I hate to make my blogging an all-Bai, all-the-time, debunk-o-fest, but really, sometimes he just asks for it -- and today’s article is also a good peg on which to hang a couple of important points, which I’ll get to below. Anyway, today he takes his special Bai-eriffic mix of solid reporting skills and analytic disaster to the three-ring circus in Delaware’s Senate race, in which he finds that Christine O’Donnell isn’t actually campaigning there, at least not in person. That’s interesting! With all the O’Donnell hoopla, I didn’t actually know that, although I’ll admit I’m pretty O’Donnelled out, and not following the details all that closely. But somehow or another he manages to use the O’Donnell story to tell us that Tip O’Neill’s famous aphorism that “all politics is local” is “as much a part of history as he is” without mentioning anywhere that Christine O’Donnell is getting clobbered. In a great Republican year, in an open seat, Nate Silver now gives her a1% chance of winning, ranking her even with whatever Republican is taking on Daniel Inouye in Hawaii. In other words, all politics in Deleware is local, in the sense that nominating some nationally-based movement conservative has been an apparent fiasco for Republicans there. Tip O’Neill didn’t mean that nothing happened at the national level, just that anyone who wanted to win had better pay attention to what their districts wanted. I could see an argument that O’Donnell doesn’t prove that Delaware is hostile to national movement conservatives who don’t have a history of talking about witchcraft and the rest of it, but she’s hardly evidence that O’Neill’s advice is dated.
Oh, I said I had some important points in addition to the Bai-bashing, didn’t I? Better get to them, as much fun as Bai-bashing is. I mean, really -- this is the New York Times, not WJM-TV or WNYX radio. They shouldn’t be getting things this wrong this regularly.
First, Bai is actually quite right that national politics is new, and different. In the strong-party nineteenth century, the national parties were basically non-existent. National parties were little more than loose alliances of a whole bunch of state and local parties, which were entirely autonomous, and had little to do with each other unless they had to nominate a presidential candidate. As parties weakened in the twentieth century, what was weakening were those state and local organizations. There was no national party to be weak or strong. That’s no longer true. Over the last fifty years or so, both the Democrats and Republicans have been putting together true national parties.
Second, and as I’ve talked about many times before, these national parties (just like the modern versions of state and local parties) are only partially found in formal organizations, such as the Republican National Committee or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Those formal organizations may sometimes be important, but they’re not the whole party. Often, what matters far more are informal networks including campaign professionals, governing professionals and issue experts, the partisan press, activists, party aligned-interest groups, and candidates. That’s what Bai is talking about when he sees outsiders such as Rush Limbaugh tout O’Donnell, or national online groups such as MoveOn supporting Ned Lamont against Joe Lieberman in 2006. Bai is correct that this is a new and interesting development, but he’s wrong to think that there’s no political party operating in these cases (and here he’s just plain ordinary wrong, I suppose, but still...). It is party action, but it’s national and not local, and it’s not happening in the buildings with the words “Democrat” or “Republican” on the door. But it’s party action nonetheless, even if as yet we only partially understand all of its implications.