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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lessons Learned, Part IV

There are plenty of other political lessons we learned in 2004, but I think I’ll conclude with what we learned about our dear ol’ fightin’ donkey, the Democratic Party.
On the plus side, we learned we could get through a tough general election battle, after a fractious nominating process, with extraordinary unity. It wasn’t always easy, but we made it look that way.
We learned it was possible to use technology to create a whole new, decentralized, small-dollar donor base, reducing an advantage the GOP has had in small-dollar funding for a generation, and enormously increasing the overall amount of money available to our candidates. The diversification of the party’s financial base also reduced our dependence on big-money sources ranging from corporations to trial lawyers to unions, without significantly diminishing these sources.
We learned Democrats could at least begin to compete in the “new media” sources of political commentary and advocacy previously dominated by conservatives, ranging from radio to cable TV to the Internet and its boisterous spawn, the blogosphere.
And we learned that Democrats could win younger voters. Although there were not enough of them to make a big difference this year, Democratic strength in the younger cohorts of Americans is a good and important sign for the future.
On the minus side, we learned that self-identified Democrats no longer outnumber Republicans for the first time since the New Deal.
We learned that a lot of the negative perceptions of the Democratic Party that we thought had gone away during the Clinton administration were simply dormant.
We learned that all the excitement, enthusiasm, and money generated by the Dean/MoveOn/Blog phenomena of 2003 are not necessarily transferable into votes.
We learned that we could use a new generation of pollsters and campaign consultants.
And we learned that Republicans have now gained a geographical advantage in the country that undoubtedly gives them an edge in control of state governments, of the U.S. Senate, and (indirectly, through redistricting) of the U.S. House, and a strategic advantage in presidential campaigns as well.
The post-election analysis among Democrats has been relatively free of recriminations (though the brewing campaign for the DNC chairmanship threatens to change that happy situation), with the main divide separating those who think the party needs to significantly change to become competitive in broader parts of the country, and those who think we just need to raise more money, excite more activists, and attract more Hispanic voters, and things will be just fine.
While most Democrats agree that we should now become (in Washington, at least) a loud-and-proud opposition party, there is less consensus about the positive message Democrats should stand for. And some of us, especially at the DLC, are worried about (a) the tiny investment we are making as a party on new policy ideas–we’re basically all living off the policy thinking of the Clinton administration; and (b) the relative lack of interest in the current intra-party debate about Democratic state and local elected officials, who deserve at least as much attention as grass-roots activists and Washington consultants in plotting the course forward.
It’s been a painful but instructive year for this Donkey, and for all of us. And may we toast the New Year with a prayer for unity, imagination and courage.

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