A presidency-centered party is a weak party.
With Mark Sanford declaring his candidacy against Trump over the weekend, there are now three Republicans who intend to compete with the sitting president for the presidential nomination. But several states have canceled their primaries. (Seth Masket has a nice explainer here.) After the 2016 nominations prompted criticism that parties are weak and unable to perform the basic gatekeeping function, ensuring that only candidates who respect democratic values and bring relevant experience, can attain the presidential nomination. In other words, the GOP lost control of its nomination process. So now the party seems to be tamping down on potential chaos. Is this a sign of a strong party?
Spoiler alert: on balance, I think the answer is no. But this also allows us to think about how party strength is multi-faceted. Parties have multiple purposes; most pressingly for the question of canceled primaries, they are responsible for both maximizing immediate electoral strength, and for providing institutional continuity that transcends any specific candidate.
Political scientists disagree about how much Trump has changed the GOP versus how much it’s changed him. But Trump-style Republicans did well in the 2018 elections, and some of the retiring Republicans in the House of Representatives are likely to be replaced with ones who share the president’s ideology and emulate his political style. Given that the most obvious manifestation of party weakness in 2016 was a coordination failure and the looseness of rules that allowed an outsider to win the nomination, the ability of the party to close ranks behind the president might seem like a step toward strength. Furthermore, if the ultimate purpose of a political party is to win elections, then the GOP is doing what it needs to do. It’s not clear that having primary challengers actually hurts a sitting president’s chances or simply indicates weakness. But a risk averse party won’t be interested in either possibility.
On a different level, though, the Republican Party is once again manifesting the weakness that characterizes the contemporary, nationalized system of American parties. Parties need to be able to outlast specific candidates and elections. And in the US context, strong parties have to be able to mediate and withstand internal conflict. An important, but related function of parties in our system is to cultivate and sustain a base of power separate from the president.
If we look at it this way, the cancelation of primaries builds on a long trajectory of party weakness, adding a Trumpian twist. American politics scholars have observed for years that political parties have become more presidency-centric as they’ve nationalized. Presidents have been uneven in their investment in long-term party infrastructure.They are, on the other hand, very well-positioned to use rhetoric and symbolism to cultivate partisanship in the electorate. This combination contributes to anemic, “hollow” parties of the sort that Sam Rosenfeld and Danny Schlozman are writing about. Parties that lack a distinct political base from the president also make the system more dependent on informal norms about presidential political restraint, and we’re seeing the consequences of that now.
The other question here is whether competition can be a healthy part of a presidential party, and the problems here, too, predate Trump. Commentators have rushed to note that challenges from the likes of Weld, Walsh, and Sanford are unlikely to sink Trump, but are more likely indicative of his existing weakness. Is this inevitable? It’s never exactly been standard – or a positive sign – for incumbent presidents to face serious challenges within their own parties, but the development of a strong norm against primary challenges in the modern era is one more example of how presidential nominations have backed away from competition, ultimately creating political stagnation and a crisis of legitimacy within the parties. And, while it’s not a feature of our system, it seems not completely absurd to imagine that the incumbent party in the White House, like the out-party, might weather a real competition in which front-runners have to prove themselves better than potential challengers. In other words, it’s not really enough for serious analysts to note that only catastrophically weak presidents face primary challenges; we should also ask why that’s the case and how it contributes to a presidency-centric political system.
There are a few implications here. One is that party strength is multi-faceted. While it involves more than just thinking about how parties can manage competition and sustain political power that’s distinct from the president, this is an under-appreciated aspect of party strength among people who mainly study parties from an interest group and elections perspective. Second is that the president’s hold on the party in the realm of electoral politics doesn’t seem to be matched by similar levels of policy influence. Instead, scholars have argued, as Matt Glassman has, that Republican leaders in Congress have simply refused to champion the president’s priorities and otherwise used tactics at their disposal to thwart his plans. Once again, the distinction between Trump and his recent predecessors starts to look like more of a difference in degree than kind. Presidents define their parties politically – they have tremendous influence over partisanship – but when it comes to elite influence, or actually influencing their parties, their reach is more limited. Presidential strength, like that of parties, is multi-faceted. As presidents are able to dominate their electoral parties but not translate that political strength into governing influence, politics and policy become increasingly disconnected.
It’s easy to see primary cancelations as one more norm violation in the era of Trump. And that may prove to be the correct framework. But they’re also a logical extension of a complex and often problematic relationship between parties and the presidency. And in that regard, decades of institutional development have created lots of norms, but neglected a core democratic value: the importance of checks on presidential control.