A review of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, by Jay Cost

Every morning my grandmother, an Italian immigrant, would light three candles in our Philadelphia neighborhood church, one each for the two sons she had lost during World War II, and one for "Mr. Roosevelt." At home, a bust of Saint Anthony of Padua, the Patron Saint of lost things, sat on the living room mantel next to a tiny statue of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Sometimes Sant'Antonio didn't come through, but FDR always delivered. He and his New Deal padroni practiced what they preached about using government to give average men, women, and children a chance to lead peaceful and productive, even if not uniformly prosperous, lives. Neighbors helped neighbors, the Church did what it could, and city agencies ran shelters. But "the relief" kept the family in its house and put an extra loaf of bread on its table.

FDR also took on the bastardi that owned "free enterprises" like the coal mines and sweatshops that my grandmother and other family members knew first-hand. With the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, the Democrats became the party of the unionized working class. In Philly, as in most other big cities, grateful ethnics who were registered Republican or not registered at all became loyal Democrats. My father, a precinct captain, helped to make that happen, and was rewarded with a patronage job that later became a civil service job.

By the early 1980s, most relatives and friends had moved to the suburbs. Many became Reagan Democrats or re-registered as Republicans. But my grandmother did not move. She lived among what by then were her predominantly black, low-income neighbors. The only difference between us and them, she insisted, was that while they, too, had "the relief," they did not yet have the bellavoro (good jobs). I was by then a doctoral student in political science at Harvard. Pestered by self-proclaimed "Marxist" peers to "articulate" my "ideology," I suppressed the impulse to punch the weirdoes in their faces (reactionary?), and then said something like "Catholic Democrat—abortions are bad, unions are good, and America is great."

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I would say the same today. From the New Deal to the present, the Democratic Party, for all of its insufferable radical-liberal elites, and despite its morally fatal failure to care for unborn children, has generally stood for average American families, wageworkers, immigrants, and the poor. Democratic leaders from FDR to President Barack Obama have appreciated that demography is, and should be, electoral destiny in a representative democracy. Thus it is that the Democratic Party is now favored by most Latinos, an ethnically diverse subpopulation that will constitute one third of U.S. residents before mid-century. And thus it is that in three straight presidential elections a majority of voters under age 30 have voted for the Democrat.

Jay Cost is a young, talented, and accomplished writer for the Weekly Standard with an M.A. in political science from the University of Chicago and Philly ties of his own. He sees the Democratic Party far less nostalgically and favorably than I do. His well-worth-reading book's title minces no words: Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic.

"Why," asks Cost, "has the Democratic party gone from being the people's party of reform to the party of special interest carve-outs?" His answer is "clientelism—transforming factions of voters into loyal members of a party's coalition by offering them special privileges." He allows that the party "is as full of upstanding people as any other organization." And he believes that it once approximated the "noble" thing that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, and William Jennings Bryan aspired for it to be, namely, "a reform party for and of the people."

Yet today, claims Cost, an 80-year descent from populist grace—purchasing big labor's loyalty during the New Deal; buying blacks' allegiance during the Great Society; and more recently favoring feminists, environmentalists, trial lawyers, and other "factions" with government-financed goodies—"has rendered the Democratic Party incapable of governing a republic such as ours" and bereft of "the spirit of republicanism that inspired the national founding."

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Speaking on November 14, 2012, Governor Mitt Romney seemed to be channeling Cost's "politics of patronage" thesis. According to Romney, President Obama won by giving many a "big gift" to young people ("forgiveness of college loans"), poor people ("free health care" worth "$10,000 per family"), Latinos ("free health care" plus "amnesty for children of illegals"), and other groups that voted Democratic.

As Cost would have it, FDR was the first such blue gift horse. Like Woodrow Wilson before him, Roosevelt used federal power to help "the humble members of society," but he "also borrowed a page from the urban patronage machines and transformed the national Democratic Party into a kind of Tammany on the Potomac." After FDR, Harry Truman consolidated the New Deal coalition, Lyndon Johnson bolted blacks to the party with the Voting Rights Act, and Jimmy Carter gave teachers' unions their own federal cabinet agency. Cost sees the Bill Clinton presidency as "a brief moment when a centrist Democrat could free himself from the party's clients and govern with Republicans," but that eight-year "moment," he concludes, represented no "great change in the structure or ideological outlook of the Democratic coalition."

In the book's final chapter, Cost frets that the "Democratic party under Obama is now the faction that robs Peter to pay Paul—with Peter being the fellow smart enough to vote or contribute to the party, and Paul being the guy who didn't have such foresight." He invokes Tom Donohue, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce chief who "commented during the health care debate, ‘If you don't get in this game…you're on the menu!'"

