The Future of Democrats: Report from New York
by emptypockets, Sat Jan 29, 2005 at 08:01:06 PM EST
THE SCORING: There are two things we need in a chair: a budget manager, and a party spokesman. (Unfortunately there is no candidate forcing me to write spokesperson... where's Carol M-B when you need her?) Here's how they did.
Martin Frost Success coordinating campaigns nationwide while in Congress. +2
Wellington Webb Executive experience as mayor. +1
Howard Dean Outstanding success coordinating national campaigns through DFA. Executive experience as Governor and head of Nat'l. Gov. Assn. +3
Simon Rosenberg Has tackled nation-wide message building through NDN, no obvious measure of his success. +1
Donnie Fowler National coordinator for Gore, state director in Michigan for Kerry. +1
Tim Roemer Did not mention any relevant experience. Hung his hat instead on his role in forming 9/11 Commission. 0
David Leland State director for Ohio. Major accomplishment seemed to be a new office building and being a vice-chair in Franklin County when he was 18. 0
Martin Frost Clear, firm voice. Speaks credibly on military issues - his wife is a major-general. Cannot resist taking potshots at whomever spoke before him. Would be great on Hardball - just the kind of screaming nonsubstantive arguer they love. +1
Wellington Webb Calm, cool, collected. Excellent at bringing any question back to his core issues - I think he managed to say "Roe vs. Wade" in every answer. Would emphasize Democrats as party of African-Americans, other people of color, of women, of gays and lesbians. Hits well and hard on the diversity message, but makes everything about diversity. +1
Howard Dean Clear, concise answers, clear vision that comes through instantly. Speaks, in his words, with "deep conviction" - for better or worse. +6
Simon Rosenberg Laughs awkwardly at his own jokes. Would make the face of the Democratic party a New York Jew. 0
Author's note: This comment has set off a real firestorm I didn't anticipate. It has been educational, though upsetting, for me, but it has also already been hashed out here. I wanted to say that a good spokesman will speak to middle America and not play into anti-Democrat stereotypes, and I think Rosenberg fails that test. To Rosenbergians everywhere, I still think he is a good guy, just not a good television personality - and I think he knows that and doesn't aspire to be a "high-visibility" chair anyhoo.
Donnie Fowler Southern accent may help, but overall comes across as a snake. If he and Mehlman were on split-screen, might be mistaken for twins. +1
Tim Roemer Speaks adequately, but his message is not the Democratic message. Of course there's a litmus test, dummy. There are several. 0
David Leland I know it's not his fault he has a lisp, but it's just bad timing when the big fight next year is thothial thecurity. 0
Bow to Congress or the DNC?
An interesting question asked of Webb, Rosenberg, and Dean was what they would do if a Bush nominee were objected to by a minority of senators but a majority of DNC members. (Better put it more broadly - when Congress and DNC members disagree, whose side will you take?) Webb sided with DNC; Rosenberg with Congress; Dean split the difference. Webb made it about Rice nomination, and said we need to be careful in cases like that not to appear to be objecting to an educated black woman. (Right, because all across the nation people saw Barbara Boxer take on Rice, a liar and cheat, and said "Well what do you know, Democrats must hate black women!") Rosenberg said the DNC chair is there to offer private advice to Congressional leaders on behalf of members, but does not help the party by exposing our rifts. Dean said he personally opposed Rice's nomination but there was no point in strong-arming others into opposing it since she would be nominated eventually. There were 4 or 5 issues, and potentially some unacceptable nominees, he said, where they would need everyone to fall in line - essentially that as chair he would pick his fights carefully.
Grassroots vs. Local
This bugged me. Everyone there said they were all about grassroots. That was a lie, but those lying didn't know it because they don't know what grassroots is. Grassroots is not the same as local politicking. Organizing block parties, precinct captains, on and on, is not grassroots politics - it's traditional local politics. It's important too, but it's the culmination of top-down bureacuracy -- from D.C. to state chairs to county chairs to precincts to neighborhoods. Grassroots is fundamentally different. Grassroots is bottom-up, not top-down. This idea is so foreign to these guys that they don't even get that they don't get it. MoveOn is grassroots. MyDD is grassroots. DFA is grassroots. Sending party organizers door-to-door is not grassroots.
For example, Frost said his whole career has been about grassroots, which he defined as turning out more voters than the other side. (He also credited the $5 donor revolution to John Kerry, and said that as chair he would "work" the people on the e-mail lists the DNC has amassed.) Leland said he would make the DNC relevant to rural voters by crafting a message in Washington and then sending it out to local communities through local elected representatives. Even Fowler, who spent his entire five-minute opening statement declaring death to the "aristocracy of political consultants" talked about grassroots in terms of organizing the Michigan state party -- although he is almost there, he almost gets it, when he talked about recruiting early among non-traditional Democrats, getting nuns going door-to-door, targeting Arab-American neighborhoods and getting them involved.
Dean in contrast gets grassroots in his core -- he practically invented this iteration of it. He talked about putting two directors and two grassroots organizers in every state on the DNC payroll (which is a trick to make it difficult to pull core funds from state parties when the national candidate says he or she needs more cash for media buys) but NOT telling them what to do - letting them build their own organizations. Rosenberg did not talk persuasively about grassroots but did use the words "internet" and "blogosphere" once each, so he gets points for that. Despite what we'd like to think here, the only time anyone else talked about the web, I believe, was when they said Wellington's last name.
The blunt truth is that the DNC chair can't do too much for real grassroots movements, since grassroots is by its nature not built top-down. But he can provide sun and fertilizer, by getting out of the way when needed, and sowing enough money to help seed incipient efforts. And by conveying a sense of ordinary people making a difference, and encouraging self-reliance... by saying things like, oh, I don't know... "You have the power."(tm)
The Fowler Amendments, and Circular Firing Squads
There was extensive (seemingly uninformed) discussion of a pair of amendments introduced by Donnie's father, Don Fowler, having to do with how DNC representation is apportioned. They were intended to move representation to include a wider swath of Democrats, but there is a fear they will consolidate power outside the hands of minorities, labor unions, and so on. Rosenberg (who seemed really unprepared for the question) and Webb spoke at length about the importance of maintaining diversity and respecting the base. Fowler chimed in defending his father's name (which is his name too, he noted) and extolling his father's record of inclusiveness to make the point that these were not anti-diversity amendments. Dean said, I'll tell you one thing, if I'm elected, we're not going to get into these battles over how to cross the t's and dot the i's like this (actually he said "dot the t's and cross the i's" but point taken, cross-eyed). This led into a general discussion of the "circular firing squad" -- whether we can have a vigorous debate about the future of the party and come out of it not fractured but more unified than ever.
Here's where I'd like to leave it. The people on the stage are good people. They are good Democrats. They are not all skilled politicans (Rosenberg, Leland) and they are not all progressive Democrats (Frost, Roemer). Some of them have their hackles up over the way they've been treated in this race (Frost, Roemer again) and in a way, they have every right to be. (In another way they have seen nothing compared to Dean who by this time has such a thick skin he just does a little eyebrow-lift as the attacks bounce off him.) But this race has become much more than it really ought to be -- the stakes are higher, the spotlight is brighter -- maybe because for once we are pretty sure we have a horserace that a Democrat will actually win for a change.
I'll tell you this, I wouldn't have been in the room if not for Howard Dean. The choice today is between moving to the middle (what Howard calls "Republican-lite") to bring the party to the voters, or moving to the left (what Howard calls our "deep convictions") and bringing the voters to the party. It's not obvious which way will win. But if we're going to be a party, let's be a party of something -- of something other than compromise.
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