Democrats and Republicans may be worlds apart on most things, but at their headquarters just two blocks away from each other on Capitol Hill, each is confronting the same question: Have political parties lost their purpose?
In the wake of two presidential defeats, the Republican National Committee on Monday unveiled its Growth and Opportunity Project, an effort to give the party engine a top-to-bottom tuneup.
The winning side of last year’s presidential election has been doing some reexamination, too.
This past week has seen President Obama’s campaign operation relaunch itself as Organizing for Action, building a new political machine outside the Democratic National Committee and causing some quiet consternation among party traditionalists.
After Obama’s first election, his campaign organization, then known as Obama for America, decamped to the DNC. But that, as the president acknowledged last week, turned out to be a disappointment, when it proved unable to re-create its magic for the 2010 midterm elections.
“What we don’t want to do is repeat the mistake I think that I believe in 2008 we made, where some of that energy just kind of dissipated and we were only playing an inside game,” Obama told a dinner gathering of about 75 big donors and other supporters of the new endeavor, a comment that rankled some at party headquarters.
Though some Democrats fear that OFA will compete with party organizations for resources, its officials insist that the new operation is designed not to win elections but to advance Obama’s agenda. They add that the president is committed to ensuring the party’s success in 2014, including helping with its fundraising.
Political parties are nearly as old as the republic, performing the basic roles of putting forward candidates for election, explaining their philosophies and then organizing people to vote for them.
But old tools such as patronage jobs do not provide as much influence in a mass-media era when fewer Americans claim a party label. For the past two years, the Gallup organization has reported a record 40 percent of Americans identifying themselves as independent.
“Parties have to continue to redefine themselves to be relevant to the future,” said Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and head of OFA.
The decline of the parties and their battles to remain relevant are forces that academics and journalists have chronicled for more than half a century. As far back as 1972, the late Washington Post reporter David Broder wrote a book titled “The Party’s Over: The Failure of Politics in America.”
“In the political science field, scholars have had a hard time defining a political party for a very, very long time,” said Daniel J. Galvin, a Northwestern University professor who wrote a 2010 book on the sometimes-fraught relationship between presidents and their party organizations.
But for many of those years, the concern was that the parties were too much alike and philosophically undefined. For instance, if you said “Democrat” in the 1950s, you might be describing a Southern segregationist or a left-wing Northeasterner. Republicans for decades were united primarily by their views on economic issues, and tolerated a broad range of opinion on social matters and on national security.
Now, the opposite is true. Party labels have become a shorthand for a rigid ideological dividing line — Democrats to the left and Republicans to the right.
And the parties’ clout has receded even more quickly in recent years, because of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which cut off their access to unregulated contributions known as “soft money,” and the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission,which opened the spigot for money to flow to outside groups.
“The law isn’t the explanation for the weaknesses of the parties, but the law has accelerated their struggles,” said one top Democratic National Committee official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Political parties increasingly are outmatched in resources and organization by special interest groups or those, such as tea party groups, devoted more to furthering a cause than to achieving electoral victory.
As a result, the parties are no longer as able to protect their incumbents from ideologically driven primary challenges, to define their messages or even to keep up with technology.
Last year, for instance, the parties spent a total of $228 million on independent efforts to boost their candidates, primarily with ads. That was well less than half the $631 million spent by the “super PACs” that have sprung up since the Citizens United decision, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.