washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Matt Compton

Dueling Endorsements in the Tar Heel State?

This morning, in a move that surprised pretty much everyone who follows NC politics, Gov. Mike Easley endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton. Easley has held statewide office for 16 years, he is a superdelegate, and he remains one of the the most well-known politicians in North Carolina.
But he’s not the most popular state government employee — not by a long shot. That honor belongs to Roy Williams — the men’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina.
And this morning, while Gov. Easley was talking up Sen. Clinton, Ol’ Roy took Barack Obama on a tour of the Dean Dome and then organized a little scrimmage where the Illinois senator got to shoot some hoops with a whole bunch of current and former Tar Heels.
While Obama plays a lot of pick up basketball (and has some actual ties to the game — his brother-in-law is the head coach at Oregon State), the Heels proved to be a stiffer set of competition from what he sees in his normal game. He only took three shots (including one over National Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough) and missed them all. Still, Coach Williams encouraged his team to involve Obama, at one point yelling, “You’ve got the future president of the United States wide open.”
There are, of course, pictures and video and multiple multi-page threads about the scrimmage on the Inside Carolina message boards.
In many outlets Easley’s endorsement is competing with (and in some cases losing to) all this coverage. In North Carolina, I think you have to call today’s media cycle a draw. Because in all the stories and discussion, it seems like just about everyone has highlighted the “future president” sound bite from Roy.
This allows me moment for some basketball history. Though this might sound silly, the Carolina/Duke rivalry is deeply tangled up in politics. Roy William’s legendary mentor, Dean Smith, is a famous champion of Democrats and progressive causes. He integrated the UNC basketball team, and then helped to integrate the city of Chapel Hill. He is an outspoken critic of the death penalty and a contributor to Democratic candidates. His counterpart at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski, is a prominent Republican who once got into a spot of trouble for organizing a fund raiser for then-senate candidate Elizabeth Dole on Duke’s campus. Roy has never been a public campaigner in the same way that Smith is, but to many people, the event with Obama this morning sure sounded like an endorsement.
If that’s how most North Carolinians end up taking it, it’ll help Obama in the state.

Hypocrisy, Thy Name is Barney’s

It’s hard to believe that only a few months ago John McCain was using some questionable legal prestidigitation to get a bank loan just to stay in the presidential race.
Now, this gem from the Hotline’s perusal of the presumptive GOP nominee’s FEC report shows that things are certainly looking up on the money front:

That’s how much cashola John McCain’s campaign spent March 2 at Barney’s New York in Beverly Hills. (That’s Zip Code 90212, in case anyone was wondering.)
According to McCain’s latest FEC report, the charges were “credited back” April 2.

This little tidbit stands out for two reasons.
First, John McCain just spent the past two weeks calling Barack Obama an elitist because the Illinois senator said that some voters are bitter. Now he is dropping individual maximum contributions at Blair Waldorf‘s favorite store. And in Beverly Hills, no less! Maybe McCain is the perfect candidate for Heidi Montag, after all.
Second, exactly how many jokes did we hear about John Edwards’ haircut and how is this any different at all? If Edwards was wrong to spend campaign cash on a grooming session, surely Barney’s is equally undeserving of donor dollars. What exactly does McCain need to do for his pals in the press to ask some hard questions about his judgment? Get into a shoving match with a fellow Republican senator? Oh, wait.
From a progressive standpoint, I guess it is remarkable how much trouble John McCain has managed to get himself into without an opponent. But I’m looking forward to the day when I can see what the Democrats will do to this guy when they aren’t so busy fighting each other.

A Whole New Campaign

FDR wasn’t the first president to use the wonder of radio for a political advantage, but that is how history remembers him. More and more, it seems likely that this year’s Democratic nominee will carve out that same historic possibility by using the Internet.
We’ve written a lot about that story here, but Ron Browstein has a must-read cover story in the National Journal, which offers a bunch of examples in vivid detail:

In scope and sweep, tactics and scale, the marathon struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton has triggered such a vast evolutionary leap in the way candidates pursue the presidency that it is likely to be remembered as the first true 21st-century campaign.
On virtually every front, the two candidates’ efforts dwarf those of all previous primary contenders — not to mention presumptive GOP nominee John McCain. It’s easy to miss the magnitude of the change amid the ferocity of the Democratic competition. But largely because of their success at organizing supporters through the Internet, Clinton and, especially, Obama are reaching new heights in raising money, recruiting volunteers, hiring staff, buying television ads, contacting voters, and generating turnout. They are producing changes in degree from prior primary campaigns so large that they amount to changes in kind.

