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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Needed: More Discussion About Party-Building

It’s hard to see a downside to having the most charismatic Democratic Party leader since JFK. But there is one, and it’s well-stated in Daniel J. Galvin’s article in The Forum, “Changing Course: Reversing the Organizational Trajectory of the Democratic Party from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama,” written during the ’08 campaign. As Galvin’s opening graphs explain:

In a 2005 New York Times op-ed now considered a “classic essay,” former senator Bill Bradley observed a peculiar trade-off in party politics between charisma and structure. Over the previous 40-plus years, he wrote, each party dealt with this tradeoff differently and met with different degrees of success. Republicans, he argued, gained a competitive advantage over the Democrats by emphasizing structure over charisma. They “consciously, carefully, and single-mindedly” built a “stable pyramid” of money, ideas, organization, and action,where “all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.” Because the structure was stable, the personality of the party’s titular leader was of secondary importance. Charisma was a decidedly second-order concern.
Democrats, meanwhile, were “hypnotized by Jack Kennedy, and the promise of a charismatic leader who can change America by the strength and style of his personality.” While searching for the next JFK, Democrats neglected the less glamorous but ultimately more important work of organization-building. The problem was that “a party based on charisma has no long-term impact,” Bradley wrote. Bill Clinton’s charisma, for example, “didn’t translate into structure,” and while “the president did well,” he wrote, “the party did not.” Now, Democrats found themselves with “no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on” and with a grim outlook for the future

Most of Galvin’s article is optimistic about Obama’s commitment to party-building and the accomplishments of Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy during his tenure at the helm of the DNC (For another positive assessment of Dean’s tenure at the DNC, see Alexander Zaitchick’s recent Alternet post).
However, Democratic gains in November, ’08 can be as credibly attributed to a host of other factors, like Obama’c coattails, the economic meltdown, an edge in internet fund-raising or voters’ general weariness of the GOP, to name a few. Geographic saturation is an important aspect of party-building, but the discussion should be broadened to include concerns like structural reform, the role of a strengthened labor movement (a hallmark of strong progressive political parties in Europe), candidate recruitment and training and how to get rank and file Democratic voters organized into lobbying groups. There is also room for an expanded discussion about party discipline, including the role of pro-Democratic reform initiatives like the Accountability Now PAC.
Galvin’s article was written before Governor Tim Kaine was appointed as Dean’s successor, and it’s too early to evaluate Kaine’s track record thus far. Kaine’s plan for building the Democratic Party will be rolled out in April, according to Zaitchick. Democrats face a different kind of party-building challenge now, with the enormous advantage of the President’s bully pulpit. Much depends on the eventual success of the stimulus and other Obama reforms.
Most of the recent debate about the pros and cons of bipartisanship has centered around it’s effect on the quality of legislation. But there is also a legitimate concern about how it impacts the growth and development of the Democratic Party, as noted in this comment, from a poster named Steve at The Last Chance Democracy Cafe:

I know it isn’t politically correct to say it right now, but the truth is that helping to build a strong Democratic Party — one that can win consistently — is the single biggest contribution Barack Obama can make to achieving positive progressive change in this nation. A single gifted president, even serving for the full eight years, can only do so much to improve this nation. A strong progressively rooted Democratic Party, able to effectively fight the good fight for a generation or more, on the other hand, can change the world.
I think Obama knows this: but, to be honest, he’s starting to scare me a little. He played the GOP masterfully during the stimulus bill debate. But there’s a danger in his incessant talk of bipartisanship. It has the effect of putting the GOP — and its response to Obama’s proposals — into the very center of the story, while at the same time marginalizing other Democrats. Why should anyone care what congressional Democrats have to say about the economy, when the whole storyline has become how the GOP will respond to Obama’s proposals?
…I understand the siren song of bipartisanship sounds loudly in the spirit of our new president. And making a public show of reaching out to the GOP is probably good politics — at least for Obama himself. But building a strong Democratic Party is better politics. And it is also an essential element to building a better and more just America over the long haul.
So two words, Barack: party building. Press them to your chest and put them under your pillow at night. Never forget them and never neglect them. Because when all is said and done, they may just represent the single most important inheritance you can give this nation.

Not that sparingly applied bipartisanship, and party-building are necessarily antithetical. But Steve’s concern about media ‘storyline’ is well-taken as is his challenge to Obama to keep focused on strengthening his party. Same goes for Sen. Bradley’s point about the focus on charisma, which is media-driven.
While there is not much the Democratic Party can do about lazy or shallow msm reporting, the growth of the pro-Democratic blogosphere and the telecommunications revolution hold out the hope that we can make better use of our own media. The explosion of streaming video, for example, means that there is no longer much of an excuse for Democrats not having their own 24-7 television station. As this technology becomes more seamlessly interwoven with television, the possibilities for educating voters will multiply dramatically. Ditto for a Democratic Party 24-7 internet radio station, long overdue.
A lot of interesting questions could be addressed, including: How do we make the party platform more of a unifying force? What is the future role for party-related interest groups, such as Dean’s Democracy for America or perhaps some future green Democrats caucus? What sort of ad campaign would attract young voters to become active in local Democratic groups?
It’s a lot to think about. But a broader, ongoing and inclusive discussion of future directions in party-building would help lay a solid foundation for a new era of progressive reform.

2 comments on “Needed: More Discussion About Party-Building

  1. Andrew_Fisher_of_Men on

    PARTY BUILDING IN RURAL Counties is woefully inadequate with John McCain winning many rural counties in battleground states. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, in a publicly televised interview at last year’s Denver convention, stated that we have a lot of work yet to do in rural counties. I have been a community organizer in rural counties in Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Maryland for over five years now and this work is drudgery with little reward. Think about how national campaigns work in rural counties. What happened with Obama’s campaign is that young staffers from cities were dropped into rural counties far removed from their experience and comfort zones. Each morning, they had a conference call with some supervisor several states away and invariably, they tried to implement urban organizing tactics in rural areas. Our staffer in rural Somerset County Pennsylvania wanted us to go canvassing, but had no leave behind material to give a potential voter or door hanger for some one not home. Not to mention that canvassing between farms nearly a mile apart is tough sledding. This is just one example. Staffers from campaigns must meld effectively with the local central committee to tweak the top down nature of campaign direction. The central committee must remain strong in non campaign years and continue party building even when there are no active campaigns. After all, a candidate like a Barack Obama only comes along once in a lifetime.

  2. tdgoldsmith on

    The dark side of winning a presidential election is that the DNC becomes, instantly, an organization dedicated to the reelection of the president and no longer serves the greater interests of the party in recruiting great candidates, strengthening state and local party organizations, or nurturing a well-trained permanent field organization.
    President Obama could change that, but has every incentive to not do so.


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