The future of party politics?
John Harwood’s front-pager in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) covers almost the exact same ground at Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazine cover story about the organizational revolution taking place among Democrat-friendly interest groups. Harwood’s story focuses more on what these interest groups and 527 organizations are doing in this election cycle: Rebecca Barson ...
John Harwood's front-pager in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) covers almost the exact same ground at Matt Bai's New York Times Magazine cover story about the organizational revolution taking place among Democrat-friendly interest groups. Harwood's story focuses more on what these interest groups and 527 organizations are doing in this election cycle:
John Harwood’s front-pager in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) covers almost the exact same ground at Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazine cover story about the organizational revolution taking place among Democrat-friendly interest groups. Harwood’s story focuses more on what these interest groups and 527 organizations are doing in this election cycle:
Rebecca Barson pulled up a chair alongside a tattooed young man sporting a black T-shirt and earring and squinted into a computer screen. “OK,” Rob O’Brien told her, “let’s cut turf.” And then, with a few keystrokes, the two opened another tiny front in the ground war to defeat George W. Bush — and the quiet revolution under way within Democratic politics. Ms. Barson, a 27-year-old official at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, wanted to track down potential voters motivated by support for abortion rights. She asked Mr. O’Brien, a techie from a new liberal turnout machine called America Coming Together, to summon names and addresses of Democratic and independent women aged 18 to 30. Republicans wouldn’t be worth the time. Within seconds, her quarry popped up: 812 Concord-area women, their addresses marked with dots on a street map that Mr. O’Brien, a Democratic activist, printed out. Then it was up to Planned Parenthood — and a host of affiliated liberal organizations working with ACT to divide up terrain — to reach the voters, assess their political inclinations and cajole supporters to vote on Nov. 2. All this represents a big change for the nation’s Democrats. In the past, the various constituent and special-interest groups sympathetic to the party tended to go their own ways, often overlapping and sometimes even competing with each other. This time they are systematically collaborating, dividing up tasks and target audiences in an attempt to maximize impact. Their cooperation isn’t part of the Kerry for President campaign or the Democratic Party. But the turnout work that’s going on here and in 14 other battleground states will almost surely have more influence on the presidential race than anything Democratic delegates do at this week’s convention in Boston….. While workers in Boston readied the Democratic convention stage last week, Ms. Barson and people from other groups pored over a map showing where they’d had an effect so far. Purple dots showed events staged by New Hampshire for Health Care, an arm of the Service Employees International Union. They included events in the state’s more conservative and rural north country. Blue dots depicted activity by a state teachers union. Those cluttered the more populous and moderate south. The division of labor isn’t so much geographic as ideological. It stems from a simple insight about America’s evolving political culture: Specific issues motivate people far more than political parties do. So ACT began creating its turnout blueprint in New Hampshire by purchasing voter files from the state Democratic Party, and then beginning to cross them with membership lists from groups such as Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club. To refine the approach further, volunteers and paid organizers have knocked on 25,000 doors seeking information designed to categorize voters by their top-priority issues and inclination to oppose Mr. Bush. That information, in turn, helps the consortium decide which liberal ally is best positioned to persuade an individual voter to turn out on Election Day. Backers of the approach argue — and Mr. Kerry’s advisers hope from a distance — that it might prove more powerful than anything Democrats have tried before. “It’s a different kind of communication and a different kind of relationship than with a party,” says Cecile Richards, president of the consortium linking ACT with its affiliated groups. “People give more credibility to … organizations that work on issues they care about.”
Meanwhile, Bai focuses on the long-term strategy of wealthy Democratic backers. Some of the highlights:
In March of this year, [venture capitalist Andy] Rappaport convened a meeting of wealthy Democrats at a Silicon Valley hotel so that they, too, could see [DEmocratic operative Rob] Stein’s presentation. Similar gatherings were already under way in Washington and New York, where the meetings included two of the most generous billionaires in the Democratic universe — the financier George Soros and Peter Lewis, an Ohio insurance tycoon — as well as Soros’s son and Lewis’s son. On the East Coast, the participants had begun referring to themselves as the Phoenix Group, as in rising from the ashes; Rappaport called his gathering the Band of Progressives. More recently, companion groups have come together in Boston and Los Angeles. What makes these meetings remarkable is that while everyone attending them wants John Kerry to win in November, they are focused well beyond the 2004 election. The plan is to gather investors from each city — perhaps in one big meeting early next year — and create a kind of venture-capital pipeline that would funnel money into a new political movement, working independently of the existing Democratic establishment. The dollar figure for investment being tossed around in private conversations is $100 million. For the ideological donors… the new era seemed quite promising. McCain-Feingold left untouched and unregulated a vehicle that had been little used on the national level up to that point: the 527. And last fall and winter, the surprising success of Howard Dean’s campaign convinced a lot of wealthy liberals that a new ideological movement could be nurtured outside the constraints of the Democratic Party. By controlling 527’s, donors believed, they could determine, to a greater extent than ever before, the message and the strategy of a Democratic presidential campaign. ”This is like post-Yugoslavia,” Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, told me. ”We used to have a strongman called the party. After McCain-Feingold, we dissolved the power of Tito.” Having financed projects in the former Communist bloc, Soros understood the opportunitites that political tumult can create. He and the more reclusive Peter Lewis began by contributing about $10 million each to America Coming Together (ACT), the largest of the new 527’s, which was designed to do street-level organizing for the election; the donations enabled ACT to expand its canvassing campaign from five critical swing states to 17. ”I used 527’s because they were there to be used,” Soros said bluntly during a conversation in his Manhattan office. Soros’s and Lewis’s donations made it possible for longtime leaders of Democratic interest