New Powers of the National Committee

THE quiet and almost unperceived usurpations of political power by the party National Committee, during the past fifteen or twenty years, are well worth study. They furnish an excellent example of the continual readjustments which the exercise of power in a democracy is always undergoing. They show, too, that the substance of political control may exist where there is little appearance of it, and make it clear how poorly the book theory of government may correspond to the actual facts. Parties themselves are extra-Constitutional. The authority of the party Convention, like that of responsible government in England, derives from unwritten law. One thing we may always be sure of, — a man or a committee will accept and wield every particle of power that offers itself. “ Power cleaves to him who power exerts.” It ought not to surprise us, then, if we find, on examination, that what was at first only a simple and temporary agency of party activity has silently taken to itself new powers, and assumed to exert them year in and year out, instead of merely through a presidential campaign. That, in a word, is what I think can be shown to be true of the rôle in our political life which the National Committee has come to play. In its present prestige and animus, it would dictate to the very party which created it. It would control conventions. It would prescribe candidacies. It would distribute party rewards. It would both consolidate and perpetuate the power which has fallen to it. In short, the clay of the National Committee is ready to say to the party potter that moulded it, " What doest thou ? ” Like nearly every rise to undesignated power, that of the National Committee has been slow and gradual. Nemo repente. Its early function — the only one described in histories of parties and manuals of government — was very modest. It would appear that even Mr. Bryce knew of it as only a passing instrument of the party in a presidential campaign. Merely such, in fact, it long was. Most people did not even know who was the Chairman of the National Committee at any given time. He was functus officio with the ending of the electoral struggle. Usually, indeed, he emerged from obscurity four years later, long enough to call the National Convention to order ; but it was only as a perfunctory Jones or Robinson that he reappeared for this or some other minor duty of the Committee. Occasionally, it is true, some Chairman rose to picturesque prominence, as did “ Seven-Mule Barnum ” in 1876, and gained a sobriquet which stuck to him, more or less agreeably, for years ; but even so, the notoriety was nothing like the authority which attaches to the later breed. What reader, without stopping to think or referring to some newspaper file or history, can say who was Garfield’s Chairman of committee, who Hancock’s ? Theirs was the time when chairmen fluttered their little day, amid the glare and noise of a campaign, only thereafter to be lost in the general forgetfulness.

The change began to be sharply marked in 1884. It was owing in part to the personality of the Chairman, Senator Gorman, who then came forward, without clamor or controversy, to extend in a very notable way the powers and emoluments of the office. But his opportunity lay largely in the fact that a great party revolution was effected under his management. Had Mr. Blaine’s campaign been successful, there is no reason to suppose that his Chairman, Mr. B. F. Jones, would have ranked as anything more than simply another of the respectable but meaningless figureheads of the National Committee. But with Gorman the case was different. Under his guidance, a party came to power which had been out of office for a quarter of a century. It meant something like a convulsion. The Democratic party was stirred to its depths, — some would say to its dregs. Masses of men were swayed by new hopes of office ; the whole federal administration was to be reorganized ; the claims of individuals necessarily unknown to the President elect had to be sifted, and who so natural a presiding genius in all this work as the man who had had his hand upon each of the levers of the Democratic machine for five exciting months, and who enjoyed in a peculiar way the prestige of an unprecedented victory on a close-fought field ? At all events, thousands of Democrats turned to Mr. Gorman at that juncture, and turned to him, not as Senator from Maryland, but as Chairman of the National Committee. How he magnified the latter office was not fully known at the time, except to those who had occasion to observe matters from the inside. Mr. Gorman was never a man to go hunting with a brass band. It was quietly, but none the less effectively, that he made his power as party Chairman tell in the distribution of party patronage, in the shaping of legislation, and as well in determining party policy. Not merely at the beginning of President Cleveland’s first term, but all through it, those who were intimately acquainted with affairs at Washington knew how large a significance and how great a weight came to be associated with the influence of Senator Gorman. His visé was most eagerly in demand by office-seekers. His voice was most listened to in caucus. And the new deference which he won came to him, not as Mr. Gorman, not as Senator Gorman, but as Chairman Gorman. His tenure of the position marked the first great step in the enlargement of its powers and privileges.

