It may be the height of naivete to expect either major political party to do anything much beyond raising money and loosely structuring a process to nominate national candidates. A Senator who doesn’t even call himself a Democrat is now running for President with the full expectation that if he wins the primary process, he will be the party’s nominee. In 2016, candidate Trump declined to promise to support the party’s nominee and has routinely attacked Republican legislators that disagree with him. And, with rare exceptions, neither party does much in the way of ethics. State, local and national candidates can fudge the truth with the full confidence of no pushback from the national party.
The fruit of this sad situation is declining respect for the national parties. Even energetic Democrats, for example, will tell you they understand why Bernie Sanders declines to align himself as a co-partyist with a moderate like Joe Manchin. Similarly, Trump’s base readily buys into the President’s claim that that George W. Bush administration was “corrupt.” He has stepped in, without so much as a hint of opposition, and redefined the party’s long-standing positions on trade while at the same time openly exhibiting conduct and endorsing policies viewed as racist by at least some of his fellow Republicans.
Many today suggest the parties are “imploding” and becoming progressively less important to American Democracy. In part, this is because the traditional role of the party as a fundraising organization is being supplanted by the internet. Candidates like Sanders and Warren both appeal to and solicit funds from voters directly, using the internet as the means. The party neither polices their efforts nor does anything else relevant to it. The fundraising itself is measured by the Federal Election Commission. The messaging’s effectiveness is measured in national polls.
If this trend continues, its only a matter of time that a successful third party or independent candidate emerges. It could happen sooner than one might assume, especially if the dysfunction of both parties results in the nomination of candidates viewed by a critical mass as “out of the mainstream” or otherwise unacceptable. Next year’s elections could see this scenario. Just think of a Trump v. Warren election.
The deterioration of parties could have catastrophic effects on how the American Democracy works. Think of a Congress with several parties holding sizable voting blocks but with no majority. Think of a President freed from any thought of the impact of her actions on state and local elections. And think of the scenario where an independent President dies in office and a virtual unknown, a vice president selected with little thought or diligence, suddenly assumes office.
Examples of the benefits of having two, well-established national parties structure elections go far beyond my two examples. But, I would argue, their role does not go far enough. And, if you agree the current system is breaking apart, rapidly but not irreversibly, it may be time to ask the national parties to assume a much larger role in policing elections.
Here are a few suggestions:
The parties should be required to comment on accuracy of fact assertions made by their own candidates. If Trump claims Chinese imports exceed $ 10 trillion per year, the Republican party should call him on it. Few candidates will want to be corrected by their own party. Most likely a trend towards more research and diligence will follow.
The parties should issue budget estimates for all policy proposals put forth by major candidates. If the numbers do not add up, as is the case for Elizabeth Warren’s many “plans,” the party would say so, perhaps issuing its own estimates.
Candidates that violate a specified set of party values would lose their right to run as a candidate of the party. For example, if the Republicans adopted a “value” condemning racism, a suggestion that most Mexicans are rapists would get a candidate making such a statement tossed from the party.
Candidates would have to meet minimum qualifications and meet specified requirements to run for President. Candidates failing would be denied the support of the party. An example of how this might work may be found in national parties establishing rules for which candidates get to participate in national debates. Among the requirements would be the release of 10 years of tax returns. Specifying qualifications is more complex but perhaps should include things such as a minimum number of years in government or working closely with it.
I could go on with the list, but the idea is simple. Political parties must take ownership of the candidates that run under their banner. While this might cause some attractive candidates to defect and possibly run as independents, the long-term impact would be to make the party label mean something. Voters could be confident that if candidate X was the Democratic candidate, an organization of competent, publicly minded experts have reviewed them and found them meritorious. Think of this as an imprimatur for candidates or and endorsement from Consumer Reports.
What happens if parties take on the task of better policing candidates and their proposals and do so incompetently or with bias? Count on the press to call them on it. A party guilty of not performing these new roles would be identified as a failure by the press, something that hopefully would jeopardize their existence and encourage candidates to look elsewhere for a party with which to affiliate.
Is all this naïve? Maybe. But what is definitely naïve is to let the current system, the one that brought us Trump and that might very well have resulted in a giant like Beto O’Rourke getting a national nomination for President, continue to operate the way it does.
American Democracy needs parties, but those parties are not doing their job. They could soon disappear if they don’t embrace accountability.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. He is a former counsel to the House Committee on Education and Labor. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.