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Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Who runs the Democratic Party?

 At least since the 2022 election, it seems to me, average Democrats have made clear to pollsters that they would prefer a different presidential candidate to 81-year old Joe Biden.  I have written before that Biden's rise to the White House tells a lot about what is wrong with American politics.  During his very long Senate career, Biden combined a cozy relationship with corporate interests--many of whom headquarter in Delaware for legal reasons--with the ability to make appropriately liberal noises on a variety of issues.  He eventually tried twice for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1988 and 2008, and demonstrated no appeal to primary voters on either occasion.  Then, however, Barack Obama picked him as his vice president.  Like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, and Al Gore--three of whom had also tried and failed to win their party's nomination for president--Biden immediately emerged as a very serious presidential candidate.  I have speculated before that the vice presidency confers both national name recognition, and access to leading donors.  Being first lady did the same thing for Hillary Clinton.  This week, the New York Times printed a remarkable story enlightening me as to how important donors can be.  

The story focused on Jeffrey Katzenberg, a very successful ex-studio head in Hollywood, described in the piece as "one of the most prolific cash generators for Democratic presidents for a generation." The story, by Peter Baker, does not tell us how he and Biden got to know each other, and it doesn't say anything about Katzenberg's role in the 2020 primary campaign.  Perhaps it was enough that Biden succeeded Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton as the leader of the Democratic establishment.  Both Biden and some of his staffers, we learn, talk to Katzenberg, a dynamo, several times a week.  He helped put together the State of the Union address.  The real point of the story is this:  a number of other major contributors, apparently, shared average Democrats' concerns about Biden when he announced his candidacy for re-election last year.  Katzenburg took on the mission of persuading them that Biden was up to the job, partly by bringing them into the oval office to see him in action themselves.  And that apparently worked.  None of them backed another possible candidate, and none ever emerged.

Before 1960, leading politicians in both parties, not campaign contributors, played the most important role in deciding who their candidates would be.  Franklin Roosevelt carefully cultivated Democratic leaders around the country while he was governor of New York from 1929 through 1932, and that secured him the critical 1932 nomination for president.  Theodore Roosevelt was far more popular than incumbent William Howard Taft in 1912, but he could not overcome the opposition of party leaders and win the Republican nomination.  (The party professionals paid dearly for supporting Taft in that case, as the Democrats won control of the government  handily.)  Richard Nixon owed his career to his cultivation of Republicans around the country.  In 1960 John F. Kennedy had to convince local party leaders like Richard Daley in Illinois and David Lawrence in Pennsylvania that a Catholic could win the election and would not hurt their local parties in order to get the nomination.  These party professionals were in day-to-day contact with ordinary voters.  Today's contributors are not.  The only national politician with a sincere, devoted following among the electorate is, of course, Donald Trump.

Presidential primaries were introduced in some states early in the twentieth century, and by 1932, when Roosevelt won a number of them and lost two others, they had some influence.  They seem to have fallen out of favor between `1932 and 1960, but they allowed Kennedy to prove that he was electable even in overwhelmingly protestant areas like West Virginia, and by the 1970s they had become the mechanism for choosijng almost all the delegates. That was supposed to put the power to select the nominee in the hands of the people, but it hasn't.  The only candidate before Trump who used primaries to defeat the establishment's choice was Barack Obama in 2008 against Hillary Clinton, and even then, the establishment split and parts of it went over to him before the race was over.  Thanks to various Supreme Court decisions, money is more powerful in US politics than ever.

It is hard to believe that Katzenberg's influence does not also extend to policy, and he and Biden reacted publicly to the October 7 attacks in exactly the same way: by condeming Hamas and expressing unequivocal support for Israel.  That, however, is much less important to me than contributors' power to choose party's presidential nominee, based mainly on  how the nominee treats them.  Let me be clear: I do not expect any drastic campaign finance reform to change this situation.  This is where history has taken us.  Following up on last week's post, I have written this one to to change the world, but simply to understand it.  That's a paraphrase of a famous man, and I wonder if anyone will recognize it.


jlundell said...

Marx (though your paraphrase seems to be missing a “not”).

Eric Leuliette said...

I think that you're paraphrasing Spinoza.

Skimpole said...

I wonder how much the reluctance to challenge Biden is the result of the influence of one powerful billionaire or instead factors such as (a) the fact the last five times an incumbent was challenged for the nomination, the party lost [1952, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1992] (b) there aren't any striking ideological differences between Biden and the most commonly suggested challengers and (c) there is little evidence that any challenger would do better than Biden.

Energyflow said...

It is obvious that this just leads to failure and redemocratization as minorities are trending to Trump as well. If the rich take over we have feudalism. Poor of all stripes will fight back against Black Rock, Hollywood moguls. Good riddance.

Ed Ciliberti said...

Alex Vietor?