The Failing Upward Trend of the Machine Democrats

I blog a lot about machine Democratic politics, because while we often talk about the right-wing machine and its structure of think tanks, magazines, etc, we often don't spend enough time understanding that there is a parallel machine within the Democratic Party that wields real power, and fights progressives at every step of the way.  Right now, this machine is taking advantage of the deep hunger in the progressive community for a new direction, and repackaging itself for a different era.  The DLC is part of this machine, and so is Mike McCurry, Steve Elmendorf, Carter Eskew, Joe Lieberman, and Dewey Square.  

I'm reminded of this because of a post I read on the Washington Post's blog 'The Fix', by Chris Cillizza, on a newish group trying to put itself in the center of 2008 called The Third Way.  The Washington Post's 'The Fix' blog by Chris Cillizza does a series called 'Insider Interviews', in which he interviews prominent Beltway operatives.  These operatives are prominent mostly because they've been around for a long time and have relationships with journalists, politicians, and corporate donors.  

I find Cillizza's series fascinating, because the people he interviews are basically the institutional memory of the Democratic Party.  And if you read what they say, you get a sense of why we've been losing for so long.  Today's interview is with Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Cowan's group.  

Bennett worked for Bill Clinton's advance team in 1992, in the Clinton White House from 1996 to 2000 and then as communications director in retired Gen. Wesley Clark's presidential campaign in 2004. In between he managed to graduate from law school, work for a firm in Washington (King & Spalding), and play a crucial role in the formation of Americans for Gun Safety -- a group organized to blunt the traditional Republican advantage on 2nd Amendment issues.

Convinced that Democrats needed to craft a message to appeal to moderate voters rather than focusing their message on motivating the liberal base, Bennett joined two other veterans of Americans for Gun Safety in the aftermath of the 2004 election to form Third Way. Their goal, he said, was to "challenge progressive orthodoxy on a range of things." (The group's Web site offers a somewhat more conciliatory description of Third Way as a "strategy center for progressives.")

Third Way is a total disaster in every conceivable way; the President, Jonathan Cowan, was an advocate for privatizing Social Security.  Cowan wasn't just an advocate, he went to the mat for Bush's scheme, going so far as to say  that "this entire discussion is really a discussion that's at the heart of whether there's a future for the Democratic Party." Remarkable, yes.  Cowan's also a tool.  In his bio, he brags about founding an organization called "Lead...or Leave, which became the nation's leading Generation X advocacy group." Cool!  Awesome!  Reality bites!  Whatever.  Pearl Jam was totally better.

But back to Matt Bennett, who is today's featured insider.  Bennett has basically been a disaster in every role he's ever taken.  He was the Communications Director for the Wesley Clark campaign in 2004, and effectively took a powerful netroots driven movement campaign and destroyed it through incoherent corporate-driven messaging.  Bennett's triangulating group Americans for Gun Safety was formed in 2000, and its foolish strategies undercut traditional gun rights groups and allowed the NRA to completely destroy Democrats on the gun issue.  Bennett is such a loser that he started his career as an advance man for Michael Dukakis, and keeps the jumpsuit from the tank moment in his closet as a souvenir.

It is Americans for Gun Safety that is the most important piece of Bennett's career.  Contrary to current mythology, Americans don't believe in arming everyone with uzis.  Americans have a nuanced view of firearms, and believe in different regulations depending on where you live.  In New Jersey, gun restrictions are very popular, because it's a surburban/urban state.  In Vermont or Montana, not so much.  The NRA understood this, and created a strategy designed to intimidate and fool Democrats into thinking that gun control is a losing issue everyone.  They faced a formidable movement composed of mothers and families of gun violence victims, with a long history of successful advocacy (like the assault weapons ban).

Americans for Gun Safety entered into this debate as the sort of DLC of the gun control movement (or as they put it, a bipartisan centrist group), and rather than opposing the NRA's extremist policies, criticized both sides equally.  The group reinforced the cultural stereotypes that Democrats were afraid of, and completely gutted effective organizing strategies around gun control in urban and suburban areas.  In 2000, the NRA was quite competent at turning out gun nut votes, but thanks to Americans for Gun Safety, the gun control groups couldn't persuade Al Gore to use gun control as a turnout device for suburban women (though it worked in the Senate campaigns of those who used it).  Gun control was seen as culturally insensitive to red state voters instead of being understood as a complex and heavily regional issue.  So Gore got the worst of both worlds; he was successfully pegged as a gun control freak by the NRA, and as weak on gun violence by suburban women.

