A member of the crowd watches Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama meet in the final U.S. presidential debate in Boca Raton.

Photo by: REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity

A member of the crowd watches Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama meet in the final U.S. presidential debate in Boca Raton.

When asked who I want to see in the White House next year, I throw a curveball. “Romney” —I say, pausing for effect—”George.”

Part of why I, a registered Republican, answer that way can be found in a video filmed a year before the former Michigan governor and onetime presidential contender’s 1995 death.

Romney’s concern about cities and the people living in them predated his career in politics, was evident throughout his governorship and is captured in his last years by his talk at what appears to be a reunion of American Motors Company employees. Romney expresses his “deepest concerns” about inner-city problems, citing teen pregnancies, failing K-12 schools and urban crime.

Romney credits former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas (D) as sharing his belief that more volunteerism—rather than government programs—represents the most effective salve for urban ills. Urban social problems, says Romney, “can only be solved by Americans pitching in and beginning to help each other and resolve these problems that are destroying our very future as a society.”

The other reason why I clearly wish for a president who talks, acts, and governs like George Romney is Elly Peterson, Romney’s chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, the first woman to ever chair a state Republican party and a fellow believer in volunteerism. Ms. Peterson promoted an activist Republican Party organization, engaging its members in community affairs.

Ms. Peterson’s efforts provide a lesson that today’s political parties can profit from because she understood something too few of today’s poll-driven, talking-point-reciting, cash-chasing politicians do—that philanthropy and civic engagement by the political parties is not just altruistic but can also be good politics.

Ideally, more politicians, from the chairs of the national party organizations, high dollar contributors, right down to precinct workers, will rediscover that wisdom.

The bad old bosses did some good

Consider this year’s campaign. Political entrepreneurs such as Karl Rove establish SuperPACs. Big-pocketed contributors, whether George Soros or the Koch Brothers, fund SuperPACs. The SuperPACs write checks to consultants to produce TV commercials. Now, even the national party committees are viewed as having diminished importance in funding campaigns. The rise of ATM politics puts the citizen in the role of spectator and even grassroots activists in the role of check-writers. After the campaign ends and the commercials stop running, the energy becomes dormant.

Few Americans want to return to the days of old-fashioned machine politics—to the bossism and boodle that dominated Tweed’s New York and other large cities. Back then, jobs in government were doled out by party affiliation rather than qualifications.

But say this for the era of the political machine: The leaders and the clubs were intricately part of the their communities and, as A. James Reichley notes in his 1992 book “The Life of the Parties,” the ward organizations of machines in cities often served as “combination welfare agencies, legal aid societies, and employment bureaus. Machines distributed turkeys to the poor at Christmas and saw to it that low-income families had a ‘ton of coal in the cellar’ during the winter months.”

Roy Peel in “The Political Clubs of New York City” (1935) cites a 1905 magazine article in asserting that “it was estimated that from fifteen to twenty-five percent of the total money annually expended by religious and charitable institutions for welfare work was contributed by Tammany clubs.”

Clearly, there are limits to what political organizations can provide in assistance. Tellingly, Senator Robert Wagner and other Tammany-affiliated members of the city’s congressional delegation supported New Deal measures to provide relief. But, as William L. Riordan quotes the 19th Century Tammany leader George Washington Plunkitt saying about providing help to people in need: “It’s philanthropy but it’s politics too—mighty good politics.”

Peterson’s Michigan model

Sara Fitzgerald, author of “Elly Peterson: Mother of the Moderates” (2011), writes that Peterson was interested in linking politics to volunteerism and in expanding GOP support in urban areas.

“Mission Involvement,” one Peterson initiative, had rural and suburban GOP county committees involved in projects ranging from funding an art scholarship,to taking schoolchildren on cultural tours to funding and managing a teen center.

Peterson opened a “Metropolitan Action Center” in Detroit to serve the needs of residents, many of whom lacked knowledge about how to work the system. Staffed by volunteers and party professionals, the Action Center helped people obtain government benefits and prepare tax returns; it even helped children with their homework.

When the Detroit riots occurred in July 1967, just months after the center opened, calls were sent to outlying GOP county committees to help get food and other goods to Detroit residents displaced by the violence.

As the Action Center gained recognition and Peterson saw that people in need did not care where the help came from, the name became the “Republican Action Center.”

The Republican National Committee promoted the opening of Action Centers nationally and other volunteer-oriented projects when Peterson became assistant chairman of the national party in the early years of the Nixon administration. One promotional piece explained that the outreach efforts represented an attempt to build “honest and effective working relationships with the people who most need our help—we can then understand from first-hand experience the real truth about the problems of America.”

