Reasons to miss the political bosses
The late Democratic Senator George S. McGovern and today’s Republican Tea Party activists might not have a great deal to say to each other — they both represented their party’s extremes. For that very reason, however they have one thing in common: Their rise to prominence defied the wishes of their respective party’s establishment.
Forced to fling open the doors to their smoke-filled back rooms, party leaders no longer possess their once-vaunted power over the careers of would-be presidents, governors, county legislators, and even, yes, the occasional dog-catcher.
Into this political breach marches the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the lobbying arm of big business, which recently announced its intention to campaign aggressively for mainstream, Republican incumbents faced with challenges from Tea Party members. The Chamber is hardly the only private organization looking to impose discipline and order over post-boss politics. Other groups are also seeking to do this, including Friends for an American Majority, a group of wealthy donors led by Paul Singer, a New York billionaire, and the American Opportunity Alliance.
The Democratic Party’s remaining bosses vehemently opposed McGovern. They saw him as a certain loser, and, more to the point, an unreliable outsider. But thanks to reforms that made the nominating process more democratic, there was nothing the bosses could do as alienated young people flocked to McGovern’s insurgent candidacy. The bosses were right, however. McGovern ultimately suffered an historic loss to incumbent President Richard M. Nixon.
Tea Party members know what it’s like to disturb the party establishment through primaries and grass-roots campaigns. Like McGovern, they have dared mainstream leaders to stop them. The Tea Party challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this year may be the movement’s most-audacious show of force — and there’s no party mechanism strong enough to put down the challenge.
But order may be on the horizon. Not in the form of a smoke-filled room (though e-cigarette vapors may be present), but in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s unelected, unaccountable and possibly formidable presence in this year’s campaigns. Like the Republican establishment, the Chamber has watched in horror as Tea Party insurgents have defeated more-mainstream Republicans in primaries, only to lose badly in what should have been well-contested general elections. Or they’ve watched clownish amateurs fritter away opportunities, as Tea Party favorite Todd Akin famously did in his 2012 campaign against Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo). Akin, you may recall, referred to something he called “legitimate rape.”
The party apparatus has been unable to suppress these challenges from the extreme right. Nor has it been successful in either co-opting or simply crushing fringe candidates likely to bring only discredit and defeat.
Enter the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has the resources and the will to restore order to a fractious, out-of-control process that has slipped beyond the control of county leaders, state chairs, and the Republican National Committee itself. But the Chamber has work to do. Conservative activists have denounced the organization’s initiative — the Chamber, in their view, isn’t conservative enough.
If the legendary (and notoriously corrupt) boss of Tammany Hall, Richard Croker, were alive today, he’d no doubt remind us why people like him existed a century ago. Reform journalist Lincoln Steffens once asked him why political bosses were necessary in a city like New York, which had an array of elected leaders, including a mayor, several dozen aldermen, even more judges, and countless lesser officials.
Croker couldn’t believe Steffens failed to grasp the obvious point: Bosses were needed, he explained, “because there’s a mayor and a council and judges, and a hundred other men to deal with.”
Political bosses like Croker, Frank Hague of Jersey City, Ed Crump of Memphis, Enoch Johnson of Atlantic City (the model for Nucky Thompson on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) and dozens of more-savory leaders were not shy about using their power to vet potential candidates and crush those not aligned with the party’s message and goals.
This made life difficult for insurgents and dissidents — which was not very democratic of them. But bosses also weeded out candidates likely to prove an embarrassment or — even worse — were certain losers.
Sometimes these deliberations had historic consequences. In 1944, the Democratic Party’s most powerful bosses, including Ed Flynn of the Bronx and Ed Kelly of Chicago, decided on their own accord that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president, Henry Wallace, had to be deposed. The big-city Democrats didn’t trust Wallace, who was an earnest — one might say naïve — reformer who was once described as a “person answering calls the rest of us don’t hear.”
In their smoke-filled suite (why settle for a mere back room?) in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel during the 1944 Democratic National Convention, the party bosses vetted several would-be replacements for Wallace. They had a long list: Secretary of State James Byrnes, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, and several others. Each was ruled out for political, geographic, or personal reasons. When the smoke was cleared, no small task, one name remained: Senator Harry S. Truman of Missouri.
Most of the party bosses probably were aware that they weren’t just picking a vice president — they were picking the next president of the United States. History suggests that they chose well.
Not every vetting process, however, turned out so well. In 1920, Republican bosses were confronted with a stalemate in their party’s presidential nominating process. Meeting in the very same Chicago hotel that would attract Democratic bosses in 1944, the Republican Party’s leaders literally invented the notion of a smoke-filled room as they burned through tobacco products and potential candidates in the same indiscriminate fashion.
They decided that Ohio would be the prize in that year’s election, so who better than Senator Warren Harding, the handsome pride of the Buckeye State? The bosses approached Harding and told him of their decision, but before they moved forward, they asked their would-be candidate if there was anything in his past that might prove, well, embarrassing. Harding gave this question some thought — which might have been a tipoff — before announcing he had nothing to hide.
Nothing except for several ex-mistresses. The precise number remains the subject of intense scholarly debate. In any case, Harding died in office before such gossip became public — but not before the Teapot Dome scandal overtook his administration.
Sometimes, a brilliant back-room maneuver led to unexpected and unwanted consequences. In the late 1890s, Republican bosses Mark Hanna of Ohio and Thomas Platt of New York were growing tired of the energetic, anti-machine governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt. So they cooked up a cunning plan.
President William McKinley needed a new vice presidential candidate in 1900 because the incumbent vice president, Garret Hobart, had died in office. What better way to rid themselves of this meddlesome governor than to make him vice president?
The two bosses arranged for Roosevelt’s nomination, and the McKinley-Roosevelt ticket won a landslide victory in 1900. McKinley was assassinated less than a year later, however. Suddenly Roosevelt, bane of the bosses, was president. Not what Hanna and Platt had in mind.
Most old-fashioned bosses have disappeared, and party organizations no longer can protect themselves from wackos, extremists, and even garden-variety dissidents. Those with an interest in preserving the political center can be forgiven for concluding that “anarchy has been loosed upon the world,” as Yeats put it in his apocalyptic poem, “The Second Coming.”
Party organizations, which the Founders believed would lead to division and chaos, actually have served as a stabilizing force in American politics, at least until recently. While they have hardly gone the way of the old Soviet Union, their powerlessness has contributed mightily to Capitol Hill’s current dysfunction, just as the Soviet collapse led to the breakup of the old 20th Century order.
Nobody would wish a return to the old boss system of highly disciplined parties. But the emergence of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a Republican pseudo-boss in this year’s congressional elections speaks volumes about how far the parties have fallen.
ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin
PHOTO (INSERT 1): George S. McGovern. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
PHOTO (INSERT 2): New York Boss Robert Corker. Wikipedia/Commons
PHOTO INSERT 3): President Harry S. Truman. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
PHOTO (Insert 4): Mark Hanna. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS