Building the party

August 23, 2016 Laura Blessing
Mad Dog /

American government is increasingly dysfunctional, as the essays in Volume 5: Fixing our broken government highlight. Whether measured by Americans’ trust in institutions, legislative output, or even reliably passing a budget, American government fares increasingly poorly. The next president will have to contend with two particular factors identified in Gary Gallagher’s essay on President Abraham Lincoln: internal fractures in national parties and a lack of bipartisanship. What the next president should do is to use her/his position as the head of the party to strengthen parties, for accountability and for delivering policies that improve lives. 

The combination of Gallagher’s two factors is particularly crippling. One can have a very productive government with internally divided parties but the presence of bipartisanship—see the midcentury Congress, reaching a height of legislative output under President Lyndon Johnson. Of course, the reverse situation approaches parliamentary-style government—if one party controls both Congress and the executive, no such gridlock exists.

Yet, modern trends have exacerbated this appreciably even in recent years. A factor often overlooked in today’s discourse is that the power of congressional committees is at its nadir while party leadership runs Congress—and yet, parties are themselves weak. This is not a system designed to produce either legislation or accountability. In addition to building up the party organization, a president should strengthen the party’s presence in elections and legislating by controlling its message, the role of money in the electoral process, and its policy proposals.

Parties increasingly have less control over their nominating process on both the presidential and congressional levels. This is shown by the success of outsider presidential candidates this season, as well as the increasing incidence of “primarying” congressional incumbents. The latter is also a new trend, prompting others in office to strategically shift their positions to survive such a challenge. Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss in 2014 proves that even party leaders are not immune.

Parties also have fewer tools for controlling their own partisans in Congress. The Freedom Caucus within the House Republicans is historically unusual for opposing fellow Republicans and Democrats alike. It has voted for government shutdowns and breaching the debt ceiling, led to Speaker John Boehner’s ouster last year, and currently has deprived Speaker Paul Ryan of the votes for passing a House budget resolution. A party-building president could begin the process of rebuilding the party strength necessary for accountability and for good governance.

Much has been made about both parties’ influence over their presidential candidates this cycle, particularly the nomination of Donald Trump (although Senator Bernie Sanders’ relative success as a newly minted Democrat is also significant). The scholarly discussion has largely centered around whether parties can still pick their candidates decisively, as The Party Decides postulates. This work has a much broader definition of party elites that includes activists and interest groups. What is missing in much of this discussion is that if we consider elites as those with influence, these discussions are ignoring voices that have been influential. These voices include major conservative online news publications and high-profile individual commentators who backed Mr. Trump early. The birther movement that fueled his rise certainly went largely unchecked. 

A strong party-building president should openly disagree with surrogates they find disagreeable. While this risks a backlash, the costs of not doing so is to lose control of one’s own message, which is far worse. A president has the best bully pulpit for this role, but when a party doesn’t hold the presidency, and in open presidential races, party leaders should fulfill this responsibility.

A related factor to wielding control over the party’s message in elections is a concern for the money that fuels those elections. McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation has reduced the party’ ability to funnel money to their candidates. Meanwhile Citizens United opened the spigot for sources of campaign cash outside the party. Outside money not only speaks for candidates, but the growing extent of it can drown out the influence the party has in giving or withholding funds. (The pressures of fundraising on legislators are hardly healthy for the legislative process.)

There are additional complications with outside money, given Martin Gilens’ findings that wealthier interests have divergent views from the median American ideologically, and that those interests correlate with what policies get enacted. The policy results of money in the system can fuel the inequality and anti-establishment voter anger now plaguing both parties. To be sure, getting money significantly out of politics is unrealistic—but a greater role for party control, as well as greater transparency (and sensible limits), would benefit both parties.

Having covered both messaging and money aspects, it’s important to turn to what may be the most important aspect of party building: policy. Some issues in American politics evince a very high level of policy-based party building. One example I address in my work is Republicans’ tax-cutting. This is a paragon of small-d democratic accountability, whatever one may think about it. They promise tax cuts, and they deliver.

The broader point for the party-building president is that more of this behavior is needed. Articulating a clear vision of policies that can be implemented and whose performance you want to be judged upon is necessary for good governance. In recent years, we have seen an increase in stating opposition to the other party without proposing a serious alternative plan. The Republicans have not explained what they would replace the Affordable Care Act with, while much of the Democratic rhetoric on gun control focuses on solutions that poll well but represent a fraction of the problem. While our two parties have substantial differences, they are exaggerated by a bomb-throwing opposition seeking any electoral gain.

Thinking seriously and realistically about policy could reveal areas of potential compromise. Delivering for constituents will also cement ties for legislators who might otherwise be happy to lob rhetorical bombs themselves. Parties should make it easier for members of Congress to deliver for constituents in ways big and small—undoing the earmarks ban of 2010 would be beneficial for constituents and comity inside Congress.

None of this will be easy, but change is possible. There are incentives in place that advantage short-term gains associated with the politics of division, both inter-party and now even intra-party. Yet, significant longer-term gains could be made for both party and country if the next president engages in party building that gives attention to message, money, and policy. These are crucial for accountability and good governance. While this political courage could endanger some short-term electoral advantage, to quote LBJ, “well, what the hell is the Presidency for?”

Laura Blessing is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. She is a political scientist who received her PhD from the University of Virginia; where she was also a Miller Center fellow. She worked as the tax staffer for a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee while on an American Political Science Association (APSA) Congressional Fellowship. She is currently working on a book on the politics of tax policy for party building from the midcentury period to today.