Today, gun control isn't an issue on the national radar despite terrorists being easily able to obtain firearms, with Americans for Gun Safety having played doormat to an utterly ascendant NRA.  The NRA totally won the debate, thanks to Bennett and Cowan's stellar work.  

I don't bring this up because I care about guns.  I don't really, and though I've never been hunting, it does look kind of fun.  This is about the strategy of triangulation, which is in today's world another word for appeasement of extremists.  The legacy of Tony Coelho and Bill Clinton is the legacy of triangulation and compromise, only their descendants don't really get what this legacy really meant.  Clinton and Coelho were successful with this strategy, pushing progressive policies through a right-wing Congress (or in Coelho's case, beating Republicans in elections throughout the 1980s).  Only, their political heirs don't get that compromise only works with extremists if you are negotiating from a position of strength.  You can't triangulate from a position of weakness.  And you can't triangulate if your base is corporate money, though you can make a lot of cash and get a lot of quotes in the newspaper while progressives loses.

And that's ultimately the problem with these 'insiders'; they lose and take progressives with them, and learn nothing.  Bennett doesn't care that he's screwed up everything he's ever touched.  Read the interview; Bennett sees himself as being in the center of the 2008 Presidential debate on the Democratic side even though he's pursuing the same strategies he's always pursued, and has done nothing but lose.  So why would he see himself as being in the center of the 2008 debate?  Well, I guess because he was on the advance team for Dukakis and Clinton, and he knows some corporate donors willing to fund his next failed center of bipartisan and incrementalist bullshit.

I'm sorry, but that's just not good enough anymore.  And flannel shirts aren't flattering on anyone.

Tags: Matt Bennett, Third Way (all tags)




I'm in a district that really doesn't like abortion, but if we could convince people to vote on other things (like the war, soaring health care costs, and double-digit unemployment) we'd do pretty well. Third-way advises us to tell voters "we want to reduce the number of abortions by funding sex ed, contraception, and adoption centers, not by throwing women in jail."

So Third-way is useful when an individual campaign has one issue it needs to avoid, but if this is the overall direction of the party, I want out. Third-way presents an interesting thought experiment, and if a red-state challenger needs to sidestep one issue, Third-way will show them how. But the Third-way is diametrically opposed to the politics of contrast; proponents and practitioners of the north-eastern strategy should avoid it like the plague.

by msnook 2006-07-24 11:39AM | 0 recs
Re: Third-Way
Excellent points! I would only add (as I did on the Cillizza blog) that Bennett's position makes absolutely no sense if you look at the nation as a whole since most "moderates" already support abortion and gay rights! So if we already have a super-majority of these voters, then why should we change our message on those hot-button issues?
I could go on, but basically Bennett is full of crap  as are all of those who are constantly trying to shift to the soft squishy middle (which not surprisingly, is now very far to the right, look at Specter's and Snowe's progressive punch scores).
by adamterando 2006-07-24 12:01PM | 0 recs
Re: Third-Way

It's more complicated than that. Most Americans believe that a woman should have a right to choose, but they don't think late-term abortions should be legal. In other words, they're pro-choice to a point. Similarly, Americans believe that everyone should be treated equally under the law, but they're uncomfortable when you throw the word "marriage" in there.

So, while most Americans are against what the Republicans are preaching, they're also not really with NARAL.

by bluenc 2006-07-24 07:03PM | 0 recs
Re: Third-Way

I agree. However those aren't the points Bennett was making. It's entirely possible (probable?) that points such as yours were left out of the piece. But based on what Bennett said, he is trying to win over anti-choice voters, not pro-choice to a point, which is where my point came from.

by adamterando 2006-07-24 08:19PM | 0 recs
Re: The Failing Upward Trend of the

If Third Way is as successful as the Dukakis Campaign or "Lead or Leave" then I don't see what the fuss is about but it is sort of amazing that these efforts can get funded.  I'd be open minded to hear thier side of the story.  "Lead or Leave" was a flash in the pan that managed to be a factor in the defeat of ex-Sen. Wyche Fowler, Democrat of Georgia and got the leaders of the group lots of media exposure.    

by howardpark 2006-07-24 12:05PM | 0 recs
Re: The Failing Upward Trend of the Machine Democr

"And that's ultimately the problem with these 'insiders'; they lose and take progressives with them, and learn nothing."
But these insider's arn't supporting progressive causes, they are as you point out centrist.  As that is the case how is it they are taking progressives with them?  Wouldn't they be taking centrists with them?  Or are progressives supporting these centrists causes?  If so why?/doesn't that make them not progressive?

