WASHINGTON — When Robert S. Strauss headed the Democratic Party in the early 1970s, he was a man of unusual sway. A phone call could change a presidential campaign, or at times, even the presidency itself. He held the exalted status of wise man in the capital, a kingmaker who helped bring Jimmy Carter to power and Ronald Reagan to recognize the damage from Iran-Contra, a man with such inside knowledge of power, politics and relationships that he could make all manner of problems go away.
His death on Wednesday, and the memories it evoked – with praise coming voices ranging from President Barack Obama to Nancy Reagan – signaled another marker in the long road to decline of the authority of the nation’s two political parties.
Today, the leaders of the party organizations – Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida for the Democrats and Reince Priebus for the Republicans – are diminished figures by comparison, rendered weaker because the parties themselves are no longer the central force for message, influence and orthodoxy that they were in Strauss’ era.
The parties have been overtaken by candidates such as Obama, who created his own campaign apparatus for operations that had been the province of the Democratic National Committee, and by independent groups that now set the tone and agenda for campaigns, all aided by transforming technology that has changed the character of politics.
It has come to the point that one of the parties’ signature functions, the national presidential nominating conventions, is threatened as well. Public interest and network coverage has waned, and last week, Congress overwhelmingly approved legislation that would end public financing for the conventions, putting a $126 million hole in the parties’ already strained budgets.
At the recent annual meeting of the Democratic National Committee, Wasserman Schultz was wrapping up her speech to the party faithful when she suddenly tumbled from the step stool elevating her 5-foot-2 frame. “We’re going to need some money,” she joked, “to get a better step.”
A week later, Priebus took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference to make an urgent plea for party unity. But as his panel began, a tea party activist with a tricorn hat and “Don’t Tread on Me” flag meandered to the auditorium exit, leading an exodus of hundreds that left the auditorium two-thirds empty.
The two scenes underscore the parties’ struggle to stay relevant and powerful as they redefine their roles to focus on preserving the conventions, presidential primary calendars and data crunching.
Parties lose their clout
When Haley Barbour took over the Republican Party in 1993 after Bill Clinton’s election, he began the GOP comeback by canvassing more than 440,000 donors to ask what Republicans should stand for. The answers formed the core of what would become the “Republican Revolution” two years later. Barbour called his authority “a license to persuade.”
Now, few candidates are taking their cues from the DNC or RNC. “What the committees can do nowadays is far more limited than what committees used to be able to do 20 years ago. That’s for sure,” Priebus said. “I don’t think it’s a narrower role. I just think it’s a more defined role.” He added, “I don’t know if that’s a distinction without a difference.”