Wednesday, September 29, 2010

All Politics is Local, Except When...Oh, Wait

I hate to make this blog an all-Bai, all-the-time, debunk-o-fest, but really, sometimes he just asks for it -- and today's article is also a good peg on which to hang a couple of important points, which I'll get to below.  Anyway, today he takes his special Bai-eriffic mix of solid reporting skills and analytic disaster to the three-ring circus in Delaware's Senate race, in which he finds that Christine O'Donnell isn't actually campaigning there, at least not in person.  That's interesting!  With all the O'Donnell hoopla, I didn't actually know that, although I'll admit I'm pretty O'Donnelled out, and not following the details all that closely.  But somehow or another he manages to use the O'Donnell story to tell us that Tip O'Neill's famous aphorism that "all politics is local" is "as much a part of history as he is" without mentioning anywhere that Christine O'Donnell is getting clobbered.  In a great Republican year, in an open seat, Nate Silver now gives her a 1% chance of winning, ranking her even with whatever Republican is taking on Daniel Inouye in Hawaii.  In other words, all politics in Deleware is local, in the sense that nominating some nationally-based movement conservative has been an apparent fiasco for Republicans there.  Tip O'Neill didn't mean that nothing happened at the national level, just that anyone who wanted to win had better pay attention to what their districts wanted.  I could see an argument that O'Donnell doesn't prove that Delaware is hostile to national movement conservatives who don't have a history of talking about witchcraft and the rest of it, but she's hardly evidence that O'Neill's advice is dated.

Oh, I said I had some important points in addition to the Bai-bashing, didn't I?  Better get to them, as much fun as Bai-bashing is.  I mean, really -- this is the New York Times, not WJM-TV or WNYX radio.  They shouldn't be getting things this wrong this regularly.  Now, where was I?...oh, yeah, the important points.

First, Bai is actually quite right that national politics is new, and different.  In the strong-party nineteenth century, the national parties were basically non-existent.  National parties were little more than loose alliances of a whole bunch of state and local parties, which were entirely autonomous, and had little to do with each other unless they had to nominate a presidential candidate.  As parties weakened in the twentieth century, what was weakening were those state and local organizations.  There was no national party to be weak or strong.  That's no longer true.  Over the last fifty years or so, both the Democrats and Republicans have been putting together true national parties. 

Second, and as I've talked about many times before, these national parties (just like the modern versions of state and local parties) are only partially found in formal organizations, such as the Republican National Committee or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  Those formal organizations may sometimes be important, but they're not the whole party.  Often, what matters far more are informal networks including campaign professionals, governing professionals and issue experts, the partisan press, activists, party aligned-interest groups, and candidates.  That's what Bai is talking about when he sees outsiders such as Rush Limbaugh tout O'Donnell, or national online groups such as MoveOn supporting Ned Lamont against Joe Lieberman in 2006.  Bai is correct that this is a new and interesting development, but he's wrong to think that there's no political party operating in these cases (and here he's just plain ordinary wrong, I suppose, but still...).  It is party action, but it's national and not local, and it's not happening in the buildings with the words "Democrat" or "Republican" on the door.  But it's party action nonetheless, even if as yet we only partially understand all of its implications. 


  1. Under your rationale, what political action wouldn't be classified as "party action"?

    I mean, there's a reason nominally non-party actors like Limbaugh and MoveOn don't want to explicitly tie themselves to any national or local party. It's because they are (or at least they claim to be) issue-oriented. Though Rush may agree with the GOP 95% of the time, and MoveOn may agree with the Dems just as often, they want to retain the ability to denounce the party if the party moves in a direction that they disagree with.

  2. Good question. The big alternative, in my view, are candidates and candidate-centered politics. I suspect that might be the case with McMahon in Connecticut this year, although I don't know enough to know whether that's true or not. But in the 1960s and 1970s, I believe that a lot of candidates had staff and volunteers who were more loyal to the candidate than they were parts of continuing party networks. At the presidential level, think Haldeman and Ehrlichman (and also note that Nixon's WH staff included Kissinger and Moynihan, who had both worked for Dems).

    Another alternative would be neutral expertise, more often found in civil service bureaucracies, but potentially found in electoral politics (at least some consultants in the 1960s and 1970s worked for candidates from both parties). Yet another alternative would be interest group politics by groups not aligned with one of the parties.

    All of this stuff is difficult to empirically tease out (the NRA is GOP-aligned, right? But they do endorse some Dems, so how do we count them?).

    As far as Rush or MoveOn criticizing their own party, I think as long as it's very rare for them to endorse the other party, it's probably better to see those criticisms are part of internal party division.

  3. I have been doing some reading and thinking about media and campaigns and the consensus seems to be that the media, to the detriment of the process, has become horse-race centric. Thus, the Bai analysis is a bit confounding... if it is horse-race coverage, how can they totally disregard the actual horse race?

    We are, in fact, not experiencing horse-race coverage but celebrity coverage. It really came into its own with Sarah Palin (I don't have the perspective to say she was the first). Everyone knew she was completely unqualified to be VP -- pundits and voters alike -- and that she has virtually no chance in 2012 (God willing) yet she still sucks all of the oxygen out of the room (despite only appearing on Fox and Facebook).

    O'Donnell is also not viable yet I KNOW that stuff (I live nowhere near Delaware) and have to struggle to remember her opponent's name.

    We'd be better off with horse-race coverage -- at least it would be more fact-based and some reflection of public opinion/understanding.

    It is dispiriting that the 2 prototypical cases are women (I know McCain campaign tried to make Obama out as the "celebrity" candidate but I don't think that works) because it taints women politicians as women are still vastly underrepresented at the national level. They really aren't any nuttier than their white male counterparts and they probably don't constitute a disproportionate share of women politicians. They have just been extraordinarily successful at getting attention despite not having any real substance... and losing...

  4. "Sarah Palin (I don't have the perspective to say she was the first). Everyone knew she was completely unqualified to be VP -- pundits and voters alike -- and that she has virtually no chance in 2012"

    There are a lot of GOP primary voters who would disagree.

    Jesse Jackson was more of a celebrity candidate then Palin. He had no government experience and received few white votes but the media treated him as a serious candidate.

  5. I don't think it's correct at all to say that Jackson was a celebrity candidate. He was a factional candidate, and the press generally treated him as such. The two complications: part of the point of his candidacies, and perhaps what the faction he more or less led wanted, was to not be treated as a factional candidate. The other was that only recently a couple of factional candidates had won the nomination (in 72 and 76), and so it was not entirely implausible that Jackson could win (in 88, not in 84). With lots of exceptions and all kinds of caveats, I'd probably say that the press got the Jackson candidacies more or less right.

  6. @Mercer, I posit that Palin and O'Donnell are celebrity regardless of their "experience" in government (of which O'Donnell has none) but because the reason why they receive attention has nothing to do with substantive policy, or artful politics, but is based on personality ... and looks ... I think this is a relatively recent phenomenon, primarily because the expansion of the media universe has made room for such vacuous coverage of such vacuous candidiate. It is qualitatively different than individuals representing a distinct group who may do so to influence the debate (Sharpton in '04) despite not having high expectations of winning.

    How else do you explain an entire column devoted to someone's "revolutionary campaign" when she wasn't expected to win and is down 15% in the polls? How do you explain hours of TV, etc. devoted to speculating whether Palin will run in 2012 when she essentially DQed by resigning the governorship and failing to address the policy shortcomings that were painfully apparent in 2008 not to mention participating in airing her family's dirty laundry in the national media?


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