You Gotta Get That Dirt Off Your Shoulder

Fortunately or unfortunately, Barack Obama has had to spend a lot of time this last month demonstrating his mastery of damage control:
–A controversial sermon by Jeremiah Wright goes viral on YouTube? Obama delivers a forceful, historic speech about race (which has now been viewed 4 million times).
–Obama describes small town voters as “bitter” and immediately catches flak for it? He responds with a relaxed and witty counter, clarifying his remarks and likening Hillary Clinton to Annie Oakley.
–Obama gets roughed up in a national debate televised by ABC? Again the response is impressive — but perhaps this time, it’s worth explaining why.
In Raleigh, Obama is smooth, charming, and funny. He’s critical of the debate yet ties his objections back to the campaign’s larger theme of change — it becomes an opportunity for Obama to talk about the problems with politics as they are currently practiced.
Then check out what he does at the 2:20 mark.
He acknowledges that he expects these kinds of attacks — he pauses, reaches up, brushes off his shoulders, and smiles for the camera. The crowd immediately reacts to it with cheers and a standing ovation.
The gesture is universally recognizable. But I’m going to guess that some older members of the press pool didn’t quite get the crowd’s enthusiasm — “Why would they cheer so loud for that?”
The answer is generational. For observers of a certain age, it’s just impossible to see that clip and not think of this song (a word of caution — some might find the lyrics profane). Among Obama’s young, multicultural base, it’s probably fair to say that Jay-Z is a universal touchstone. This, then, was a wink and a nod to his strongest supporters — a private gesture of encouragement. And it was effortless.
How much money do we think that Obama raised off of the perceived unfairness of this debate — $2 million? $3?
If I was a betting man, after this particular allusion, I’d say the sky was the limit.

Recipe for Disaster

What’s the point of giving a candidate’s spouse a place on the campaign website for his or her favorite recipes? It’s a tradition that I just don’t understand or appreciate.
It seems fraught with peril. What if voters don’t enjoy your food? What if it makes them sick? What if an intern steals a couple recipes from the Food Network, adds them to your website verbatim, and calls them family favorites?
Turns out that last thing is exactly what just happened to John McCain:

This past Sunday, Lauren Handel, an eagle-eyed attorney from New York, was searching for a specific recipe from Giada DeLaurentis, a chef on the Food Network. Yet whenever she Googled the different ingredients in the recipe, the oddest thing happened: not only did the Food Network’s site come up, as expected, but so did John McCain’s campaign site.

At least 7 recipes that the campaign once said belonged Cindy McCain were taken from celebrity chefs (including 30 Minute Meal star Rachel Ray who — bless her heart — immediately invited the Republican candidate and his wife onto her show). The unpaid intern fingered with the plagiarism has apparently been “dealt with” by the McCain higher-ups.
This is obviously only a scandal at the height of silly season. (Let’s just see if FarfalleGate gets the same kind of media play as BitterGate!)
Still, it does allow me a chance to reiterate a point about the Internet — Authenticity matters more than anything else.
If you simply must share the recipe for the candidate’s favorite apple cobbler, for the love of Julia Child, make sure that it contains a list of ingredients that has been in your family since well before Mario Batali got on television.
For instance, way back in the fall of last year, John Edwards organized a little fundraiser for his birthday using his mother’s pecan pie. Joe Trippi and Jonathan Prince made a little video about it. That was cute.
But if even your interns won’t invest the time into doing this kind of thing the right way, then there is just no reason to include a culinary corner on your website. Because let’s face it, the fate of a restless nation does not turn on a passion fruit mousse.

Fundamental Ignorance

At the height of the Clinton impeachment, a pair of software entrepreneurs designed a website which hosted a one-sentence petition asking Congress to “immediately censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country.” The couple — Joan Blades and Wes Boyd — then put a link to the site in an email and sent the message to fewer than 100 friends. Somehow, their message struck a chord with the nation’s progressive psyche, and had an impact far greater than anyone could have foreseen.
Within weeks, the couple’s petition had more than 250,000 signatures. Boyd bought an ad in the New York Times and began to use the website and its list of email addresses to organize volunteers to lobby against impeachment. The list of supporters continued to grow, and after the impeachment proceedings sputtered to a close, Blades and Boyd turned their energy to new causes, like campaign finance reform.
Then, in the wake of September 11th, a twenty one year old kid named Eli Pariser working for a nonprofit in Boston built a new website and hosted another petition — calling on world leaders to use “moderation and restraint in responding to the recent terrorist attacks.” Pariser sent an email with a link to the site to his friends and family, just as Boyd and Blades had done three years earlier. And just as with the Move On petition, something tipped — within weeks, Pariser had collected signatures from more than 500,000 people. Wes Boyd was one of those who saw the website. He immediately recognized the political potential of this peace movement and asked Pariser to join forces.
At that point, MovOn.org became something entirely new in politics — mobilizing millions of volunteers with every email; raising millions of dollars through a network of small donors and sympathetic millionaires; endorsing candidates, running ads, and generally making a whole lot of noise about the issues of the day.
There are definitely some Democrats who wish that MoveOn would be a bit more discrete, but there are plenty of Republicans who want an organization just like it.
Too bad they fundamentally do not get the MoveOn concept.
Last year, a group of conservatives launched an organization called Freedom Watch to much fanfare. They hired a cadre of former Bush staffers to run the operations, they leased 10,000 square feet of expensive office space in DC, and discussed an operating budget of $200 million. They talked openly about being a conservative counterweight to MoveOn.org. Now, the results:

