Friday, June 30, 2006

"Where's the Plan, Democrats?"

This and other questions from Ari Berman at The Nation:
Dean says the DNC has two plans, short-term and long-term. His long-term plan is to rebuild the party by hiring full-time field organizers in all fifty states. Dean and his supporters, including recent convert Bill Clinton, contend that Democrats must do that if they hope to command an electoral majority in the years to come.

But the question of the moment is: Where and what is the DNC's plan for 2006? A number of top party operatives believe the DNC should take the lead in building a strong get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operation for November. That means identifying probable voters, persuading them to care about the election and getting them to the polls November 7. Thus far, the operatives say, the DNC has failed to prepare adequately for the coming ground game, causing concern that Dean's long-term strategy is squandering the Democrats' best short-term opportunity in a decade to retake Congress.

Dean's immediate focus in Busby's district, as he explained to me, was to target people who voted in 2004 but not in 2002. Yet Republicans out-hustled and out-mobilized Democrats on the ground in Bilbray's victory, spending twice as much money, making six times as many phone calls to voters and airlifting in 100 staffers from Capitol Hill. "There was dramatically lower turnout than we expected," said one Democratic operative in the district. Busby got half as many votes as Kerry, and only improved upon Kerry's 44 percent take by less than 1 percent.

"That was a tough district any way you look at it," says DNC executive director Tom McMahon. "But the people we targeted turned out." (snip)

Although you can't read too much into the results of a special election in a heavily Republican area thirty miles from the Mexico border, the Busby race demonstrated that--despite all the current anti-GOP kinks in the electoral environment--Republicans are better at running the machinery of politics: raising money, working together, harnessing new technology, motivating the base, exploiting hot-button issues and getting voters to the polls.

In an off-year election, when voter participation is generally 15 to 20 percent lower than in a presidential year, turnout is critical. For Democrats that means the party has to excite its base, pursue the "dropoff voters" (who voted in 2004 but not in 2002) and court independents and disaffected Republicans. Polling suggests that the public would prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress. But politics has a lot to do with mechanics--especially when control of the House and Senate will turn on a few dozen contests come November.(snip)

After running one of the most impressive grassroots campaigns in recent memory, Howard Dean was elected DNC chair in 2005, promising to make the party competitive again in every state. It sounded simple, but the "50 State Strategy" was a radical idea for a party accustomed to organizing only around election time, in toss-up states. Dean delivered immediately, giving each state a minimum of two to three field organizers. In places like Mississippi, that was more staff than the party had previously employed altogether. "I'm basically trying to rebuild the infrastructure of a party that doesn't have any," Dean says. With a few exceptions, state DNC chairs rave about him. "I couldn't be more impressed by the DNC," says Chris Redfern, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. "We're way ahead of the curve," says Dan Parker, Indiana's Democratic chair.

But the 50 State Strategy faced resistance from some key party operatives, who worried that Dean's spending on the states would sap resources needed for the '06 election. Fiery Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chair Rahm Emanuel directed an expletive-filled tirade at Dean in May, demanding more money for TV ads and wanting the DNC to take the lead on GOTV so he wouldn't have to. "We need the DNC on the field in this election," Emanuel later told the Washington Post. (Spokespersons at the DCCC and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee [DSCC] declined to comment for this article.)

"There's frustration inside the Beltway because I want to do things differently," Dean says. "But if we don't do things differently we'll be extinct as a party." Dean stressed that while Emanuel and the DSCC's Chuck Schumer must focus on '06, he's planning long-term. Dean's grassroots supporters say Emanuel and Schumer never respected Dean in the first place. But like it or not, Dean will be judged on how the party performs in this mid-term election.

An organized progressive movement, however, is no substitute for a strong Democratic Party. "People in DC need to understand that the ground game has to be a permanent game," Dean says. "That's why the Republicans are so good at it." A centralized, top-down Republican Party in 2004 out-organized a Democratic operation with many moving parts. Officials at the DNC talk about stealing the Republican playbook. But in reality Dean is performing a difficult juggling act, devolving power to the states while trying to win respect for his long-term vision inside the Beltway. "The number-one sport in Washington is to take shots at the DNC chair," the Democratic operative jokes.

Dean's 50 State Strategy could be the blueprint for his party's revival. But winning elections--particularly this November--would help, too.

Can we assume the "party operatives" are friends of Rahm? Still, the questions are worth considering now, not after November and the full article is worth reading.

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