Robert Strauss is dead, but political parties are alive and well

March 21

The New York Times uses the passing of Washington super-lawyer and former Democratic National Committee Chair Robert Strauss as an occasion to discuss the alleged decline of American political parties. Strauss mattered because in his day parties mattered. Yet in an age of rampant interest groups and Super PACs, parties are increasingly irrelevant.

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There are only three things wrong with this narrative.

1. The parties’ national committees have never been very important.

2. National party organizations are far more active and have more resources now than when Strauss was DNC chair in the 1970s.

3. The importance of parties is their role in connecting voters, activist groups and candidates, not any particular organizational framework. They are doing that very effectively.

National Committees have never been that important. 

Strauss was a masterful fundraiser, networker, courtier and influence-peddler who exemplified the Washington Political Establishment. He was also a tireless self-publicist whose efforts seem to be paying posthumous benefits.

What Strauss was not was a “kingmaker.” American national party chairs have never chosen candidates or set policy. Strauss was no exception. He did not create the “Watergate Babies,” the dozens of Democratic freshmen representatives elected in 1974 who brought reformist energy to Capitol Hill. Nor did Strauss anoint Jimmy Carter, who ran against Washington and won the Democratic presidential nomination with little support from party insiders like Strauss, two years later. Strauss did not determine the messages these candidates ran on or raise most of the funds they spent. Once these people were nominated, the Watergate scandal, the troubled mid-1970s economy and the Democrats’ strength in party identification had far more to do with their electoral success than Strauss did. In office none of these people took cues on policy from Strauss, either. Nor were Strauss’s Democratic predecessors or GOP opposite numbers more influential.

National Party organizations matter more than they did in Strauss’s day.

Beyond organizing the national conventions and setting rules regarding delegate selection, the RNC and DNC and the various congressional party campaign committees play an important role in fundraising, polling, advertising and candidate recruitment. The national committees have also subsidized poorer state party organizations.

Yet all of this is far more true today than when Strauss was chair in the mid-70s. Scholars have documented the great increase in fundraising and growth of staff in these committees. In 1976, Strauss’s last year as chair, national committee receipts for both parties were less than $60 million. They were $400 million  by 1984. The subsequent rise of “soft money” fundraising in the late 1980s and 1990s led to further expansion in party revenues, which exceeded $1 billion by 2002.

In 1976 the DNC staff was 30 people. By 2000 it employed 150.

The important story of party organizational decline is at the local level, and it is very old by now. The only party organizations that ever actually chose nominees were local ones. The most prominent example in living memory was the Cook County Democratic Organization, chaired for decades by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, but it had counterparts in many other cities and states. Unlike Strauss, Daley was a kingmaker. Governors, senators and many minor officials owed their positions to him, and even presidents were in his debt. Accordingly, the mayor was consulted by Lyndon Johnson on matters like who should be the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Daley is remembered. By contrast, how many people reading this post have ever even heard of John Bailey, John F. Kennedy’s designee as DNC chair, whom Daley persuaded a reluctant LBJ to retain?

Yet Daley has been gone for quite a while now, and he was an increasingly. anachronistic figure in his final years, which were Strauss’s heyday. Other party machines like New York’s Tammany Hall declined well before the Cook County Machine. Most of this local-level party decline predated Strauss’s tenure, while the revival of national parties largely postdated it.

Journalists should focus less on party structure, more on party activity.

Studying and reporting on political parties is interesting, if challenging, precisely because they are not well-bounded organizations like Congress and the courts. Congress is the members of the House and Senate and their staffs. The courts are the justices and judges and their staffs.

It is understandable, then, that journalists focus on the party committees, which have addresses, budgets, formal leaders and spokespersons, as the party phenomena. Yet it is a mistake. Parties are central to elections and governance in the United States, and understanding them is a crucial part of understanding our political system. Parties are fundamentally coalitions of people who care about policy and come together to win elections, hoping to control the government and get what they want from it.

The structures that facilitate this coordination are important and merit some attention, but it is the coordination and not the committees that makes parties matter. The key question is whether partisans stick together in the electorate and among office-holders. Can they agree upon candidates and public policy enough to capture control of the government and get the policies they want? Certainly their ability to do those is much greater now than in Strauss’s day. Parties are far more cohesive in Congress than they were in Strauss’s day, and the authority of Congressional leaders exceeds that of the late Texan’s contemporaries. Among voters there is much less split-ticket voting than there was when Strauss was at the DNC.

Organizations outside the formal party structure, party-linked interest groups and “super PACS” are important in the nomination process and campaigns. Yet when was this not true? For example, for many decades labor unions have been an important part of the Democrats’ nomination process and have provided crucial funds and “ground game” for that party. Franklin Roosevelt reportedly told DNC chair Robert Hannegan to “clear everything with Sidney” at the 1944 Democratic National Convention.

Sidney Hillman was a leader of the CIO labor federation. He and his allies had veto power over FDR’s vice presidential pick when Bob Strauss was an obscure FBI agent. And he ran what the New York Times writers call an “independent group,” a political action committee. Yet Hillman was a Democratic leader. Such groups in both parties have long sought to nominate candidates who agreed with them on policy and pressured them to deliver when in office. These groups are not something outside the party. To a great extent, they are the party.

To be sure, there are new groups in party coalitions that were not aligned with Democrats or Republicans in Strauss’s day. The GOP he competed against in the 1970s had no connection with the NRA, and the religious right and Club for Growth did not yet exist. LGBT rights groups and feminists were far less prominent in the Democratic Party. Yet party coalitions and party policies are always changing. There was even a time when organized labor was the new kid on the block in the Democratic Party.

The growth of super PACs is a recent phenomenon encouraged by changes in campaign finance law that have routed money outside of the party committees. Yet so what? Often super PACs are run by longtime party operatives. These people who have been termed “the expanded party” hop from campaign, to Congressional offices, to the West Wing, with stops in K Street and now super PACs. The whole time they are professional Democrats and Republicans, whether they are working out of the DNC or Priorities USA.

Other super PACs are running by what my co-authors and I call “intense policy demanders” like the Koch brothers. Yet this is the same mix of people that have always animated political parties. Both forms of super PAC are more partisan than the corporate givers who sought bipartisan “access” in Strauss’s day and got it from him and other well-connected Washingtonians.

The New York Times reporters mention the irrelevance of the national conventions, but the party elites who used to actually confer at conventions now do so long before them. Both parties still typically nominate candidates favored by elites and broadly acceptable to all the aligned interest groups in the party coalition. The procedures have changed far more than the result.

Strauss was a Washington fixture, but was not universally revered. In any case, he is gone, and it doesn’t matter much what we think of him. Yet for better and for worse political parties remain very much with us, and it matters a great deal whether we understand them. Learning not to confuse form and function would be a good place to start.

David Karol is an Associate Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from UCLA.
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