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Have Democrats Lost Sight of Their Founding Principle?

August 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his book "Spoiled Rotten" Jay Cost lays out historical context for why he says the Democratic Party has strayed from its founding principle: that all people were created equal, and the government's job is to ensure that equality. Cost explains to Judy Woodruff how Democrats have fallen off course, and what to do about it.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the third in our series of books about American politics.

Jay Cost of “The Weekly Standard” explores the history of the Democratic Party and its evolution from the time of Andrew Jackson to the present.

In his new book, “Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic,” Cost argues Democrats have lost their way, and that their push to get reelected overshadows the party’s founding principles.

I sat down with him earlier this week.

Jay Cost, welcome to the NewsHour.

JAY COST, “Spoiled Rotten”: Thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You make no bones about it. You write that you think the Democratic Party is badly broken, not representative any longer of the United States. But you say it also had a once-proud tradition.

JAY COST: Right.

Well, the Democratic Party’s founding principles were republican principles with a small R. The idea behind it was this notion, this quintessentially American notion that everybody was created equal, regardless of their social or economic status in life, and that it was up to the government to ensure that people are treated equally.

And the argument of my book is while that was the principle on which the party was founded, it’s since been — that principle has since been lost.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what happened?

JAY COST: Well, what happened is, put simply, the mixture of big government and political concerns.

The Democratic Party around the 1930s recognized the potential of using big government to win over on a permanent basis classes of citizens as clients, as I call them, and transform them into loyal voters. But what happened, though, is that…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Coming out of the Depression?

JAY COST: That’s right.

Coming out of the Depression and the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt, was a great political innovation. But what happens, though, is that those groups become part of the party and continually demand a stream of benefits. And now, as my argument goes, the party is now totally dependent upon these groups and is no longer capable of governing for the country at large.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And give us an example of that. What’s an example of one of the groups you identify as having made demands and the party, the Democratic Party, caved in to those demands?

JAY COST: Probably the best example over time is organized labor.

Organized labor remains an extremely powerful faction within the Democratic Party, arguably more powerful than ever, and this despite the fact that organized labor as a share of the total work force has declined from about 25 percent in the ’50s to about 10 percent today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — but you also write about African-Americans. You talk about radical advocates for the poor, environmentalists, gay rights groups.

JAY COST: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So all of these groups, you’re saying — is it that their claims were illegitimate, that they shouldn’t have asked for what they asked?

JAY COST: Absolutely not, no.

And, in fact, my book — and what I try to do is studiously avoid issues of right vs. wrong. Everybody has a legitimate claim. People are honestly articulating and making their interests known. The problem is the way the Democratic Party deals with these interests. Once the claims are made, what does the party do?

And the argument of the book is, is that the way the party has responded to this is, rather than try and develop a national program, it caters to individual groups.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how — how did that happen? I mean, why didn’t it come up with a more national approach?

JAY COST: Well, my argument is, it gets back to the urban political machines.

The earliest generation of progressives, the earliest liberals in this country were very much anti-machine, in the — Woodrow Wilson and even Franklin Roosevelt was instrumental in destroying Tammany Hall. But what happened was, they imported the Tammany model into Washington, D.C.

And their approach was, what do you want for — to vote for us? We will deliver that to you. And so what’s happened is, over the years, is that groups have made arrangements, private arrangements, with the Democratic Party. And the deal is, we will vote for you on Election Day. And then, when you get into Washington, you provide with us benefits.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some people, I think, reading your theory, Jay Cost, would say, well, how is that different from the groups that are behind the Republican Party…

JAY COST: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … Christian conservatives, for example, the gun rights group the National Rifle Association, for example, business groups? How is that different?

JAY COST: Right.

Well, this is an endemic problem to political parties. Any political organization, any political party that wants to win a majority is going to have to appeal to groups. And that’s just been the way — way things have been, even since Andrew Jackson’s day.

The argument of my book, though, is that the Democrats have added too many groups and that there’s just difficulty striking a balance between the demands of their groups and the national interests.

Now, the Republicans have their own problems, for sure. And you mentioned big business, which historically has been a client of the Republican Party.

But in the last 25 years, we have seen big business begin to play both sides very, very cleverly. So, for instance, this year, the big banks are supporting Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. But, in 2008, they supported Barack Obama over John McCain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jay Cost, what do you say is the remedy for all of this?

JAY COST: You know, it’s hard to say.

Historically speaking, the remedy for the Democratic Party was Southern populists. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both reformist Democrats who didn’t come from this tradition of clientelism. Just the political dynamic and the history of South being what it is, they were largely immune from that.

So, I think the best solution for the Democrats is to look South.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For a presidential…

JAY COST: For presidential leadership and political leadership.

And the Southern Democrats have an intuitive understanding, I think, of the needs to balance the interests within their coalitions with their broader electorate. And that, I think, is why Bill Clinton was such a political success during his time in Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s another take on the political parties today. I interviewed Mickey Edwards, the former Republican Oklahoma congressman, very recently, who said he thinks what needs to happen is that the parties need to not have so much control over who gets to run in different congressional districts and states, and once these candidates get to Washington, the parties have too much say over what they do and how they vote.

What about that aspect?

JAY COST: Well, they do have a lot of say.

And the say often happens behind the scenes in ways that are not often commented upon, like, for instance, committee assignments and climbing up the ladder within Congress itself. It’s a real problem in a lot of respects.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is — what’s the ultimate at stake here? Why is it a problem if this doesn’t get fixed, as you describe it?

JAY COST: Well, the issue in the book is not liberalism vs. conservatism. The issue is in the book is republicanism with a small R.

In other words, the book assumes the legitimacy and moral satisfaction of the liberal program. The question is, liberalism on whose behalf? And the goal — the argument behind the book is that the Democratic Party should try to pursue liberalism for the entire country, rather than just the collection of interest groups that now sort of embody it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you think that’s possible, doable?

JAY COST: I think it is. I mean, again, I think Bill Clinton definitely signaled that it was possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, we’re going to leave it there, Jay Cost.

The book is “Spoiled Rotten” — provocative title — “How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic.”

Thank you very much for being with us.

JAY COST: Thanks for having me.