Respond to this Article April 2006

Backseat Strategists

Do the Democratic Party's harshest internal critics finally have a plan for building a political majority?

By Mark Schmitt

What's most provocative in this year's crop of books about renewing the Democratic Party is what's missing. The old sectarian fights about ideology, between the Democratic Leadership Council and labor-left factions, seem to have disappeared. None of the four books reviewed here makes the argument that the Democratic Party is in a substantive way out of line ideologically. None argues that the party needs to move as a bloc to the left, right, or center. The prevailing tone, particularly in James Carville and Paul Begala's Take It Back, is more along the lines of, "Pick something and stand for it!"

Take It Back
by James Carville & Paul Begala
Simon & Schuster, $24.00

Even for the most outspokenly liberal author represented here, David Sirota, it is the passion, clarity, and narrative coherence of a liberal message that makes it appealing, more than its content. One suspects that if a moderately conservative message didn't sound so damn wishy-washy, it would be unobjectionable.

In fact, that seems to be the case with regard to a figure who stands in all of these volumes as a one-man Mount Rushmore for Democratic revival: Montana governor Brian Schweitzer. A gun-toting, straight-talking, populist; innovative and smart, Schweitzer 's 2004 electoral victory--the first for a Democrat running for the Helena statehouse since 1988--was chronicled in these pages by Sirota ("Top Billings," December 2004). Schweitzer has had a wildly successful first year in office, making him emblematic of the tough, fearless, joyful political warrior that all these authors are searching for without regard to ideology. Schweitzer stands in tall Western contrast to another figure who haunts all these books, a group of never-named characters known as "John Kerry's advisors," whose instinct when attacked is always to say, "We mustn't justify it with a response."

But what's odd about the veneration of Schweitzer is that he is hardly the only example of Democratic success, even in states that supported Bush. Indeed, he isn't even the only example in Montana, where Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, whose style has more in common with the scared-of-his-own-shadow "John Kerry advisor" than with Schweitzer, has nonetheless won five times as many statewide elections as Schweitzer. And what about governors Dave Freudenthal in Wyoming, Janet Napolitano in Arizona, Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas, or Brad Henry in Oklahoma? Are their Schweitzerian levels of popularity attributable to the same formula?

Indeed, the swath of popular Democratic governors in these and other states is a reminder of an important truth made most strongly by Steve Jarding and Dave "Mudcat" Saunders in Foxes in the Henhouse: Democrats can win anywhere and should act like they can win anywhere. Of the 30 states Bush carried, two-thirds have either a Democratic governor or a Democratic senator, and the two biggest Republican-monopoly states besides Texas--Ohio and Missouri--are full of fed-up voters and will have highly competitive races for both governor and senator this fall.

Foxes in the Henhouse
by Steve Jardin & Dave "Mudcat" Saunders
Touchstone, $24.00

But if Democrats can win anywhere, do they do it as Democrats, or as individuals who separate themselves from the damaged brand of the national Democratic Party? And if the latter, how does that build a party? All four of these books urge Democrats to speak for themselves with more passion, more outrage, to fight back when challenged, and not to accept the conservative frame on issues. But that can mean many things. If personal authenticity is the primary value, then one has to acknowledge that Sen. Joe Lieberman speaks for himself every bit as much as Schweitzer does. While none of these authors has a good thing to say about Lieberman, most speak favorably of former senator Bob Kerrey, who supports both the Iraq war and Social Security privatization, not out of trepidatious calculation, but as a happy warrior with a mind of his own. There is a theory of a political party implicit here, but in only one of these books--Crashing the Gate by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga--does it really become clear.

Giving voice to your outrage is the first ingredient in the recipe in all these books, but David Sirota--former Hill press aide and blogger--makes a full meal of it in Hostile Takeover. Sirota has always had a lot to say about Democratic renewal and has been one of the major promoters of the Schweitzer story, but in his first book, he keeps the political advice to a minimum and instead tells the story as he would hope to hear it told. It's a useful discipline and the result is a book that could show any political speaker how to forge a compelling narrative. On issue after issue, from taxes to pensions to health care to energy, corporate interests have used their political influence to undermine the public and their customers, promote their short-term profits over the long-term good, and in general ripped us off. And Sirota argues that on each issue, there is a set of public solutions--responsible and achievable--that would answer the takeover and restore public trust.

Hostile Takeover
by David Sirota
Crown, $24.00

The congressional lobbying scandal ensures that "reform" will be a centerpiece of the opposition agenda, even for establishment Democrats who are squeamish about that language. The challenge is to get reform out of the empty zone of "good government," where the editorial writers from The New York Times live but no actual voters, and connect reform to the substantive issues of life. Sirota's book is a catalogue of stories that show just how to make that connection, so that every discussion of health care can be a discussion of corruption, reform, and better results.

