The party

She sits alone at the table in a quiet corner of the smoke-filled room, the cigarette in her ashtray untouched, slowly burning itself to the end.  She remains attractive in an aging sort of way, her makeup showing cracks over the lines it is supposed to conceal.  A younger man at the bar who spies her staring vacantly into her own future obscured somewhere in the table amuses himself by thinking, “Nice blonde hair.  Wonder why she died the roots brown?”   She is no longer the bright, active young woman in her 20s who delighted friends at the bar with her vivacity, no longer the maturing, thoughtful woman of her 30s who beguiled men with her eyes and soft, low voice.  The best years of her 40s are behind her.  The beguiling eyes have a bit too much eye shadow now.  Behind the unfocused stare at the nothingness of the table top, her mind can hear her own torchy voice made slightly more husky by too many cigarettes, too much bourbon, and too many nights talking loudly to be heard above the crowd of her past, softly, sadly, singing.

The party’s over.

It’s time to call it day.

They’ve burst your pretty balloon

And taken the moon away.

It’s time to wind up

The masquerade.

Just make your mind up ,

The piper must be paid.

The party’s over .

The candles flicker and dim.

You danced and dreamed

Through the night.

It seemed to be right,

Just being with him .

Now you must wake up .

All your dreams must end.

Take off your makeup .

The party’s over.

It’s all over, my friend.  

She continues to sit alone at the table wondering about a future and wondering about her future in this smoky bar where she once was part of the fun before her crowd drifted away one at a time answering different calls that come in life, until she began to spend evenings at the lonely table hoping somebody, anybody, would invite her to join them. She would be an interesting person to talk to if they did. But they never seem to want to do that anymore.  Her glass is empty, just another addition to her running tab at the bar.  She stubs out the last of her mostly-unsmoked cigarette and walks into the evening, the bartender the only one who says “good night.”

Former capitol press corps colleague Summer Ballantine of the Associated Press has been looking at the latest campaign finance reports filed with the state ethics commission by the Missouri Republican and Democratic Parties.   You might have seen the piece she wrote a few days ago about them.

The political parties that once were accumulating big amounts of money a year before a big election are barely keeping the lights on now.  Summer reports they’re in debt “and must essentially start from scratch in terms of fund raising” only twelve months before the statewide primary a year from now.

Once, not so long ago, political parties were, well, meaningful, and campaigns were Lucifer versus Gabriel and political conventions were important.  But that spirit doesn’t seem to live on this quiet street anymore.

Presidential primary after preference caucus after primary after primary have taken the drama out of conventions that are nothing more than infomercial coronations.

It has been thirty-one years since any convention opened without that party’s nominee decided by primary elections.  Walter Mondale went to the 1984 Democratic convention still forty votes short.  But challenger Gary Hart already put out the white flag by starting to lobby for the VP nomination, so the forty votes moved to Mondale and he won easily on the first ballot.

The last Republican convention to start without a candidate having the nomination locked up was in Missouri—the 1976 Kansas City convention.  Ronald Reagan was pressing incumbent Gerald Ford, but Ford rounded up enough delegates for a first-ballot nomination.  However, the drama of the event did draw a lot of interest.  That was the convention where Missouri’s young governor, Christopher Bond, was on Ford’s list of potential VP candidates.

Long, long gone are the days of bare-knuckle closed-door smoke-filled room dealings that produced a nominee—such as the 1912 Democratic convention when House Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri was the leading candidate but short of the two-thirds support needed.  He led the voting through TWENTY-NINE ballots before Woodrow Wilson moved ahead of him.  Wilson was nominated after the FORTY-SIXTH ballot.

But we’ve never had a convention like the 1924 Democratic convention that took 103 ballots to pick the general election loser, John W. Davis, beaten in November by Republican Calvin Coolidge.

