevance as attitudes and technology evolve, creating a kind of endemic instability that probably is not going away just because housing prices rebound. Nor is that instability any longer driven only by ideological mini-movements like MoveOn.org or the tea parties, as some commentators suggest. Voter insurrection has gone as mainstream as Miley Cyrus, and to the extent that the parties in Washington take comfort in the false notion that all this chaos is fleeting, they will fail to internalize the more enduring lessons of Tuesday’s elections. 
I'm not sure what "all this" chaos is; he's building on one GOP faction beating another in Kentucky, and the failure of an 80 year old party-switcher to break decades of antipathy in Pennsylvania.  So to begin with, his effect for which he'll be searching a cause is ill-defined.  One problem: in an introductory paragraph, he refers to "this week’s primaries in Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania," managing to ignore the fourth state involved (Oregon).  Well, no chaos there, so best to just ignore it.  OK, moving on:
The first is that this age-old idea of “clearing the field” for a preferred candidate, so as to avoid divisive primaries, is now, much like the old party clubhouse, a historical relic.
Tell it to Pat Toomey. Or John Boozman, the GOP Senate nominee in Arkansas.  Neither had high-profile opposition.  The Democrats cleared the field in Oregon for their candidate for Governor...I'm not sure whether that was the case in Pennsylvania, but neither party had a particularly close nomination fight for that open seat.  In other words, "clearing the field" isn't a historical relic; it is, as it's always been, something that sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't.   Occasional divisive primaries are nothing new in American politics.
This should have been clear to everyone after 2008, when Barack Obama, shunned by most of his party’s major contributors and its Washington establishment, simply shrugged off endorsements and raised more than half a billion dollars from his own constituencies. 
It should be clear after all the campaign books have been published that Obama's outsider reputation was part media hype, part savvy campaign spin, and almost entirely evidence-free.  The Senate leadership pushed for Obama to make the race, remember?  And while Obama's campaign did do a great job of tapping into new sources of campaign money, most of that "half a billion dollars" came after endorsements from Ted Kennedy and others within the party's Washington establishment.
Now the Obama effect has trickled down to the likes of Rand Paul, who beat his party’s preferred Senate candidate in Kentucky, and Joe Sestak, who toppled the new-and-improved Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. (It makes you wonder whether Mr. Obama and his aides really thought they could “clear the field” for Mr. Specter, as they suggested, or whether they knew from their own experience how wishful that was and were just bent on to luring him across the aisle.) 
Neither Rand Paul nor Joe Sestak is much of an outsider.  Sestak is a mainstream Democratic Member of Congress.  Paul's case is a little trickier, and I'll get to it below. 
A new generation of politicians has been raised with more consumer choice and less loyalty to institutions, and they are no more likely to take their orders from, say, party leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, than they are to drive a Malibu just because some car magazine tells them to. Nor, thanks to the Web, are they reliant any longer on the party structure to raise the necessary cash. 
OK, Rand Paul and the Republican Party.  It's true that he didn't take orders from McConnell, just as Ronald Reagan didn't take orders from Gerald Ford in 1976, or Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy from Lyndon Johnson in 1968...or JFK from (Majority Leader) LBJ in 1960, or a variety of candidates from Harry Truman in 1952 or 1948.  And it wouldn't be at all hard to find Senate examples, either. 