But powerful Republican client groups avoid being on the menu by buying the restaurant. From 1998 to 2010, Donohue's pro-business body spent more than $850 million lobbying policymakers. The next biggest spenders were also pro-GOP business interests. In the 2012 book, The Unheavenly Chorus, political scientists Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady report that in Washington, D.C., business lobbyists now outnumber lobbyists for labor unions and other liberal causes by 16-to-1, up from 12-to-1 in 1986.

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Party-building politics ain't bean bag, and it never was. As Richard Brookhiser recounts in his 2011 biography, James Madison, Madison lost his 1777 bid for a Virginia Assembly seat to a tavern keeper who was more ready than he was to win voters by "giving them treats." Madison never made that mistake again. Instead, he cobbled together the nation's first political party (the Republican Party that evolved into today's Democratic Party).

Woodrow Wilson is my least favorite president ever, but he was not, as Cost contends, the first Democrat to dishonor the "Jacksonian notion of limited government." That would have been Jackson himself, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., observed in The Age of Jackson (1945). While Jefferson ignored limited government principles whenever it suited him (see: Louisiana Purchase), Jackson and his party men, "under the banner of antistatism," carried on a "vigorous program of government intervention" and expansion that gave Democratic lackeys and loyalists a leg up (and first National Republicans and then Whigs a kick in the chops).

As the late James Q. Wilson noted in The Amateur Democrat (1962), no president "used the power of patronage more ruthlessly than Abraham Lincoln." Among other less-than-noble party-building tactics, the post-Lincoln GOP courted anti-Catholic Nativists; used "states' rights" and "law and order" as dog whistles for Southern whites (once mostly all Democrats) opposed to civil rights for blacks; and, trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt exempted, greased its corporate and other wealthy comrades with enough tax loopholes, bailouts, and mega-bucks government contracts to keep their votes and campaign contributions safely Republican.

Democrats, observes Cost, crafted Obamacare so as to satisfy a long "line of groups demanding to wet their beaks." This "political debacle," as he dubs it, featured the party's leaders "pushing for reforms that the people don't want and that cater to the very kinds of special interests Democrats have opposed for generations."

But with respect to how various political oxen got gored or gratified and how key deals got cut behind closed doors, Obamacare's legislative genesis was neither unique nor uniquely unsavory. The Supreme Court upheld the law. Its namesake got reelected. Public support for repeal has trended way down from its 2010 peaks as the law's main provisions have become better known. And millions more fellow citizens, including children, now have affordable health care.

Cost criticizes liberal Democrats for being "inclined to point a finger at the voters when faced with indications of their party's weakness." It seems to me, however, that conservative Republicans are no less challenged when diagnosing their weaknesses. Unlike Cost, I believe that Clinton did lastingly pull my party back closer to the center on crime, welfare, religion in the public square, fiscal policy, national defense, and more. And I am also pretty sure that, had far-right Republicans not reduced President George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" to libertarianism in religious drag, and had party leaders sustained his outreach efforts to blacks and heeded his call for a fair, balanced, and bipartisan immigration reform policy, the GOP would be in a far stronger position today.

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I preceded Cost as a regular Weekly Standard writer from 1995 to 2008. I stressed in several articles that the electorate mixes "red" conservative and "blue" liberal values in ways that leave it "purple." Before the 2008 election, my last such piece was entitled "The 3.6 Percent Republicans: The GOP Needs McCain Democrats to Win." The 3.6% referred to the percentage of all voters that in various surveys had self-identified as both Republican and "very conservative." It seemed clear in 2008 that the GOP was becoming like the leading carriage manufacturer at the dawn of the automobile age, enjoying a bigger and bigger share of a smaller and smaller market.

The American Enterprise Institute's Henry Olsen argued months before Romney lost that there simply are not enough white male voters or enough church-going evangelicals for Republicans to remain competitive in presidential elections—not unless they broaden their electoral base.

Unduly hard as I think it often is on my party, Cost's book is a considerable intellectual achievement, and he is manifestly among the nation's best young journalist-scholars. But rather than deriding how Democrats win, I hope that Cost, grayer conservative thinkers, and GOP leaders will focus more on how to engineer a big, bold rebirth of the Republican Party. My grandmother would spin in her grave, but give America a truly populist GOP—pro-life, pro-religious pluralism, pro-immigrant, pro-worker, pro-small business, and pro-poor—and I might become a Republican myself. But this Democrat for life hardly expects the big gift of a newly purple GOP.