The last time a brokered convention—the kind we had in 1912 and in 1924—picked a winning presidential candidate was 1936 when Democrats re-nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Brokered conventions in 1952 (when Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson for the first time) and 1948 (when Republicans picked Thomas Dewey) were the last time brokered conventions picked losers.

So the single biggest political party events that fired up the general public in election years have become dim and flickering candles.

As recently as 2004, as Summer recounts in her article, the Missouri GOP raised more than eight million dollars.  Last year it raised less than $1.4 million and through the first six months of this year it had raised just 122-THOUSAND.

She notes the D’s, who raised $12.8 million in the 2004 election cycle, raised ten million dollars less than that for last year’s elections.  And the Missouri Democratic Party reported only $179,000 raised in the first half of this year.

The two parties combined are more than $350,000 in debt.

Deeper thinkers than your faithful observer are analyzing the situation.  But from this distance it appears there might be a couple of factors.

One is that the words “Democrat” and “Republican” have been watered down by divisive definitions that are shouted at us each day on talk radio and on political analysis shows that are necessary to fill the time on the 24-hour cable news channels.  “Conservative” and “Liberal,” once words of honor, are now part of the poisonous rhetoric and name-calling that assaults us each day.  With partisans increasingly trying to paint ugly portraits of the other side with those words, the phrases “Republican Party” and “Democratic Party” are pushed to the margins and the descriptions we used to hear of “conservative Republicans” and “liberal Democrats” are lost in the broad-brush simplifications of our political system by those who profit from encouraging broad-brush political antagonism.

Another factor that readily comes to mind, and is mentioned in Summer’s report, is the action taken by the Missouri legislature in 2008 to allow unlimited campaign donations.  We watched that debate from the Senate press table and remember supporters saying the change would be okay as long as there was strong campaign reporting requirements so voters would know who is the money behind the candidates.

But we do not recall any serious discussion about what this would mean to political parties or how the no-limits donation law could be contravened.

The result is independent committees that don’t report the source of the piles of money they use to campaign for, or more often viciously against, candidates.  The result is that major donors give directly to the candidates they want to influence in the event they are elected, rather than giving to the parties.   Why give money to a party that can use it to help all of its general election candidates when you can give money to the individuals you want to have in the system who will be so grateful to you for making them winners that they are more likely to carry your water when they’re in office?

Oh, we know that the standard response from the candidate is that the big givers don’t buy their votes; they just get better access.   But guess what greater access can get you.

One analyst in Summer’s article suggested the change also has had another deleterious effect on our elections and therefore on our legislative bodies.  Unlimited donations to individuals mean more candidates with no experience in politics can get the backing to go directly to the House or the Senate in Jefferson City without any public service experience they would gain by working their way up through local offices.  And so they show up with agendas but not the expertise that will guide them toward their goals, which leads to disruptions in the system that are not beneficial.

And a few days ago, Senator McCaskill told a group at a book-signing in Jefferson City that every presidential candidate is “looking for a billionaire” in today’s campaign climate.  And she talked about how few people have contributed a lion’s share of campaign money raised so far by those candidates.  It’s happening at the lower levels, too.  Right here.

Missouri is the only state in the country without campaign donation limits and with a flawed reporting system.  She says Missouri needs both.  But, observers were left to ask, who–including political party leaders–will have the courage to become the leaders necessary to do something significant, not just something that plays around the edges and doesn’t really change anything?

Our political parties are not quite yet like the wilted blonde at the quiet corner table.  But they, like her, are facing the music.

Now you must wake up.

All your dreams must end.

Take off your makeup .

The party’s over .

It’s all over, my friend.  

We hope not.  We might never go back to the brawling brokered conventions of years gone by.  But there has to be more to our political parties than an empty-eyed lonely lady waiting for that cigarette in the ashtray to burn itself out.  Our nation can’t afford to have the blonde walk out into an uncertain night.

(“The Party’s Over” lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green with music by Julie Styne is from the 1956 Broadway Musical, Bells are Ringing.)



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