Opinion

The Great Debate

Reasons to miss the political bosses

CREDIT: Matt Mahurin

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.

This Republican chaos should look familiar to Democrats. They’ve been there, done that. Their command-and-control system broke apart in the 1960s, leading to McGovern’s 1972 nomination.

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.

Democrats: It’s the states, stupid (Part 2)

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

Since the government shutdown, public opinion of the Republican Party has hit a new low. Yet the Democrats might not be able to gain from it. Despite the GOP’s fall from grace — and even if they suffer a lower vote count in the 2014 midterm elections — the Republicans might still control the House of Representatives and many state legislatures after the polls close.

Our Constitution is unique in that it gives state legislatures virtually complete control over how we elect the president and Congress. In other democracies, the national government runs elections, usually through an impartial commission. Our system, however, lets the party that controls the state legislatures manipulate election rules to help itself and harm its opponents in both the state and House races.

Realizing this, powerful Republican leaders, including former Bush White House Counselor Ed Gillespie and Senior Adviser Karl Rove decided in 2009 to concentrate on winning control of the state legislatures. Through a combination of money, luck and skill, in 2010 the Republicans captured almost a majority of the state legislatures, and then added a few more in 2012. This has given them the power not only to shape the electoral rules and control the House, but also to pass other laws that shape many aspects of our lives.

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