Old Party, New Energy

I
n the mid-1970s, the founding fathers of the New Right almost walked
away from the Republican Party. Sickened by Watergate and angry at what they
perceived as the Republican Party's moderation, Richard Viguerie, Howard
Phillips, and Paul Weyrich strove to bring together the disparate conservative
forces spawned by Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign into a single
powerful coalition they hoped would form the base of a new political party.
President, movement, and party, they thought, needed to be brought together in a
new organization on the right.

Between 1974 and 1977 these three men turned samizdats into publications,
discussion groups into think tanks, and businessmen's lunches into political
action committees (PACs). William F. Buckley's National Review provided
the intellectual underpinnings. Viguerie, the original guru of direct mail,
supplied the mailing lists. Phillips and Weyrich, the founders of the
Conservative Caucus and the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress
(CSFC), did the actual organizing. Together, they recruited numerous single-interest
groups—veterans, pro-lifers, tax protesters, family advocates,
evangelists, and small businessmen—to their cause. In just three years, these
men organized the right wing of the Republican Party into a cohesive coalition
with considerable political might. By the 1978 congressional midterm elections,
the New Right was ready to slay the doddering Republican Party and strike out on
its own.

But just in time, the New Right's founders realized something: the Republican
Party was too valuable to be junked. Recognizing that if they could gain control
of the Republican Party—with its legal powers, spending capabilities, and media
visibility—it could be made into a formidable conservative force, Viguerie,
Phillips, and Weyrich began to infiltrate and organize, targeting a slew of
congressional races where New Right participation might tip the scales in favor
of conservative Republican candidates. Phillips cultivated the grass roots,
establishing Conservative Caucus operations that recruited and trained local
conservatives for electoral activism. Weyrich's CSFC came in and ran advanced
workshops that explained the key elements of a sophisticated campaign.
Meanwhile, New Right-affiliated PACs were avoiding Federal Election Commission
(FEC) regulations by using "independent campaign expenditures," buying upwards
of $5 million worth of ads in some races.

The end result? Voters in the 1978 midterm elections sent 30 new congressmen
from the New Right's ranks to Capitol Hill. Carroll Campbell, Newt Gingrich, and
other conservative emblems of today's Republican Party were launched on their
national political careers as part of the New Right's onslaught. The movement's
momentum carried over into the 1980 Republican presidential primaries,
delivering Ronald Reagan the nomination over the objections of moderate
Republicans who favored George Bush. Reagan's election solidified the New
Right's grip on the Republican Party; throughout the 1980s, the New Right was
able to fill Republican ranks at the local, state, and national levels. By the
early 1990s, the New Right had brought conservatism and the Republican Party
into alignment.

T
here's a lesson for liberals here. The parallels between the
disaffected conservatives of the 1970s and the disaffected liberals of today are
obvious. But instead of stealing a page from the New Right's playbook and
hitching the progressive movement to grassroots Democratic Party politics, some
progressives willing to do electoral dirty work expend their efforts assembling
minor parties that have little influence or that break apart, victims of
America's entrenched two-party system. The latest of these efforts is the New
Party.

The New Party devised a "fusion" strategy. It would run candidates in state
elections on a line separate from the Democratic party line. Progressive
Democratic candidates would be rewarded with a New Party endorsement and an
additional line on the ballot; centrist or conservative Democrats would face a
New Party opponent as well as a Republican one. In this way, the New Party hoped
to play electoral hardball and force both the Democrats and electoral politics
generally to the left. The New Party also believed that it could serve as a
vehicle to energize grassroots activity—which has been deadened by the centrism
of many Democrats. It was willing to risk playing the role of spoiler.



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The approach took its cue from the nineteenth-century strategy for building
party-movement coalitions. The great Populist upsurge of the 1890s was the
historical model—and not a bad one, because ultimately it reshaped the
Democratic Party and laid the basis for progressive economic and monetary
regulation.

But the current strategy is flawed in two key respects. There really is no
institutional Democratic Party in most states. The party is whoever wins primary
elections. Creating a third party, in the face of all the institutional
obstacles in the U.S. system, is mostly wasted energy that could be better
directed toward taking over the existing Democratic Party—by running progressive
candidates and winning primaries. Second, the fusion strategy was dealt a near-fatal
legal blow last April when the Supreme Court ruled that states may enact
laws known as fusion bans, which prohibit candidates from appearing on more than
one party's ballot line.

T
he New Party does deserve credit for its seemingly obvious insight
that political battles, at their most fundamental level, must be fought in the
local electoral arena. It's a point liberals overlook when they focus all their
energies on participating in the abstract opinion-leader debates—most frequently
with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and its policy shop the Progressive
Policy Institute (PPI)—over "agenda," "message," and, that perennial favorite,
"the future of the Democratic Party."

To be sure, it is important for liberals to have advocacy groups and think
tanks of their own—like the Campaign for America's Future (CAF) and the Economic
Policy Institute (EPI)—to give liberals a voice in Washington and perform the
big-picture tasks of crafting messages, setting agendas, and telling what EPI
President Jeff Faux calls "stories of how the world works." As a supplier of
"intellectual products" to take to the voting public, the DLC is an organization
worth emulating.

