Underneath this clash of field plans and alpha personalities lay a deeper philosophical divide over how you go about rebuilding a party — which was really a dispute about cause and effect. Did you expand the party by winning elections, or did you win elections by expanding the party? Most party insiders had long put their faith in elections first, arguing that the best way to broaden the base of the party was to win more races. Schumer said as much in a written statement that his spokesman forwarded to me in response to my questions about his differences with Dean. “Our long-term goal is the same — a strong Democratic Party,” Schumer stated. “But we” — meaning he and Emanuel — “believe that nothing does more to further that goal in 2006, 2008 and beyond than taking back the House and Senate so that we can implement a Democratic platform.”
Recent history, though, would seem to undercut this theory. In the 1990’s, the Democrats won two presidential elections behind a popular leader, and yet the party didn’t grow. In fact, Democrats lost ground at every level of government except the White House and cemented their position as the party of coastal states. Steadily investing in political activity on the local level, as Republicans have done for years, seems to Dean and his allies a more realistic way for Democrats to expand the electoral map than simply trying, every four years, to piece together the same elusive majorities. Of course, every Democrat in Washington says he’s for expanding the party’s efforts beyond the familiar 18 or 20 battleground states, but only Dean, among his party’s leaders, has been willing to argue that there is a choice involved, that you cannot actually invest for the long term unless you’re willing to forgo some short-term priorities.
Most analysts in both parties now believe that Democrats have better-than-even odds of winning at least the House. But if they don’t, rather than dissect the mechanical failures that cost them a few thousand votes here or there, Democrats might be forced to admit, at long last, that there is a structural flaw in their theory of party-building. Even a near miss, at a time of such overwhelming opportunity, would suggest that a national party may not, in fact, be able to win over the long term by fixating on a select group of industrial states while condemning entire regions of the country to what amounts to one-party rule. Which would mean that Howard Dean is right to replant his party’s flag in the towns and counties along America’s less-traveled highways, even if his plan isn’t perfect, and even if he isn’t the best messenger to carry it out. As another flawed visionary, the filmmaker Woody Allen, once put it, 80 percent of success is just showing up.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
"The Inside Agitator"
Some quotes from Matt Bai's article today: