Way back in about 1970 the folks down the road in St. Joe, Mo, voted to have non-partisan politics for their City Council. So no one ran for office as a Democrat or a Republican – just interested community citizens. The idea was that partisanship caused too much bickering. The people in St. Joe wanted their council to act in the interest of the City, not in the interest of a State or National Party Platform. The Mayor at the time, the Honorable Douglas Merrifield, was not happy. Merrifield preferred the Team Sport of partisanship.
I cannot say that I actually knew Mayor Merrifield – but we had a long talk in a bar one evening in the early fall of 1972. I was sitting in the bar, soaking up some cold suds with friends, when the Mayor came in. It was the Mayor’s custom to circulate in the local bars – inviting people like me to talk at our leisure. There were a couple of things on my mind so I offered to buy the Mayor a beer. He accepted, as was his custom, then he paid for the round, as was his custom. Mayor Merrifield was the retired President of the St. Joe Light and Power Company – he was no ordinary politician.
The 1972 Presidential election was contentious – President Richard Nixon had inherited a nasty little war in Southeast Asia. He was being challenged by the liberal Democrat George McGovern. Nixon set the bar for nasty campaigns – and I hardly knew anyone who openly supported McGovern – he was so liberal that he scared the seven liberals of St. Joe. My first question to the Mayor was about the idea of non partisan politics at the local level. The Mayor sat straight up, forcefully denouncing the idea of the non-partisan nonsense. What’s the problem, I asked? It turns out that Mayor Merrifield was originally from New York and his father had been a part of the Tammany Hall political machine. I can remember the Mayor distinctly saying, “I go to the City Council with an issue and I have no idea how much support I have. If there were five Democrats on the nine member Council then I could know for sure that I had five votes.” He suggested that nine individuals without a unified platform was just chaos.
The opportunity presented itself so I asked the Mayor if he was going to vote for the Democrat, George McGovern. They Mayor looked into his half empty glass and said, “I always vote Democrat.” I was young and foolish so I persisted, “So you are going to vote for McGovern?” Mr. Mayor sighed, “I always vote for the Democrat.”
Even the most partisan of politicians sometimes find their party wanting. Tip O’Neal, the Democrat House Speaker from 1977 to 1987, is quoted saying, “All politics is local.” He was correct – but what does this mean for a National Political Party? It means that party politicians sometimes find themselves conflicted between their party and their local constituents. In the end, politics is an individual sport. Damn the Party Platform, I have to get elected.
Back in the day of Tammany Hall politics the Party would insure the election of their candidate. In the 1934 Senate race in Missouri the upstart Harry Truman received 60,000 more votes from Kansas City than there were registered voters. The Pendergast Political Machine in Kansas City did their job. Truman’s opponent from St. Louis was rewarded in the same manner by the St. Louis Machine. Harry Truman campaigned in rural Missouri and the farm vote carried the day – Truman became the Senator.
Federal election laws and political corruption laws, enforced over the past many decades have appropriately reduced the power of local political parties. Congressmen and Senators are often left to their own devices to get elected. Every politician is left to understand their constituents, to cater to the people who put them in office. The individual nature of local politics does not play well with national parties.
We have two regular political parties, Democrat and Republican. But we have sub sets within the parties, some so cohesive that they have their own labels, like Blue Dog Democrats. There are currently 51 Democrats in the House who are conservative or moderate and have formed their own portfolio of ideas.
Individual issues resonate differently on main street than on Capital Hill. The recent hearings on the economic stimulus package, and specifically on AIG, was a perfect example. The Representatives at the hearing knew that their constituents back home cannot possibly follow all of the details of these massive legislative efforts. So rather than listen to the AIG CEO Edward Liddy. The same questions were asked in the afternoon as were asked in the morning, each with the appropriate fervor for the evening news back in their home district. This was not a team effort – this was individual sport for congressmen to have sound bites for reelection.
This writer is conflicted. We see individual stars on professional sports teams disrupt the team cohesion with their grandstanding. Terrell Owens comes to mind. We see the politicians on Capital Hill grandstanding, promoting their own national image. Mitch McConnell comes to mind. But we also see politicians grandstanding on behalf of their party. Mitch McConnell comes to mind. McConnell is conflicted. He was reelected in 2008 by a very slim majority – so he has to support his party but he has to take care of the local politics.
Ted Kennedy had found a formula of local and national success. He maintained his liberal positions on a national scale, but delivered the goods locally. Former President Clinton once said that whenever Senator Kennedy came to the White House he always came with a list of needs for his home state of Massachusetts. Kit Bond of Missouri also found that earmarks for Missouri would get him reelected, and he could maintain his national political affiliation without threat.
The only thing we can surmise is this: Fan voting for individuals on a Sports Team would not create the best team. Fan voting for politicians on Capital Hill creates no team at all.
(St. Joe returned to partisan politics in 1974. A new Charter was approved in 1981 which again banned partisan politics at the local level).