The most refined effort to define a Democratic message comes from Carville and Begala in Take It Back. Their book benefits from a rich sense of history and anecdote, and the authors are practiced at writing just this kind of choppy, chatty book without seeming preachy or wonky. Worth the price of the book is a section in which they narrate a typical meeting between a Democratic candidate and his staff and consultants, and then break it down. For example, "Pollster says, 'We're thirty points down on taxes. Don't talk about taxes.'" That's exactly when you have to talk about taxes, Carville and Begala argue, just as Bill Clinton had to talk about welfare.

The largest part of the book, though, is unsatisfying even as it is generally correct. Like Sirota, Carville and Begala outline what Democrats should say on issue after issue. On abortion: "Agree that the goal should be to reduce abortions." On gay marriage: "Attack the right for dividing us." On national security: "Redefine the war on terror."

For all Carville and Begala's political sophistication, this is almost as frustrating as George Lakoff's "reframing" advice was back when it was all the rage. How do you use it? It's easy enough to imagine a Democratic senator appearing on "Meet the Press" and turning a question around: "Well, Tim, the real issue is the right-wing's effort to divide us." Certainly, that's better than a stammering, compromising response or a reference to co-sponsoring some long-forgotten Senate amendment, as that character known as "John Kerry's advisor" would propose. But it's not really the same as reclaiming the issue, either. Politics is defined by the points of conflict on the agenda, and one might wish that "gay marriage" and "partial-birth abortion" weren't the current points of conflict, but wishing doesn't make it so. Reclaiming the debate is not just a matter of coming up with the right answer to someone else's questions, but also actually changing the questions.

That's something a minority party made up of locally-focused governors and powerless members of Congress can't do easily. Perhaps it awaits a presidential front-runner, especially a very high-profile one, who might make good use of Carville and Begala's talking points. (And perhaps they were written with just such a high-profile front-runner in mind.) On the other hand, it's exactly what Newt Gingrich's band of the powerless began to do in the early 1990s. For a party that exists entirely on the outside, though, Sirota's book offers a better set of issues and answers for creating an agenda that forces the burden of response onto the other side.

In their analysis of Republican success, all these books show that the key is not just getting the message right, but segmenting the message based on a sophisticated understanding of demographics--actual Republican voters and potential Republican voters. There's not much mystery about the demographic challenge for Democrats. It involves non-college-educated whites, and particularly rural and exurban white voters. In Foxes in the Henhouse, strategists Jarding and Saunders seek the answer to the rural question. Thus, they set out to solve one of the problems left hanging last year by Thomas Frank's acclaimed What's the Matter with Kansas? Frank argued that rural voters overlooked their own interests by supporting conservative Republicans based on social issues. Frank's book left two questions hanging: Why should people prioritize their material interests over spiritual or other concerns? And, do Democrats really have so much more to offer rural voters, even in the material realm?

Jarding and Saunders answer the second question decisively, showing how government made life in rural America possible, and how effectively conservatives have eroded the liberal programs that from the New Deal on have made life better for the white working class and in rural America. In a masterful final chapter, they point out that Democrats can do more than just assure the 13 million hunters in America that we really, really promise, no-crosses-count, don't want to take away your guns, but instead can show that the real threat to hunting and fishing is a government that is allowing the land to be privatized and plundered. As this magazine has pointed out in "The End of Hunting?" (January/February 2006), it is government that made hunting, fishing, and camping possible, and government that can destroy it. Again, Schweitzer is a role model. Being against gun control is not surprising--most Western Democrats are against gun control. But Schweitzer did it without apology, whacking both the interest groups that advocate strict gun control and the corporate interests bent on destroying "the last, best place."

Unfortunately, through the middle of the book, the authors lose the rural focus and begin to drift into a more general attack on the Republicans as hypocrites and frauds. They devote several pages to reprinting a letter from a group of Nobel Prize-winning economists pointing out the irresponsibility of Republican fiscal policy, for example. That's a long way from "NASCAR Dems." It's too bad they didn't keep the focus on rural America. A good book is yet to be written about the demographic trends, the economic forces, the social and religious trends buffeting rural America, how those are different in the South and the Midwest, and how some political voices handle them successfully.

