Strong Parties, Weak Candidates, and Competence
Tyler Cowen puts forth a great thought experiment (as they always are) about candidate selection in an “only Nixon can go to China” world. Read the whole post, but I specifically wanted to seize on this:
You might prefer to support very weak candidates, who have no strong base of support in the ideological wing of their party. They will find it hardest to betray the ideologues.
This seems like an excellent description of Mitt Romney in 2012. For that matter, it also seems like a fair description of John McCain in 2008. Neither had strong institutional bases of support nor established constituencies they could clearly betray. Both were fairly weak candidates that more or less had to constantly posture in highly visible ways to signal their obeisance.
However, this suggests that ideologically stronger parties will generally select weaker candidates. This doesn’t have to straightforwardly lead to weaker performance in elections; after all, Romney didn’t dramatically underperform. However, it does predict worse governance outcomes once in office! Why?
Weaker Presidents have much less political leverage. Obviously they can’t turn against type Nixon-style without inviting massive reprisal. Even aside from that, weaker officeholders need to throw more bones to their own party members. If we’ve entered a period of gridlock, that means that non-symbolic major legislative achievements are probably out. The main remaining alternative is cronyism – imagine Mitt Romney appointing Rick Santorum as Attorney General, for example. Without legislative levers, the weak White House will be constantly throwing out whatever favors the administration can dispense in order to keep its ideological base happy. These could span the spectrum from simple cronyism at the “harmless” end all the way up to wars of choice at the “terrible” end.
The world Cowen posits entails not only legislative gridlock, but a continual downward spiral of administrative incompetence.