How party loyalty undermines the power of party elites

I think this piece on Politico about the failure of the John E. Bush presidential campaign and the challenges facing the Hillary R. Clinton presidential campaign is pretty good, but it misses one key point.

In the USA, people by and large are much more likely today than they were in the past to consider their allegiance to the Democratic or Republican Party an important feature of their social identity. US presidents symbolize their parties. Therefore, when pollsters ask prospective voters their opinion of the person their party most recently elected as US president, the first reflex for many of them will be to express a very high opinion of that person.

It should be no surprise, then, that in 2013 and 2014 polls indicated that most supporters of the Republican Party expressed a high opinion of the Bush-Cheney administration. Leading figures in and around that party decided at that time to coalesce around John E. Bush as the party’s next presidential candidate.  If Republican voters liked George W. Bush so much, why not give them his brother as their next standard-bearer? When the party’s rank-and-file greeted John Bush’s entry into the race with an uncomfortable shifting in the seats and the sound of crickets was heard, party elites cast about for another candidate who could address the putative demand for a return to the Bush-Cheney years. Eventually they settled on Florida senator Marco Rubio, whose policy positions are identical to those of the Bush-Cheney administration. Four states in to the nomination contest, Mr Rubio has yet to win anywhere, and polls indicate that the states where he once seemed to have a chance are now moving out of his reach. His campaign and indeed his political career, will likely end with a humiliating defeat in his home state on 15 March.

What the elites who rallied first around John Bush and then around Mr Rubio missed is that the reflex which leads partisans to tell pollsters that they have a high opinion of the person whom they still see as their party’s leader is largely about those partisans’ reaction to a stranger asking them whether they are loyal members of their party. That reaction doesn’t necessarily predict much about the process of selecting a new leader. So when loudmouth landlord Don-John Trump rejects George W. Bush’s relaxationist stand on immigration and says that George W. Bush lied in making the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, party elites are genuinely surprised that Mr Trump’s support among Republican primary voters seems to go up afterward. Why wouldn’t they be surprised, those voters are the very people who for years told pollsters that George W. Bush had been a good president.

Except among party elites and ideological purists, support for Mr Trump is not likely to mark anyone as a disloyal Republican. Mr Trump’s image as a not-particularly-ethical businessperson who is wont to make racist and sexist remarks fits a stereotype of Republicans; that’s why he is so unpopular outside the Republican Party, but it’s also why his deviations from the party’s familiar line are so acceptable to its traditional supporters. He gives them a way to acknowledge that their party’s leaders have betrayed their interests and ill-served their country without surrendering to Democrats or radicals or foreigners or anyone else outside their ranks.

On the Democratic side, we have a two person race in which one candidate has the support of every major donor, every major media organization, and virtually every elected official, while the other is an elderly Jewish socialist who joined the Democratic Party for the first time last summer. In the first four contests, the elderly Jewish socialist first fought the establishment favorite to a tie, then won by a handy margin, and finally came within four points of winning a second victory before heading into territory where he had not had time to build a campaign.

Coupled with the fact that the same establishment favorite actually lost the Democratic nomination in 2008, Mr Sanders’ early success confirms that the Democrats are going through something similar to what the Republicans have experienced with the failures of the party elite to sell either John Bush or Marco Rubio to their party’s rank-and-file. Going in to the 2008 election cycle, Democrats were telling pollsters of their deep and abiding love for former president William J. “Bill” Clinton. As their Republican counterparts would, eight years later, offer George W. Bush’s brother to their party, so Democratic Party elites in that cycle offered Bill Clinton’s wife as a presidential candidate.

Hillary Clinton’s backing for the Iraq War out her at odds with the Democratic Party’s base, dooming her candidacy in 2008 as John Bush’s for a relaxationist immigration policy doomed him among Republicans in 2016. As in 2016 Mr Trump’s fit with stereotyped images of Republicans enables him to hold onto the support of the party faithful while denouncing Republican leaders, so in 2008 voting for the first black US president was so much a thing one would expect Democrats to do that Ms Clinton could not make headway by casting doubt on the status of Barack Obama’s supporters as true Democrats.

That Hillary Clinton has come back is a sign, in part of the declining salience of war and peace as an issue in a Democratic Party led by a president who is currently bombing half-a-dozen countries or more, and in part of the party’s failure to replace Bill Clinton’s Finance First strategies. By Finance First, I refer not only to Bill Clinton’s campaign strategy of lining up finance before formulating policy proposals or doing anything else, but also to the economic policy that was a corollary to that, in which his administration addressed the demands of the finance sector before attending to any other concerns.

Finance First is not an approach that comes naturally to the sorts of people who tend to vote for Democrats, and is in fact anathema to most of them. In view of the distribution of wealth in today’s USA, however, and considering that neither organized labor or ethnically or religiously based political groups can any longer turn out enough volunteers to counteract the power of the money-men, it is not obvious that any approach other than Finance First can elect a president or sustain one in office. The Democratic Party’s elites, therefore, see the presidential nominee’s job as persuading the base to accept Finance First.

Though Finance First has enabled the Democrats to win five of the last six presidential elections (falling within the margin of error in 2000, when the party nominated an exceptionally maladroit candidate,*) it has not served them well overall. When Bill Clinton was first nominated in 1992, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, most state legislative chambers, most governorships, most elected county and municipal offices, and had for decades. A quarter century into the dominance of Finance First, the Republicans hold 70% of all elected offices in the USA. Even if Hillary Clinton defeats Don-John Trump in a landslide come November, that isn’t going to change. Indeed, since the party in the White House usually takes a drubbing in the midterm elections, by the end of the first term of the Hillary Clinton administration the Democrats will probably be in a much weaker position even than they are now.

For Mr Trump to challenge the Bush-Cheney relaxationist line on immigration is not a radical departure for his party. Restrictionists do tend to cluster in the Republican Party, and the party elite can retain its commitment to a low-wage economy even without significant relaxation of border controls. Likewise for the Democrats and an issue like the Iraq War; while militarism is a central feature of the American economic system and a challenge to it would represent a profound revolt against both major parties, one can always express reservations about a particular war without standing for a demilitarization of the US economy and society. Barack Obama’s emphasis on his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq in his 2008 campaign was, therefore, within the bounds of what the Democratic Party is capable of handling.

What Mr Sanders is doing, however, is a head-on challenge to the whole Finance First model.  Even if he had worked out a viable alternative, that would be a breathtakingly audacious undertaking. If he ends up with something like 40% of the popular vote at the end of the primary season, I think we may see a great deal of effort put into developing such an alternative between now and the next open Democratic nomination. If a hardy campaign on behalf of Mr Sanders in the primary is followed by a significant vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the general election, I am confident that such an effort will have a noticeable effect on the Democratic Party’s overall direction.

*Then-US Vice President Albert Arnold Gore, Junior.  Mr Gore likes to be called “Al.”  I call him “The Tennessee Turd.”

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