Watch Party Agendas, Not Candidates

We often get it backward when thinking about presidential nominations. Our usual approach — which treats candidates as the key players, looks at things from their point of view, and asks questions about them — is wrong. The real process involves the party defining itself. Candidate choice is mostly an effect of that process, not the reason for it.

This came up today in a nice back-and-forth between Paul Waldman and Ed Kilgore on the influence of Christian conservatives over the nomination. Waldman points out that John McCain and Mitt Romney weren’t the first choices of religious conservatives, and Kilgore argues that Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum came fairly close to winning even though they weren’t particularly strong candidates.

They’re both right. But the question here isn’t so much whether Christian conservatives can dictate their candidate choice (they can’t), but to what extent they control the Republican platform. And I’m not talking about the formal document ratified by the convention; I’m talking about the actual policies of incoming presidents.

After all, one could certainly say that what mattered for Democrats in 2008 wasn’t whether Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John Edwards became the nominee; it was that these candidates all embraced their party’s agenda, most importantly by agreeing that health care reform was a top issue and by accepting a general outline of what reform should look like.

And every leading candidate adopted the party consensus on other issues, too. Take, for example, Supreme Court nominations. There’s no guarantee that Clinton or Edwards would have chosen Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. But it is almost certain that either of them would have selected two justices with very similar views (and, by party consensus, the first opening was going to a Hispanic). Earlier presidents might have had the flexibility to name someone else, but (as George W. Bush discovered when he picked a friend for the high court) those days are long past.

In this era of partisan presidencies, what matters the most is how the party defines itself, not who becomes president. Presidential nominations are as important as ever because they are the process by which the party defines itself and chooses policies. The individual nominees aren’t irrelevant, but they won’t be choosing policies in a vacuum.

The obvious answer to Kilgore and Waldman is that Christian conservatives cannot impose their candidate. But they have a pretty strong veto against candidates they find unacceptable; a strong grip on policy in quite a few areas (most notably abortion); and influence on other policies (say, immigration), though that influence often is contested. And when group influence is challenged, one of the main ways a dispute can be resolved, at least temporarily, is in the presidential nomination process — sometimes through compromise, sometimes through one side winning. Party actors must eventually settle on a nominee. That means the policies that person will run and govern on, and the process of getting elected, force party groups to decide what their priorities are and to negotiate the terms of the party coalition.

Talking about he candidates is often more fun, but the main action is a party story.

[Cross-posted from Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.