He was closely followed by a man in the opposite party, who carried the assumptions of the National Chairman to a still higher pitch. Mr. Quay was less secret in his methods than Mr. Gorman. Immediately after the presidential election of 1888, he publicly announced that his party office he was bound to make a continuous one ; that he was going to look carefully to the work of garnering all the fruits of victory ; and that the National Committee (meaning himself) was not to sink back into inactivity, but was to keep a firm hand upon the party organization and upon party strategy. How persistently Senator Quay adhered to this plan is matter of too recent history to require detailing here. Enough to say that he sensibly enlarged the prerogatives and stiffened the self-assertion of the office he held.

After 1892 there came a pause. For a time the party Chairman seemed to fall back into his old modest stillness and humility. Two causes conspired to bring about this result. One had to do with personalities. President Cleveland’s second election to the presidency was too sweeping a success to be attributable to any manager. The victory was obviously his own. More than that, his Chairman, Mr. Harrity, of Pennsylvania, held no office, and was, besides, not a pushing man, bent on aggrandizing his own position at the head of the National Committee, and extracting from it all possible advantage. Even if he had been, the situation would have been too much for him. His party’s failing fortunes in 1893 and 1894 were too plain, and it was too unlikely that it would long have patronage to dispense, to make it worth any man’s while to build up his individual prestige through use of the party machinery. The deep cloud under which the Democratic party lay almost from the first days of its return to power in 1893 did not allow of additions to the bulk of the plant whose early growth has now been traced.

It is in the person of Senator Hanna that this growth has reached its culmination. He has outstripped all his predecessors in making of the Chairmanship of the National Committee a centre of political power. Happy accidents have conspired with great skill and determination on his part to bring about such a consummation. He has now held the office continuously for five years, — indeed, practically for seven years. It was in 1893 or 1894 that Mr, Hanna, then little known outside of Ohio, set about, in his long-headed and far-planning way, the election of William McKinley to the presidency. He perceived the thickening signs of a political reaction, and in them saw the great opportunity for his friend Mr. McKinley, and also for himself. The history of that campaign before the campaign of 1896 has never been written ; but enough of it is known to show the signal ability and resolution with which it was planned and fought. Long before the Republican Convention met, old masters like Senators Chandler and Quay and Platt recognized the rise of a political manipulator greater than themselves. This is referred to at present only to make the point that Mr. Hanna was party Chairman in fact for two years before he became so in name. In the course of those preliminary manœuvres he had swept everything before him, so that his accession to the Chairmanship was foregone. On the heels of that came his election to the Senate. This both heightened his prestige and put him in a position to assert and extend his power as National Chairman. In the latter capacity (counting in his two years or more of antecedent campaigning for the nomination of McKinley in 1896) he had made a host of preelection pledges. His post in the Senate enabled him to see that they were carried out. Never, it is safe to say, did a party Chairman previously have so much to do with the apportionment of party patronage. The President gave him substantially a free hand in the South. Then there came along the Spanish War, yielding our Cæsar of a Chairman further meat on which to grow great. Thousands of new appointments had to be made. For each applicant the indorsement of Chairman Hanna was eagerly sought. His power grew by power. After four years of its gradual increase came another successful campaign for the presidency, under his management. Reckoning all this in, we begin to see how high were the pretensions, how proud the importance and influence, which this most able and assertive of all the Chairmen of National Committees might have been excused for thinking lawfully his own, on the eve of the assassination of President McKinley.

Whether the accession of Mr, Roosevelt is to result in a challenge of this Front de Bœuf of our party politics remains to be seen. Some men who know well both President and Chairman think it inevitable that their spears will be clashing upon each other’s shields, sooner or later. There have been pretty obvious signs that Mr. Hanna has at least been looking the field over, to see exactly what his strength would be if it came to actual jousting. If he does pick up the presidential glove, it will be, we may depend upon it, only because a careful measuring of his power has convinced him that, at any rate, he is not foredoomed to defeat. What is the armor which he knows he can put on ? What his lance in rest, the sword buckled to his thigh ?

