Power passes to the powerful

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, October 24 1988

Republican hopeful David Karnes stood up at the state fair in Nebraska to launch his campaign for election to the US Senate and effectively smacked himself in the face. “We need fewer farmers at this point in time,” he told his audience, which happened to be almost entirely composed of farming families who immediately broke into a chorus of jeering and booing.

The farm vote had turned its back for good before Karnes had a chance to explain that all he had really meant was that new technology allows fewer farmers to do more work. Just then, the candidate’s public relations officer came to his rescue and effectively smacked him in the face again.

“I’ll be blunt,” said the PR man, Brent Bahler. “He is not as articulate as I would like him to be. But people understand David Karnes is not a smooth talker like his challenger. Sometimes his words get jumbled. But do we want a senator that is a smooth talker or one who knows his stuff?”

The people of Nebraska appear to be poised to follow their farmers in deciding that they will take the smooth-talker, thank you. In doing so, they will be moving with one of the strangest but most powerful undertows in American politics – the extraordinary inability of Republicans like David Karnes to win state elections.

While political observers have been busy with the presidential election campaign, American voters have been equally involved with the business of choosing new congressmen. In the senate, 33 of the 100 seats are up for re-election on November 8; in the House of Representatives, all 435 seats.

The story here is quite different to that at the presidential level. There, the Republicans appear to be putting down roots in the White House. If, as they all believe, George Bush coasts home to victory on November 8, they will have won five out of the last six presidential elections, underlining their claim to have secured a lock on the national vote.

But state by state, the Republicans are in a mess. They have not won a majority in the House of Representatives for 34 years, and in only six of the last 34 years have they won a majority in the Senate. This year, all the indications are that, despite the Republicans’ optimism in the race for the White House, they will take another hammering in Congress.

The most popular explanation for this is that the American electorate deliberately votes to restrict the power of the president by giving Congress to his opponents. The explanation is weak, partly because it ignores the fact that Democratic Presidents like Kennedy, Johnson and Carter all had Congresses of the same colour, but more because it assumes a collective psychic effort in which millions of voters correctly anticipate each other’s behaviour.

A more likely explanation is that national politics have only the weakest of grips on American society. The real action is at state level.

National politicians have to be local heroes, pre-occupied with local issues. The reason is simple: power in Congress lies in chairing one of the committees; these positions are awarded on the basis of seniority; the only way to gain seniority is to secure re-election for 15 or 20 years – by looking after local issues and, particularly, by steering plenty of federal money into your state.

American political parties barely exist as national bodies. Apart from presidential election campaigns, they have no effective national structure and propogate no national message. Their national leaders – Frank J Fahrenkopf Jr and Paul G Kirk Jr – are mere administrators who have only a marginal role in public politics. The parties do not embody any clearly defined political philosophy – they are loose clusters of interest groups, most of them grouped at the state level.

This means there is nothing surprising in local and national elections producing different results. The question remains:  why should it be the Democratic state parties which keep coming out on top in the state elections? The answer lies in Virginia.

Virginia is now staging a contest for a seat in the senate which has become one of the most one-sided battles of this election season. It has been a bloody, vindictive, take-no-prisoners scrap but the outcome has never been in doubt. The Democrats will win.

The Democratic candidate is the former Governor, Charles `Chuck’ Robb, aged 46, a suave clean-cut career politician who is likely to have a go at the White House in 1992. His campaign has been funded with nearly $3 million in contributions and backed with slick, co-ordinated advertising and speaking tours.

In the Republican corner is the relatively unknown Maurice Dawkins, a retired preacher and political lobbyist, aged 67, the first black man ever chosen by Virginia Republicans to run for state office. His campaign funds totalled a paltry $165,000 and last week he was reported to be broke, owing $55,000 and unable even to print a new batch of bumper stickers.

Politics have played little part in the campaign: the two men agree on almost everything. The biggest issue has been a local newspaper report that, as governor, Robb attended private parties where people snorted cocaine. Robb says he has never had anything to do with drugs. Dawkins says he cannot be trusted. Robb says the Republicans have paid a private detective to investigate his life. Dawkins says the detective is nothing to do with him. They have been slugging it out for weeks without having any effect on the polls which continue to predict a landslide for Robb.

The decisive factor which separates the two men is that Robb, as a former governor, is already part of the state’s power structure. That gives him the contacts, the influence, the political leverage to win backers: he has been supported by trade unions and also by big business; by the civil liberties lobby and also by the conservative legal establishment; by almost every powerful interest group in the state. Dawkins complains that this is racism, but it is just state politics.

One of Dawkins’ supporters, state representative Wiley Mitchell, reviewing the ruins of Dawkins’ campaign last week, put his finger on it: “The people who give the dollars are not dumb. They don’t give to candidates who don’t have a reasonable chance of winning.” Robb was always going to win because he has the power of the insider.

The same story is told nationwide where Congressmen set out to defend their seats this summer with a total of $109 million between them, while their opponents, attacking the power structure in their respective states, commanded only $20 million between them. The result of this is that in recent elections, 98% of Congressmen running for re-election have kept their seats, making them the envy of politicians around the democratic world.

The power of the insider goes beyond fund-raising. The insider can manipulate local politics – doling out contracts, cutting taxes – to help the campaign. He can also use his government staff to work for him and enjoy lucrative perks like free mailing – $96 million worth in the last election year. In the face of such advantages, many opposing parties cannot persuade strong individuals to become candidates and end up fielding political weaklings like David Karnes or Maurice Dawkins.

Some of this applies in other democracies, but in the United States, in the absence of strong parties with clear platforms, the power of the insider amounts to an overwhelming – and most conservative – influence. The Democrats are likely to run Congress for the next two years,  not because they are inherently more popular but simply because they have already been running it for the last 34 years.