Unfortunately, Peterson’s work never gained traction. Few GOP politicians in the Nixon era shared her deep-seated commitment to outreach. One of Peterson’s major regrets, Fitzgerald notes, was the demise of the action center program.

Donkey out, Tiger in

More a century removed from Tweed’s Democratic New York and a party and a few decades apart from Peterson’s efforts, New York’s Bill Samuels spent much of the past decade promoting a return to “civic engagement” by the Democratic Party.

Samuels, a tech entrepreneur and major Democratic donor whose father chaired the Democratic National Committee in the 1960s, launched the Blue Tiger Initiative in 2005 to encourage state Democratic parties to undertake “civic engagement” projects. Samuels’ research discovered that the modern symbol of the Democratic Party, the donkey—invented by cartoonist and Tammany scourge Thomas Nast—symbolizes the party’s stubborness and thickheadedness. In contrast, Samuels sees his updated Tiger, a longtime symbol of Tammany Democrats, as demanding respect and, he hopes, fighting corruption.

Samuels, who is now involved with efforts to update the state constitution but devoted effort during the mid-2000s, recalls how Democratic Party officials helped his mother’s family by providing food when her father lost his job in the midst of the Great Depression.

“The key to regaining respect for the party is to go back to civic engagement. To do that, we must reallocate funds from 30 second commercials, bring it down to the field, give young people and progressives things to do in the community between elections so the voters respect us,” Samuels said in an Air America interview posted on Youtube.

The party that was most enthusiastic in taking him up was, not surprisingly, Michigan, thanks to longtime chair Mark Brewer.

In an interview I conducted with Brewer last year, he stressed that the Blue Tiger projects help keep volunteers engaged between elections, generates positive publicity, and helps to expand the contacts of the party organization. Blue Tiger in Michigan has helped reach out to homeless veterans, collected school supplies for children, and to help people to meet their heating bills.

A September 25, 2012 blog entry on the Mecosta County Democratic Party invites volunteers to participate in a roadside pickup that Saturday “as part of the ongoing Blue Tiger Democrat activities.” The November 2011 newsletter of the Leelanau County Democratic Party credits the county’s Blue Tiger Democrats with conducting food drives to donate to local food pantries.

“People may be leery of working with the Democratic Party, but when it is a food drive it is not partisan,” Brewer commented in an interview last year.

Back to the future?

Both parties excel now at speaking to their ready-made constituencies through commercials, robocalls, and drop-in visits to canvass voters. But they are missing great opportunities to expand their bases of support through greater year-in, year-out civic engagement.

Supporters of Howard Dean’s 2003-2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and President Obama’s Organizing for America (OFA) undertook public service projects, but the benefits of such efforts are likely to last only as long as their candidate remains a viable potential officeholder. David W. Brown, author of “The Real Change-Makers: Why Government Is Not the Problem Or the Solution,” wrote recently in The Washington Post that OFA concentrated more on generating support for administration initiatives than inspiring Obama backers to get involved with local community initiatives.

“OFA was not so much organizing for America as for the Obama administration. They are not the same,” Brown asserts.

It is through the institutions of the political parties—which, unlike candidates or campaigns, are permanent fixture on the American scene—that efforts can have lasting impact. Not only can the parties do their bit to invigorate civic life, long-term commitment to outreach (as Peterson desired) has the potential to yield long-term benefits for the party or parties willing to innovate.

Democratic Blue Tiger-style projects could engage low-income and working-class youth in environmental causes by helping families to lower their home heating costs and to make their homes environmentally sound. Community gardens could also be sponsored.

If campaign finance laws make it difficult to conduct civic engagement in the name of the party, why not establish national foundations that can utilize the talents and knowledge of party professionals and key supporters and volunteers to achieve self-proclaimed party beliefs?

Republicans may have more reason to become civically engaged since they have a significant long-term challenge when it comes to gaining support from an electorate in which blacks, Latinos, and Asians will wield more clout in future elections.

Many people in lower income brackets are on the wrong side of the knowledge inequality gap. Because they often have significant literacy problems, they often lack basic knowledge that middle class families pass on to their children. “Empowerment” seminars sponsored by a foundation funded by GOP contributors and drawing on the expertise of party supporters in the professions could help to better acquaint striving kids in the inner-city with more knowledge about practical money management, health literacy and educational opportunities. Follow-up programs could ensure seminar attendees have opportunities to put that knowledge into action.

Peterson realized and Samuels knows the process of civic engagement and outreach promotes two-way communication as party professionals and volunteers learn more about the people they hope to represent and vice versa. Civic engagement and outreach represent a “back to the future” way that the parties can build support not just for their candidates but for their principles.

With political advertising spending in the billions this year, there’s plenty of money Will any party leaders be far-sighted enough to use some of that money for investing in outreach and civic engagement?