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By Jay Cost

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Why Can't Obama Stop "Renegade" Democrats?

That question informs this recent story in Politico, which opens:

He's riding high in the polls among his fellow Democrats, but President Barack Obama's political sway within his own party is about to be tested.

Two House Democrats, Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania and Carolyn Maloney of New York, are poised to defy the unambiguous wishes of Obama and challenge incumbent senators of their own party.

Both indicated to POLITICO that they were likely to run -- and would do so regardless of what Obama said...

Asked directly if a plea from Obama would make any difference, Sestak shook his head and said: "No."...

The two races illustrate the risks for Obama, or any president, in trying to play local kingmaker -- namely, the very real possibility that no matter how popular he is, he may not be able bend every contest to his wishes and that by trying to do so, he risks being defied by his own party.

So, let's answer that title question.

At first blush, it seems pretty tricky. The President's popularity is still 60+. Democrats in Congress follow his lead. And so on. He should be able to stop them, right?

That view depends, I think, on an erroneous understanding of the contemporary American political party. If we were to sketch it, it might look like this:

CW Party.jpg

I've labeled this the "CW" Party because I think this is the implicit view contained in the conventional wisdom. It's seen as a straightforward hierarchy, running from the President and his national committee at the top, down to the local parties and candidates. By this schema, Obama should be able to stop Sestak and Maloney, as he sits above them in the hierarchy.

The American political party does not look like this today. And, for that matter, it's never looked like this.

At one point, the party resembled what political scientists have called a "truncated pyramid," something like this:

Truncated Pyramid Party.jpg

The old party system was dominated by the state parties - if we were to label it in time, we might say that this structure lasted from roughly 1828 to 1972. There was nobody above the state parties, nobody to boss them around. The national party committees merely hosted the national conventions, where the state parties came to barter and bargain about who would be the next presidential nominee. Indeed, in elections past (particularly before and after the Civil War), many incumbent presidents were not even given re-nomination from the parties!

This old system was not replaced with the "CW Party" depicted above. Instead, the current thinking on the "new" political parties looks something like this:

New American Party.jpg

Joseph Schlesinger, a political scientist from Michigan State, was the first to come up with this idea - and it's since been adopted as the theoretical foundation of the contemporary party, at least in the electoral campaign. When we start talking about the role of the party in Congress, we move away from this and toward the idea that the contemporary party is like a legislative cartel. So, we're limiting ourselves here to talk about the party in elections.

What this depicts is a series of candidate loci. In other words, the party exists around individual campaigns for office. So, within each circle would be the candidate, his donors, strategists, die-hard followers, and so on. Each candidate is in charge of his own locus - implying that, at its core, the contemporary American political party is disconnected. The lines connecting some loci to others indicate lines of coordination - the ways in which candidates of the same party work together to obtain victory. This might be the sharing of dollars or polling information, coordinating on strategy, and so on. There are lines connecting some loci but not others because coordination is not handed down from on high. Instead, coordination depends on each candidate's evaluation of his/her own interests, and how it would be useful to interact with other candidates. These days, the electoral context is such that coordination tends to be very high - and it is facilitated by the national parties (the national committees and the congressional campaign committees). However, that does not alter the fundamental feature that this picture captures: individual candidates stand largely on their own.

This helps answer the title question. The Presidency is a very powerful office - and this President, with his popularity being as great as it is, is a very powerful one. However, he is still constrained by the existing political system, which on the electoral level looks like those disconnected loci. It really does not matter how high his job approval goes, candidates still rise and fall on their own because that's the way the system is set up. The President could possibly have some sway at the margins by suggesting to other, loyal candidates that they not coordinate with the renegades, and that they instead coordinate with the loyalists. Indeed, he'll probably do this. However, that is not necessarily enough to stop the renegades. If they can can acquire sufficient resources, absent that coordination, they can still mount potent challenges.

My sense is that both Sestak and Maloney will be able to do that. They have access to sufficient dollars to build a substantial campaign organization, and they both have compelling arguments to make against the incumbents. In all likelihood, the President can help make sure that Specter and Gillibrand are sufficiently financed - but they probably would have been, anyway.

On this page, I often refer to our electoral system being "candidate centered." The above picture is a graphical depiction of my thinking on the matter, and the President's inability to stop Sestak and Maloney is a great example of the implication of the contemporary system.

-Jay Cost