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By Jay Cost

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The Larry Craig Problem

It appears as though Larry Craig has decided to remain in the United States Senate. I imagine that many people - among whom I count myself - are not entirely bothered by this. It seems to me that Craig's crime did not fit the punishment of effective expulsion. What does bother me is his behavior since the story broke. It is very clear that Craig has been quite irresponsible to his party since the news of his bathroom indiscretion became public.

I would grant that Craig's party was irresponsible to him first. Five terms in the House and three terms in the Senate apparently count for very little in a Republican caucus that seems unable to handle its fears of further electoral losses. The Senate GOP's treatment of Craig had the stink of desperation from moment one. So, maybe they had this coming.

I think that there is a larger lesson to learn from what I'm calling the "Larry Craig Problem." The problem is just a species of a general problem that plagues both major parties. I hinted at it around the time that the story broke. There are real limits to the power of the American political party. We talk about the political party as though it is indeed quite powerful. Media elites tend to do this as much as any of us. But it is actually not that powerful.

Who has the real power in American politics? Individual office holders do. The Larry Craig Problem is a case in point. What, in reality, could the Republican Party actually do to Larry Craig? The answer: very little! The caucus leadership could take his committee posts away - but that is about it. Anything else they do amounts to shaming him in public - but the effect of this is obviously quite limited (could Craig be shamed any more?), and shaming Larry Craig means shaming the Republican Party, too.

This is why I choose to use the word "irresponsible." Our party system is irresponsible for the simple reason that individual office holders are simply not responsible to the broader party - either to the party leadership itself, the ideological philosophy around which the party is organized, or the voters who are regular supporters of the party. A stubborn legislator like Larry Craig can thumb his nose at his party all he wants. Ultimately, the consequences for his insolence will be small.

There are a number of reasons for this fact. I will not bore you with a laundry list. But I will say that the first reason is the Constitution itself. Our Constitution is what Richard Hofstadter once called a Constitution against parties. Our Framers were all anti-party men when they wrote the Constitution - and this fact continues to limit the power that the party can exercise in American politics. And so, while the power of the party has ebbed and flowed over the years - only in a few moments and in constrained ways could the major American party be called powerful.

In light of this, we can tease out a larger insight from the Larry Craig Problem. Larry Craig is not responsible to the Republican Party. He can essentially do what he wants - and the GOP has very few ways to control his behavior. So it goes with all legislators. Accordingly, is it any surprise that conservatives would eventually find that the Republican Party is behaving irresponsibly toward them? The party cannot control the behavior of its members - so how can it make members adhere to conservative principles? What can the "Congressional GOP" do? Ultimately, it is at the mercy of its own members and their electoral ambitions. The "Congressional GOP" is little more than a heuristic device for the 250 or so individuals in Congress who have chosen to stick an "R" at the end of their names.

Ultimately, we see here the shortsightedness of the electoral strategy of today's office seekers. Office seekers have a short term electoral interest in making it seem like they are in some sense responsible to a broader entity like "the party." Not all voters like this idea, of course. But some voters do. So, the legislative strategy that the professional office seeker chooses is to tell the voters who like the idea of the office seeker being responsible to the party that he will be responsible to the party, and to tell those who do not like the idea that he will not be.

To those who like the idea of responsibility, the sales pitch "The Republican Party stands for tax cuts and limited government!" has a great deal of meaning. The implication behind it is that if you vote for individual members of that party, you are empowering the party itself. But in fact you are not really doing that at all. To think that you are is to commit the fallacy of composition. You are falsely infering that the party is something more than the aggregation of individuals elected to Congress who happen to carry this party label. So, in the long run party leaders cannot enforce members to adhere to any kind of party platform. Those members "cheat" on that platform whenever it is in their electoral interests to do so. And, sooner or later, the platform becomes a dead letter, having been overwhelmed by the number of times the members of the party played a hand in defeating their own platform. And, you the voter who believed the initial campaign pitch are left disappointed.

The way people look at the Republican Party today is fundamentally different than the way I look at it. Others see it as a party that has failed to live up to the spirit of the Contract with America. The 2007 party failed the 1994 party. I think that misses the point. I think the 1994 party made promises that it could never possibly have delivered - and so the party of 2007 was in some sense inevitable. I see the Contract with America as little more than a rhetorical device that promised something it could not possibly deliver - responsible party government. Why? Because the document, and the "revolution" it represented, did nothing to alter the relationship between the party leadership and the individual candidates for office. And so it was a revolution that was always predicated upon whether the electoral interests of individual Republican office seekers aligned with the organizing principles of the revolution.

As anybody who has studied American government for a day knows, this is a thin premise upon which to found a revolution. The revolution succeeds or fails based upon whether it will help candidates get elected - so my money is on it failing sooner or later!

Ultimately, this is a problem that plagues both parties. Ambitious office seekers have an interest in promoting the fiction of responsibility - regardless of the party to which they belong. Democratic office seekers have an interest in communicating to (certain) voters that if you vote for your local Democrat, you will somehow be empowering the Democratic Party to do Democratic things. But really this is not true. A vote for your local Democrat is nothing more than a vote to give your local Democrat the privilege to vote with or against Democrats from other localities once he is in Congress. Democratic things will occur if and only if enough Democrats happen to find the same things in their electoral interests.

And so - you will get responsible party government if and only if enough individual partisans find it to be in their individual electoral interests to enact the party platform. In other words, responsible party government is conditioned upon the uniformity of legislative preferences - and therefore the uniformity of preferences in the electorate. In reality then, responsibility is always and everywhere predicated upon electability.

I think this is why the Republican Congress spent like drunken sailors on shore leave through most of their time in the majority. Of course, they all have anti-spending principles. But most all of them (like most all of us!) value their jobs above their principles. And most all of them recognized that sending money home to the district was a necessity if they wished to keep their jobs. So, they spent. And there was no Republican "ombudsman" to stop them from spending - the fact that the campaign arms of the party make it seem to voters like there is such an ombudsman is just a fiction to keep the true believers on board through the end of the current electoral cycle.

I take this to be all part and parcel of our original founding document, and the dirty little secret of American government that it embodies: nobody is actually in charge of our country. No one person. No group of persons. Power is dispersed to multiple groups. The parties do some work to organize power so that the mechanics of government can operate - but the function that the parties really serve is far, far different from what they make their hard core supporters think they serve.

-Jay Cost