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By Jay Cost

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Ron Paul and The Party Brand

Last week I wrote a column about how the dust up with Larry Craig reveals some overlooked truths about the American political party. My point was that the contemporary party is not very powerful. It cannot exercise much control over its members in the legislature, and therefore it is difficult for the party to be responsible to the electorate - to do in government what it promised to do during the campaign. Our politics is "candidate controlled," and the party's impotence in dealing with Larry Craig points to the truth of this proposition.

In other words, the party has very little power over candidates - who they are, what positions they take, what issues they emphasize, how they choose to campaign, what they do once they acquire office, and so on. My argument last week was that the idea of a powerful political party is really a trick of the light. It is a consequence of the fact that individual legislators and candidates happen to have relatively uniform issue positions. If a candidate wants to "cheat" on the party, there is very little that the party can do to stop him.

This brings me to Ron Paul. He is perhaps the greatest example today of party impotence. Ron Paul is not a good Republican as far as the GOP caucus is concerned. If you examine Paul's voting record, it appears as though he is a moderate. His average National Journal economic policy rating from 1997 to 2004 is 51.6% conservative. For social policy, it is 53% conservative. For foreign policy, it is 40.5% conservative. One would think, based upon this data, that Paul is ideologically similar to representatives like Chris Shays or Mike Castle - with the exception being that he is a little on the dovish side. But, this would be wrong. Paul's ostensible moderation is really a consequence of the fact that National Journal's ranking system is two-dimensional. Paul is a libertarian - and his ideology cannot be captured by a simple liberal-conservative metric.

I would argue that Paul does indeed "cheat" on the party brand.

The party brand is the mental image that people have of what it means to be a member of a particular party. It is the commonly accepted answer to the question: if that party acquires control of government, what will it do? The brand is something that benefits all party candidates for office because it reduces uncertainty. It is a quick heuristic device for the average voter to use to guide his vote choice. Because it provides voters with low cost information, it makes their actions more predictable, and therefore reduces the uncertainty that office seekers face when they run for election.

The brand is maintained only through the issue positions that those candidates take during the campaign, and the votes they cast in the legislature. If Republican candidates take divergent issue positions in the campaign, there is no coherent sense one can get of what it means to be a Republican. Over the long run, the brand will decay. If the Republican majority does not do in office what it said it would do during the campaign, it again becomes difficult to understand what it means to be a Republican. Again, the brand will decay.

Importantly, note that a strong party brand is closely related to the concept of responsibility that I discussed last week. A responsible party is a party that runs on distinct issue positions in the election, and proceeds to do what it said it would do when it wins. So, a party with a strong brand identity is more likely to be a responsible party. A responsible party is more likely to have a strong brand identity.

Ron Paul "cheats" on the party brand because he does not contribute to its maintenance. His votes in Congress diverge greatly from the party line - and, as anybody who watches these debates knows, his campaign rhetoric is not even close to the party line. Now - before I start getting flamed by Paul's very web-savvy supporters, let me clarify what I mean by "cheats." I do not mean the word in a normative sense. I mean it in the rational choice sense of the term. My referent here is the concept of public goods.

Public goods are susceptible to this kind of cheating because they are non-excludable. Think of national defense. This is something that benefits all of us - but wouldn't you individually be better off if you did not pay for it (assuming, of course, that the IRS did not exist to audit you)? It is not like the government could punish you by not defending you. If they are defending your taxpaying neighbors, they will have to defend you, too! So, you have a rational incentive to "cheat" on a public good like national defense. In that situation, it is in your interests to receive all of the benefits and not pay any of the costs. This is cheating in a rational choice sense of the term (again, it is non-normative - so spare me your wrath, Paulites!)

The party label is a public good like national defense. It is non-excludable. By winning a party nomination, all of the benefits of the party label accrue to you regardless of whether you constrain your issue positions so they fit the broader party message. So, if it is not in your interests to contribute to the provision of the good, we should expect you not to do so.

