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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Who's the Leader of the GOP?

That's a question lots of people are asking today, especially with the White House and the DNC suggesting that it's actually Rush Limbaugh who is in charge. Indeed, this claim might actually stick now that some Republican politicos are defending Rush in his dustup with Michael Steele, who has apologized to the radio talker.

Per my column yesterday, I'd argue that Rush Limbaugh is not the "leader" of the Republican Party. Limbaugh is a radio talk show host - a very important one who has 15 million listeners a week. But we're talking about a political party, and therefore electoral politics, which is a mass phenomenon. Limbaugh has influence in the party - that's for sure - but he is not the leader. Contrary to Reihan Salam's suggestion, he cannot remake the "Party of Lincoln" into the "Party of Limbaugh," nor does he have the power to define the image of the party for the mass public.

What about RNC Chairman Michael Steele? After all, he claimed to be the leader of the party in the same show that he called Limbaugh's program "incendiary" and "ugly." Bluster aside, he is not - and for proof of that all we need do is look at the prominent position the former "leader" of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean, now has in the Obama Administration. Oh...never mind!

Michael Steele's purpose as RNC Chairman is quite simple: to raise gobs of money to help candidates circumvent the Federal Elections Campaign Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (aka McCain-Feingold). His committee is the largest part of the legal money laundering machine of the Republican Party. It's his job to fly the party standard to attract donors who either don't know which candidates to contribute to, have maxed out to their preferred candidates and want to give more, or would just rather have the party decide how to spend the money. [And - by insulting Rush Limbaugh - he's doing a bang up job so far. Limbaugh is not the leader of the party, but I'll bet dollars to donuts that he has a boatload of party contributors (or could-be contributors) in his audience who are pissed off right about now.]

So, who's in charge of the Republican Party? Let's answer this by reviewing a topic discussed here last week - namely whether Steele has the power to punish Arlen Specter for voting for the stimulus bill. My answer was: no, he is powerless.

Since then, I have noted two items that relate to that story. The first is from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

A new statewide poll shows 53 percent of Pennsylvanians -- and 66 percent of Republicans -- want someone to replace Sen. Arlen Specter.

Asked whether they think Specter, a Philadelphia Republican, has done his job well enough to win re-election or whether they'd prefer a "new person" in that job, registered voters by a 53-38 percent margin said it's time to give someone else a chance, according to the poll by Susquehanna Polling and Research. Eight percent were undecided.

That article was published on Saturday. On Monday, the Hill published the following:

After previously ruling it out, former Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey (R), who ran for the Senate in 2004, said Monday that he is reconsidering challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 GOP primary.

"As this disastrous recession worsens, I have become increasingly concerned about the future of our state and national economy," Toomey said in a statement Monday. "Unfortunately, the recent extraordinary response of the federal government - more corporate bailouts, unprecedented spending and debt, higher taxes - is likely to make things worse. I think we are on a dangerously wrong path. Pennsylvanians want a US Senator focused on real and sustainable job creation that gets our economy growing again. That is why I am considering becoming a candidate for the US Senate."

So, it is not the party that might punish Arlen Specter for his heterodoxy - it is another candidate, one who has surveyed the political landscape and surmised that it is in his interests to explore a challenge.

I would suggest that this is where the locus of power resides in the Republican Party: in their candidates for and in office. It is by their strategic actions in pursuit of electoral victory that they shape the image of the GOP and the direction it takes. The RNC is - at the end of the day - in service to the ambitions of these candidates. Rush Limbaugh has millions of radio listeners - but that's still dwarfed by the number of voters party candidates collectively mobilize every cycle.

The next question is: who is looking out for the interests of the whole party? The answer: nobody. The title is actually a trick question. American political parties do not really have leaders, except when they temporarily control the White House (and even then, the President is still looking out for his own political interests, so there still can be conflict; plus his coercive power over fellow partisans is mostly informal). There is no permanent position or organization that makes sure that candidates behave responsibly, i.e. in a way that is consistent with the overall goal of the party (which is to take control of the government).

As somebody who supports "responsible party government," I see this as a huge problem. Without a centralizing authority that can discipline candidates, you're bound to find instances of the problem of collective action: the whole party wants to win control of the government, candidates want to win their own elections - frequently these goals can conflict, yet there is no way for the party to coerce candidates to do what is good for the party. We discussed this last week when we noted what a pantload Jim Bunning is, yet the party lacks a way to deal with him effectively.

Ultimately, candidates are in control. There is no entity - be it an organization or person - that really has the power to make sure they behave in a way that is responsible to the broader agenda party. It just does not exist. The actions of the party are frequently just the sum total of these individual schemes. There is no institutionalized position of leadership, in the sense that we traditionally think of one.

Now, this does not mean the party is bound to behave in an uncoordinated, "irresponsible" way. For instance, the Republican Party was quite coordinated in 1994 when it produced the Contract with America. So, coordination between candidates - that ultimately benefits the party as a whole - is possible. The problem is that this kind of coordination is ad hoc, not systematic. Sometimes you'll see candidates coordinate. Other times - as with the Democrats in 1996 - you'll see one candidate for office (in that case, President Clinton) work independently of other candidates of the same party (House Democrats). Clinton assessed that it was in his own electoral interests to triangulate and position himself as above the congressional fracas. This assessment was probably correct, but was it beneficial to House Democrats? Not so much.

Political scientists conceive of the old political party as a "truncated pyramid" in which the state parties were actually in charge, and the national parties were essentially powerless. Over the last century, reforms of varying quality destroyed that old structure - but they did not replace it with a new system where a central agent has some control over the whole scheme. There is still no top of the pyramid. Instead, candidates are in charge, and they coordinate or don't coordinate depending upon their assessments of their own interests.

There is a leadership vacuum on the Republican side right now - but really this is because they do not have a national candidate. The Democrats have one - his name is President Obama - so they have a "leader," though individual Democratic candidates are still basically in charge of themselves. With President Bush retiring to Texas and Senator McCain returning to the Senate, the GOP has nobody like that. The White House is taking advantage of this by characterizing the party as being led by Rush Limbaugh, who is unpopular from a national perspective.

-Jay Cost