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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Crashing the Gate Reviewed

by Scott Winship
On this day in which the subject of the netroots is dominating the news cycle, I thought I’d review Jerome Armstrong’s and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga’s Crashing the Gate, which I finally finished. And you netrooters may be pleasantly surprised.
Crashing the Gate is essentially a guide to the New Politics. For those who are not deeply embedded in the netroots culture, the book is the best single source of information on the new political players, the institutions-in-making, and the philosophy of the New Politics, which includes the netroots but also renegade unions like the Service Employees Industrial Union, think tanks such as NDN, and progressive venture capitalists like Andy and Deborah Rappaport. Armstrong and Moulitsas clearly have a big-picture understanding of how these pieces are connected, and their description is informed by interviews with participants all over the country.
One might have thought that bloggers, whose posts typically range from a few words to a couple thousand words, would have difficulty translating their thoughts to a format requiring 200 pages. But Crashing the Gate is a very enjoyable and quick read. The only deficiencies I saw involved the beginning and ends of the book. The introduction isn’t worth the time of those who follow political news regularly, beginning with a conventional overview of the conservative coalition before switching gears to set up the rest of the book’s critique of the Democratic Party and its affiliated institutions. The concluding chapter, which lays out the New Politics agenda now that they are “inside the gates”, feels incomplete.
But in between is a trenchant – if sometimes overly cynical and one-sided – appraisal of the Democratic establishment. The chapters of the book take on: single-interest advocacy groups whose short-sightedness leads them to sometimes back Republicans or refuse to support Democrats, D.C. consultants who face no accountability and have not evolved over time to embrace new realities, foundations and institutional donors who shy away from building a Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, the Democratic Leadership Council and establishment figures who worked to undermine Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, and Party congressional committees for abandoning red-state candidates and pressuring candidates into hiring ineffective consultants and pollsters.
Much of the middle of the book is devoted to contrasting how Democrats have campaigned and developed over time to Republican approaches. The chapter on consultants shows how far ahead the GOP is when it comes to targeting voters using sophisticated databases, relying on new media for advertising, creating memorable ads that strike an emotional chord, and even the hiring and payment of consultants. The chapter on infrastructure provides both an overview of Republican institutions and a revealing look at how Democrats are trying to copy them.
Armstrong and Moulitsas recount the rise of the netroots, from the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill that shifted power away from the establishment, to the Dean insurgency, and through the 2005 contest for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship and beyond. And the final chapter is a concise summary of “what the netroots wants”.
Crashing the Gate isn’t without problems. Most obviously, it essentially blames the poor electoral performance of Democrats on everything except for their policies and agenda. In Armstrong’s and Moulitsas’s world, public opinion matters little. Think tanks are needed to come up with attractive ideas, and a message machine is necessary to promote them, but it is as if they believe there are simply good ideas out there and the Republicans have just been better at extracting and promulgating them. And the emphasis on tactics and campaign strategy also relegates ideas to a secondary concern.
Armstrong and Moulitsas are also unnecessarily critical of the motives of establishment figures in places. In their telling, no one in the establishment can just be incompetent or ineffective, they must be corrupt or lazy. The consultants and pollsters come in for particularly harsh treatment, even if some of it – for some of those tarred – may be justified. Indeed, the prevailing attitude is that once inside the gates, the establishment must be overthrown entirely. A separatist strain surfaces here and there throughout the book, with intimations that one of the things the netroots wants is to build an entirely parallel set of institutions.
Whether this set of institutions would become the party, supplant it, or counterproductively sit alongside it is a vital question, perhaps one we should all keep asking as the netroots continue to assert themselves as a power center. If the netroots really aren’t ideological, then the party can’t help but benefit from the more effective strategies, tactics, and institutions of the New Politics. But if it is ideological, then party institutions may end up fragmented and divided. The netroots have crashed the gate – it remains to be seen what they will do from here.

7 comments on “Crashing the Gate Reviewed

  1. geewhizpat on

    Thanks Stan for saying it eloquently…elitism about the bloggers will not help the process
    I am a lifelong Democrat, 52 year old woman, who has organized for the farmworkers in Delano and remembers shaking JFK’s hand when he was campaigning (my mom worked on his local campaign).
    I have “old school Democrat” credentials.
    I supported and liked Bill Clinton but I have never liked the DLC move but I have supported my party anyway. But after the last two elections and my perceived sense that most DLC Democrats are playing “Republican-lite” I have been dismayed and cynical about the party. I am not a lefty hippie, I am an irate moderate and I felt unheard by my party. I did not campaign or vote for Dean but recently I have discovered the new progressives via the netroots and I have become fired up on the 50 state strategy. I have contributed my hard earned cash DIRECTLY to these campaigns and I will no longer direct my funds to the DCCC or DLC. I have had enough! And I hope my party wakes up to what is emerging. WE ARE ON THE SAME TEAM!

