Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Who's the Bull Elephant?

Who is the leader of the Democratic Party? If you said anyone other than Barack Obama, or if you even had to think about it for any period of time, with all due respect, you don't understand the nature of party leadership in Washington.

While some have criticized President Obama for giving congressional leaders such as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid too much leeway in setting the policy agenda, no one on Capitol Hill can be called the leader of the Democratic Party. And it certainly is not Tim Kaine, who chairs the Democratic National Committee.

When the founding fathers designed the presidency, in the Constitution of 1787, they intended that political parties play no role in relation to that office. But, by custom and practice, it has long since been established that one of a president's roles is that of leader of his (so far, always his) political party.

There are exceptions, such as when a president is running up against the term limit, and his party has already chosen its candidate to attempt to succeed him. Also, if a president seeking reelection faces an intraparty challenge, such as those of Pat Buchanan against George H.W. Bush in 1992, or Ted Kennedy against Jimmy Carter in 1980, I suppose the president loses some of his grip on his party. However, of course, neither of those circumstances currently applies to Obama. He is the undisputed Democratic leader.

But, what about the other party? This article in Politico describes a confrontation between leaders of the congressional Republicans, and of the party's national committee, over who should set the Republican policy agenda.

Given the bicameral nature of Congress, there is no one Republican leader on the Hill, who can lay claim to the leadership mantle. And the current crop of Republican governors doesn't make a credible challenge for the role. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a lame duck who is out of synch ideologically with much of his party. Rick Perry of Texas is perhaps seen as too far in the other ideological direction, and he is not even assured of renomination in his state.

At various points during the Clinton presidency, Republican governors in California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan played major leadership roles, but they're all out of office by now, and have been replaced by either Democrats or less effectual Republicans.

The chairman of the national committee of the opposition party has often taken an independent role in party leadership. By contrast, the chairman of the president's party is expected to be a cheerleader for the president and a technocrat who sees that the party's infrastructure functions properly, and does not obstruct the president's agenda.

From the Republican standpoint, coordination and communication between the Hill and the RNC is probably the best way to minimize tension. And, while we can't expect that the egos of leaders at that level can be reduced to anything resembling that of the average person, perhaps those leaders can at least be cognizant of that as an issue, and leave as much legroom as possible for others' egos.

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