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Nuts & Bolts

March 21, 2013

Have political parties lost their purpose?

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

At last week's annual Conservative Political Action Conference, the tension between the GOP and movement conservatives was palpable. "The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered," declared Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who won CPAC's presidential straw poll.

With their own party in control of the White House, Democrats face a different challenge. As Messina noted, the new OFA operation's goal is something never attempted before: taking the energy generated by a presidential campaign and transferring it to issues.

Harold Ickes, a veteran Democratic operative, predicted that OFA will have its greatest success mobilizing Obama supporters to pressure lawmakers on hot-button questions, such as immigration and possibly gun control. "Whether they can get that same percentage of people to do something on minimum wage, or a fight within the Senate Finance Committee, is a different question," Ickes said.

Over the longer term, the big unknown is what happens to that organization once Obama himself has left the political scene. Will its massive infrastructure transfer somehow to benefit the Democratic Party, or simply dissipate?

Georgetown University government professor Hans Noel said that maybe the time has come to redefine the way people think of a party; not as an organization but "as an informal set of actors who try to coordinate to win office or enact policy."

Still, stronger parties might help unlock the gridlock in Washington, if only to help their candidates get reelected by an increasingly disillusioned public, Noel argued. "They might be more interested in trying to accomplish things. They would rein in their extremists."

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