It is difficult to set off, each by itself, the elements of the political power of the party National Committee, vested largely in its Chairman, for the reason that they are all inextricably interdependent. The Chairman has the spending of vast sums of money : this gives him political power. But he has the money to spend only because he is first in a position of political power. So of his rights of patronage; of control of party conventions, big and little ; of his dictation in both party manœuvring and public legislation : all these things dovetail into one another, and appear now as cause, now as consequence. Still, it is possible to see just how each of the instruments in the hand of the National Chairman may be made subservient to the upbuilding of his own prestige and power. He has, for example, millions of dollars to disburse. There is good authority for the assertion that the Republican campaign fund of 1896 was upwards of seven million dollars. Mr. Hanna argued in 1900 that it ought to be twice as great, — presumably because the country was twice as prosperous. At all events, he was not cramped for funds in either year. Now the outlay of such huge sums necessarily means an increment of power for the man who controls it. Such will be the case even if he is the most unselfish and incorruptible of mortals. Money is power in politics as everywhere else. A Chairman who may determine how much is to be allotted to this state, that congressional district, this city and the other county, becomes inevitably the master of many political legions. There is no need of a hard - and - fast understanding between giver and recipient, — least of all, of any corrupt bargain. Common gratitude and the expectation of similar favors to come are enough to bind fast the nominee for Congress, the candidate for a Senatorship, or the member of the National Committee for any given state, a large part of whose campaign expenses has been kindly paid for him from headquarters. It is hard really to think ill of a man who has sent you a large check. To oppose your humble opinion to his necessarily large and enlightened view of party policy and public advantage is sheer presumption. To vote for him, or with him, or as he bids you, is thereafter obviously the line of least resistance. Thus it is that the bread which the National Chairman casts upon the waters returns to him after not so many days. The pecuniary aspect of the Chairman’s power has another feature. He collects as well as pays out; and with many of the collections goes an express or tacit party obligation which he alone is fully cognizant of, and which it is his peculiar duty to see carried out. Rich men do not always contribute to party in obedience to the Scriptural injunction to give, asking not again. They make conditions, either openly or by hint or gesture. Like Cecil Rhodes, they are perfectly willing to give twenty-five thousand dollars to speed the triumph of their cherished party principles ; only they too wish to have a hand in the defining of those principles. He wanted to provide against a Liberal evacuation of Egypt, because both the Empire and his Cape to Cairo project were dear to him. Our own wealthy contributors to the party treasury have been suspected of coupling their gifts with an understanding about the tariff, about the seal fisheries, about ship subsidies, and what not. It is not necessary to go into this. The present point simply is that all this side of the business is so much more water for the mill of the party Chairman. He sits at the receipt of customs. To him are confided all the wishes and the sehemings, and he makes all the promises, that go with the money paid him. Hence it becomes his concern to see that there is honor among politicians. And nothing is more inevitable than the resultant heightening of his political power, repository as he is of secret liens upon party action, and the one mysterious agent by means of whom they are made good.

