Speaking of parties and partisanship, I ran across something interesting in our archives yesterday while searching for something completely unrelated. You may (but probably don’t) recall this from my account of my exchange with Don Fowler last month regarding his having urged Hillary Clinton not to speak to our editorial board:
But I’d never had such a frustrating conversation with someone as well
educated and experienced as Don, his party’s former national chairman.
He kept clinging to this notion that we would never endorse anyone with
the name Clinton — which made no sense to me — what’s in a name; are
we Montagues and Capulets here? I mean, if he knows that, he
knows something I don’t know. He said he based his absolute conclusion
on a visit he made to the editorial board on Bill Clinton’s behalf in
1996. Not remembering the specifics of that meeting, I didn’t get into
it, but I pointed out that of the five current members of the board,
I’m the only one who was on the board then. No matter. He suggested
that the fix was in, that we would endorse the Republican no matter
what, and that it must hold just as true today as then.
Now I can say I do recall the specifics of that meeting, because I ran across a forgotten column that was inspired by it. Here it is, in its entirety:
PARTIES: WHAT ARE THEY GOOD FOR? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING
Published on: 11/05/1996
By BRAD WARTHEN
Don Fowler came to visit last week, to try to persuade our editorial board to endorse the Clinton-Gore ticket. There never was much chance of that, but we were glad to talk with him anyway.
Don Fowler is the Columbian who took the helm of the Democratic National Committee in one of that party’s darkest hours, when Newt Gingrich and his enfants terrible had supposedly captured the hearts and minds of all "normal people" for good.
Today, less than two years later, there is talk of the Democrats taking back the House, on the coattails of the first Democratic president to win re-election since 1936. That gives Mr. Fowler reason to feel pretty good about being a Democrat these days — the gathering storm over Asian campaign contributors notwithstanding (much of which has broken in the days since our interview). So it probably seemed inappropriate when I asked him this question: "What earthly good are political parties to our country today?"
He apologized that he’d have to preface his answer with a brief historical overview. And like the college lecturer he has been, he proceeded to do just that. I settled in to wait patiently. I really wanted an answer to this question.
You see, I have this prejudice against political parties. I consider them to be among the most destructive factors in public life today. It’s not that the parties themselves cause the nastiness and intellectual dishonesty that stain our political discourse. They just provide a means for these phenomena to manifest themselves without individuals having to take responsibility for any of it. Far worse, partisan considerations militate against solutions to the real problems that face our society.
A lot of smart people whom I otherwise admire, such as political writers David Broder and E.J. Dionne, have suggested in years past that the main thing wrong with Congress is that party discipline is a thing of the past — too many members out there pursuing their own agendas on their own terms instead of working their way up through the party system the way God and Sam Rayburn intended.
But I think that we’ve all seen altogether too much partisan groupthink in recent years. For instance: The most responsible thing Bill Clinton tried to do in his first year in office was to present a deficit-reduction plan that was a model of nonpartisan sobriety, and which was destined to actually improve the situation. So, of course, not one Republican in either house of Congress voted for it. Not only did they vote against it, they’ve spent the past three years misrepresenting it to the people.
But that pales in comparison to the disinformation campaign the GOP conducted over the Clinton health plan. The plan never had a chance, which in a way was too bad, seeing as how most Americans wanted something done about health-care costs and availability, but what was that next to the need for the GOP to achieve its strategic objectives?
The voters punished the GOP for that by giving it control of the Congress. Now, the party had to govern. So Republicans set about trying to rein in Medicare costs.
Turnabout’s fair play, thought the Democrats in unison, and they proceeded to torpedo the GOP’s effort to be sensible by scaring the nation’s old people half to death. It worked. Never mind the fact that Medicare is still a mess — the Democrats are resurgent, having prevented the GOP from doing anything to help the country.
That’s what political parties do for us. What would I replace them with? Nothing. I’d send each successful candidate into office all by his lonesome. He couldn’t get into office or stay there by characterizing his opponent as a "tax- and-spend liberal" or someone who "wants to take away your Social Security." He’d have to come up with sensible ideas, and sell them on their merits. His colleagues, having no overriding partisan strategies, would be more likely to weigh the ideas on the same basis.
Back to Dr. Fowler. The short version of his answer to my question goes like this:
There has historically been a consensus in our country about certain basic principles, such as individual freedom, the sanctity of elections, the dominance of the private sector in our economy, the Bill of Rights and the viability of our basic structure of government.
