. . . Tuesday November 30, 2004

It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To

Joe Trippi has offered his blueprint for getting the Democrats back on track. He makes a lot of good points. Here are a few of his takes followed by a few of mine.

just how bad was this election?

It turns out that Mr. Kerry was a weaker candidate than Mr. Gore. Mr. Kerry lost so much ground among women, Hispanics, and other key groups, that the millions in Internet money, the most Herculean get-out-the-vote effort in party history, and the largest turnout of young voters in over a decade, could not save him. Had the young voters stayed home, the sea of red on the electoral map would have grown to include at least Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Hampshire-perhaps one or two more.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush, received 50 million votes in 2000, and 59 million in 2004. He added nine million votes. That is because Karl Rove had a plan and the Bush campaign stuck to it. There is no doubt that they executed it brilliantly. But the problem for Democrats is not Mr. Rove; it is that they’re doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. That’s the definition of insanity.

And Trippi is leaving out perhaps the biggest factor that Kerry had going for him: The Anyone but Bush movement that swept across much of the country. That alone put Kerry within striking distance. He and his Party rode that message, but failed to rise above it. I think the post-election vibe that has surprised me the most is this attitude among very smart Democrats that we shouldn’t over react to the results. A few hundred thousand votes in Ohio would’ve changed everything.

This message is just flat-out wrong. This election was an unmitigated disaster for Democrats. There were no WMDs and Iraq was spiraling out of control. The economy never pulled out of its slump. The Bush campaign was off its game for at least three weeks and W’s performance in the debates was as bad as anyone could’ve dreamed. Enthusiasm was high. Turnout was great. The Party was relatively unified. Given the circumstances, this election (even though it was close) has to be viewed as one of the most disappointing in recent memory.

a move to the middle … of your gut

Since the Democratic Leadership Council, with its mantra of “moderate, moderate, moderate,” took hold in Washington, the Democratic Party has been in decline at just about every level of government. Forget the Kerry loss. Today the number of Democrats in the House is the lowest it’s been since 1928. Democrats are on the brink of becoming a permanent minority party. Can the oldest democratic institution on earth wake from its stupor?

Democrats can’t keep ignoring their base. Running to the middle and then asking our base at the end of the campaign to make sure to vote is not a plan. It sure hasn’t worked. And to those who say talking to your base doesn’t work-Read the Rove 2004 playbook!

Look, the biggest problem facing the Democrat Party, by far, is that we don’t know what we stand for. There is this misguided notion, left over from the Clinton years, that a Party can only win by moving its platform in the direction where wind is blowing. Nonsense. We have it backwards.

First, you come up with platform and a set of ideas and ideals. Then you package, market and sell that set of ideals as the best way to move the country forward.

We don’t have to look too far for examples.

The conservatives have managed to be viewed as the Party of morality. Is limiting science that can help a guy in a wheelchair moral? Is sending kids on multiple tours through an optional war based on false pretenses moral? Is hate legislation aimed at one segment of society moral? Is obliterating the separation of church and state moral?

The Republicans clearly did not set out to co-opt a general view of morality. They came up with a set of issues (terrible ones at that) and then sold them as morality.

That left the Democrats with a great opportunity to reframe the morality question. Instead, we offered a watered down version of what we saw the GOP was selling. They sold god so we sold a slightly less intense version of god. But why would anyone vote for diet god?

And morality is only one set of issues. We need to be the frame. Academic institutions are not bad. Neither is the press. Neither is being well-read, smart and nuanced. Neither is considering the results of a decision to, say, go to war.

it’s the charisma, stupid

The first step on the road towards Democratic recovery is to accept that Bill Clinton is not a political hero to be worshipped. He left this Party in shambles, with no message and no direction other than to defend the behavior of Bill Clinton. Check the scoreboard.

Oh, but he won and he was popular. Yes. Both things are true. But he didn’t win because of a groundbreaking political strategy. He won because of personality and charisma. Those cannot be duplicated. The strategy without his personality will give you exactly what we got this November.

Bill Clinton did not develop a winning strategy. He overcame his strategy and his flaws.

There was a moment during this campaign when Bill Clinton got on the phone with John Kerry and told the Senator that he had to figure out a way to come out in favor of the state bans on gay marriage that were on the ballots. There’s your hero. And that’s the strategy. Figure out a way to win. When that’s your only value, there’s nothing left to sell out.

If we stand for nothing other than winning, we deserve to lose.

Another example: If you read every speech John Kerry has given on Iraq, one thing is pretty clear. He didn’t believe that authorizing the use of force was the right thing to do. There is just no other way to read his speeches and past behavior. He voted to authorize the use of force for one reason and one reason only. And all of us knew that the second he cast his vote. That’s why we cringed even more than he did every time the topic came up.

Forget moving to where the mood is. Come up with a reason and then move the mood.

drivers wanted

The one thing we learned in the Dean campaign was that the 30 or so people in Burlington, Vt., were not as smart as the 650,000 Americans who were part of our campaign. Instead of a DLC in Washington, Democrats should be holding Democratic Grassroots Councils in every county. Democratic National Committee members in each state, along with the state party, should host and moderate these meetings to help develop ideas that come from the people, instead of the experts in Washington.

This goes back to the ideas expressed in The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. As I wrote in Running, Ruling and Reason, I do think that crowds can provide the right answers to a lot of questions. But I also think that leadership is not always a group activity. The Democratic events I’ve been to in the last couple of years had too many voices, not too few. There was no cohesive message. There was however a constant dialogue about the fact that there was no cohesive message. I actually sat in rooms and listened to guys like Bob Shrum tell groups of Democrats that they were wrong when they said that the Kerry campaign didn’t have a strong and clear purpose. Well, it turns out they were right. Millions of Democrats boarded that swift boat. And it just floated there.

The truth is that we nominated John Kerry for one reason: Because we thought he could win. That is the trend that is eating the Democratic Party alive. We must stop putting strategy first. If we come up with a reason to win, I guarantee we can come up with a gameplan.

It’s not that big of a risk. Nothing could be worse than losing when your only strong belief was that you wanted to win.


Concentration is important!