Last month, Post political writer David Broder argued that the rise of single-issue groups, operating outside party structures, may help politicians see the importance of rebuilding the parties which they themselves have been circumventing and weakening. Today, Paul Wieck, Washington correspondent for the Albuquerque Journal and a longtime political reporter, turns the question around and argues that the parties are to blae for their own ailments .
OUR POLITICAL parties have failed us on all the major issues over the last quarter century, and yet now we are asked to hope for their revival. I do not believe Americans will put our political process back into the strait-jacket of tightly controlled party faithful, the rigid discipline which so many "grassroots" people of every cause struggled to overcome.
American politics would be more tidy, of course, if the two parties regained their old power over individual politicians, but it won't work in this media age. And it shouldn't.
Today, Democratic Party regulars point with pride to the fact that the 1948 Democratic National Convention adopted a strong Civil rights plank. But wait a minute. The youthful mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert H. Humphrey, who led that fight was an unsanctioned rebel in those days, and so were a lot of his allies. To put that plank in the platform, Humphrey et al. had to elbow their way past the same party regulars David Broder would now restore to unaccustomed power.
By 1952, the Democrats were willing to sweep the civil rights issue under the rug to save the "Solid South" and it might have stayed there for a long time if the Supreme Court, not the Democratic Party, hadn't retrieved it with its 1954 desegregation ruling.
To enact substantive civil rights legislation, it took our first experience in modern times with the politics of confrontation. It took sit-ins, marches, and finally Lyndon Johnson in the White House to win that fight. Few party regulars were ever in the front ranks.
Soon the Democrats found themselves embroiled in an equally emotional internal battle, this time over Vietnam. Critics of our Indochina policies had their spokesmen on the Senate floor, but dissidents were again forced to resort to the politics of confrontation, first in teach-ins and later in mass marches. Party regulars reacted predictably. They tried to stamp out dissent, just as they tried to sweep civil rights under the rug.
When the "dump Johnson" movement sprang up in the fall of 1967, party loyalty was so strong only one elected official -- an obscure state legislator from Minneapolis -- dared to sign up. The Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy candidacies gave voice to antiwar sentiment, but didn't deter the regulars' efforts to stamp out dissent. The result: a chaotic convention in Chicago where the tactics of suppression were described in one official report as a "police riot."
If the Democrats have stumbled repeatedly in recent years, the Republicans have really messed up. First, they all but sat out the civil rights fight. Then, they watched the fight over Vietnam from the sidelines, often losing, in the course of it, their own youth to the antiwar movement. I recall asking a district judge out west about it in 1970. This Republican told me his own son and daughter-in-law had defected to McCarthy and that his party had, indeed, suffered a great loss. "We were talking about it at the country club last night," he said.
Then came Watergate. The smoke from that famed pistol was curling in their nostrils before Republican leaders put aside their allegiance to Richard Nixon. In disguse, voters cut them down by the dozens in the 1974 elections, a defeat from which the party still hasn't recovered completely.
TO RESTORE to almost absolute power that kind of mentality exhibited by the regulars over the last 25 years would be a disaster. Fortunately, it can't be done.
Party ties had been unraveling in a lot of ways long before the parties failed to cope, in a timely fashion, with the great issues of the last quarter-century. By the fall of 1966, evidences of the growing independence of voters could be seen on every side.
I recall the young aide of an Idaho congressman who told me, with regret, how things had already changed in his home town, a small community in southeastern Idaho. He could remember when a candidate had only to win over two or three opinion makers in the town -- the banker, the leading lawyer, etc. -- and the voters fell in line. It had changed by the mid-Sixties. Voters in his home town (and in thousands of other places) no longer looked to a handful of courthouse politicians or clubhouse bosses for guidance.
Television undoubtedly played a major role. Voters no longer had to rely on their local paper or their leading citizen or their clubhouse leader for the information they needed to make a decision.
It's not just that voters are in closer touch with the outside world. They've developed new concerns. Government has grown into a force in their lives as pervasive as TV and, as early as 1966, it was easy for a political reporter to find people working in their first campaign because they wanted a point of personal contact with that new force.
Today the impact of government on our lives is even more pervasive. New fears beset voters. They distrust government, politicians, the press. Is it reasonable to suppose they'd let us turn the clock back and let party regulars pick their candidates and select the issues? The answer is a resounding "no." Not with the record of the parties in recent years.
It leaves us with a void that makes single-issue groups seem more threatening than they really are. Whom are they credited with defeating? The walking wounded. There was Pennsylvania's Joe Clark in 1968, already in trouble with a lot of Democratic voters before the "gun nuts" helped finish him off. Ditto, Joe Tydings in Maryland in 1970.
Last fall the Right-to-Lifers helped finish off Dick Clark in Iowa. But Clark may have sealed his own fate the day he cast the only vote in the Senate Agriculture Committee against a bill offered to placate thousands of angry farmers who were swarming over "the Hill" that day. After the vote, farmers gathered outside Clark's office. His response was to ask for a police escort to and from the floor for the rest of the day, not good image-building given the heavy farm vote back home.
Clark's defeat has been singled out by some who would curb the singleissue groups. But if the party regulars had had the kind of control David Broder proposes, Clark wouldn't even have made it to the Senate. When he first ran, he was just the administrative assistant of a congressman.
But thaths incidental. The message of special-interest groups is clear. An incumbent already in trouble with sizeable numbers of his constituents better not cap it off by running afoul of a bunch of special interests. And the parties need to learn, at last, that the issues which spawn interest groups can't be swept under the rug. They have to be resolved in the process.