Three steps to invigorate political parties

By , David Cohen is president of Common Cause.

One of the most puzzling problems facing the country is how to reach a consensus on key national policies -- inflation, unemployment, and energy. Before we voters elect a president; we should take time to consider the institutional changes that could help solve that problem. A place to begin is a revitalization of political parties.

Today the political parties hold the shakiest position as influencers of policy. Elected officials, the media, and citizens do not take them seriously. For decades they have grown weaker. Political parties neither deliver promises they make in the general election nor do they serve as recruiters and testers of political leadership.

In the past, successful political parties mobilized the electorate and in doing so wove together disparate elements in the country and produced a governing coalition to advocate, defend, and build a concept of the public good. it was a means of resolving cleavages and differences in America. Parties have abandoned or neglected that function with the end result that interest groups of all kinds are the centers of action in American politics.

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Congress is more beholden to the pull and tug of interest groups than it is to party officials. Presidents, too, have catered to narrow-interest groups at the expense of pressing major institutional changes. Challengers for public office play the same game. This makes it more difficult for the country to tackle the serious problems.

Creating change won't be accomplished by returning to a nostalgic remembrance of things past. Rather, the parties must take seriously their task of building coalitions. The first step is to knit the congressional party to the presidential party. There are three steps that should be taken and they can initiated by the political parties.

1. Elected and party leaders need to play a direct role in the nominating process. Too much depends now on the popular verdict in the early voting states. Suggestions made by Rep. Morris Udall to have primaries spread out a month apart, enabling each primary state to choose its particular month -- March , April, May, or June -- and by Sen. Howard Baker to group primaries along time-zone lines are constructive ideas. Party rules need to be changed to ensure that elected officials and party leaders are guaranteed participants at the nominating convention. This should include members of the House, senators, governors, state party chairpeople, national committee members, and state legislative leaders.

Elected officials are not monolithic in their approach to candidates or issues. Their presence would help tie party people into the choosing of a president and vice-president and motivate them to help the winning president govern effectively over the next four years.

2. After the presidential election, each party should convene a meeting of the same grouping of elected and party officials who participated in the national convention to thrash out a short list of legislative priorities for the next two years. Party platforms are interest-group wish lists of promises and now do not serve as an agenda that political leaders take seriously. When priorities are lacking within a political party, so is the accountability of its officeholders.

The country needs to know more than the president's agenda. It wants to know what the party's serious priorities are. The president of course should submit his recommendations. The final list would represent a broad consensus of each party.

The congressional parties would shoulder primary responsibility for seeing the agenda through. The majority party should bind its members to move that agenda along in the congressional committees so that the House and Senate would be able to vote on major issues that represented the priorities of the political parties. On floor votes, members would not be bound. In the past, attempts to create party priorities have in large part failed because congressional members balked. It is time for them to act as national representatives.

The party of the losing presidential candidate, by establishing its own broad-based policy group of congressional party and state participants, would develop its priorities as the party out of power. This would help frame the political debate over out two- and four-year election cycles.

3. An additional way to build coherence in the congressional parties and to sharpen public understanding of party programs would be to have televised debates in the Congress on the parties' agenda items. Each chamber could have three debates a year in which the majority party would select two of the topics and the minority party would select one of the topics. In this way, institutional change would educate the public on the parties' role in setting national policies.

In an era of fragmented politics, political parties can serve as political institutions that help meld the country's warring parts into a unified whole. Accountability and responsible government require revitalized political parties. To carry out wide-ranging changes that blend the values of advocacy with the ability to compromise, parties must take responsibility for their campaign promises and those of their officeholders.

Deciding and following through on a party's priorities will help voters recognize the connection between the votes they cast for candidates and the policies that they carry out. Making that connection will enable political parties to serve as recruiters of our future political leaders.

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