Thursday, April 13, 2006

 

Dreaming with Dean

Like a lot of my fellow Democrats, I have been wondering for some time where the heck the party is headed, what is our strategy for becoming a majority party again is, whether any of our leaders are even thinking in these terms, etc. I have also been quite open with my deep reservations about Howard Dean's fitness to be DNC chairman. But judging from an article out this week by New Republic writer Noam Scheiber, maybe things are not as bleak as they seem.

Scheiber takes a peak inside the DNC at Dean's approach for rebuilding the party from the ground up, and finds that Dean is, true to form, upsetting a lot of 700 series apple carts. Instead of following the shakedown artist model of his predecessors, spending most of his time sucking up to big donors and preparing the bankroll for the next presidential candidate, Dean is apparently thinking bigger and broader about the party's long-term competitive standing. According to Scheiber:

Dean's goal is nothing less than saving the party by laying the groundwork for a future Democratic majority. The way he has pursued it is by giving states money and power that Washington had been hogging for decades. Not long after taking over at the DNC, for example, Dean quickly committed millions to hiring operatives--organizers, strategists, spokesmen--in each of the 50 states that didn't already have these personnel.

Dean's approach has a powerful logic to it. Consider a state like Texas. In 2004, the political birthplace of George W. Bush became a majority minority state. But, because the Texas Democratic Party was basically defunct--it didn't boast a single full-time staffer--Democrats had next to no ability to reach out to the local black and Latino population. Since 2005, however, the DNC has hired three permanent staffers in Texas, who have in turn recruited dozens of local volunteers. The state is unlikely to swing Democratic in 2008. But there's no reason it couldn't do so by 2020.


Scheiber's article includes lots of squawking from party mucketymucks and megadonors about the over-reaching of Dean's 50-state strategy and the risk of looking beyond and sacrificing the 2008 cycle. These tactical gripes may have some validity. But its not hard to come away with the impression that the criticisms are much more about ego-stroking than vote-boosting -- and that discomfiture of the insiders means Dean is probably onto something.

Indeed, it seems pretty clear from the outside that DNC's short-term obsession with fundraising has been short-changing our infrastructure and by extension our ability to compete outside of the safe blue state zones. Dean not only gets that, but unlike the conventional thinkers who tend to predominate and proliferate in Washington, he has shown he is not afraid to take some risks to shake things up and move in a different, more innovative direction.

I still think Dean is the wrong guy at the wrong time to lead the party. That's because I believe that the party's biggest problem at this moment is our message deficit -- our inability to present the voters who are not with us with a compelling agenda to move them to our side -- and that Dean has unfortunately shown he's incapable of building a consensus for filling this vision vacuum.

The fact is, we can develop the best political infrastructure man ever imagined, but it will be useless unless we first flesh a case for governing that we can organize around and sell to the voters who have made twice made Bush president. Neither Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid seem equipped to meet this challenge, which makes it all the more imperative to have a DNC chair who can. And even Dean himself has recognized he's not the answer either -- he's largely foresworn making policy pronouncements since getting his hand slapped a few times in the early days of his tenure for making questionable comments.

All of that said, I have to say I am intrigued by the structural changes Dean is making as chairman, and I am eager to see what kind of fruit they bear in the next couple years (and beyond).

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