That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
July 20, 2002


Footprints of the yeti



On July 10, in Washington City, the James Madison Center for Free Speech, of Terre Haute, Indiana, sponsored what is called an "event." That means there were VIPs and speeches; it also means there were hors d'oeuvres and preprandial drinks, and a pretty good dinner, as well — none of that rubber-chicken stuff you hear about. The occasion was the Center's bestowal of its "Defender of Freedom" award on Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and on Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). The awards were given in recognition of their "long history of fighting so-called campaign 'reform.'"

According to the program for the event, in addition to his legislative efforts McConnell "continues to fight this invidious law by serving as lead plaintiff in a case challenging its unconstitutional provisions."

Back in 1998, when McConnell was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Robert Novak wrote a column noting that McConnell was withholding campaign funds from Rep. Linda Smith, who was challenging Democrat Patty Murray for the latter's Senate seat. Polls suggested that Murray was vulnerable, but McConnell wasn't interested in Smith's getting that seat, because she was something of a loose cannon. Among other things, she favored campaign-finance regulation.

At the time, I pointed out that if the purpose of political parties is to win elections, McConnell's position was absurd. After all, Murray and Smith were both in favor of campaign-finance regulation, so the leadership would lose no votes when it came to a vote on the issue. But unlike Smith, Murray could be counted on to vote for Bill Clinton's acquittal in the upcoming impeachment trial, and, also unlike Smith, she would never vote for a late-term abortion ban. In short, if the Republican party was serious about winning either of those votes, it needed Linda Smith.

It has now become abundantly clear that McConnell needed Linda Smith for something else: he needed her warm body in a Senate seat so that he could be chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee. In early 2001, the breakdown in the Senate was 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats. The Republicans held on to their chairmanships because the vice president, who is also the president of the Senate, was a Republican, and he got to cast tie-breaking votes.

But when Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.) changed his party affiliation, he in effect handed over all the chairmanships to the Democrats. Ah, if only Senator McConnell had supported Miss Smith back in 1998 and she had won, the count in the Senate in 2001 would have been 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats, and Jeffords's departure from the party would have been without effect, at least as far as McConnell's chairmanship was concerned.

As chairman, McConnell might have kept campaign-finance legislation from ever being considered. After all, it was his committee it had to get through before it could be voted on. Senate chairmen have extraordinary powers to keep bills off the floor, and they sometimes exercise them. But Patty Murray's presence in the Senate meant that Senator McConnell had to step down to the position of ranking minority member, from which he could not effectively block the bill's journey through the legislative process.

Perhaps the James Madison Center should ask itself whether McConnell's decisions as chairman of the Republican Senatorial Committee actually assisted in the passage of campaign-finance regulation. Maybe he did more to help the passage of that legislation than he or they would like to contemplate.


We cannot know whether Mitch McConnell ever took the possible outcomes of the 2000 elections into consideration in 1998. As short-sighted as politicians typically are, it is unlikely. But what he almost certainly took into account was that if Linda Smith were in the Senate, the party leadership could not have controlled her. And controlling their member politicians, after all, is what political parties are really about.

So, why, I've been asking myself, did campaign-finance regulation pass in the Congress? At least one element of it should have been a deal-breaker: its provisions against "soft money" prohibit the national parties from spending money on individual campaigns. Why did individual legislators — and, more important, why did many of the party oligarchs — vote for it? Wouldn't doing so leave the national parties somewhat powerless to help them?

We who observe the state and the components of its ruling elites are usually at a disadvantage whenever we ask why something happens. We are not admitted to the gatherings where strategy is discussed, and none of us can really know what goes on in the minds of the various personalities. A friend of mine likes to compare the ruling class to the yeti, and his simile pertains as well to the political class: we never really get to see the yeti. But sometimes we see its footprints.

Those footprints are not always as helpful as we wish they were. They are often faint, and in any case, enough snow blows over them that though we can see in which direction a few of the yeti's prints are pointed, we can seldom tell where he is actually going. So in looking at the parties' support for campaign-finance regulation, I am seeing only a few of the yeti's footprints. I am going to hazard a speculation where he is going.

In contested races, incumbents enjoy phenomenal reelection rates — it is often around 98 percent. They seldom face primary challenges that threaten them. Indeed, to be a threat a primary challenger must be very rich; very well funded; or favored by the national party.

The first is clear enough and will not be affected by campaign-finance regulation. The second is virtually out of the question: Incumbents enjoy perks whose value almost always far exceeds what a challenger is able to spend in a primary campaign.

But the third? Well, the national parties seldom support primary challengers outright. But they do, sometimes, fail to support an incumbent. In New Hampshire, for example, Sen. Bob Smith faces a credible primary challenge because the party will not support him. He is the senator who grandstanded in 1999 — criticizing the GOP's many compromises, and, to the delight of hard-line anti-abortion voters, announcing his candidacy as an independent for president. A few months later, when John Chafee (R-R.I.) died, a chairmanship opened up, whereupon Bob Smith crawled back to the party leadership, begging their forgiveness. And he got his chairmanship. (When Jim Jeffords changed his party affiliation, Senator Smith may have been wishing that there had been yet another Senator Smith in the chamber — one from Washington — instead of just the one other from Oregon.)

The GOP leadership apparently were willing to forgive but not to forget: and now Bob Smith is facing a primary challenge such as none of his colleagues has ever known. Senators do not normally support challenges to a colleague's seat, but they're doing it now. His primary challenger is backed by four senators, one of them a member of the Republican leadership.

When we see such things, we must grasp what is being allowed to happen. Here, the four senators are being allowed to back this challenger. Such permission is further signalled by the "moral support" other members of the leadership are giving him. The last time such a defection occurred was in 1980, when Jacob Javits lost to Alfonse D'Amato. Since the 1982 election season, there have been 33 senatorial elections every two years for 22 years (i.e., there have been at least 363 elections). And in that time there has been not one instance of senators' supporting an incumbent's primary challenger.

Yes, Smith is getting funding from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, just as other GOP incumbents are. But it is apparent that the national party will not protect him. The mere fact of incumbency will offer some protection, and it will be interesting to see just what Bob Smith is able to do with it, come the primary of September 10.


Whatever happens to Smith, some interesting yeti footprints are already detectable. If a measure prohibiting national parties from contributing to individual campaigns wins the support of those in office, i.e., the support of incumbents, then incumbents believe that they no longer need the national parties (or the much-reviled PACs) to stay in office. Moreover, there is at least one kind of open-seat election in which many incumbents do take an interest: once incumbents announce their retirement, they often like to name their successors. Campaign-finance regulation will block efforts by the national party to pick its own favorite in those races.

If I am right, if incumbents no longer sense the need for the support of their national parties, it suggests that there is in motion a change in the political landscape that few are noticing and on which fewer are commenting. It is slow-moving, and how things sort themselves out in the end may be quite different from how they appear now. Such changes do occur: in the past 40 years, the power of the Southern Bourbons in the South and the Tammanyite wing of the Democracy was broken, and most of the Southern states are now two-party states.

Party collusion may well take on a different appearance, and we will have to learn the new tricks of the game the incumbents learn. New definitions of "party discipline" may arise, or that whole idea may fade completely. At this point, all we can do is to alert ourselves to a new possibility, and to take it into consideration when we try to understand what is going on around us.

The yeti continues his wanderings, and if he develops new habits, we have to try to make them out.

© 2002 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.


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