    Reply
  2. John on

    Stan,
    No one doubts that progressive blogs have given their readers deeper content than the MSM. All, blogs, from across the political spectrum have value for their readers, which is why they have an audience. And, yes, bloggers are here to stay and help to hold politicians and the media accountable.
    However, bloggers too, as a recongized part of the political universe can also be held accountable. And, my interest here – given the theme of this website – is in seeing more Democrats get elected.
    To do that, Democrats need three things: 1) they need good candidates with money running strong campaigns that generate attention. 2) the party as a whole needs a thematic message and image that will capture 51% of the electorate – a big tent in other words; and 3) to gain this majority status and hold it, the party absolutely needs a coherent and cohesive national security and counter-terrorism strategy.
    In my opinion the notable progressive blogs (yes, I confess to not reading all 100 left of center blogs on a daily basis) are a mixed bag on these three necessesities.
    They have been enormously helpful in drawing attention and dollars to key races, and in countering media errors and GOP spin. Tactics, in other words.
    On helping to give the party a positive image and expanding the Democratic tent, they’ve been a negative force, overly concerning themsleves with party in-fighting, and alienating moderates.
    And lastly, on the issue of helping to develop a national security strategy they have little to offer other than hating the Bush Adminstation and being against the Iraq War. The inference one often gets on these blogs is that war on terror is an irrelevant bunch of hype – which is not a sentiment shared by most voters.
    I realize that it is not the job of bloggers to solve these tricky problems. However, one does find a much more robust exchange of ideas on national security issues outside of the progressive end of the bloggosphere. And voters are as hungry for solutions in this major issue area as they’ve ever been. There was a time when the party ignored national security issues and got pummeled for it. Let’s not abandon this terrain.
    So, in sum, blogs like the Daily Kos are party positive, party negative and party disengaged. Scott Winship’s review has reflected this to a degree, but I’d like to amplify.

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  3. Stan on

    I find that most of those people that critize DailyKos and the rest of the Progressive blogs have yet to understand where this group of people came from and plan on going. For years politicans have on one hand bemoaned the fact that the public was uninformed, while on the other hand only wanted them for their money and vote. The Blogs has allowed the voters to become better informed on their own time, not just at 6 and 11 with film. They can delve deeper into any given issue, double check facts when someone makes a claim the smells wrongs and that the MSM seems reluctant to do. Progressive bloggers go way deeper than just the War in Iraq, they have a moral tone about them in a progressive flavor of old. Dkos on any given day will usually have at least one diary in the rec. reading section on Unemployment, Poverty, MedicareD, SCOTUS, VA benefits, and yes the ” Rant ” against republicants. To view the Progressive blogs that average way over 100s, of thousands readers a day, as only against the War ,only means someone has spent no time reading them.
    The Lamont/Lieberman race was a big deal for sure, and yes the week before and after practically smothered other issues, but not just because Lieberman was for the War as some would like you to believe. Liebermans voting record is very misleading for many reasons, yet those that backed Joe ignored that part. Joe is one of the reasons we are stuck with Roberts and Alito as part of the Gang that kept their powder too dry. Joe always couches his votes by hanging back and seeing which way the vote will go, then voting. Joe who preaches in his new ad, Unity, is about anything but. As one of the worse DINOs in recent history, Joe got exactly what he deserved.

    The blogs are where the people are going to decide where their money goes from now on instead of blindly donating to a canidate the talking heads say to. Bloggers are going to be a more hands on voter and people better get used to it if they plan on winning. Since those in Washington have forgotten why we send them there, bloggers are going to be there to remind them on a daily basis. Members of Congress have gotten to the point that instead of reading their emails, or having a staffer do it,have installed software to weed out emails about certain issues. Already Congress is trying to find a way to ignore this growing grassroots movement.Policy wonks that also chase the donations would be better served to embrace and even listen to this group.
    The courting of this group of voters is in its self much harder than passing out a few buttons and just giving a rousing speech. This is what seems to bother the politians more than anything else. Bloggers fact check, ask real, non-softball questions, refuse to take a pat answer, and expect the details. Some gall wouldn’t you say ? Yes, bloggers are here to stay, and after the disgraceful way this country has been run in the last 20 yrs, don’t expect them to be quiet. They are here to rock the boat, to get things done, to make everyone accountable, and to do it out loud. If those that want to make the new policys of our country aren’t ready and willing to accept this intelligent, engaged, caring, and seriously outraged group they do it at peril being ignored when it is time to vote.

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  4. David Stinson on

    “Think tanks are needed to come up with attractive ideas, and a message machine is necessary to promote them, but it is as if they believe there are simply good ideas out there and the Republicans have just been better at extracting and promulgating them.”
    Well that’s a little defeatist, don’t you think?
    Democracy. There’s your idea. Now run with it.

