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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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A Strange Night

Watching the events of last night's GOP convention, I was reminded of an old John Lennon diddy:

Nobody told me there'd be days like these.
Nobody told me there'd be days like these.
Strange days, indeed.
Most peculiar, mama!

Last night Joe Lieberman spoke to a crowd of 15,000 diehard Republicans. Just eight short years ago, he was known to those people as "Loserman" - as in "Sore/Loserman," the nickname given to the Democratic ticket in 2000. Lieberman, whose rating from Americans for Democratic Action was 70% in 2007, must have noted the strangeness to himself. His speech was directed not to the audience, but to Democrats at home. He did not linger afterwards.

Meanwhile, as Jake Tapper wrote last night, Fred Thompson and Lieberman managed to get the crowd to applaud for McCain over the very things that have infuriated Republicans. Immigration reform, campaign finance reform, and even the "Gang of 14" were all mentioned last night - not to boos, but to cheers.

And then there were those placards. They struck me more than anything else. The logo was simple - "Country First" - but the implication was profound. Country first, party second. It was amazing to me to see Republican delegates holding these signs.

Most peculiar, mama!

I'm sure everybody understands what is going on here. The goal of McCain-Palin is to elevate John McCain - his reputation for honor, service, and independence - as a counter to the reputation of the Republican Party. So, Joe Lieberman gets the prime time address, the crowd applauds everything that annoys them, and holds up placards implicitly diminishing their own party.

What will likely not be commented upon is how weak the political party is in this drama. Our political parties are the creations of strategic politicians who use them to pursue electoral victory. The parties serve the ends of office-seeking candidates. And nowhere in America is the supremacy of candidate over party more apparent than in the modern presidential campaign. The national committee becomes little more than an extension of the presidential candidate in an election year. If the candidate wins, he captures the committee, owning it completely for his tenure in office. If he loses, the committee waits four years to be captured once again. Accordingly, the convention is the candidate's. Assuming that there are no other candidates standing in his way, he can do with it what he wishes.

It wasn't always like this. The state parties used to run the show at the national conventions - but due to changes in campaign finance laws, election processes, and the social mores of political activists, the power of the state parties has dissipated. Today, the state parties are little more than legal money-laundering outlets, doling out money and campaign services to statewide candidates, supported by a national committee that is fully responsive to the needs and interests of the presidential candidate.

The party as it was no longer exists. The "party" we saw last night was simply the product of the McCain-Palin marketing campaign. The audacity of that marketing campaign highlights just how servile the contemporary party is to the candidate. John McCain has essentially asked the Republican Party to disavow itself at this quadrennial convention. But has the party revolted? Not at all! It's happy to oblige. Frankly, what could it do even if it wanted to revolt?

The only bit of real party business that occurred this week was the following, noted by Marc Ambinder and Michael Barone (who is quoted here):

As part of the rules it adopted, the convention authorized the party to appoint a commission with authority to change the delegate selection rules. This is a departure from past Republican practice. Up to and including 2004, the Republican National Convention was the final authority on delegate selection rules, and the party had no legal authority to change them over the next four years, as the national Democratic Party has had.

So, the RNC has empowered its version of the BRAC panel to figure out who wins and who loses in the 2012 nomination schedule. There's more from Barone:

Republican National Chairman Mike Duncan has been in touch with Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean on this issue. They understand that changes in party rules can only be effective if state legislatures act, and at this point both Democrats and Republicans control a significant number of legislatures--and in many states governors and one or both houses of the legislature are controlled by different parties. So changes in the calendar need, broadly speaking, to be bipartisan.

This highlights the limits of party power as well as anything. The Republican Party cannot establish its own nomination rules without coordination with The Democratic Party and state governments.

-Jay Cost