Jay Cost, staff writer for the Weekly Standard and poll analyst extraordinaire, is out with a new book, Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic . He agreed to answer some questions on his book and the state of the presidential race.
Is the Democratic Party’s current dilemma (its domination by an array of special interests (labor, environmentalists, etc.) the natural result of FDR’s coalition of interest groups?
To a large degree, yes. The problem with pursuing electoral majorities through patronage is that the interest groups become part of the party. The Democratic and Republican parties are, after all, open organizations. So, it’s not just that FDR won over the votes of organized labor in the 1930s, he brought them inside the tent, where they get a say on what happens next. Add in a half dozen or so other major groups who have a similar say, and suddenly it becomes very difficult for the party ever to defy them, even if the public interest requires it.
This means that the choices of past party leaders have created structural problems, which today’s leaders cannot simply choose to break free from. FDR had the freedom to operate independent of organized labor; he chose to integrate them into the party; so now his successors lack the freedom he enjoyed.
How do the Dems get themselves out of the mess — if not SEIU, then who’s going to stuff the coffers?
I do not know. The best hope for the Democrats had long been the South. Both Carter and Clinton had reformist instincts; though neither of them succeeded in reshaping the party, they both saw the need. A big reason why is that the South does not really have the kind of party clients that dominate in the North, so Southern Democrats were schooled in a different method of politics and brought to D.C. ideas about reform.
But the Southern Democrats have mostly been wiped out, and none of the remaining ones really stand a chance of getting to the White House, let alone reforming the party. Ideally, a guy like Phil Bredeson in the White House would be great for the party, but he stands no chance of getting the nomination. I do not see a solution for the Democrats at this juncture.
Does the GOP have a similar problem?
Yes and no. Yes insofar as the party has long had interests within it that act as clients — mostly businesses and increasingly social conservative groups (although GOP groups play both sides in ways that, say, organized labor does not).
But no insofar as the GOP responds to its clients differently than the Democrats do. For starters, the Republicans have not had complete control of government very often. Just six years (1953-1954; 2003-2006) in the past 82 years! And the problems the Democratic clients have created have usually come during unified party control, so the GOP has not had the kind of opportunities to do that damage.
And if you look at the most recent period that the GOP had total control, you’ll see that it did . . . basically nothing. I think that is the real problem for the Republican Party — that many of its potential client groups simply want the status quo retained, even if the conservative movement wants reform.
Incidentally, that has long been the core problem inherent to the GOP. Its roots are reformist and “progressive” in a lot of respects. However, for generations it was simply the party of the North, so it picked up a lot of interest groups that only want things kept as they are. And still to this day they are a powerful force within the party, despite the tea party, despite 30 years of movement conservatives who want to clean things up, etc.
What is the connection between constituent-controlled politics and polarization?
It’s certainly exacerbated things. The two sides are always going to disagree on big, ideological legislation. But when those proposals also include payoffs to some group that is aligned with one party, the other party is going to go ballistic.
Consider, for instance, that paycheck fairness bill the Senate recently voted down. There are big ideological disagreements there, but political considerations were just as salient, if not more so. There was literally no way the GOP was going to get on board with that — as it was a pretty obvious payoff to the trial lawyers lobby. Why should Republicans vote to change the laws in ways that help Democrats raise more money? This was also a big part of the problem the Democrats had with the stimulus. Why should the GOP vote to borrow money to deliver patronage to Democratic groups?
That’s the trouble with client groups in a two-party system: The other side does not want anything to do with them. Why should they? And so that injects a partisan element into the ideological conflict. It’s not simply about liberalism versus conservatism, but also about favoring one set of groups or not. That makes matters worse.
Who are those 7-10% of the electorate who will decide the election?
They tend to be nonpartisan and non-ideological. They’re like referenda voters — moving back and forth from side to side depending on how they perceive state of the nation, especially the economy. They voted narrowly for Bush in 2004, strongly for Obama in 2008.
Right now they are not leaning toward the president. Every week Gallup offers up crosstabs of Obama’s job approval by demographic/political group. The “pure independents” (as Gallup calls them) gave him 31 percent support last week. That’s a recent low for the president, but even so he regularly polls under 40 percent with them.
Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann say it’s all the GOP’s fault — what say you?
I certainly agree that the GOP has changed over the years and become more conservative in some sense of the word. (But not every sense, as the GOP voted, for instance, to recommit Medicare before it passed in 1965. That’s a more “conservative” stance than the party has today, isn’t it?)
However, it is tendentious to argue that the Democrats have not changed as well. And in ways that have exacerbated polarization just as much. The rise of the environmentalist, feminist and consumer rights movements have pushed the party to the left. So has the integration of the African American vote into the party coalition. So has the loss of the white South and the Northern Catholic vote. So has the transformation of organized labor, shifting away from the old craft and industrial unions to the government unions and gray-collar unions (like UNITE-HERE and the SEIU, both of which are very left-wing). All of this has pushed the party to the left.
That Mann and Ornstein do not acknowledge the importance of these trends is actually a sign of how media bias in the D.C. establishment works. It’s all in perception. If I think I’m a moderate (even though I’m a liberal), then I’m going to perceive liberal Democrats as moderates, moderate Republicans as conservative that I can work with, and conservative Republicans as irrational, nihilistic, and ultimately a threat to government itself.
More than anything else, though, I dispute their premise. They use words like “fault,” implying that polarization is a bad thing. I disagree. It is not necessarily bad!
What I see is that polarization has increased because the status quo is breaking down from the outside, not the inside. The old way of doing business in Washington would be to count on 4 percent economic growth every year, then dole out the surplus revenue in the form of tax cuts, social welfare benefits, defense and so on. That was the premise of all the grand bargains that Mann and Ornstein remember so fondly. Well, this premise does not exist anymore. As the two parties are coming to understand this, there is less room for common ground and more polarization.
Ultimately, you don’t need grand bargains to get things done in D.C. The old-guard establishment thinks that is the only way to do business because that is how it had been done for the 50 years following World War II. But those decades of grand bargains were bankrolled on an economy that is no longer capable of growing any more. So now we have to make choices.
That’s how things can — and ultimately will — be solved: choices at the ballot box. The electorate has to get into its collective brain that guns, butter, low taxes and sustainable deficits no longer go together. And they have to start make some tough choices. Until they do, there will be no more compromises.
That’s actually a big reason that I live 350 miles from Washington D.C., even though I write about politics for a living. My sense is that sooner rather than later the country is going to pull the plug on the established interests in the Beltway, and I don’t want to be anywhere nearby when it happens. I’ll put it this way: economic growth has averaged 1.7 percent for the last decade; if that happens for another decade, then in 2022 things in D.C. are going to be very different than they are now.