Election Day comedown has led to a series of flippant victory / schadenfreude / “woo, us!” posts in a row. But I know you rely on (us / other blog) for substantial, in-depth analysis of actual issues, so I figured it’s time for some of that.
To: Howard Dean
From: James Carville, Terry McAuliffe, Harold Ford, the Clinton family, the national media
In re: DNC chair
“Dear Dr. Dean: We’re sorry.”
Lost in the Obamania was the utter vindication of Dr. Dean’s view of the Democratic Party. In four years, Governor Dean went from a universal punch line to the party chairman presiding over the recapture of the House, Senate, and White House. He did this despite dismissal by the national media, an internal coup attempt by party leadership, and various threats from the corporate donors who comprised the party’s fundraising base under prior Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Dean’s approach included the much-derided “50 state strategy;” major spending on party infrastructure instead of simply targeting candidates around elections; a focus on small donors; and a general shift to a decentralized party model.
It wasn’t easy. From before he took office, Dr. Dean was under fire. Folks at the Democratic Leadership Committee (DLC), the centrist (read: corporatist) wing of the party, saw Dean as a populist rabble-rouser. The line of attack was that Dean was too radical, couldn’t relate to big donors, and would drive the party into a McGovernite ditch. A number of consultants, including Dean’s former campaign manger Joe Trippi and the very conservative Democrat Mike McCurry, supported Simon Rosenberg of the centrist New Democrat Network over Dean for the chairmanship. Harry Reid, and more surprisingly Nancy Pelosi, backed anti-choice social security privitizer Tim Roemer, while uber-insider Donnie Fowler (the 37-year old son of a former DNC chair) also criticized Dean as too far left. Perhaps because of the split among the three little moderates, Dean eventually won out. Reid and Pelosi came around as the perceived centrists dropped out, leaving the party to its new Vermont Commissar.
Dean hadn’t seen anything yet. The Democrats rolled up big wins in the 2006 midterms, but this only intensified the attacks. Top consultants argued that the chairman had wasted party money on infrastructure that could have been spent to try and steal a handful more marginal seats. Rumours floated of a DNC “putsch” as James Carville, the oddly-shaped, long-time Clinton surrogate, namedropped the milquetoast Blue Dog millionaire Harold Ford:
“Suppose Harold Ford became chairman of the DNC. How much more money do you think we could raise? Just think of the difference it could make in one day. Now probably Harold Ford wants to stay in Tennessee. I just appointed myself his campaign manager.”
(Ford, failed Congressional candidate and scion of a Memphis political dynasty, hands out business cards with the 10 commandments on them.) Carville, at the center of much of this, called Dean “Rumsfeldian,” while prime-time consultant Paul Begala derided the 50 state strategy as “hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their noses.” Even before the 2006 midterms, The New Republic reported that supporters of then-presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton were “laying the groundwork to circumvent the DNC in the event that [she] wins the nomination.” Rahm Emannual, traditionally a DLC-centrist, beefed with Dean from his post at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC.) (The DCCC thought Dean’s infrastructure spending rate was too high, and still preferred Terry McAuliffe’s previous approach of simply tossing money at Congressional races every cycle.)
The chairman was also uncomfortable glad-handing billionaires, and many of the big donors who had formed the base of the McAuliffe operation were reluctant to work with him. Although the fundraising eventually picked up, Dean remained estranged from the Wall Street wing of the party — people who felt no compulsion about threatening his position on behalf of Hillary Clinton as the 2008 nomination fight dragged on.
Eventually, Obama wins out and Hillary lines up behind him. (She’s always at her best for valedictories.) The epic success of the Obama campaign owes a massive debt to Howard Dean in his roles as both a presidential candidate and the DNC chair. Here’s a list:
- Using the web: Working from Dean and Trippi’s 2004 internet insurgent model, the campaign used mybarackobama.com as the one-stop shop for campaign work and information. When the GOP went negative, the team unleashed fightthesmears.com, dedicated solely to debunking the kind of slanders that sank John Kerry’s swiftboat in 2004. The Obama team also hired the co-founder of Facebook and introduced text messaging as the 21st century direct mail.
- Small donors: Obama’s wave of small donors rewrote campaign fundraising norms. Thanks to Obama’s use of the internet to solicit funds and organize meetups, Phil Nash of Campaign Advantage described the Illinois Senator as “Howard Dean 2.0.”
- Playing offense…: The 50 state strategy was an investment plan. Rather than picking competative states every election cycle, aiming to win the Presidency with 270 electoral votes, the idea was to remake the Democrats from a regional party to something bigger. This meant throwing money at party offices in Bumblefuck, Nowhere, even if it’s only a matter of cutting an election loss from 25% to 15% in the short-term. Instead of fetishizing Ohio and Florida as “swing states,”, the Obama campaign utilized its army of volunteers to compete in Tom Schaller’s “new West” (New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada,) as well as the outer south (Virginia and North Carolina, which Schaller was wrong about.) We lost Montana by three points. MONTANA! (And, won a House seat in Idaho)
- …and localizing campaigns: Begala’s nose-picking staffers were the ones reshaping the Democrats as a national majority, forcing the GOP (which has now been officially wiped out in the northeast) to blow resources defending their own turf. Rather than shipping in a handful of consultants, the party relied on historically massive local staff operations.
This is the way to build a national party, and Democrats are well-positioned going into 2010. The excellent Chuck Todd, in his Clinton campaign obituary, notes the overall changing of the guard in the last two election cycles:
“The midterm elections taught many Democratic activists (including those superdelegates) that they didn’t need the Clintons to win elections anymore.
The Democrats won Congress and a majority of governorships without substantial help from the Clintons. Sure the two raised money for the party and for candidates whenever asked, but it wasn’t Clintonistas or Clinton’s Democratic philosophy or ideology that was helping these candidates win.”
The leadership of the Democratic Party right now is Obama, Dean, and Pelosi; none of whom owe a plugged nickel to the Clinton machine. This represents a massive, massive step forward for a party who spent the last decade in the wilderness trying to be GOP-lite around consultant-tested messages while the House and Senate majorities atrophied to nothing.
Dr. Dean’s people-power approach was the perfect fit for such an inspirational candidate. Obama was uniquely capable of connecting Dean’s middle-class, white, college-liberal audience with the traditional Democratic base in the African-American community. This strategic combination forged a landslide, while laying the ground-level infrastructure for future campaigns. From the beginning, Dean and Obama worked well together to shape a unified approach; and Obama’s retention of Dean at the DNC symbolized his agreement with the party’s strategic direction.
*UPDATE: Donnie Fowler (or at least some intern at his consulting firm), took the time to respond in the comments thread. Check it out, since he clarifies his position, and you can get his organization here: http://www.fowlercrumley.com/
To be fair, Rosenberg has also come around: http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2007/11/the-50-year-strategy.html/
I was criticizing their runs against Dean for DNC chair, not their subsequent, more supportive statements. So credit where it’s due, and thanks for checking in, Donnie!