I guess I'm a little confused on the use of the word progressive in this post.

by IrnBru001 2006-07-24 12:15PM | 0 recs
Re: The Failing Upward Trend of the Machine Democr

They are playing both sides, which is why they are so damaging.

by Matt Stoller 2006-07-24 12:47PM | 0 recs
Re: The Failing Upward Trend

You know what really bothers me about their advice: it goes against common political sense. In off election year, it's pretty much understood that one builds a win based on the base, not on the swing so-called moderate vote. Their arguments are actually the counter intuitive one. Yet, for over a decade now- they are considered sage advice. I mean the stuff you people here one blogs talk about- it's shit I learned by in 1990 in school in politicing 101. It's stuff the Republicans do all day, everyday: communication, organizational structure, GOTV, motivate your base. I have to think they don't get this, because they don't want to get this.

by bruh21 2006-07-24 12:16PM | 0 recs
Re: The Failing Upward Trend

Part of it is that they are playing to the ears of the elite media. It wouldn't surprise me if Bennett's politics match closely the Cillizzas, Broders, Allens, Brownsteins, and Nagourneys of the journalistic world. And since journalists are always searching for that magic "balance" they automatically gravitate to anyone that can say "I'm part of so and so party, but "gasp" there's some people in my party that are wrong!" (cf. McCain, John) That way the journalist doesn't have to trudge around and find an opposing quote; it's already given to them. Call it a two-fer!

by adamterando 2006-07-24 08:24PM | 0 recs
One thing I don't get

 When WAS the last time the Democrats' campaign strategy was to energize the liberal/progressive base, at least on a national level? In 2002 the Dems rolled over for Bush on Iraq, completely ignoring the base (which was RIGHT about Iraq, by the way), and got SLAUGHTERED in the midterms. John Kerry's 2004 campaign was a muddle of chronic triangulation and attempts to pander to that Mythical Middle, and he lost a race he should have won easily. In the House and Senate, the party followed the Daschle Doctrine (never, ever, say anything that might make you look like a liberal), and lost all over the place for its trouble.

  So when the Bennetts of the world yammer about how the Dems need to "move to the middle", I just shake my head in disgust at this appalling ignorance. When have the Dems NOT tried to move to what they believe is the middle? And when was the last time that worked?

 Who's to say that there's anything wrong with an electoral strategy that incorporates and energizes the base? It's not like that approach has been TRIED since, when, LBJ in 1964?

by Master Jack 2006-07-24 12:25PM | 0 recs
Re: One thing I don't get

But the base is much smaller than it was in 1964. There is no New Deal coalition anymore. It's all been fractured by the Republicans. That's what they spent the 70s and 80s doing. So now, if we brought out our base, we'd still be way behind, plus we would have alienated some moderates. In the meantime, we would have energized the right wing base.

By the way, the last time the triangulation strategy worked was in 2000, when Al Gore won more votes than the other guy.

by bluenc 2006-07-24 07:07PM | 0 recs
Re: One thing I don't get

You could argue Gore either way. Remember his "people versus the powerful" speech that was panned so much by the DLC? That was a pretty big base motivating speech. I know it motivated me and made me feel excited to be a Democrat again. Gore was also up after that speech. But the DLC said his "populism" is what did him in. I don't think so.

There was much more talk of Bush and Gore being two sides of the same coin (even though that was preposterous). That narrative, even though it was false, probably contributed a lot to the low turnout in the election. People thought, it doesn't matter if I vote, they're both the same. Or some people (about 80,000 in Florida for instance) even thought that their votes were better served by giving them to Ralph Nader.

I think I would rather motivate the base and keep some of them from turning to Nader, and even getting some of the 100 million voters who choose not to vote (who would mostly be Democrats), than worry about trying to get a few more Republicans to come to our side.

But then again, it doesn't have to be an either or thing. We can do both. We need a good candidate, good ideas, and good organization. The rest will take care of itself. Right now I'm leaning towards John Edwards. How 'bout you?

by adamterando 2006-07-24 08:32PM | 0 recs
Re: One thing I don't get

But the DLC said his "populism" is what did him in. I don't think so.

The lesson the Democrats take from every defeat is that they weren't "centrist" enough.  They could run Joe Lieberman for prez, and when he got trounced they would tell themselves it was because his rabid liberalism scared away Middle America.

by Eli 2006-07-24 08:42PM | 0 recs
Matt? Hunting?