A more interesting question is whether these challenges are from within or outside of the party.  Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960, one could argue, was really a challenge to the party from an outsider who managed to find a way to "raise the necessary cash" even without the internet.  On the other hand, Reagan's challenge in 1976 was clearly, in my view at least, one of clashing party groups.  What about Rand Paul?  Paul wasn't just part of the small party faction led by his father, a Member of the House and former GOP presidential candidate.  He was opposed by Mitch McConnell, but he was endorsed by outgoing KY Senator Jim Bunning.  He was also endorsed by Senator Jim DeMint, former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and a whole bunch of GOP-aligned interest groups.  Oh, and by Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin.  That he won wasn't a sign of voters revolting against party leaders; it was a case of voters choosing between two sets of party leaders.  That's a very different story than the one Bai gives us.
A second, related lesson is that less affinity for parties makes incumbent politicians less safe, generally. That’s because when fewer people bother to engage in party politics, it takes a smaller group of ultra-motivated activists to overturn the traditional order of things. 
Ezra Klein posted on this yesterday...the evidence is exactly the opposite.  There are fewer, not more, primary challenges these days.  Successful Senate primary challenges seem to track bad economic times, not changes in how many people engage in party policies.  And: "less affinity for parties"?  Among voters, I don't think so.  And formal and informal party organizations are probably at least as strong today as they have been in the last sixty or so years.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman found this out in 2006, when an unknown but jaunty cable executive named Ned Lamont — and a capable army of bloggers and antiwar crusaders — drummed him out of the Democratic Party in Connecticut. (Mr. Lieberman won re-election that November as an independent.) Mr. Lamont, who is now running for governor, was the prototype for Mr. Paul and Mr. Sestak and scores of other primary candidates this year.
It's probably fair to say that Lamont's campaign did serve as something of a model, or inspiration, but time didn't begin in 2006, nor did primary challenges.  We are talking here about Arlen Specter, right?  Specter jumped  to the Dems because he was afraid of a repeat primary challenge from Pat Toomey.  And Toomey was inspired by, among other things, Reagan's 1976 challenge, which was in turn inspired by conservative challenges going back to Taft vs. Dewey and beyond.  Yes, the White House supported Specter, and that's not nothing -- but the idea that it's Arlen Specter (or, in 2006, Joe Lieberman) who represents the traditional Democratic party is a joke.  The better way to understand it is that these things are contested between party groups, and the way that they are contested and (to some extent at least) resolved is through nomination battles. 
A final truism to emerge from Tuesday’s primaries is that the politics of issues, the stuff of which parties have most often crafted their core identities, has now been largely displaced by a politics of personal conviction. In other words, Tuesday’s results were less about the ideological purging of either party than they were about a rejection of the culture of both, a sense that Washington acts from expedience and little else. 
A truism?  Perhaps.  True?  I have no idea, and neither does Bai.   How much of Specter's loss was from "a sense that Washington acts from expedience," and how much was from memories of his attacks on Anita Hill...I don't know, and Bai doesn't know.  How much of DeMint and Palin and outside groups endorsement of Rand Paul was issue-based?  Again, I have no idea, and neither does Bai, at least from his reporting.  He's just talking through his hat here.  I won't bother quoting in full the next two paragraphs, but he has no idea, either, of whether Blanche Lincoln's stand on the banking bill helped her, hurt her, or made no difference at all.  He's just guessing when he says that it hurt her because it "appeared calculated for political gain."  My guess is that among those who heard about and liked the specific policy, practically none of them nevertheless turned against her because she was pandering to them.  I like my guess a lot better than Bai's guess, but unlike him, I'm not going to imply that it's anything more than a guess.
What all this probably means is that we are living in the era of the upstart. Thirty years ago, when you needed a party infrastructure to make a serious run for higher office, taking it to the establishment was quixotic venture undertaken on the national level, where a Jesse Jackson or a Pat Buchanan could at least make a powerful statement along the road to obliteration. (Recall Jimmy Carter’s indictment of Jerry Brown in 1976: “Don’t send them a message, send them a president.”) 
It seems that Bai has heard of Jimmy Carter.  That's good!  Now, my assignment for Matt Bai: go back and read about Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign.  And then try to argue that Barack Obama, backed by Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy (and established party insiders such as David Axelrod and David Plouffe) was anything like Carter in '76.  What you're going to find is that "thirty years ago" was the era of the upstart, not now.  Citing Jimmy Carter to make a point that thirty years ago "you needed a party infrastructure to make a serious run for higher office" is like citing Spiro Agnew to make the point that at forty years ago, only seriously accomplished politicians with a deserved reputation for personal integrity were considered for the Vice Presidency. 

Might as well do the last paragraph...
Those days are gone. The intraparty rebellions now will be increasingly local, sufficiently financed and built around credible candidates — the kind of campaigns that made Barack Obama president and that may yet give us Senator Paul or Senator Sestak. My gosh, these people in Washington are in for it now. 
Here's the thing: there's nothing "increasingly local" at all about Rand Paul or Joe Sestak.  I really don't want to read much into a couple of results, but if they symbolize anything, it's national influence on state and local elections.  Paul is all about national Republicans -- Palin and DeMint and his father -- reaching in and influencing a state primary. 

There is something different about contemporary parties than older parties, which is that national element.  If I had to generalize -- and as with all generalizations, there are numerous exceptions -- what I'd say is this.  In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, local parties were able to control their nominations.  Over the course of the twentieth century, and probably bottoming out sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, those parties lost control of nominations to candidates, who formed their own personal organizations...at the extremes, parties were relatively empty labels that independent candidates battled over.  Over the last thirty or forty years, however, parties have evolved, developing strong national components that never existed in previous strong-party eras, and once again parties generally control their nominations.  I certainly don't see anything in any of the cases this year (not just Sestak and Paul, but also Rubio, and the NY-23 special, and others) that seem to be about parties losing control over their own nominations, as opposed to party groups battling over those nominations.

Of course, no matter how strong parties get, as long as they are permeable and not strictly hierarchical they will still feature internal clashes, which will often play out in nomination fights.  To the extent that independent candidates are also strong, they will sometimes clash with party choices.  Really, I think that's the best way of looking at Arlen Specter.  He obviously wasn't a creature of the Democratic Party establishment; he was, in many ways, a great example of the strong, independent candidates of an earlier era in American politics.  The political system can still produce such creatures, but we're in a more partisan era now, and if it symbolizes anything, the demise of Arlen Specter is probably best seen as a sign of the strength of the new parties.

4 comments:

  1. " . . . if it symbolizes anything, the demise of Arlen Specter is probably best seen as a sign of the strength of the new parties."

    I've always assumed that the "strength" of the parties is a function both of centralized decision making about policy and party composition and ideological homogeneity. PA was a case (along with KY and UT) of a party becoming more ideologically homogeneous and less centralized. I'm not sure how this nets out.

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  2. That was a TKO. Nice work.

    In my opinion all this chaos is mostly due to tough economic times, and almost all of Bai's points should have been substituted with that.

    What more people should start taking into account though, is that the shitty economy is likely to stick around for some time. What will be the effect on our political parties? I think the GOP keeps moving right, for sure.

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  3. "Recall Jimmy Carter’s indictment of Jerry Brown in 1976: “Don’t send them a message, send them a president.”)"

    Talk about lazy. Carter used that slogan against George Wallace, not Jerry Brown. A small point next to Bai's errors of interpretation, but easily checked and therefore easy enough for him to have to got it right instead of wrong.

    ReplyDelete
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