That leaves room for disagreement and political competition over such things as economic interests. So the Democrats have positioned themselves as representing the interests of the less well off, while Republicans have appealed to the more fortunate (and those who think they will be). Americans, Dr. Fowler went on, are not a very political people. We like to go about our individual pursuits, and only pay attention to electoral politics when the time rolls around to go vote.
So it is, he said, that elephants and donkeys and such provide a service to our inattentive electorate: "The political party provides a political shorthand for enabling them to vote their economic interests without talking about it and arguing about it every day."
Precisely. That’s exactly why I don’t like parties, only I would say the same thing in a slightly different way: Political parties enable us to vote without having to think.
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So what does this tell us? It tells me that Dr. Fowler read my statement that "There never was much chance of" our endorsing Clinton-Gore in 1996, and extrapolated it to mean that this editorial board, even with turnover that left me as the only surviving member of the 1996 board, would never endorse anyone named "Clinton."
This seems like a stretch to me for several reasons. First, this wasn’t even a column about not endorsing Clinton. Our endorsement of Bob Dole had run two days earlier. Here’s a copy of it. That editorial was written not by me, but by my predecessor, who retired in 1997. A little historical footnote here: I would have written the editorial except that by that point in the campaign, I could no longer do so in good conscience. Dole had run such a disastrous campaign that I could not be the one to tell voters (even anonymously) that he was better able to run the White House. So my editor, who still preferred Dole, wrote it instead. Dr. Fowler had no way of knowing any of that. But the context of the statement was clear: We had just endorsed Dole, and all that we had written about the race up to that point led naturally to such a conclusion — including editorials I had written myself, earlier in the campaign. I still thought Dole was a better man than Bill Clinton; I just no longer thought he’d be a better president. It was also clear I wasn’t going to win any argument on that point — hence my wording in that column.
Second, anyone who read past that perfectly factual, supportable observation (that there was no way the board would endorse Clinton), would get to the other points I made, which took either a balanced, or even positive, view of Mr. Clinton. For instance, just to repeat myself:
… The most responsible thing Bill Clinton tried to do in his first year
in office was to present a deficit-reduction plan that was a model of
nonpartisan sobriety, and which was destined to actually improve the
situation. So, of course, not one Republican in either house of
Congress voted for it. Not only did they vote against it, they’ve spent
the past three years misrepresenting it to the people.
But that pales in comparison to the disinformation campaign the GOP
conducted over the Clinton health plan. The plan never had a chance,
which in a way was too bad, seeing as how most Americans wanted
something done about health-care costs and availability, but what was
that next to the need for the GOP to achieve its strategic objectives?…
Again, remember: I am the only editorial board member left from those days. And could a reasonable person conclude that the guy who wrote that passage would never, ever endorse Bill Clinton — much less "a Clinton?" I would say not. I would say that this was a guy I had a chance of winning over. But that’s just me.
Anyway, all that aside, the point of the column was, as the headline suggests, to decry the disastrous effect that the political parties have on our politics. This has been a recurring theme in my work ever since, and I have never wavered from it. If you’ve read the paper on anything like a regular basis, there’s really no excuse for misunderstanding me on this point.
The villain of the piece was not Bill Clinton, or even Newt Gingrich, but the Democratic and Republican parties.
Brad, I agree with you on this one. The Sun News in Myrtle Beach endorsed Hillary. I could never vote for her but it is not like she is Hitler or Stalin, just another misguided liberal and the paper can endorse who ever they want to. The fastest way not to get endorsed is to blow off the paper.
Right. Dr. Fowler clings to conclusions that the facts don’t support, and does so to the detriment of the cause he espouses. Blowing off the board doesn’t guarantee you won’t be endorsed, but it doesn’t help — especially when the blowoff is so premeditated, and based on such thin stuff, in which case it tends to reinforce some of the negative public perceptions of your candidate.
Wow, Brad. You’ve been on this anti-party rant for at least 11 years. And this election is probably just about all you have to show for it. No wonder you’re frustrated.
Well, you’ve finally got your chance. This is probably the closest thing to an Unparty election we’ll ever see. You’ve got two chances in three, or maybe better odds, that one of your guys will be elected.
Of course, I think there’s very little chance that either Obama or McCain will forsake party politics if elected, but I could be wrong. You might finally get your way and see us become “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Here’s hoping things do at least move in that direction.
Thanks, weldon. I never thought I’d see the day, but here we are.
I hope. Ten in a row now for Obama. Better head for your fallout shelter, because there’s little left for Hillary to do but go nuclear, and you know she will.