Thursday, May 11, 2006

Campaigns, Money, and "Crisis" Politics

So the Wash Post has a story out today about discord between the DNC and the DCCC on how to spend money.

Ezra Klein and Garance Franke-Ruta at TAPPED have jumped in to say that if the Dems bomb out in 2006 it will be Dean's fault for spending too much money on a so-called 50-State Strategy.

I respect Ezra Klein a great deal and this criticism of Dean may very well be on the mark. But there's a statement in Garance's post that makes me think the DC Beltway types don't quite get it:

Should Democrats fail to regain power, it's likely they won't get as favorable an electoral environment again any time soon, regardless of what's built out on the ground.

And Ezra says much the same thing:

Dean's...determination to create a 50-state structure would deprive the party of crucial resources in an almost historically fertile election year.

Do you hear the desperation in those statements? With the president's poll numbers at record lows, Democrats are drooling at the prospect of not only reducing Republican majorities in the House and Senate, but the very real potential that they could in fact recapture control of both houses. And to folks like Garance, the president's and Congress's low poll numbers mean this election may be the only chance Democrats have of getting themselves and their unpopular values elected. If we blow it this year, the thinking goes, we're toast for another generation. We have to win Now! or else all is lost.

Does that thinking sound familiar? In the sports world, it typifies teams that mortgage the future for the win-now demands of the present. But the strategery is a risky one because if the team does mortgage its future by trading away draft picks (the Washington Redskins) and still doesn't win Today, the team is in worst shape than when it started. Contrast that approach with the approach of the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers who frequently let the high-priced talent walk and keep reloading through the draft with young, less costly talent, and yet almost always are in the playoff picture, if not winning the Big Game outright.

There's a parallel in the religious world as well. If you have read about or have spent any time at all in the world of religious "reform" movements, you'll notice a characteristic that's always present: the church or denomination is in "crisis" and it's up to the pure elements in the body of Christ to right the ship. Regardless of the church's growth or lack thereof, to the purists, the church is always in crisis. The result of this perpetual crisis mode in the churches is that there's no time for objectively assessing the church's teachings or place for permitting thoughtful inquiry or truth-seeking.

Likewise in the political world, there's a risk in cashing in all your cards on the next election--which is pretty much what the Democrats have been doing for the last several decades. This short-term focus has resulted in the party's declining presence and support in many areas of the country and a narrow "swing state" strategy in national elections. Building long-term structures and support at the local and state levels are important for many reasons. As
David Sirota notes:

First and foremost, we've got to start focusing on politics in our backyard--not just national politics. The media and the political elite in Washington want us only focused on federal politics. They seem to think, as ABC's The Note epitomizes, that the only thing that is important in politics is what a bunch of suits in D.C. decide is important. Though that might make the self-important Washington political operatives, pundits and media chattering class feel good about itself, nothing could be further from the truth.

State, county and municipal policy often affects people's daily economic lives in far more profound ways than even federal policy. That's not to say that federal policy isn't important, but it is to say that there are other arenas for engagement. And because the hostile takeover is far less pronounced in these other arenas, it means citizens still have an ability to affect policy at this level, elect good people to office, and make real change. Put 20 people in a room with your city council person and demand something from them, and you will see that while they may not fully switch their position or do exactly what you ask, they are listening a hell of a lot more than your average national politician.

The other reason to get local is because these city council people, county commissioners and state legislators are going to be tomorrow's congressmen, senators and presidents. We've got to get to them now before they become co-opted by Washington's money-drenched indoctrination system.

Now, it may be that the Dean skeptics are right and that reallocating greater funds towards the party's once-in-a-lifetime shot at recapturing political control of Congress in '06 would be the Democrats' best strategy this year.

But it is also undoubtedly true that the party faces not just simple numerical obstacles to taking control of Congress, but in fact, faces
considerable structural impediments as well; impediments that have come about because Republicans have been busy winning state and local elections and thus controlling the electoral machinery in those states and redrawing congressional districts to prevent the sort of Democratic tidal waves the DCCC is hoping to accomplish This Year.

Naturally, a political party aims to win every election. But it would be short sighted to think that The Next Election is all that matters. It would be better, obviously, if Democrats were able to capture control of one or both chambers of Congress in November. But for all practical purposes, the Bush II presidency is dead. What happens in November won't significantly alter that reality. True, a Democratic Congress could investigate, finally, the administration's excesses. But it wouldn't be able to pass any meaningful legislation with George W. ready to throw down his first vetoes. And if the structural impediments to winning This Year are as steep as some of our best analysts point out, a cash-run on 2006 could set the party back if it isn't successful.

Ultimately, for Democrats to be a majority again, they have to change the paradigm of American politics, the one that has been operative for the last 25 years or so. And in the wider scheme of things, that is the kind of thing that requires both the necessary rhetorical foundation as well as the appropriate political structure--neither of which would a 2006 Democratic sweep necessarily accomplish.

So while I know we're all anxious for big gains in November, recognize that conservatives have spent decades building up a movement and party apparatus. That won't be conquered over night in one election or at one level of government.


mondale/ferraro foreva! said...

i totally agree, yeah the analogy to the patriots and steelers is right on! yeah, i think it's good to stick with dean's strategy and keep the long term view, maybe with some short term money movements toward the most competitive races this year, but can't lose the focus on all 50 states if going to change the party in the long run. hooray for bulworth and dean, wooh!

Chin Shih Tang said...

First, I love the Bulworth label! The movie, which rings truer than ever these days (saw it recently), has largely been forgotten. Glad you're reviving...

Second, I agree more with Dean than with Rahm Emanuel & Co. I have been burned too many times in the past, and I'm not convinced that there's really much of a chance of gaining control in the House. And without control of a majority, and the rule-making power, in the House you have nothing.
Almost better to give to the DSCC--they will make some inroads, and each vote could be critical on certain issues.

Better still is to take control of the White House and both Houses of Congress in an anti-Bushite landslide in 2008, which I do believe is possible. Grassroots development now is what is needed for that, and thus I'm more behind Dean's argument than its antithesis.

My approach this year will be to give tactically on issues, and support the challenge in my home state (not home district) of NM to a moderate Rep. from a moderate Dem. We're keeping the powder dry.