Matt, If you ever go hunting, be sure to give me a call.  

A pleasingly funny mental image of you with the stereotypical hunting hat on and a shotgun made me smile enough to register and post.  

Bang up job on this whole mydd thing.  Long time lurker, first time poster ;)


by jkasyan 2006-07-24 12:46PM | 0 recs
Shooting is fun, hunting, done right, is serious

Rent the Deer Hunter and only watch about the first 45 minutes. Shooting a buck is morally no different than buying a Big Mac, and I just finished a pretty good cheeseburger. On the other hand freely choosing to end a life, whether that is a buck or Ol Yeller means making a moral choice about the value of life. A Jain would tell you the same thing is true for a cockroach as a buck as your dog as your neighbor. Well that is a lot farther than I would go, any cockroach in my house has a death warrent out, but where you draw the line is your own moral choice.

On the other hand familiarizing yourself with a variety of handguns, longguns and shotguns by blowing the shit out of a whole selection of paper targets, tin cans and clay disks in a physical environment that prevents harm to humans (hint sand or dirt backgrounds good, granite canyon bad) is not only good training but a hell of a lot of fun.

But there are two types of hunting. Going out to kill as much as you can while drinking beer (Cheney style) or going out to get your buck for the year. I am not sure Matt would enjoy either. On the other hand plinking at tin cans and popping off some caps at the firing range is just clean fun. (And come the Revolution good training.)

by Bruce Webb 2006-07-24 01:45PM | 0 recs
Re: The Failing Upward Trend of the Machine Democr

Jesus, Clinton legacy isn't  "Clinton  pushing progressive policies through a right-wing Congress"

He sold out the old Democratic party on NAFTA, Welfare, globalization, Iraq, civil liberties, go down the list...

OH but he was Democratic president, say all the poor Democrats, And oh good, in November we're going to get a worthless Democratic Congress, can't wait.

by brutus1 2006-07-24 01:25PM | 0 recs
Re: The Failing Upward Trend of the Machine Democr

Spoken like a true Nader supporter.  Have you been thanked for the Bush presidency, lately?

Sorry for the snark, but this kind of talk really bugs me.

by Mark Matson 2006-07-24 01:40PM | 0 recs
Me too

Raise taxes on the wealthy, reduce unemployment to levels that were guaranteed to generate inflation (per conventional economic theory), deliver low inflation ANYWAY, and turn deficits to surpluses thus putting the US in a financial position to introduce single payer health care. Man what a sell-out Clinton was.

And Bush accepted every bit of the credit for what Clinton produced. We had money for tax cuts, we had money for defense spending, we had money to pay down the deficit, and money left over for No Child Left Behind. Funny how they only managed to come up with money for items one and two.

Absent Bush tax cuts and a truly disasterous "Splendid Adventure" in the MidEast we could have done amazing things under President Gore. And frankly Nader supporters can bite me for insisting there was no difference.

For that matter Nader is Lebanese American, you wonder exactly how thrilled he is about the current backing of the Bush Administration of the assault on Lebanon.

If there is a single Green Party person out there that would still maintain there was no real difference between Gore and Bush, well I suggest you need to take a recheck of your environmentalist credentials. Because Nader never, ever really cared about the environment.

The Green Party sold its soul to a self-absorbed guy who never either respected or cared for its position. Look up the definition of "Tool" in the Progressive Dictionary and chances are you see a Naderite staring back at your.

by Bruce Webb 2006-07-24 02:06PM | 0 recs
Re: Me too

Absent Bush tax cuts and a truly disasterous "Splendid Adventure" in the MidEast we could have done amazing things under President Gore. And frankly Nader supporters can bite me for insisting there was no difference."

Lets just take one example here, our splendid adventure in the Mid-East didnt start with JR or even Bush I, its been along time. Lets randomly start it in January 1980, with Jimmy Carter's last State Of the Union, in which he declares the oil in the Gulf an American national interest and says we will militarily secure it.

Since that point, our bipartisan elected officials have voted to spend over ten trillion on the military and about a hundred billion on new non-nuclear energy sources.

Don't forget it was the used car salesman from Arkansas who ran the Iraq war for 8 years, bombing  regularly and the big Baghdad bombing days before his impeachment trial.