[A]fter a splashy debut last summer, in which it spent $15 million in a nationwide advertising blitz supporting President Bush’s troop escalation in Iraq, the group has been mostly quiet, beset by internal problems that have paralyzed it and raised questions about what kind of role, if any, it will actually play this fall.

Turns out that much of the group’s financial support came from a single wealthy donor — Sheldon G. Adelson, the chairman and chief executive of the Sands Corporation. The casino mogul has given generously to Republican candidates and causes — including 527s and nonprofits — and many conservatives quietly began to hope that he would be their George Soros, opening his checkbook year after year.
But Freedom Watch burned through Adelson’s initial contributions of $30 by spending freely on stuff like expensive media buys, and he seems to be unhappy with the result. Thinking they had it made, staffers for the organization never cultivated relationships with other donors who might be willing to see this project take off. Their executive director has resigned, their board is unhappy, and they are reconsidering their mission.
Most importantly, they never conducted any significant infrastructure building, and that is exactly why Freedom Watch will never be MoveOn.org. Say what you want about the liberal organization, but it has very carefully built and nourished a powerful network of activists. Its contact lists represent millions of progressives who are ready to be engaged in a mission of change. Despite support from some big-dollar-donors, it is that bottom up support which makes MoveOn.org a real force in politics — not a single contributor and a couple of veteran operatives.
As James Vega said here recently, Freedom Watch and organizations like it pose a real potential danger to Democrats. But that’s only if they can get their act together. Right now, they simply don’t get it.

Do We Have a 527 Problem?

In 2004, Democrats relied on 527 organizations to provide a lot of the artillery fire in the race for the White House. The Kerry campaign essentially outsourced its field operation in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida to America Coming Together. The Media Fund — run by Harold Ickes — spent $57,694,580 on ads in 17 battleground states, and others like MoveOn.org spent additional tens of millions of dollars on advertising elsewhere. All told, 527s raised and spent more than $500 million in the election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Everyone fully expected that trend to continue this year. In the fall of 2007, operatives announced plans to organize a Fund for America, which would raise money to support independent organizations in 2008. The group told reporters that it planned to pull in more than $100 million from wealthy Democrats and distribute those donations to a slew of organizations targeting Republicans. To date, their efforts have fallen far short, and the Fund is believed to have raised just $3 million during the first quarter of 2008. This week, David Brock told The Politico that he plans to begin raising money for his group — Progressive Media USA — independently, with the hopes of sponsoring a $40 million media blitz against John McCain over the summer.
Dylan Loewe — who used to be the executive director of a 527 called Ballotgroundwonders why 527s are struggling to raise money this year and offers a few possibilities. He asks if the mega-donors feel marginalized or unnecessary in the face of the fundraising juggernauts assembled by the Obama and Clinton campaigns, or whether they worry about the legality of the 527s in the face of the record fine that the FEC used to penalize ACT for its activities in 2004, or if they simply support Hillary Clinton and question whether they want to help Obama get elected.
Each of those things might be true for some, but I’d suggest a different theory altogether.
After spending hundreds of millions of dollars in 2004 only to come up short, the biggest donors in the Democratic party stepped back to reconsider their efforts. At the same time a political operative named Rob Stein began to make the rounds among influential Democratic circles with a PowerPoint presentation detailing the rise of the “Right Wing Message Matrix.” He convinced many of the party’s most important contributors that the tactical bets on winning elections were not contributing to the long-term health of the progressive movement. Instead he asked them to make strategic investments in infrastructure like think tanks and grassroots organizations, and the result was The Democracy Alliance. (Matt Bai outlines this story in detail in his book, The Argument.)
Now we can discuss the health and long-term prospects of The Democracy Alliance all we want. At some point, people with a stake in progressive politics probably should evaluate its success or lack thereof. But to me, it seems that there is a real possibility that donors with the ability to make million dollar contributions are going to have a different set of priorities in the fall (especially without the visceral presence of Bush on the ballot). Which means we might have to consider a different independent organization strategy for future elections.
Anyone think that small donors might be convinced to give to an amorphous organization run by Harold Ickes?

