Even More Tipping Point

One of our ever-increasing stable of intelligent readers was inspired by my analysis of tipping point dynamics in the supply of Congressional challengers to observe that there may be another force out there that may have an influence on the quality of Republicans on the ballot in 2006: the Republican organization in the House. He observes that, “Is the Delay/Rove machine driving away candidates? I can see the appeal of running to be a conservative revolutionary type, but where is the appeal of running to be a Delay/Rove toady?”

This is, I think, an excellent point, and one of real theoretical significance. One advantage of having a strong “machine” in the House is that it may allow you to squeeze more out of even a slim majority than you could otherwise (by converting your members into, in our reader’s elegant phrasing, turning them into “toadies”). By ensuring party discipline, you make it harder for Republican members to instigate “center-out” (where the majority comes from the right of the Democratic party and the left of the Republicans) or “strange bedfellows” (made up of the right of the Republicans and the left of the Democrats–it happens!) coalitions. A strong party structure in the House means that members of the majority recognize that any possible winning coalition must be a partisan one, with at best a few of the most conservative Democrats included.

The downside is, as the reader suggests, less visible. Members choose whether to run and challengers whether to enter the race based partially on the intrinsic rewards of serving in Congress. The more autonomy they have to construct coalitions, and the less crap they have to swallow from the leadership, the more enjoyable it is to be a Congressman. So the downside of a strong party organization in Congress is that it lowers the intrinsic rewards of serving, and therefore, at the margin, reduces the quality of those who contest Congressional elections. Given that a significant percentage of the vote in individual Congressional elections is driven by candidate quality, therefore, the stronger the party organization (or, at the least, the more it looks like the DeLay organization), the lower the candidate quality. This is an effect that is likely to emerge slowly, but it may be “activated” by the other dynamics we’ve been talking about here. When combined with the perception that the race is going to be harder next time around, because of a swing to the minority party, members who were already chafing under the DeLay organization (or those who are potential challengers who were not looking forward to putting on the yoke) will choose not to run.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.