How Much Does the ‘Health’ of a Political Party Matter?

This may be a little unfair, but I’m going to react in advance to a three-part series by Sean Trende about party makeovers. Despite that he’s only published part one.

Trende proposes to answer seven questions about elections:

1) What if elections are simply random?
2) What if it really is just the economy, stupid?
3) What if Republicans actually aren’t that out of step ideologically?
4) What if party makeovers don’t work?
5) What if the American people just automatically self-correct?
6) What if this period of introspection is just what out-of-power parties do?
7) What if it makes no sense for a party to think more than 10 years out?

Part one, today, answers questions one and two. It’s okay, I suppose, although there’s a more straightforward way of making the point he’s trying to make. Rather than asking his first two questions, what I think he really wants to say is that presidential elections from at least the 1970s on, and probably well before that, are best thought of contested between two basically evenly matched parties with results mostly dictated by “fundamentals” such as the economy, presidential popularity, and other pre-campaign objective factors. I mean, it’s true (as Trende says answering his first question) that election results could easily just be random variation, but in fact we know very well (as he points out when turning to the second one) that election results are not random at all.

At any rate, Trende’s main point as I understand it so far is that the underlying fundamentals of an election year, and not the current health of the parties, is the main driver of election results — and in that, he’s exactly right:

So maybe all of this talk about party rebranding and the success of the Democratic Leadership Council running to the center may be irrelevant, or at least mostly irrelevant. It’s pretty clear to me that if Bill Clinton had run in 1984, he would have lost in a landslide — probably not as big of a landslide as Walter Mondale, but still a landslide. If he’d run in 1988, he probably would have lost, although the election might have been close. We’d probably then conclude that DLC centrism was a ticket to oblivion, and celebrated the revival of New Deal liberalism when Tom Harkin defeated Bush in 1992.

And yet…

The next question, and one that Trende’s seven questions doesn’t get at, is whether the “fundamentals” are fixed — or if they can be powerfully affected by the health (or lack thereof) of a party.

The party in office, that is. I’m with him about the party out of office; they have to be in extremely bad shape to lose their opportunities to cash in on in-party difficulties. It can happen…that’s Goldwater and McGovern (both of whom turned solid defeats into even worse landslides).

But in office…a dysfunctional party in office can strongly affect, if not actually determine, the fundamentals of subsequent elections. That is, we can think of the failures of both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush as party failures, not personal failures of an incompetent president (or as random fluctuations of the economy and foreign policy which would have happened to any president of either party during those years).

My own view? The DLC and other 1980s efforts to reform the Democrats were largely irrelevant. The big problem for the Democrats had been earlier, with the crackup of the party over race and Vietnam after 1964 (with roots going back decades, to be sure). By the time Walter Mondale beat Gary Hart in 1984, all that was mostly ancient history, and the Democrats after 1982 were probably as ready to govern as they were in 1992. They just didn’t have much chance, thanks to election-year fundamentals — but to the extent they did, in the House after 1982 and the Senate after 1986, they were fine.

Nor is it clear what, if anything, could have prevented Democratic problems in the aftermath of Vietnam and the slow-motion realignment of Southern Anglo voters (with the latter surely something that virtually all of today’s mainstream liberals believing was a worthwhile tradeoff for the gains in justice from civil rights). The particular disaster they got (an ill-formed nomination process and terrible nominees in 1972 and 1976, and especially the particular awful nominee that popped up in 1976) were probably somewhat random and perhaps avoidable, but the problem in the party was real.

The current Republican dysfunction has been building for years, but if you want a marker on it a good one is the House GOP revolt against George H.W. Bush’s budget deal in 1990. Since then, Republican dysfunction hasn’t affected elections when they were the out-party (especially in 1994 and 2010), but it’s probably made them less capable of governing, which caused problems for them at the ballot box in 1996, 1998, 2006, and 2008. And, I’d say, 2004: a more successful George W. Bush first term might easily have produced a Nixon/Reagan type reelection.

Now, you have to make an argument here that Bush was an awful president (and that the Newt-era and Boehner-era Houses were dysfunctional) as a systematic consequence of Republican Party dysfunction. As regular readers know, I think that’s a very big part of the truth (see, for example, my recent Salon column about the party of Newt and Nixon). Which then gets to the question of what can anyone do about it if the Republican Party is dysfunctional in ways that make it less likely to govern successfully…and I’m not sure what the answer to that one is.

Basically, however, the critique here of what Trende is (as far as I can tell) up to is that treating the fundamentals as external to the (governing) party’s health is a real mistake. It’s not a full causal connection, of course; recessions and recoveries, and war and peace, and natural disasters, and all the other things that can be part of those “fundamentals” are not pure functions of the health of the incumbent party. But healthy parties, and the good politicians they elect, are in a much better situation to capitalize on the good things and avoid the bad ones.

All of which means that the Republican Party would be smart to get its act together — not so that they can win office, but so that they can get more out of it and have it last longer when they do win.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

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