A word or two will suffice to bring out the almost complete mastery of party machinery which has fallen into the hands of the National Committee since it became a continuous and continuously active body, and took to itself such new and great powers. When the Chairman now calls to order a national Convention, he is really facing a large number, sometimes a majority, of delegates who are there because he willed them to be there. To “ call ” the Convention has, in fact, come to be pretty nearly the same thing as deciding who shall be among the “ called.” The product which the party machine turns out depends too much upon the man who gives the signal to set it in motion, and who himself gets up steam and oils the bearings, not to have a strangely suspicious way of proving to be of just the kind he wanted. This has especially been the ease with Mr. Hanna and almost all the Republican delegates from the South. They have been peculiarly his progeny for eight years past. When he first began to look about for a profitable field in which to invest the money he had raised to nominate Mr. McKinley for the first time, it was to the Southern states that he turned. He “bought Reed’s niggers ” in even a more wholesale way than that in which Senator Sherman had accused General Alger of buying his in 1888. Since then, in the nature of the case, those colored troops have been absolutely under Mr. Hanna’s command. He pays their expenses to the Convention. He settles their board bills while there. Their places on committee, their party recognition, their share in the patronage, — all are determined by him. They are naturally, therefore, his creatures, and the sheep of his pasture. What he does so sweepingly with them, he does in a less degree and sporadically, but still effectively, with the delegates from other sections. Large numbers stand ready to do his bidding. They vote as he prays. The result is to give him enormous power in dictating nominations in advance, and in moulding the Convention like clay to his hand. Take a crucial instance. At Philadelphia, in 1900, Mr. Addicks, of Delaware, was admitted as “ regular.” This was after having been contemptuously thrown out of the next preceding Convention, and having been steadily denounced by the leading Republican newspapers as a man who was trying to burglarize his way into good party standing, and so into the United States Senate. How did this hated and despised man suddenly win recognition as regular Republican leader in Delaware ? He quietly made his peace and made his terms with Chairman Hanna. That gentleman first put the arrangement through the Committee of Credentials, and then gave the order to his fuglemen in the Convention to prevent any open protest. It was a fine if audacious illustration of what the party Chairman can do.

The part that control of the patronage plays in the building up of the party Chairman’s overweening political power has been sufficiently intimated. Mr. Hanna has never attempted to conceal his active intervention in this business of rewarding the faithful. In the South, it has been clearly understood, he has been given a free hand to promise office before election, and to see that it is honorably bestowed, though often on dishonorable men, after election. What has not been so patent, however, is the fact that even a defeated Chairman has a large measure of similar power. This is what proves the case up to the hilt. If we find that Chairman Jones, twice unsuccessful, still exercises a party prerogative second only to that of Chairman Hanna, we need doubt no longer that the position is one that draws power to itself as a magnet does iron filings. And precisely this we do find. Who is the one Democrat whom the Republican managers felt bound to consult and defer to in the beginnings of the Spanish War, in regard to their tariff legislation as well as their currency bill, and in all the minutiæ of business in Congress ? It is Senator Jones. And this is clearly not because he is a man of transcendent ability, not merely because he is Senator from Arkansas, but because he is, and has been for years, Chairman of the National Committee of the Democratic party. He is the one to be reckoned with, because he, in a similar though necessarily less degree, has made himself a power, as Chairman Hanna has. Mr. Jones, too, has a vast and intricate party machine, upon the very pulse of which he keeps his hand. He is in touch with his state committeemen. He has his congressional legions at command, to make trouble for the party in power unless they and he are duly placated with consideration and offices. Hence it was that, unknown to most, Senator Jones had the weightiest voice in determining the Southern army appointments made in the Spanish War. They were given him in recognition of his power, and at the same time, of course, increased that power. It is of the kind which cannot be stripped from a party Chairman even in defeat, and which, in continued success, continually increases, until its possessor comes naturally to be regarded as almost a coordinate branch of the general government.

Whether President Roosevelt will directly and consciously assert the power of his office as against the resources of the head of the National Committee of his party cannot be said at this writing. But that he has already done much to rouse Chairman Hanna’s ire, if not his resentment, is certain. He has set his Rough Rider’s boot upon the HannaAddicks bargain. He has ridden sharply over several of Mr. Hanna’s political friends and protégés in the South. There doubtless are, or soon will be, other cases of friction between President and Chairman. What the latter’s riposte will be, if he decides to make one, it must be left to time to tell. The present writer has no thought of falling into what George Eliot called the one form of gratuitous mistake, — prophecy. All that he has wished to do is to give a hint of the way in which a new power has grown to portentous size in our politics ; to show how the Chairman of the National Committee has, little by little, taken to himself functions and privileges undreamed of a generation ago; and to suggest the nature and numbers of the reserves and formidable allies which Mr. Hanna can summon to his side, if he determines to challenge Colonel Roosevelt to try a dash at this new San Juan Hill.

Rollo Ogden.