April 1, 2007
The Party paradox
By Bill Kraus
The Founding Fathers neither anticipated nor welcomed the emergence of political parties. But they have been an important part of our history almost ever since the founders overlooked them until the Watergate reforms accidentally eviscerated them.
A longtime observer of the shifting political power sands has suggested that our democracy needs the parties, the two principal ones at the very least. He contends that our democracy doesn’t work or at best works haltingly unless the parties have the power to slate and fund and manage campaigns.
Parties and party bosses, he suggests, are more likely to select candidates with broad voter appeal than the zealous minorities who turn out disproportionately in primaries do.
Parties are also--as former Wisconsin GOP state chairman Ody Fish once characterized them--“kinder mistresses” as funders of campaigns than the PACs and big-bucks donors that have succeeded and replaced them. He didn’t point out that parties as campaign fund raisers also shield candidates from corruption prosecutions. Republican Party chair Maurice Stans never went to jail in the early 1970s but he could have. Now everybody either goes or risks going to jail in the post-party-entrepreneurial era.
Worse yet, the sharp turn to special interest politics can be tied to the “reforms” which led to candidate reliance on the PACs and lobbyists and political “heavy breathers” which gives “the money” direct access to candidates and campaigns.
So why isn’t there a widespread, irresistible rush to restore the parties to power?
Well, for one thing, even those of us who worked through, with, and often around the parties when they were the gatekeepers recall that situation with something less than wild enthusiasm. Make no mistake: Parties and the internecine battles that were a part of the party system were no kiss for Christmas.
The money, of course, likes the present system and the direct arm it gives them on the beneficiaries of their largesse.
Party power also poses a threat to the continued dominant role of the campaign management industry that now dictates the way campaigns are run and where the money spent on campaigns flows.
The invincible incumbents who won office under the current rules and rituals are not likely to throw them over nonchalantly either.
And most important of all, who is going to be able to convince the people that primaries are not a better way to select candidates than, say, political bosses and convention delegates?
The paradox is that if this is the cure to the current political malady, the people, when asked, say that they prefer the disease.
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