So keep thinking electing Democrats is going to help, delusion is an important part of life.

by brutus1 2006-07-24 10:08PM | 0 recs
Re: The Failing Upward Trend of the Machine Democr

You don't have to be a Naderite to remember that Clinton did a lot of bad things and climbed into bed with all the people that Matt is talking about in this post and worse.  He did us no favors by advancing their agenda.  

by eRobin 2006-07-24 03:09PM | 0 recs
The Danger Is The Gestalt

On virtually every issue under the sun there is surprisingly little polarization between liberals and conservatives--a fact that I'll be addressing in a diary soon.  Political narratives are far more polarized and polarizing than people's actual positions.  This means that the centrist "Third Way" folks' main impact is to help reinforce the "conservative" message that liberals are "out of touch" and "out of the mainstream."  And it's that gestalt--even more than individual issue positions, that makes them so dangerous and damaging, not just to progressives, but to the Democratic Party as a whole, and even to moderate Republicans as well.

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-07-24 06:02PM | 0 recs
Re: The Danger Is The Gestalt

I can't wait to read this. It's something I've been pondering for quite awhile now.

I have some interesting ideas but I can't post them here right now. But there are some particularly good examples of Democrats who aren't particularly in touch with their constituents actual opinions on issues and such, but are still quite popular because the narrative seems to fit their conception of a good senator.

I would hazard to guess that a lot of red-staters don't quite realize that their personal opinions on a whole range of issues are actually mainstream. However, since the narrative claims that they are out of the mainstream, they vote with the narrative. It's as if they don't trust their own instincts enough to vote how they want.

This is terribly muddled.

What I think I'm trying to say is that people will vote the narrative because they don't think they can expect much more. Their own opinions have been marginalized to such an extent that they can't trust themselves. All the while, they don't realize that most of the people around them would likely agree with what they all think is a "radical" idea.

Universal healthcare is a perfect example. Most people believe in it. But they might just think that nobody else does (or just a very small crazed number of people). They don't really want to vote for their crazy notions because they think no-one else will. But they secretly wish that it will happen anyway.

This is how Dean became "unelectable." It's not that people didn't agree with him. They just didn't get the feeling that other people agreed with him.

I'm sorry. I'm not making any sense here. It's an inkling of an idea.


by phatass 2006-07-24 09:31PM | 0 recs
So Why Hire Them?

Matt, thanks for visiting my wee little blog.  I don't disagree with your comment that losing is actually the insider Dems' objective, but I still don't understand why the congressional Dems (and presidential aspirants, for that matter) would hire professional losers.

Do they not actually want to win, or are they just completely blind to reality?

by Eli 2006-07-24 07:33PM | 0 recs
Re: So Why Hire Them?

Depends on the politician.  Lots of them are insecure divas who desperately want the approval of the Broders, etc.  Some are going to become lobbyists and don't want to jeopardize their job prospects.  Some want to gain power and don't see how they can do that without having these third way people on their side (Evan Bayh, cough cough).  Some just won by marketing themselves as moderates and can't see any other way of winning.

by Matt Stoller 2006-07-25 05:06AM | 0 recs

indiana 2/donnelly vs.chicola

today the republican s.b.tribune published their poll showing donnelly ahead.  right below that story was another from the GOP saying that Donnelly doesn't pay his property taxes on time.
(Like that's the easiest thing to do anyway in indiana. The bills are screwed up and often wrong, and always late in being mailed to the property owners.)  Donnelly's camp said yes, he had paid them late, w/ interest and penalties.  He is a small business owner, and has two kids in college.  cash flow for a dem is a little different than cash flow for a republican!  The GOP here in Indiana can see the hand writing on the wall.  Between the double day lite savings time and the toll road being sold, No-ones man/one-term governor mitch danials isn't even wearing a coat, much less coat tails.........

by Konnie 2006-07-25 06:34AM | 0 recs
Re: The Failing Upward of the Matt Stoller

Matt -- reading your comments about Matt Bennett and Third Way had me confused.  I hadn't thought that King Karl Rove contributed to MyDD, but there was his handiwork, in black and white, with your name on it.  

Frankly, I'd be more concerned about your rantings and ravings, except that they're so rambling and incoherent that I'm certain no one read them to the end.

How about you figure out a way to start putting the heat on John Kyl and Jeff Sessions, instead of sitting in your underwear, eating Doritos, and obsessing over whether Matt Bennett has the right kind of ideological purity to be a leader in our party??

Lets see -- Matt Bennett -- high ranking White House official under the longest serving Dem since FDR.  Matt Stoller, loser blogger, desperately jealous of anyone getting profiled in the WaPo.

Hmmm...who do I want leading our party??

by Tullius Cimber 2006-07-25 06:52AM | 0 recs


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