Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Reforming the Democratic Party

Crowd at Lawrence's Edwards rally

Joe Trippi is pissed at me! I didn't think I was too harsh, but …

On the other hand, HIBT (Have I Been Trolled)? Is this kerfuffle about Rosenberg and the appropriate DNC chair, or about self-aggrandizement?

It's not that anything would be wrong with a guy seeking to raise his profile. If Trippi wants to be a kingmaker, great. I think that his recent presidential candidates – Jerry Brown and Howard Dean – would be great leaders, so I don't dispute his choices for “kings,” but I'm not sure his endorsement of Rosenberg is about choosing great leaders.

Jerry Brown and Dean were both people who would push for fundamental reform of the political landscape, and I do believe that reflects a real interest of Trippi's. But endorsing Rosenberg and dissing Dean isn't the way. Trippi and Dean were a great pair in the primaries, so his choosing anyone else is a slap in the face, and talk of other elective office is just a fig leaf. The concern most people have about Dean is that he's too far out of the mainstream, but that the DNC chair can afford to be wilder than an elected official. Trippi's saying that Dean should prefer a Senate seat or a 2008 presidential run would bench the Party's most prominent campaigner for reform. That's why I suspect Trippi's motives.

Dean and Rosenberg are both genuine reformers, and anyone interested in real reform ought to focus on building them up as a pair. Whichever one wins, the other will still be running Democracy for America or the New Democratic Network, and both organizations will still pursue reform. If we're very lucky, the two candidates may follow Kos's advice, and work together for real reform from within.

The need for reform in the party is obvious. The establishment frontrunner exemplifies all that is wrong with the party. Tim Roemer didn't get Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid to endorse him for his anti-abortion views, nor his weak stance on Social Security. They lined up behind him because he:

  1. Is Not Dean

  2. Used to be a Congressman

  3. Served on the 9-11 commission

Opposing extremism from Republicans? No, he backed off a chance to rebuff Social Security privatization, and couldn't credibly defend the (majority) pro-choice/pro-privacy wing of our party. Does anyone believe that Roemer would be able to make Democrats seem strong on defense or national security? A political scientist I spoke with says “No.” So the 9-11 commission is irrelevant for this post. It's experience that wouldn't help him as DNC chair. Could he be aggressive in defending the right to retire and the right to privacy? No. Does the fact that he was a congressman really set him apart from a governor or a successful party activist? No. What does he bring? More of the same, i.e. losing.

The reforms the party needs are as follows, and I'll blog some of these as time permits.

  1. Reform the message. The party needs a simple statement of what Democrats are after. Not what we want (which gets a laundry list of policies), but a thoughtful ideology. I've taken a stab at that here and here and here and here and undoubtedly more in the past and future. This is job one, because it sets everything else up.

  2. Reach out. Dean was fabulously successful, as was Kerry, at raising cash in small amounts from people in large numbers. This is what message gets you. Every person who gives $15 (my favorite amount as a poor grad student) is a promise to vote and an offer to evangelize. You get that not with promises of patronage or kickbacks (which is what a debate about health insurance boils down to today), but with a sense that candidate and contributor share some common world view. That's a strategy that isn't geographical per se, but can wind up with regional consequences. Effective use of old and new media is vital to propagating these messages.

  3. Break traditions. Why are New Hampshire and Iowa first in primaries and caucuses? Why don't the rank and file get to vote for DNC chair? Why do Democrats support gun control? Why are Democrats seen as weak on national defense? Tradition. Break it. Lunch on sacred cows. Ask what rednecks with Nascar stickers (or Confederate flags) on their trucks want from the government. How can you show them that your ideology is relevant to theirs?

  4. Recruit aggressively. I don't know what I have to do to run for Congress. I'm not interested now, but I will be one day. The DNC should run camps, like Camp Wellstone. They should be reaching out to campus groups. They should kick state and local parties in the ass until they make the process as easy and transparent as possible.

  5. Coordinate strategically. Groups like ACT, MoveOn, League of Conservation Voters all were just as important as unions in getting turnout. But duplicated efforts between groups–especially in battleground states–turned people off, including some party faithful. Help outside groups, the state parties and groups like the DCCC, DSCC and Democratic Governor's Association to make their strategy sufficiently transparent that no formal cooperation is needed.

  6. Open the process. This is a means to better coordination, but to so much more. No serious reform effort in human history has ever lacked this goal, and it's as salient today as it was to Luther.

An example of what I want to see: I have a half finished post on how Democrats could reach out to libertarians by advocating a broader right to privacy (like in this Crooked Timber post). That could be one piece of a Democratic ideology (#1). It also serves to dull the codeword status of “right to privacy,” attracts anti-government wackos and serious libertarians out of the wilderness of modern Republicanism (#2,#3). Various groups would be interested in coordinating on a broad privacy movement (#5) and it would allow recruitment of candidates from new members (#5).

Dean has shown he can raise money. He got my cash by taking a strong stand on the death penalty, a sensible, states' rights based, middle ground on guns, and reaching out to rural voters, at least in principle. John Kerry would be sworn in as the 44th president in a few days if he had done the third. It's vital. The Internet and grass-roots strategy of his fifty state campaign relied heavily on a confidence in an open system, and I will never stop respecting him for the innovations he introduced. His continued work with Democracy for America supported candidates across the country and at all levels. He gave a strong start to the campaign my parents worked on, and really helped a state senate race near me in Kansas. He has already demonstrated his ability to accomplish essential reform.

I don't know as much about Rosenberg. Trippi thinks he can reform the party, but without a clearer statement of what reforms he wants to see, that doesn't tell us about specific goals. The NDN is well respected, and I believe he is more expert at #5. My perception is that he has done great work on outreach, especially to Latinos. He isn't bothered by sacred cows, clearly, and he can coordinate. What is his view of the party? Has he been effective at recruitment? I don't know. I know that reformers like him almost as much as they like Dean.

Dean and Rosenberg ought to be working in parallel, and supporters of reform ought not to take swipes within the coalition. Because Trippi couldn't endorse Rosenberg without it being a swipe at Dean, I think his endorsement was “a circular firing squad” and said so at Trippi's blog. Until Roemer and the other status quo candidates are out of the running, any division in the reform wing will destroy any chance of real change. Trippi's strategy divides the reform camp. Until we win, we can't shut any door leading to reform.

Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. from the album Automatic For The People (1992, 5:19).