But here's where liberals should heed the lesson of the New Right. The DLC's
biggest strategic flaw is that it concentrates on shaping elite opinion—at the
expense of tending to the grass roots. The DLC may be hailed in Washington as
the Democratic Party's most significant reformist force, but it has been given
the cold shoulder outside the Beltway. Its ambitious plan in the early 1990s to
organize state chapters has been unsuccessful, with only about ten currently in
existence. While the organization claims as members 600 elected officials from
all levels of government across the country, it still lacks a committed cadre of
hardcore supporters and activists beyond those in the pundit class. Its
bloodless centrism does not rouse the party's grass roots.

Furthermore, the ideological victories the DLC has won at the national level
in Washington are most likely ephemeral. The 1996 party platform, which bore the
centrist fingerprints of its authors, former DLCers Elaine Kamarck and Bruce
Reed, is better viewed as a product of Bill Clinton's triangulated, party-of-one
campaign than as any sort of enduring statement of party values.

An effective left-of-center DLC would have to do more than simply engage its
competitors in a contest of dueling manifestos. Today, the only people really
capable of giving an ideological identity to a diffuse and decentralized party
are the millions who vote in its primaries. While the CAF's 501 (c) (4) status
prohibits it from actual electioneering, it can work closely with these
organizations in crafting a progressive agenda on which their candidates can
run. "We'd like to connect liberal intellectuals with liberal grassroots
organizers," says CAF Codirector Roger Hickey.


LEAPing Ahead

Fortunately for liberals, this task is eminently doable. In states where
liberals have worked to pool their resources and build permanent progressive
electoral coalitions that specialize in running well-organized grassroots
campaigns, they often fare quite well in Democratic primaries. "Our main
challenge hasn't been winning the Democratic nomination," explains Nick Nyhart,
former co-director of the Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP), a
Connecticut progressive coalition. "It's been winning the general election
against conservative Republicans."

Established in 1980 to counter both the New Right's electoral organizing and
the conservative leanings of the Connecticut Democratic Party, LEAP is a
statewide coalition of 24 organizations—mainly left-leaning labor unions and
consumer, environmental, and women's groups—that has proved that, through
intensive organizing and sophisticated campaign techniques, liberals can prevail
in the electoral arena. Groups like LEAP are the practical progressive
alternative to the New Party.

Rather than offer its support in the form of money, as most PACs do, LEAP
gives progressives something that can be equally important: electoral know-how.
It provides training to candidates and their staff members, schooling them in
mundane but essential campaign tasks like running phone banks, coordinating
literature drops, and sending direct mail. LEAP also supplies volunteers from
its 24 member organizations, strategically distributing them to worthy
candidates who need the help. In races LEAP targets for a big push, it will
often send a volunteer to every door in the district.

LEAP's strategy has worked. It has recruited and elected dozens of liberals
to the state government, many of whom have risen to positions of power. In the
Connecticut legislature, a number of the 28 current LEAP-affiliated members
chair committees or hold leadership posts. Two LEAP affiliates, Miles Rapoport
and Nancy Wyman, currently serve in the statewide elected offices of secretary
of state and comptroller, respectively, and Rapoport is now running for
Congress. In 1994, LEAP almost put a progressive in the governor's mansion,
propelling Bill Curry to an upset win in the Democratic primary over his favored
conservative opponent before he was narrowly defeated in the general election by
Republican John Rowland.

Rather than engage in outdated institutional brokering or high-minded appeals
to party leaders, LEAP has taken its case directly to the voters, recruiting
progressives to run in Democratic primaries—even if that means going up against
incumbents. While this sort of independence has not necessarily won LEAP the
love of state party leaders—who prefer the blind allegiance that lets incumbents
run in uncontested primaries—it has won LEAP the Democratic Party's respect and,
when it comes to general elections, its support. LEAP has realized that the
surest way to bring the party back to the left is to elect liberals to office
under the party's banner. This is the Democratic corollary of what the New Right
did to the Republicans.

Progressives in other states are finally coming to this same realization and
forming LEAP-style coalitions of their own. New England alone boasts four states
in which progressives have started coalitions modeled on LEAP; and progressives
in far-flung states like Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, and New Mexico, among
others, have established coalitions as well. "In large part, the candidates who
win are the ones who are deciding what the party stands for," Marc Caplan,
LEAP's first director, explains. "This idea of organizing progressives and
getting them involved in electoral politics at the state level is eventually
going to manifest itself on the national level."

Of course, the Democratic Party's openness to progressives is largely
contingent upon progressives remaining a relatively small and ineffective
minority within the party—which is precisely what the LEAP-style coalition
approach seeks to change by aligning the Democratic Party more tightly with
progressive interests. But the lesson to be learned from the New Right's success is that in an era when the major parties are, in Viguerie's metaphor, "like big
battleships without rudders or ammunition," seizing control of one is a very
democratic affair. There are no party bosses to impress or backroom deals to
cut. It's the voters who will ultimately define the party. Conservatives
recognized this fact, organized accordingly, and made their concerns the
Republican Party's. If party and movement are to be brought together on the
left, liberals must take comparable steps. "I've been to so many meetings where
we've gathered like-minded people, we've talked a lot of high rhetoric, and
we've tried to come to grips with how we can get a say in the party and in the
government," gripes one Midwestern liberal state representative. "And while
we're meeting, everybody else is out there taking power. It's really pretty
simple. We ought to just get . . . elected."




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