All four of these books have a staccato, bloggish style, with bullet points and sidebars made up of "myths" and "facts," "lessons" and "lies," "heroes" and "hacks." Ironically, the least blog-like of these, the smoothest and most coherent argument, comes from the two authors best known in the blogosphere, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Jerome Armstrong. That shouldn't really be surprising since Moulitsas and Armstrong aren't really bloggers in the sense that The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum is--individuals with lots of opinions--but, rather, on DailyKos and MyDD, they created platforms for argument and thinking by hundreds of others about progressive politics and Democratic strategy. Crashing the Gate similarly represents the views of several dozen people, mostly people you haven't heard of, who have something compelling to say about revitalizing the party.

Crashing the Gate
by Jerome Armstrong & Markos Moulitsas Zuniga
Chelsea Green Publishing Company, $25.00

Crashing the Gate is not without flaws, so let's identify them before moving on. Their consciousness seems to begin in 2003, and what little interest in history they show takes the form of a fascination with the history of the right, viewed--inaccurately--as a well-planned conspiracy. "Somewhere between the mid-sixties and the early seventies," they write, "liberals lost their way and have not recovered," and that's basically all they have to say about that. And they are a little too involved with the "netroots" and their own role in it--a reminder that the guardians of the gate of internet politics can sometimes become an easily flattered interest group of their own, giving up their hearts to politicians who show that they "get it" by venturing into blogger conference calls or blogging for themselves. (When I was growing up in Connecticut, every local politician would show respect to his major ethnic constituencies with a trip to Ireland, Italy, and Israel; today, a trip to the internet must be added to the itinerary.)

But Crashing the Gate is about more than the joy of the internet. It is about the Democratic Party as a political system: where power is located within it, how it makes its decisions, how it defines opportunities. Moulitsas and Armstrong write that when they started the book, "We figured the entire thesis would revolve around the lack of branding and the lack of a coherent message," but instead, they wound up writing a book about the structures of progressive politics. And with a clear eye, it sees dysfunction where others just see people saying the wrong things:

They see a party that is beholden to movements that are too weak to help it and that gain their power by manipulating the party. They see it as dominated by a mafia of consultants who are never held accountable for their bad, bad, overcautious, failed advice. They see those consultants continue to crank out dreary political ads that rely on direct, rational persuasion rather than the emotion and indirection of commercial--and Republican--advertising. The party as they see it lacks an external support structure of broadly progressive think tanks and organizing groups, and what there is, its elected officials and party establishment ignore. Its establishment has a narrow, parsimonious vision of its possibilities. That establishment thinks it knows exactly who its voters are, what races should be targeted, and that money can be raised only from known large donors. And it pours money into saturation advertising in a few selected races with diminishing returns, rather than reaching broadly and allocating resources based on modern market data and information technology.

Moulitsas and Armstrong challenge all these assumptions with sound evidence, citing persuasive authorities--such as consultants who, despite their success with more creative advertising and demographic targeting, have been shut out by the party establishment--and they acknowledge and respect the other side of each argument. The discussion of whether political advertising should seek to persuade or be memorable, for example, is thoughtful and sophisticated.

In perhaps the most provocative chapter, Moulitsas and Armstrong cite two examples of progressive/ Democratic success in 2004: the Schweitzer victory and an alliance of progressive funders and organizations in Colorado that won back the state's legislature along with several congressional seats and a U.S. Senate seat. Schweitzer, they argue, won by keeping all interest groups at bay, while Colorado Democrats succeeded by bringing them all together. In the future, they argue, these are the only two alternatives: Either all the interest groups represented in the Democrat coalition get in the boat and row together, or political candidates should stand aside completely from the interest-group mess. "Let the party be the party, with the movement outside looking in," they write.

This is a powerful and fresh perspective on what a political party is all about, and it is one reason this book stands out. Their conception of a political party is reminiscent of one of the classics of mid-20th-century political science, E.E. Schattschneider's Party Government. Schattsch-neider similarly saw parties as a way to tame and hold off interest groups. It is this view of a party that collapsed in the late '60s and early '70s, when not only did liberalism "lose its way," but the internal contradictions of the New Deal Democratic coalition of southern conservatives and northern liberals finally became too much to bear.

And here is the history that's missing from their book: After the Democrats lost the white South, they had, by definition, a non-majority coalition, and it quickly became a coalition of special interests, increasingly professionalized. When they won elections, it was with candidates who transcended those interests. Today, having won pluralities and near-majorities in the last four presidential elections, with a near-majority of governors, Democrats are closer to a majority than in, say, 1990, but can never quite cross the line unless they break the old habits. What Brian Schweitzer and the other happy warriors represent is a party that has the daring, the imagination, and, above all, the confidence to expand the base without regard to the existing interests. What Moulitsas and Armstrong recognize is that there's more to that achievement than just saying the right things.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the weblog The Decembrist.


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