The Failing Upward Trend of the Machine Democrats
by Matt Stoller, Mon Jul 24, 2006 at 10:17:12 AM EDT
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.