    Reply
  5. John Nemeth on

    The “netroot” bloggers from Kos to Armstrong to Atrios are basically electoral tacticians, rather than policy wonks. They’ve imtroduced a pugnacious new rhetorical and campaign style that mirrors the brass-knucle approach of the contemporty GOP and its media surrogates.
    Lord knows, the Republicans are reaping what they’ve sown, and this raw and martial spirit may energize and aid the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects in the near term.
    Still, its interesting and ironic that this website simultensouly insists on an old school 20th century civility in its posting policy, but then lavishes praise on blogs where invective often reigns. Why the contradiction?
    “Crashing the Gates” reflects the instincts of the bloggers (or the “Newer Democrats” in the words of Ruy Texiera). It’s mostly about tactics, as the reviewer notes. It also seems like the subheader should be “How we’re mad that Dean lost the 2004 primary”. The enemies are obviously personal and stem from the pain of that event for Markos and Jerome, but are projected into something that is said to menace the whole Democratic party.
    The Dean consultants didn’t listen enough to Markos? Then consultants in general shall be blamed for Democratic failures. The DLC and members of the Democratic establishment criticized Dean? Then they too are the enemy. Oh, and the media too. Oh, and the Iowa caucus format. And insufficiently partisan interest groups.
    The unaddressed elephant in the room, and subtle wedge, for the Democratic Party are different answers to the key question “what would have happened if Dean had won the 2004 nomination”?
    The “netroots” seem to think Dean would have done at least as well as Kerry. Maybe I’m already out of touch with emerging realities at age 34, but I’m convinced that Dean would have been crushed.
    There is absolutely no grasping by the bloggers that Democratic voters themselves pulled the plug on Dean. And there is no understanding whatsoever, that Iowan caucus voters, and party insiders alike, may have both done the party a favor.
    The conceit of Kos and MoveOn has been the populist characterization of the Berkely-based anti-war movement as “people power” and the inside-the-beltway skepticism with Dean message are the out of touch insiders responsible for the party’s minority status.
    The problem with this anology it is disrespectful, ignorant of history, and patently wrong. Clearly the majority of Americans are highly disatisfied with the situation in Iraq, and rightly critical of the Bush Administration. However, this does not necessary translate into an electoral lynch mob marching to ANSWER’s “no blood for oil” “all troops out now”, “we never should have done this I told you so”, tune. This is why the GOP’s upcoming emphasis on Iraq and security for the 2006 election is risky, but not so stupid.
    The reviewer asks whether the netroots are ideological and speculates that, if they are, it could mean more division within the party.
    Hello? Clearly they are, with a predominantly single-issue focus on the Iraq war.
    These sites were practically built on opposition to the Iraq war – they filled a niche for which there was substantial unfulfilled market demand.
    Ruy Texiera papers over this fierce issue advocacy on Iraq in his “Newer Democrats” theme which lionizes bloggers for taking an ideas-neutral approach, that steers clear of division. But division, and a vendetta against pro-war Democrats is the bread and butter of these blogs.
    It is hard to see how Markos can be the heir to the “Clinton synthasis” when he and Clinton himself were on opposite sides of the Lieberman-Lamont issue.
    The long-term problem for Democrats is that while energy, along with smarter and tougher campaigns will help, they are not enough. Electoral politics is still mostly about ideas. After all, Kos didn’t generate thousand of readers by speculating on campaign strategy like this site does – it was the anti-Iraq message, stupid.
    Still, what about beyond Iraq? Unfortunately these blogger don’t have are any ideas on how to fight the GWOT – the central issue of our time. They are not even engaged in the debate.
    Is it all a phantom and conspiracy of the Bush Administration?, Is it real to be fought with ideas and the moral highground? Do we fight it with troops? Spies? Homeland security? Non-proliferation? (and how do we do that?) realpolitik? speaking softly? human rights?
    The blogs have nothing. It’s all Lamont all the time in their world cheerfully free of even acknolwdgement of Hezbollah and Pakistani plane bombers.
    The party still needs ideas

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  6. Susan Hagius on

    I do believe that the Democrat powers-that-be deserve a few rotten tomatoes. They convinced their party members that only John Kerry could win, and then, following the advice of the same party members, he lost. That left all of us in deep kim chee for four more years, and it also allowed the right-wingers to pack the courts. Even so, I doubt that we will gain much by throwing out the much-overused baby with the bath water.
    It seems to me that the strength of the Dems is also their weakness. Because it is not a requirement that the Democrat voter get into lock-step behind a friendly fascist leader, there is tremendous variety in the viewpoints and ideologies of Dem voters. As a liberal Dem, I feel that the centrist wing of the party has left me high and dry, and I’m angry about it. But frankly, I also know darn well that I prefer the centrist Dems to the right-wing Rubblecans.
    The Dems need to be honest and recognize that they have at least two wings — call them Liberal Democrats and Social Democrats. With this in mind the wings could put forward their preferred candidates and Dems could vote for the ones they liked best. Actual ideas could be discussed, rather than depending on mud-throwing, smiling photo ops, and other strategems. The primaries would give the party pretty clear signs about the numbers of voters supporting each wing. Then, being practical, the two wings could work together to beat the pants off the opposition. Nobody would be forced to sound like a mealy mouthed idiot when campaigning, because he would already have aligned himself with the wing of the party that provided support. REAL ideas could be expressed and REAL values put forward. In the end, we might have the same old compromises, but nobody could say that the Dems don’t have even the least notion of a plan and no longer know where the heck they want to go.
    This seems like the essence of the new, net-politics to me.

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