Organizing a national political party structure without the benefit of holding the White House is difficult. The national party committee has a chairman, but that person is little more than a figurehead, tasked with raising money and spreading a consensus message. While House and Senate party leaders once held considerable power over their caucuses -- and, when it came to presidential politics, their state delegations -- leaders these days are more beholden to factional politics within their own parties.
But it doesn't get any easier when a party takes over the White House, as both parties have discovered over the past several decades. Holding the presidency means that a single person drives policy for a diverse coalition, homogenizing rather than allowing infighting over platform and strategy.
Before the modern era of near-parliamentary politics -- when a party label means far more than an individual's voting record or reputation -- both Democrats and Republicans had to contend with a range of coalitions within Congress. President Carter had to placate both liberal antiwar Democrats and more hawkish conservative Democrats; his inability to keep the party's foreign policy coalition together led conservatives to defect to Ronald Reagan, giving birth to the neoconservative era, as author James Mann details in his new book, The Obamians. George W. Bush's disastrous second term dragged Republican members of Congress down with him, in both the 2006 and 2008 election cycles.
Now, President Obama and Mitt Romney are struggling to relate to their own parties, although in very separate ways.
On one hand, Obama has full control of the Democratic National Committee and its fundraising apparatus. During his first term, Obama controlled the party agenda to such a degree that, at times, Democrats on Capitol Hill wondered if their own careers were an afterthought.
In a closed-door meeting just before health care legislation was passed in 2010, Obama rallied his troops: "We are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true. We are not bound to succeed, but we are bound to let whatever light we have shine," he said. To many House Democratic ears, that sounded like he was willing to sacrifice their seats for his benefit. (The two non-leadership House members he pointed to in that speech, Reps. Betsy Markey and John Boccieri, both voted for the bill, and both lost in November.)
Capitol Hill's feelings haven't improved; Obama has done little to help down-ballot Democrats raise money. He last appeared at an event benefiting the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in March 2011, in Boston, and for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that same month in Miami. This week, the DCCC sent out an e-mail under Obama's name that raised $580,000, the committee said. But the Obama campaign has told the DCCC and the DSCC that it won't be able to contribute to down-ballot efforts this year -- although party insiders believe that's simply part of ongoing negotiations.
Some Democrats on Capitol Hill grumble that the White House doesn't believe that party members are all in the same boat together. Added to the consternation is the fact that Obama frequently calls on Congress to pass legislation, rather than naming Republicans or the GOP-controlled House of Representatives specifically.
Romney, on the other hand, appears tentative within his own party. Although the Republican National Committee has worked hand in glove with Romney's campaign for months -- in truth, they were working closely, if quietly, even before Romney clinched the number of delegates necessary to secure the nomination -- Romney hasn't taken full control of the party agenda, and factions concerned with border security and social issues have vocally warned him against straying from their party line.
That's a reflection of the concern that Romney's campaign feels toward a conservative base still skeptical of its nominee. Romney hasn't taken a stand against any significant part of his party's base -- the veritable Sister Souljah moment. Obama, on the other hand, has upset liberals by appearing to put entitlement reform on the table as part of a potential grand bargain, continuing the Bush administration's policies on drone strikes and maintaining the prison at Guantanamo Bay, to name a few sensitive issues.
Romney, however, isn't the only one who's had trouble asserting control over the Republican Party. House Speaker John Boehner, elevated to his post by a wave of freshmen intent on cutting government as deeply as possible, has allowed his newer members far more leeway than almost any speaker in recent history. He stands in stark contrast to Newt Gingrich, Tip O'Neill and Nancy Pelosi, all speakers who exerted a stronger grip on internal caucus politics.
The differences in each nominee's approach speaks to the larger directions of his party. Obama is trying to put the Democratic Party on his own path, one that bends toward his arc of history. Republicans, though, are still emerging from their time in the wilderness, in search of a new direction. Obama is the active guide, while GOP activists are much happier to chart their own way, without a clear ideological guide exerting firm control.