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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Edsall: Super-Wealthy King-Makers May Turn Political Parties into Rubber Stamps

Thomas B. Edsall’s “Billionaires Going Rogue” at The New York Times warns of an unintended consequence of the Citizens United decision — the end of political parties as a moderating force and the empowerment of fewer and fewer wealthy individuals as king-makers. Edsall explains:

…The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and appeals court decisions such as Speech Now v. F.E.C., opened the door to unlimited contributions to technically independent political action committees (super PACs) from corporations, unions and individuals.
The result has been a stupefying array of PACs, 501(c)4s and 501(c)6s that even professionals can barely keep track of…While, the rapid growth of well-financed and autonomous competitors threatens all existing power structures, the bulk of the costs are likely to fall on the Republican Party. The right wing of the Republican Party has more disruptive potential than the left wing of the Democratic Party because it is more willing to go to extremes: see the billboards showing Obama bowing down before an Arab Sheik, or the ads and DVD claiming that Obama is the bastard son of the African American communist, Frank Marshall Davis.
There are, furthermore, structural and historical differences between the parties: the Republican Party and the conservative establishment is institutionally stronger than the Democratic Party, with an infrastructure that served as a bulwark through the 1960s and 70s – the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Olin Foundation, etc. – when Republicans appeared to be a permanent congressional minority. Its financial prowess enabled the party to enforce more discipline on its consultants and elected officials. The Republican establishment also exercises more authority over policy and candidate selection than does its Democratic counterpart.
In recent years, the Democratic Party organization has gained some strength and it plays a much more active role in campaigns at all levels than in the past, but as an institutional force capable of command and control, it remains light years behind the Republican Party.
Republicans, in contrast to Democrats, prefer hierarchical, well-ordered organizations, and are much more willing to cede authority to those in power. Democrats, despite the discipline of individual campaign efforts, tend more toward anarchy than hierarchy. Historically, one result of this partisan difference is that the Republican establishment has tightly managed candidate selection at the presidential level. With extraordinary consistency, the party has crushed insurgent candidates and selected the next in line. Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole, for example, both had to wait until it was their turn.

Edsall goes on to explain how, in the past, the Republican party establishment was able to stifle it’s more extreme candidates through various instruments of party discipline. But all that is fading away at an increasing rate, as Edsall observes:

The newly empowered billionaires are positioned to challenge the Republican Party at its point of greatest vulnerability, during the primaries. The three major party organizations – the Republican National, Congressional and Senatorial Committees – cannot, except in unusual circumstances, intervene in primaries. Those are to be decided by voters, not the party.
The new class of financial bosses, equipped to legitimate primary candidates at all levels, has no such restriction over participation in primaries. Instead, the incentives are substantial to engage full force in the nomination process where the marginal value of each dollar is higher and more likely to influence the outcome than in the general election.
These new players, along with their super PACs, undermine the influence of the parties in another crucial way. Before Citizens United, the three major Republican Party committees exerted power because their financial preeminence gave them the final word on the award of contracts to pollsters, direct mail, voter contact, and media consultants – very few of whom were willing to alienate a key source of cash.
The ascendance of super PACs creates a separate and totally independent source of contracts for the community of political professionals. Super PACs and other independent groups already raise more than any of the political party committees and almost as much as either the Republican or Democratic Party committees raise in toto.
…Nathan Persily, a professor at Columbia Law School and a political scientist, made the point to me with a question: “Who is the Republican Party in the Citizens United age? If you had to point to the ‘Republican Party’ would you be more likely to point to Reince Preibus (and implicitly the R.N.C.) or Karl Rove (and Crossroads G.P.S.)? I think candidates might consider Rove more important.”…So far in the 2011-12 election cycle, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS have spent $174.28 million, a sum two million dollars greater than the $172.2 million spent by the Republican Congressional and Senatorial Committees combined.

As Edsall concludes,

…The diminishment of the parties means that the institutions with the single-minded goal of winning a majority will be weakened. When parties are influential, they can help keep some candidates and office holders from going off the ideological deep end. The emergence of independently financed super PACs give voice to those with the most extreme views…For all their flaws, strong political parties are important to a healthy political system. The displacement of the parties by super rich men determined to flex their financial muscles is another giant step away from democracy.

As we are seeing in this presidential election, the effect Edsall describes will likely apply more to the Republican Party than to the Democrats, which is scant comfort in a close election, not only for Democrat-leaning progressives, but also for voters of all parties who value political moderation.

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