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GOP's Strategy Post-Midterm Elections


Columnist Jonah Goldberg is with us next, and he has an argument about just what's wrong with our politics. He writes that political party bosses - you know, those overly powerful establishment figures that people keep railing against - are actually fairly powerless. And that is, in some ways, a bad thing, he says, because the parties used to do a lot more vetting of political candidates. It's an argument in favor of the old smoke-filled room. And Jonah's here to make it. Hi there, Jonah.

JONAH GOLDBERG: Hey, Steve. It's great to be here.

INSKEEP: When were parties more powerful than now?

GOLDBERG: The entire 19th century, big chunks of the 20th century. They started to become - the progressives did some either damage or improvements, depending on how you want to argue about it. But it was really after 1968 where you had the McGovern reforms, the move towards direct primaries that took power out of the so-called smoke-filled rooms.

INSKEEP: You're saying in the old days, there would be these political conventions on a state level, on a national level. And politicians would get together and work out who should be running for office. They'd pick the candidates, more or less.

GOLDBERG: That's right. And they vetted the candidates. But they also - the parties also did - which is something I'm actually more interested in - is they also did a lot more of the voter education work than they do today. Between campaign finance reform and various, you know, political reforms, the parties are basically shells of what they once were. They're a bunch of fax machines or whatever. And so...

INSKEEP: Fax machines - that's pretty bad in the 21st century.

GOLDBERG: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Go on anyway.

GOLDBERG: But they are - they've outsourced, in effect, most of their party responsibilities to outside interest groups and to the media to do the things that parties once did.

INSKEEP: Oh, because the parties used to have maybe a precinct boss or a ward boss. And we can think of that as a negative figure, but that's a guy who might go door to door and say why you should be voting for someone.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. They used to be robust institutions, right? And so now what you have are - you know, parties are - one of the great ironies of the moment that we're in is that this is one of the most partisan moments in American history - maybe the most partisan since the 1850s, which is not a great benchmark.


GOLDBERG: And yet the parties have never been weaker. And so one of the things that has happened is there's a certain amount of politics that has to be done in any society and certainly in a thriving democracy. And when the parties themselves can't do it, it gets outsourced. And so the NRA and Planned Parenthood are probably better at mobilizing voters than the parties are. The Koch network or the Soros network - I mean, this is not an ideological point. You have lots of big super PACs and big donors who are doing the works of parties in part because the parties aren't allowed to do that work themselves.

INSKEEP: Aren't allowed to do it - why? Because campaign laws have limited their resources?

GOLDBERG: There are certain campaign finance laws that have kept it out. Mitch McConnell made this point when he was speaking out against the McCain-Feingold bill. He says, look. We haven't taken the money out of politics. We've just taken the parties out of politics. And I think that, you know, as someone who is a Trump skeptic, I don't think that Trump ever would have made it into the primaries back in the day when there were more robust primaries or more robust parties.

I think the Democrats are now looking at - you know, particularly in the wake of the Bernie Sanders conflict with the Clinton people, they are looking at the potential of having the exact same kind of 16-person, 20-person free-for-all where all you need is someone who has a sticky plurality to get the nomination. And so I don't discount Michael Avenatti or - well, maybe these days. But I don't discount...


GOLDBERG: ...Some crazy outsider coming in and stealing the party.

INSKEEP: Anything could happen. So we're in this situation where Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate, is a party boss. Cable TV is a party boss. Jerry Falwell Jr., you write, is effectively a party boss. Sounds not great if you don't like those people. But in a way, is this more open? It's more free. It keeps the parties from restraining people from saying what they want. I think about an issue like immigration. I think the leadership of neither party would really like to be talking quite so much about immigration, but it's clearly on some people's minds.

GOLDBERG: See, the - whether you like those individuals or other individuals is sort of, to me, beside the point. One of the things that old, healthy institutions do, whether it's the Catholic Church or the Ottoman Empire - I mean, you could come up with a bunch of them. One of the things that they do is they know where to bend and where to break, and they can think about their long-term interests. And the parties - you know, Sheldon Adelson has a deep investment in a bunch of specific issues and relationships. The parties have to have a longer time horizon. And they used to look out perhaps too much for their own self-interest. But now, you know, basically, they become cargo cults to whatever personality is the - either the president...

INSKEEP: Instead of looking long term, looking big picture, looking at the long-term survival of the country, you're saying.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. The parties also had an investment in the country, right? You know, and they used - and I'm not saying there wasn't corruption. Of course, there was corruption. But, at the same time, the parties used to play a much more vital role in local communities, in communicating what the issues are, of explaining how to do these things. You know, the decline of labor is another example on the Democratic side of how that transmission belt has broken down.

INSKEEP: Jonah, thanks for the analysis - really appreciate it.

GOLDBERG: Great to be here.

INSKEEP: Jonah Goldberg writes for the LA Times and National Review. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.