The Reform Debate and the Parties

November 24, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

The reform debate about the political parties is getting stuck on the question of whether, or to what extent, deregulation will improve the tone and ideological cast of national politics.  Some have argued that relieving parties of this or that restriction will alleviate pressures toward polarization and perhaps promote more centrist, moderate politics, in large measure by giving party leaders more influence.  There is some evidence for this, but it is naturally being disputed in a fight between the “purists” who resists deregulation and the “pragmatists” who favor it, and neither side to this debate is likely to score a decisive victory.  So if there can be no clear outcome, there is every reason to hope that not too much is riding on one.

When one day it has more or less run its course, the scholarship will likely show the party leaders with more money at their disposal can use it for better and for worse.  In some cases they will have the will and the means to check the extremes and expand their capacity to negotiate with opponents and move productive legislation. In others, this will not be the case.  Which of these alternative scenarios comes to pass in any state, in any time, will depend on a range of factors, including differences in states and regions and their politics, differences between the parties, the complexities of what is sometimes called the “issue environment,” and other factors.  As Lee Drutman has noted, “polarization is a function of many, many things,” and campaign finance may be only one such thing.

Before all these questions is another one: the difficulty of pinning down what one means by centrist or moderate politics, or even by a civil tone (notwithstanding some contemporary, notable examples of grotesque excess).  And another question: whether the moderate position is in all circumstances the most desirable one, if the policy described as “moderate” is just a product of splitting the difference.  The policies born of getting something done just for its own sake are not always distinguished by their effectiveness.

It is a better bet – – and a bet it is – that some of the time, empowered party leadership with stronger parties behind them can better perform their jobs. Right now they compete for their political influence with candidates who can build their own fundraising bases, and with outside groups (some of which, like Super PACs and (c) organizations, can be indistinguishable from the rest of a candidate’s, well, “support network.”).  To put parties at a disadvantage in this transformed political battlefield should require sound, well-supported policy justification.  Four years now, the justification has fallen entirely on the parties’ supposed role in fomenting corruption, the result of their (once) unique intimacy with candidates.

Now those candidates inclined to hunt for corrupt bargains can turn elsewhere.  Even before they had the choice, or discovered that they did, the evidence the parties were uniquely corrupting was at best mixed.  The definition of corruption was gradually adjusted to make up for the deficiencies of the ” quid pro quo” model.  The Supreme Court famously announced in McConnell that the corruption it was concerned with, on the basis of which it upheld McCain Feingold’s party soft money restrictions, was so insidious in its workings that while “manifest,” it was also hard to detect. 540 U.S. 93, 153 (2003).

By a similar maneuver of redefinition, parties are portrayed as enjoying robust health even under current financing restrictions—“parties are doing just fine,” Drutman has written—because, in the words of Tom Mann and Tony Corrado, they should be understood to be “a networked amalgamation of diverse organizations with common electoral goals and shared ideological predispositions.”  The parties are to be considered both distinctive and yet without borders: they are supposed to comprise the institutional organizations that have party status under law, but also the Super PACs and other entities that by law are independent of them, and cable networks and interest groups sharing at least some of the parties’ policy goals or ideological orientation are thrown in for good measure.

Behind these analytic gymnastics seems to be a deep fear of returning to an old corrupt order before Watergate and the reforms bearing its name.  But skepticism about party- centered regulation does not require giving up all limitations on party financing. There’s plenty of room for all the familiar tools – – contribution limits, disclosure requirements, to name the most prominent. It is not an “all or nothing” proposition.

To the extent that we could see other benefits from party deregulation, such as incentives toward moderating party leadership, these need not be overstated and they need not be central to the argument.  Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner have made the “pragmatist” case but modestly: they suggest that liberalized party financing could help “dampen” the pull toward polarizing ideological politics, making no claim of a full solution.  They do see a value in opening up channels of party giving and spending that are more “transparent and accountable compared to the surreal campaign environment now dominated by Super PACs and other shadow groups.”

It would be a shame if the reform discussion were somehow held hostage to an agreement that will never be reached about which regulatory measures will produce, some or most of time, better public policy or more temperate political dialogue.  This line of argument tends to push the debate in the wrong direction, driving an otherwise informed and sensible observer like Drutman to insist that “more party money would just make politics nastier.”  The question more sensibly up for discussion is whether, in view of the major changes in campaign finance that have been adverse to the institutional parties, a revision of the campaign laws is ripe for consideration.

The answer does not lie in overstating the case for or against, or in redefining terms like “party” or “corruption” to escape empirical difficulties, or in holding on for dear life to current arrangements out of dread of a return to pre-Watergate days. Reform can and should work in both directions, sometimes calling for more and sometimes less regulation, depending on conditions.  It is a work in progress, usefully undertaken with the understanding that we can’t be sure of the results but also with absolute confidence that we will continue to study and argue about them.

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