More Long-Form Political Dialogue

In 2002, PBS began to post most of its Frontline documentaries online. Last year, they used a $5 million grant from MacArthur Foundation to expand the capabilities of its video player, which paved the way for last month’s four-and-a-half hour documentary, Bush’s War.
PBS doesn’t know for sure how many people watched the documentary when it aired on television. But it does know that more than 1.5 million people have tuned into some portion of the program online. Many have watched the episode in full.
Keep in mind: this is a television program longer than most feature films. It is undeniably engaging, but it remains a documentary with voiceovers, news clips, and interviews. It is fundamentally a piece of political nonfiction, and we don’t expect PBS documentaries like this to be sensations. But online, that is exactly what “Bush’s War” has become.
Liberated from the television, “Bush’s War” is something more than just a film. The webpage for the documentary is packed with features. There are more than a 20 interactive timelines and maps, which viewers can use to track the rise of terrorism through more than three decades. There are 175 embedded video clips and full transcripts from more than 400 Frontline interviews. There is a live chat with the producer and a forum for discussion. Bush’s War is being watched and talked about and explored in ways not possible in any other format.
All of which suggests a similar point to the one we were trying to make with our comments about Barack Obama’s speech on race — the web is making room for long forms of political dialogue. The speech was less than an hour, and this program runs nearly five times as long, but millions of people are sitting down to watch each of them.
That indicates something healthy about our democracy. The web is just an outlet for this type of content — it still must engage an audience in order to reach a level of popularity. In both of these cases, though, that is exactly what is happening , despite their length and substance.
The sound-bite isn’t dead, and the news as we know it will be with us for awhile. But we are watching the birth of a new type of public discourse.

Spring Books Preview

Here are some new political books that are going to create some buzz over the next few months.
White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, by Robert Schlesinger
Schlesinger examines the men and women who write for the White House and how their roles and responsibilities have changed over time. April 15, 2008
Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats, by Matthew Yglesias
Yglesias — a blogger for The Atlantic — writes about America’s foreign policy debate and argues for a new progressive direction. April 22, 2008

The Post-American World
, by Fareed Zakaria
Zakaria — the editor of Newsweek International — discusses the rise of nations like China, India, Brazil, and Russia and describes the ways in which geopolitics are changing as a result. May 6, 2008

Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History
, by Ted Sorensen
Sorenson — former speechwriter for John F. Kennedy — offers an account of the history he witnessed and helped to shape. May 6, 2008
Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein
Perlstein — the author of a widely read history of the Goldwater revolution — turns his sights on Richard Nixon and the way his presidency changed the American political landscape. May 13, 2008
Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire by Alex Abella
A comprehensive history of the nation’s most influential (and least understood) think tank. May 13, 2008

By His Own Rules: The Story of Donald Rumsfeld
, by Bradley Graham
Graham — a military affairs reporter with The Washington Post — describes the life of the controversial defense secretary. July 7, 2008
Green Is the New Red, White, and Blue: America’s Mission in a World That Is Hot, Flat, and Crowded, by Thomas L. Friedman
The newest book by the columnist for the New York Times makes the case for a new green economy. August 19, 2008
Happy reading.

March Money

After the breakneck sprint of January and February, the pace of the Democratic presidential campaign slowed down in March. There were only 6 contests, and they had wrapped up before the end of the second week.
After each broke personal and historic records in February, the fundraising for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton reflected the slower turn.
Neither campaign had a bad month — Obama brought in $40 million, which was his third-best total to date; Clinton brought in $20 million, which was her second-best total to date. But the lack of calendar-driven benchmarks clearly had an impact on campaign donations.
For Obama, the story is largely about consistency. More than 442,000 gave money to the campaign, and close to half — 218,000 — were first time contributors. His average donation was $96, and to date, Obama has been supported by more than 1,276,000 total donors.
The picture for Clinton is a little more complicated. In February, the campaign announced that she had pulled in $34.5 million in contributions — easily her best month ever. When the campaign filed its finance report with the FEC three weeks later, however, we learned that only $11.7 million of that total was designated for the nomination contest. Two-thirds of Clinton’s February cash would only be available for the general election if she became the nominee. She also finished the month with close to $9 million in outstanding debts. Howard Wolfson has assured Josh Marshall that ‘almost all‘ of the March money is for the nominating contest, but Clinton’s FEC reports should be worth looking into later.