This is how I see Ron Paul. Like all candidates with an "R" at the end of his name, he uses the label to acquire electoral office. He accrues the benefits that the party label provides. However, because he takes so many divergent issue positions both in the campaign and in Congress - he does not contribute to the maintenance of the brand. To put it intuitively, he's a libertarian who dresses up as a Republican. This is why I chuckle whenever he argues - which he often does in the debates - that he is the only true Republican in the field. If you define a Republican as a libertarian - then that would be the case!

So, why is it that the Republican Party stands beside him every election? It is because there is nothing it can do about him. Return to the national defense metaphor - and ask yourself why a rational person actually pays his taxes. It is because the federal government has established mechanisms to monitor people and punish those who fail to do their part. National defense is a public good - but the federal government has instituted a private bad to make sure that nobody cheats.

Simply stated, the party lacks the ability to impose such private bads. The party has few viable enforcement mechanisms to ensure that its members do their part to maintain the party brand. Paul ran for the seat in 1996 as the "insurgent" candidate against the Democrat-turned-Republican Greg Laughlin, who had the support of the party leadership both in Washington and in Texas. Paul used his network of libertarians and "gold bugs" to raise nearly $2 million and win the seat out from under the party establishment. Since then, the GOP establishment has never challenged him, despite the fact that he is - according to Michael Barone - the least reliable vote in the entire GOP caucus. The reason is that the mechanism for intra-party staff changes, the party primary, is a highly inefficient enforcement mechanism. The expected costs to the party for challenging Paul in the primary greatly outweigh the benefits it could expect to accrue from the challenge. Imagine what would happen if the GOP establishment got behind a serious challenge to Paul. He would probably survive - but could a weakened Paul survive a general election fight against the Democrat who would surely emerge? If Paul did win the general, who knows how he would respond in the next Congress. Maybe he would refuse to caucus with the GOP altogether. And, should Paul not survive, it would take a great deal of resources to take him down, leaving the GOP nominee low on funds, and a Republican electorate badly divided by the contested primary.

What is the lesson in this? It is, as I suggested last week, that the party does not have much control over its members. Ultimately, our system is not at all efficient for the development and maintenance of a strong party brand. If a party candidate decides to run away from the party, and therefore diminish the brand, during the campaign - there is little the rest of the party can do. If a party official decides to vote against the party brand in the legislature - there is little the rest of the party can do. Importantly, it does not take a lot of "cheaters" to stultify the party agenda altogether. At its largest, the GOP majority was never more than twenty seats over a majority. So, less than ten percent of the party caucus could derail it. The Democratic majorities between the 1950s and the 1990s were much larger - but they were so full of southern, conservative Democrats that in many sessions the alliance of the southern conservatives and the Republicans had effective control over the chamber.

The civic consequence of this is irresponsibility. If the party cannot maintain a strong party brand - it lacks the ability to make coherent promises to the electorate during the campaign, or it lacks the ability to deliver on the promises that it makes, or some combination of both. This is the state of today's American political party - it is not responsible to the electorate. It has a hard time making promises during the electoral campaign because many Republicans run as something other than a Republican (ditto the Democrats). It has an even harder time delivering on those promises it manages to make because office holders can vote as they like in the legislature. The reason for both is that the parties lack enforcement mechanisms to "punish" their "cheaters." An office seeker or office holder can "cheat" on the party brand as much as he likes - and there is little that the rest of the party can do about it. The primary is not a viable enforcement mechanism. It virtually guarantees that incumbents will get an opportunity to face the general electorate, regardless of how loyal they have been to the party whose label they carry.

Ron Paul is a great example of this problem. The Republican Party has so little control over its members that the 1992 1988 Libertarian Party candidate for president can run and win as a Republican just four years later - and persist as a Republican as long as he chooses.

I'll continue this post tomorrow - and offer some tentative suggestions about what could be done to enhance party responsibility.

-Jay Cost