groups to do something they had never done in the modern era: work together. Now the insular factions have begun to form alliances. The founders of ACT included Ellen Malcolm and Carl Pope, the heads of Emily’s List and the Sierra Club respectively, Andy Stern from the service employees’ union and Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Suddenly, because they no longer had to compete with one another for contributions — and because they had such a galvanizing villain in Bush — the leaders of the party’s most powerful adjunct groups were able to look beyond the more limited interests of their own membership…. It is, perhaps, futile to try to predict what the Democratic Party — or much of anything in politics, for that matter — will look like in 2008 or 2012. Terry McAuliffe, the party’s chairman and one of the best fund-raisers in its history, says the party’s continuing relevance in American life is assured, no matter how many rich donors establish their own competing groups or how many factions vie for dominance. With a new high-tech headquarters, $60 million in the bank and 170 million names in a voter database, McAuliffe said, the old party apparatus isn’t going anywhere. ”In 30 years, the institution of the Democratic National Committee will be stronger than it has ever been,” he said with characteristic bluster. And yet implicit in Dean’s prediction are two possible outcomes worth considering, if only because they lend themselves to historical precedent. The first is that the new class of Democratic investors could conceivably end up skewing the party ideologically for years to come. A lot of the political venture capitalists were strong supporters of Dean in the primaries, in the fervent belief that his campaign — which became, in effect, a classic liberal crusade, in the Jerry Brown mold, only with more money — was leading the party back in the right direction. Although several donors described themselves to me as ”pragmatic” in their worldview, the moderate Kerry seemed to elicit in them all the passion of an insurance actuary (Soros labeled him ”acceptable”), and they manifested a pointed distaste for Clintonism as a political philosophy. The way they look at it, centrist Democrats spent a decade appeasing Republicans while the right solidified its occupation of American government. The donors see themselves as the emerging liberal resistance, champions of activist government at home and multilateral cooperation abroad. There is, of course, a striking disconnect between the lives of these new Democratic investors and those of the party’s bedrock voters: laborers, racial minorities and immigrants, many of whose faith in sweeping social programs has been badly shaken and who tend to be more culturally conservative than the well-off citizens of New York and Silicon Valley. But if the multimillionaires harbor even the slightest doubts about their qualifications for solving social and geopolitical ills, they don’t express it.
What’s striking about both stories is that, both in this electoral cycle and in their plans for creating an idea machine, these organizations aren’t talking about appealing to centrist voters — if anything, there’s a disdain for the Clintonite policies of the nineties. The goal in the short-term is to motivate those latent voters symapthetic to a liberal/progressive agenda. The goal in the long term is to generate the ideas that will pull the country in a leftward direction. More power to them — I like to see a competition in ideas. That said, these stories contradict Noam Scheiber’s suggestion from last week that the Republican interest groups are more likely to coordinate than Democratic interest groups, and as a result, “a politician on the left can repeatedly buck various interest groups without triggering an outright rebellion among his base. Politicians on the right enjoy much less leeway in this respect.” Maybe that was true in the past, but it’s not going to be true in the future. And while I like to see ideational competition, the moderate in me frets about the long-term implications on policymaking. UPDATE: Jonathan Cohn has a TNR Online story about Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and a key player in this political transformation. A lot of what Stern says reinforces the stories above:
But what, exactly, do folks like Stern want out of this election–and beyond? It’s often said that the left nurses a grudge against Bill Clinton for his efforts to shed the party’s ideological baggage from the 1960s, and Stern does, indeed, express a profound dissatisfaction with the Clinton years (something you didn’t hear around these parts much on Monday, what with Clinton giving the keynote speech). But Stern’s dissent isn’t quite along the lines you might expect. For example, when it comes to welfare reform, the issue perhaps most likely to split groups like SEIU from the party’s consensus, Stern isn’t picking any fights. (“It may be that people were right, that welfare really was a cyclical problem,” he says.) He’d like to see the government put more money into child care, but he’s not particularly interested in seeing welfare reform as a whole repealed. No, Stern’s problem with Clinton is that, after the disastrous defeat of his health care plan and the election of the Gingrich Congress in 1994, Clinton didn’t “push the envelope” enough: “I think he became an incredibly successful politician but he also became incredibly risk-averse.” In addition, Stern says, Clinton spent very little time building the party into a vibrant grassroots organization–something that is happening now more or less on its own, thanks to the Internet, the 527s, and SEIU’s own organizing–instead using the Democratic apparatus as his own “personal consulting firm.” Clinton could get away with this, Stern notes, because his personal magnetism captured hearts and minds on the left. Kerry, to state the obvious, simply isn’t as talented. Put another way: If Kerry wants to keep his supporters on the left happy, he’s going to have to do it with more than his personality. Stern doesn’t expect Kerry to deliver universal health care–SEIU’s top issue–overnight. But he and his members do expect Kerry to make a real effort on that and other domestic priorities, even if it means stretching the boundaries of political conversation. “They expect him to fight. They don’t prefer losing to winning, but they don’t like not showing up, either.” Indeed, Stern says he has a certain admiration for President Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Tom DeLay precisely for that reason: their willingness to stake out more extreme positions and fight for them, even if the polls suggest public support hasn’t caught up to them yet.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Kevin Drum picks up on a point that kept nagging me as I was reading the Bai story:
But what really surprised me is that in an 8,000-word story about these people, there wasn’t so much as a single sentence about what they believe in. It’s all about the infrastructure and the fundraising and the message machine — but nothing about the message itself. What are they doing all this work for?
To be fair, Bai describes the ideological orientation of these groups, but Kevin’s right — there was nothing in the story about specific policies, or even a desciption of the underpinnings behind modern-day liberalism.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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